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Years ago I worked for a denominational leader who was so bad (there is no need to qualify that word—name a quality of leadership and he didn’t have it) that he nearly drove me and a number of my friends from ministry. Within a few weeks after I was ordained we were driving down the road to a call in another conference.
But the hurt lingered. They say that you tell the most important things about yourself in the first five minutes of meeting a new acquaintance. If anyone in my new conference asked me about myself, the story of that abusive leader came near the beginning of the queue.
One day I sat down and wrote the man a multi-page letter. I told him how he’d discouraged me, how damaging his scolding and criticisms. I let Carmen read it. She said, “Good letter. Now just put it aside. You can mail it later if you still feel like it.” I never mailed it. (I doubt he would have been able to understand it anyway). But after that, I quit telling the story. Writing the letter had done the trick. It was time to look forward.
I thought of this recently when I received an announcement of another book written against Adventist doctrine, by a man who’s spent the last 30 years criticizing the Adventist church. He’d been a pastor at one time, and had been treated badly by the brethren for his heterodoxies. So he quit the ministry and the church and devoted his life to telling us where we’d gone wrong.
One place I differ with some of my fellow members of this denomination is that I appreciate good critics. We need them. We need to listen to them, and interact with them. This critic is a decent writer, and he says things we need to think about.
But I’d hate to be him. And not because he’s rejected the Adventist church. I’d hate to be him because he’s spent his life wrapped up in something he opposes. He’s more emotionally bound to the Adventist church 30 years after leaving it than I am after 30 years of working for it. He’s let his opposition to the church shape his life. He speaks of how the gospel has set him free from the Adventist bondage. But he doesn’t seem at all free.
Not everyone leaves like this. I’m very appreciative of those of you who don’t accept some (or all) of the Seventh-day Adventist message, but remain in conversation with us. But to spend one’s life obsessively attacking what you’ve left behind, like this man, seems like a colossal waste of time and talent. If you don’t like something, grieve and rage and weep and move on. But to stand outside the window looking in, scolding and disapproving? Wouldn’t it be better to be a happy, generous, helpful Baptist or Roman Catholic (or Hindu, for that matter) than a perpetual ex-Adventist?
If you were to ask him, he’d insist that he’s trying to rescue the poor deluded souls in the Adventist church from our errors, starting with the usual ones: Ellen White, the Sabbath, the investigative judgment (though again, these all stand much taller in his mind than they do among us grace-confident Seventh-day Adventists.) But I doubt he’s changed many minds. In fields like politics and religion, most of us don’t read to have our minds changed, but to have our prejudices reinforced. His readers are already as angry at the church as he is. He just puts some content to it for them.
So it’s not about us. It’s about him. He’s spent his life having his therapy on the front step of the church. And it hasn’t worked, because he’s never moved on down the street. And probably never will. His last breath won’t be about the peace he’s found in Jesus, but the refutations he’s made to our teachings.
I’ll not be coy on this point: I’ve seen some rather twisted expressions of Christianity in the Seventh-day Adventist church. So have you. But I also learned to love Jesus here, and accepted grace and the confidence of salvation that comes with that. None of the controversies about Ellen White, the Sabbath, or the investigative judgment have prevented the seed of the gospel from taking root in my life.
Sadly, he may have learned this behavior here in the church. Plenty of Seventh-day Adventists spend more time concentrating on spiritual opponents—clerics in Rome or evil principalities and powers in spiritual high places—than they do on the one Source of true spiritual power. Sometimes when people switch sides they stay on same battlefield, fighting with the same weapons.
But life is too short, and heaven too liberal with grace, to spend your life obsessing over what you despise. God’s grace inheres not in theological propositions, but in relationships, in goodness shown toward one another. It is possible to fight over theology forever, and accomplish absolutely nothing for God’s kingdom—less than if you gave one glass of cold water to one thirsty person.