I don't expect you to understand what I'm about to say--because I've said it to you so many times, in so many ways and in such a range of tone and intensity. But I hope that others who read this will understand.
Your life and mine have intertwined in an interesting and unusual manner. We began working at the church's world headquarters at about the same time. And both of us were quite young by church-headquarters standards. When I turned down the invitation to be editor of Liberty magazine, you received the nod. A few years later, when I turned down the call to be editor of the Adult Sabbath School Quarterly, you again received the nod. Not only did we spend considerable time in conversation during our mutual years at headquarters, but we've talked and gone out for meals together when we've met at major Adventist gatherings or when I've visited Silver Spring.
I've personally spoken with you as a friend--gently, kindly, pastorally (as have others)--about the spirit you project and the negative impact it has on your ministry and thus on the church as a whole. My church. I gently and kindly addressed the matter several years ago in print in Adventist Today. Sadly, it's water off a duck's back. As you said recently on a Spectrum thread: "The Spectrum folks not only don't get it, they don't get that they don't get it."
With all due respect, Cliff, I think it's the other way around. In the same way that the Bible could say that "Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone" (emphasis mine), you seem to be separated from the most basic Christian grace and human civility. The tragic fact is, you're a playground bully. Figuratively, you kick shins, spit, pull hair, hit and taunt. You simply don't know how to play with others according to the WWJD rules. Not that you alone have this problem. But it's exaggerated in your case because you so totally don't get it. So I'll try to explain.
You see, when a mother looks out of her kitchen window and sees the local bully in her yard with her children, she doesn't say--just because he doesn't happen to be bullying at that moment--"Oh, everything's OK. Why, he's not bullying right now. He's really a nice boy, isn't he?" No, in her eyes, he's a bully. She's seen him in action. Over and over and over again. He gets no benefit of the doubt. She knows what he's capable of. She knows where things will inevitably end. So he gets no accolades for momentary behavior that's less offensive than usual.
The same holds for you, Cliff. You've demonstrated over and over and over again that you're a bully. And even when you're not bullying, you don't show care and love and pastoral concern. Even your kindest statements to or about those you've written off as reprobates have some kind of barb in them. You act as if you're writing to a bunch of evil idiots who've proved their spiritual inferiority just by the fact that they're engaging in conversation on the Spectrum website. You project no sense of heavy-heartedness or concern for what you perceive to be their waywardness. You project arrogance and spiritual superiority. Disgust and disdain. Utter contempt. Glee. You come across as smiting your breast and saying, like the Pharisee of old, "Thank God that I'm not like that Spectrum crowd . . ."
To you, that group may be faceless and nameless and formless. But not to me. Many are my friends and/or colleagues--just as I've considered you my friend. And just as I stood up loyally for you for years, trying to deflect what I now realize was well-deserved negative comment, I don't take it well when my friends are abused and bullied and unfairly judged. Many of the Spectrum community, like myself, have long years of loyal service and hard work for the church. Many of us are in the trenches daily. We don't have the luxury of hunkering down in our conference office, galloping forth on our white charger to stir up the crowds and receive adulation before racing back to seclusion and safety. No, some of us actually have to deal directly and almost daily with the people who are affected by the ideas we propound and the spirit we exude. There's an in-built accountability for some of us.
I know I'm not alone in getting a little tired of being lambasted for my beliefs by someone who's never had to field-test his. You might even change your mind about a four-billion-year-old earth if you had to face a conservative congregation every week. And just how does a person who claims to believe in sola scriptura deduce from the Bible that the earth itself is four billion years old? Isn't that reading into the Genesis account a little more than is actually there? And don't you find it a little strange that, granted her many statements about the earth being six thousand years old, that Ellen White never once added the caveat: "But, of course, the earth material itself is billions of years of old." When you're personally so willing to depart from the script, why are you so caustic toward those who simply depart from the script in some way different from your aberrations?
This may come as a surprise to you, Cliff, but readers of Spectrum are not monolithic. There are a large number of loyal Adventists who range from middle-of-the-road to liberal. There are also a number of highly traditional Adventists who enjoy the search--even if they don't agree with many of the proposals or conclusions. Let me illustrate the level of diversity by using just one example: coffee.
Believe it or not, there are people who participate on the Spectrum blog who don't drink coffee specifically because Ellen White says it's a sin. And not just any old sin, at that. It's one of the besetting sins that must be overcome if we're to stand when our names are brought up in the Investigative Judgment that began on October 22, 1844, and where the judging will soon pass from the dead to the living--if indeed it hasn't already happened. Of course, there also are people who drink coffee and don't believe in the divine inspiration of Ellen White. And there are people who don't drink coffee for reasons other than Ellen White. Here's the real clanger, though: There are people who guzzle coffee while vociferously claiming that they do believe in Ellen White's divine inspiration, incongruous and hypocritical as I'm sure you'd find such behavior to be. In other words, we have a whole spectrum here, as the name suggests.
There are also a considerable number of people who've been burned badly by Adventism. Some write very objectively about their negative experience. Others cry for help. Others lash out. Others express disillusionment. Some are angry. Some are bitter. Many are hurting. Many crave being heard because they felt they never had a voice. So they utilize this forum because they feel safe. They feel empowered. For them, this website plays a role that's not altogether different from the various 12-step programs.
Spectrum is a crucial element for many in finding some form of spiritual equilibrium and healing. For many--even among those who've severed formal connections with the church--there's still enough connection that they care in a variety of ways. They'd love to think that their input might help the church change just enough that others wouldn't have to go through the pain and anguish they've gone through--though they'd probably never risk returning themselves. As church leaders and pastors, we could all gain much by doing a little more listening and a lot less judging.
Tragically, you act like you don't care about this, Cliff. When people complain about your tone, you, like a pampered child, seem baffled. "What have I done? Why are you upset with me?" And when people persist, you say, "Now, hold on here! Why are you telling me that my tone is so terrible when X over here is every bit as bad or worse? Why haven't you taken him to task? Why the double standard?"
I'll tell you why, Cliff. There's an organization headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, that's officially called the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It's my church as well as yours. Spiritually and theologically, however, we have a different name for it. We say that we're "God's Remnant Church." We claim--and this isn't insignificant by any standard--that we have a clearer perception of divine truth than any other spiritual entity on the face of the whole earth. That's pretty heavy, just in case the import of my words is slipping past you somehow. Our fundamental beliefs argue that we're the spiritual crème de la crème.
Now within this crème-de-la-crème spiritual organization, in addition to committees, there's one man whose job (to a great degree) is to decide what spiritual topics the twenty million or so members need to focus on. What spiritual lessons are most crucial for this truth-advantaged spiritual elite to study so they can come even closer to the high ideal God has for his children? And even though other men and (occasionally) women may prepare the spiritual lessons, the church has given this one man the task of being the final arbiter as to what's spiritually beneficial and what isn't. It's left to him to adjust and tweak the wording of others until just the right message is conveyed. Truth matters.
We would assume that such a man would have been placed in this spiritually crucial position because he understands the theoretical, philosophical and theological aspects of the Adventist faith. But we'd also assume that he understands the practical, down-to-earth, everyday manifestations of the Spirit-filled life. What is it that our prophet Ellen White said? The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian.
However--and this comes as a major surprise to many when they first discover it--the man who fills the highest role in God's Remnant Church when it comes to determining the proper spiritual diet for members just happens to have a highly dismissive, sarcastic, derisive, uncaring, unloving, contempt-filled style of expression. Note his chosen epithets for the Spectrum crowd and/or what they say:
And those labels were discovered after only the briefest of reviews of his comments.
It's indeed a jolt the first time such a spirit is encountered. But an even bigger jolt comes when, having been taken to task for his lack of Christian charity and grace, this prominent spiritual leader responds with a childish: "Why are you picking on me? What did I say that was so bad? I mean, I'm no worse than as so and so"--who more often than not may be a hurting, disillusioned, angry person who's trying to figure out how to move beyond the pain he or she experienced in the church. Yet this self-justification and projection is what we get routinely from the man whose task is to point us in the direction of the spiritual truths we all most need to incorporate into our lives right now. Present truth, we call it.
You, Cliff, are that man. You may try to deflect this indictment by saying that I'm calling you to task only because I happen to disagree with your conservatism. No, I fully support your right--yea, verily, your obligation--to tenaciously defend what you believe to be truth. And I'll do the same. But that's not what you do. Instead, you belittle those who you feel are wrong.
As I've told you before, I'd love to see an articulate champion of conservatism who clearly lays out the issues in a loving, caring, inspiring, convincing manner. No rancor. No hostility. No belittling. Just upholding truth as it's perceived. There actually are such people around. And some of them write very orthodox and traditional-Adventist articles that get posted on the Spectrum website or printed in Spectrum magazine. But that's not your medium of choice. Hit-and-run and put-downs just seem to come so much more naturally to you.
I don't know your heart, Cliff. But I do know your actions. And I do know the impact that your actions have on others--myself included. I've written for Spectrum for years, just like I've written for the Adventist Review and Ministry and other church publications. So I take your sarcasm personally. We've been friends for a long time. But you seem to show no hesitance in rubbishing something of which I'm a part.
Do I buy into everything printed in Spectrum or posted on the Spectrum website. Of course not. This is a forum for open discussion. Some things I'll embrace. Some things I'll ignore. Some things I'll hotly contest. That's how forums work. That's why they can be so enriching. That's the reward for seeking to be "thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men's thoughts," as Ellen White so beautifully admonished us.
Cliff, you recently wrote to this blog's editor, Alexander Carpenter: "Keep up the great work, Alex. This site is--by far!--the best thing that could happen to the moderate-to-conservative wing of the church. I mean it. This site has done and is doing more to expose the extreme left's vision for the church than anything else I've seen in 30 years in the church. You are opening up a lot of eyes. A lot."
You raise a point worth considering, Cliff. But I'd invite you to consider another perspective as well. If you're going to use such a broad, dismissive, disdainful and contempt-filled brush to clump us all together as the "Spectrum Jackals"--a group with many who may disagree with you, as well as many who might actually be very close to your thinking--are we to assume that in you we're catching a vision of the kind of behavior "the moderate-to-conservative wing of the church" deems appropriate? Are we to assume that this is what our church-headquarters leaders want and consider acceptable from one of their spiritual-leader colleagues? Because, through your modus operandi, "you are opening a lot of eyes. A lot." In the 35 years that I've been working for the church, I haven't seen anything quite like it. At least not done so publicly. And so openly. And with such impunity.
Why are the "mothers" of the church (i.e. the church fathers) not protecting the children? Why, out of concern for the recipients of your diatribes, out of concern for you as a person, and out of concern for the church and its ministry, mission and image, has nothing been done? Nothing that the church public can see, at least. Granted the many years of your unrelenting diatribes and rants, it certainly appears that you have the blessing of the brethren. It boggles the mind.
You responded to Magdalena concerning the Spectrum crowd: "If they met Jesus, then they wouldn't be cultural Adventists. They'd be believing ones, instead. Recht [right]?" I'd suggest that the statement needs a little more modifying still--because the real goal isn't to be just "believing Adventists." After all, the devils believe and tremble, the Bible tells us. Belief, in and of itself, does little to make the world a better place. As our General Conference president Ted N.C. Wilson said in his recent GYC sermon: We want "activists not slactivists." I'm sure that what Pastor Wilson was affirming, as the Bible so clearly attests to, is that doing is what really counts.
From the lowliest Adventist in the pew to the highest leaders in the ivory towers of God's Remnant Church, the principle is exactly the same: "By their fruits, ye shall know them."
James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida.
Art: John McDowell, PhD, Saints for Hire (7), n.d.