Aside from growing up on a family farm, I’ve never worked at anything except being a parish pastor. When I studied for ministry I was motivated, as most of us are, by a search for answers to the disquieting questions in my own young heart. (Henri Nouwen had it right when he spoke of the “wounded healer” who heals others in the attempt to heal him or her self.) At the time, I didn’t know much about what it meant to be a pastor.
When a friend sent me David Corn’s column for Mother Jones a few weeks ago, it was like getting hit with bad news I already knew. Sooner or later, someone was going to peek behind the first serious Seventh-day Adventist presidential candidate, and begin to scrutinize the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Through most of my ministry, the conventional wisdom, shared by people from all across the Adventist spectrum, was that we’d outgrown the union conferences. Union conferences had been established at a time when there were no telephones, no airplanes, no internet. At a time when it was believed that pastors needed bosses, who needed bosses, who needed bosses, who needed bosses at the very top—a whole chain of control.
I’ve been reading Spectrum magazine for decades, and participating in it in as an online forum since—well, since it became an online forum. Spectrum has thought itself a loyal critic of the church, a place where dissenting points of view can be voiced, or underreported church news given an airing. At its best, it functions creatively and constructively.
If you’d asked me a few years ago to make an off-the-cuff analysis of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I’d have said something like this: “We exist on a polarity of moderately progressive to nearly-cultic conservative, with most of us bell-curved somewhere in the evangelical-fundamentalist middle.” All our disagreements seem to stretch to either side of that line: women’s ordination, homosexuality, food and drink, Ellen White, Biblical interpretation, eschatology, the gospel.
I take my text from Matthew 11:27-33
Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?”
But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?”
Many years ago, my wife and a friend decided they’d hold a cooking school. As they were gathering recipes and presenters, one laywoman gave them a bowl of gray glop that she insisted she should demonstrate. It conformed, she said, to Seventh-day Adventist nutritional standards, as she saw them: no fat, no sugar, minimal salt, no spices, no eggs or dairy. “This just disappears at my house,” she said. Carmen’s friend took a taste, and after choking it down, said, tactfully, “I’m pretty sure it will disappear at ours, too.” Which it did later that night, into her garbage disposal.
•A young academic moves to another city for a position in a major state university. “Do you attend a church there?” I ask. “There’s a church not far from me, but it reminded me too much of the small depressing churches I've previously survived,” he replies. “I’ve never gone back.”
•A retired pastor and wife live in Loma Linda, where there are dozens of congregations. “We go to church twice every Sabbath,” they tell me. “We watch two church services on TV, and we don’t even have to get dressed.”
As I’m teaching a Sabbath School class one day, I refer in passing to the Three Angels Message. A young woman raises her hand. “I’m embarrassed to admit this,” she says. “All my life I’ve seen three angels associated with our church. I know they have something to do with the time of the end. But I don’t know what makes them important.” Some of the oldsters in the class claimed they had at least a basic grasp of the Three Angels’ Message. Most of the younger ones admitted they were in the same boat as the questioner: they knew it was eschatological, but not what the significance was.