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Should the Seventh-day Adventist Church strive to remain unique and distinctive in its beliefs and practices? Is our uniqueness a virtue?
My guess is that the majority of Adventists would answer those questions with a hearty, “yes.” In fact, many of our institutions and ministries use the importance of remaining unique to justify their existence, raise funds, and sell their products.
In contrast to this, I would like to suggest that the desire to remain unique is, in fact, negatively affecting our faith and witness and should not be one of our goals.
If you look up the definition of “unique,” you will find phrases such as “highly unusual or rare,” or “radically distinctive.” If this is what it means to be unique, the fact that we have so many unique doctrines simply means that we have not been effective enough in our witness. Instead of being a virtue, our uniqueness is a sign of failure.
Don’t we want the whole world to experience the joy of Sabbath rest? Don’t we want the world to experience the peace of knowing their loved ones that have passed away are sleeping and will be resurrected at the second coming? Don’t we want the world to understand the importance of Christ’s sacrifice through an understanding of the Sanctuary? Don’t we want the world to embrace the hope of the Second Coming?
I believe that those who trumpet the importance of us remaining unique would all answer the above questions with another hearty, “yes” (as we all should). In fact, those who talk the most about us being unique usually have the highest levels of evangelistic zeal. However, the desire to remain unique requires that the above things do not happen and provides quite the paradox. To remain sufficiently unique we must either not evangelize at all, or evangelize, but with little success. I believe we are doing the latter and the lack of success is due to one of the major problems with an overemphasis on being unique.
You’ll often hear Adventists say that the rest of Christianity “has Jesus” but we have something “deeper” and more than “just Jesus.” We assume people can hear about Jesus elsewhere and after all, we need to get to our unique doctrines they won’t hear anywhere else. It leads us to not sufficiently convert people to Christ nor emphasize enough how our doctrines are centered in our relationship with him. Without doing these things, we will have some success, but far too little.
There is no question that the early Adventist pioneers loudly trumpeted the importance of their “unique” and “distinct” message. You can find numerous quotes from Ellen White and others about the importance of holding fast to our unique teachings and these quotes are often used to show how we need to do the same today. However, we are at a completely different time in the history of the Advent movement. We aren’t a fledgling new denomination with thousands of members. Instead, we’re a church of sixteen million that is 150 years old. The rhetoric that was used to justify their existence then, will not necessarily equate today. Their statements about being unique were more descriptive than prescriptive for the entire history of Adventism. If Ellen White were alive today, I would guess that she would not extol our continued uniqueness as a virtue but instead lament how little traction we’ve gained in a world of 6.8 billion people.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we give up what makes us unique in order to just fit in with the crowd for there is a time and place for being unique. However, I do believe that our rhetoric regarding uniqueness is overemphasized and is having a largely negative effect on our faith and witness. Instead of striving to remain unique, we should strive to remain faithful to God whether that is unique or common. And if there is a point where we are unique, let us put our whole energies into becoming less unique so that more people will see and experience the beauty of the Adventist faith.
Trevan Osborn is Associate Pastor of the Far West End & Patterson Avenue Seventh-day Adventist Churches.