Adventists have always been concerned about formulating and preserving correct doctrine. Pioneer evangelism strongly emphasized that Adventists had a clearer understanding of Biblical truth than other Christian options and consequently enquirers should consider joining this remnant movement – which had been given a central role in effecting the Second Coming.
But the last fifty years or more have seen ongoing re-examinations of those assumptions and norms, from Robert Brinsmead to Desmond Ford – and beyond. Today there is considerable dissention – some would label it war – within the church as it seeks to determine what is central to Adventist identity. Much discussion occurs, often with accompanying rancor, as members and leaders wrestle with this. Labels abound. There are conservatives vs. liberals, Historic Adventists vs. Progressive Adventists. The labels have the upside of being somewhat descriptive, the downside of oversimplification and polarization. But with all this passionate and sometimes overheated extended debate there is a different perspective I have not seen much in evidence. That is to ask: which doctrines are ends and which are means?
I suspect this question would elicit blank stares from some. Ends, means? Aren’t we supposed to be parsing truth from error, and then proclaiming that truth as loudly as possible? That’s the point, the goal, the ends. It’s all about ends.
I don’t think so. Yes, certainly we must differentiate truth from error. That is foundational. But not all truth is of equal importance. If the Bible, somewhere, were to tell us the angel Gabriel had red hair, then that would certainly be a Bible truth. But surely we could recognize it would not be important to proclaim that ‘truth’ from the rooftops.
Why? Well, answering the ‘why’ question moves us toward considering ends and means. What is God trying to achieve here on planet Earth? What is Christianity in general, then Adventism specifically, all about? These are the ends – what we are trying to end up with, as God’s cooperative helpers, via this Advent movement. If we fail to consider the question of Adventist identity from this perspective we will not prioritize at all, let alone wisely. Rather than proclaiming “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son”, we might just as well proclaim “Hey world, Gabriel has red hair!”
I would suggest two foundational ends for Christianity, and thus Adventism. First and foremost we must be about communicating good news to this world that there is an option available offering life beyond the grave – and a wonderful life at that. Second, we should be in the personal regeneration business, starting today to live that life which we are promised in the future. These ends roughly correspond to justification and sanctification. And while some readers might quibble about the details, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t pretty central to what God wants us to be engaged in now.
Well, so what? Specifically, how does agreement on the ends impact the present debate about Adventist essentials? To quote Paul: “Much in every way!” We ought to be asking – in each doctrinal dispute – how central is this doctrine to the ends of Adventism?, i.e. God’s ends for the church.
This perspective can be revolutionary because it is both principled and pragmatic. It focuses, laser-like, on goals. And I fear we have wandered far from Godly pragmatism, much to the detriment of building up the Kingdom. Now I am not suggesting we substitute falsehood for truth. But let me suggest two (interlocking) principles to follow that I think are disturbing enough, for many Adventists:
1) If the church is wrestling with an issue where there is not yet a consensus on which view is right, the question first ought to be asked: is this issue important? That is, will getting the issue right really matter in executing our mission? Now, every true/false decision matters to some extent. But if some doctrinal dispute X seems tangential to the mission, the amount of time and emotional energy devoted to it should be correspondingly reduced.
2) Even for a doctrine that is generally agreed to be true, we still should be asking is it important in this place and/or at this time? I would suggest that the importance of emphasizing some doctrine depends on circumstance. That is, if it helps the audience reach either of the two above ends (the first being more important), then it should be emphasized, otherwise not. With this pragmatic perspective you can see that a doctrine often should be considered a means and not an end in itself.
I’ll elaborate with two examples.
First, consider Adventist prophetic understanding – i.e. Daniel and Revelation. This has been the stock core of Adventist evangelism since the beginning. Now, let’s further set aside the question of whether Adventist eschatological interpretation (e.g. 2300 days, Investigative Judgment, etc.) is correct or not. I understand this is controversial for many. But it is irrelevant for my purpose here. So let’s just presume it is 100% correct. This would make Adventist eschatology an example of principle #2, above. Then the question remains whether eschatological interpretation is important, evangelistically. If this cluster of doctrines is viewed as means and not ends, an appropriate answer to the question ought to be – it depends. Does emphasizing this in evangelism assist the hearer in coming to faith in Christ – compared to other approaches? I think it is evident that the answer is less likely to be ‘yes’ in 21st Century western culture than it was in 1870’s America. But there very well might be other places in the world where this approach is still sufficiently effective for it to be employed.
Now you may disagree with my assessment of today’s western culture. But the much more foundational point is whether you disagree with my shifting a major past component of Adventist identity to the sidelines if it is no longer effective in some world setting. For many this would be anathema because Adventism is wrapped up in eschatology. That is, for them eschatology is an end.
Second, consider the highly contentious issue of women’s ordination. This, arguably, exemplifies an issue where the church does not have a clear consensus (and thus fits principle #1, above). The concern, for conservatives, seems to be that the Bible teaches role differentiation and women’s ordination is in conflict with that. Liberals argue from concepts of human rights and equality, with the supporting argument that the Bible doesn’t really speak to ordination at all.
But let’s consider pragmatic importance. And one fair way, I believe, would be to ask what difference it would make, in terms of ends, if there was no ordination whatsoever. Now I’m not promoting this as an option, merely exploring what the environment would be like if the issue just plain disappeared. And frankly, I cannot see that it would harm the evangelistic landscape much, if at all. If it disappeared the church might get to beg the question of gender equality, which would reduce the potential of a stumbling block for many who hold that value highly. But for other potential converts, especially those who culturally subordinate women and consequently would have problems with women being equal to men, the reverse stumbling block is removed for them. And then, flipping the argument, ordaining women would have cultural advantages in some areas, detriments in others. So, if we are desirous of maximizing ends, one could argue that latitude should be granted, depending on culture. We are aware, of course, that Paul wrote: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” 1 Cor. 9:22. He wasn’t saying “anything goes”. But he was clearly differentiating between ends and means, then focusing on the ends.
In my reading of Bible history, I see a very pragmatic God at work. From Adventist-type peccadillos like jewelry, meat-eating and dancing, to major deviations from the ideal like polygamy and slavery, issues like this were at times ‘overlooked’ (Acts 17:30). Why? Not because they were ok then, but because of God’s very pragmatic prioritization – toward salvific ends. And, while God never wants to settle for less, He will not allow non-salvific issues to be a diversion from His ends. And neither should we.
Now in no way do I believe this approach will eliminate all dissention currently within Adventism. That is, of course, because there are doctrines we recognize as both central and disputed. But it would bring to the table the important issue of prioritization, because unfortunately, in my view, too many Adventists have forgotten that not all doctrine is equally important. As one commenter on this website wrote last week: “Maybe, just maybe, if we get our heads out of the doctrinal sand and focus on being redemptive toward our fellow humans, we can become the people our Adventist forbears always thought we should be.”