Half-Discipleship: General Conference Adventism’s Truncated Bible

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Published:
July 24, 2015

In the name of the Genesis creation story delegates to the 2015 General Conference session jabbed a thumb in the eye of Adventist scientists; then the session’s preachers mostly ignored—in effect, dismissed—the meaning of the story.  Despite pious-sounding words inserted into Belief #6—“recent,” for example, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary—the doctrine of creation was an orphan in San Antonio.

Besides that irony there was another, just as alarming: the General Conference theme announced the ultimate victory of Jesus—“Arise! Shine! Jesus is Coming!”—yet the session’s preachers mostly ignored the Jesus story.

If today’s General Conference Adventism (as I will call it) concerns itself at all with discipleship, it is, at most, half-discipleship.  The 12 preachers who spoke in the Alamodome were picked to accentuate the understanding now dominant among top administrators.  Judging from their sermons, General Conference Adventism comes down to two fixations: evangelism and the Second Coming; and each of these, as it turns out, is skewed toward otherworldliness.

The Bible teaches evangelism and Second Coming hope—let’s not forget that—but the Bible teaches other major themes largely ignored in San Antonio.  General Conference Adventism now rests, indeed, on a canon within the canon, a truncated Bible.  It embraces (but in an otherworldly way) the Pentateuch, the books of Daniel and Revelation, the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels and writings of Paul, and material from the letters to Titus and Timothy that can be pressed into the service of male headship.  It leaves out—in San Antonio this was simply glaring—the Hebrew prophets and most of the Gospels and letters of Paul.

There were doubtless small exceptions to what I’ve just said, and there was one major exception, the Tuesday morning sermon by Mathilde Frey, an Andrews University trained Romanian woman.  She spoke from John 14 about Jesus’ promise, for the here and now, of the Holy Spirit.  But except for passing remarks Thursday morning by the remarkable young evangelist, Taj Pacleb, you could not have guessed that the biblical version of mission involves taking care of creation, standing up for justice on earth, struggling for the wide human flourishing the Bible calls shalom or “peace.”  For General Conference Adventism, mission is evangelism and evangelism is (predictive) prophecy concerning the coming replacement of life on earth by life in heaven.  

The Bible exclaims, “How beautiful…are the feet of the messenger…who brings good news.” Further, it bids followers of Jesus to “Go…and make disciples of all nations…” (Isaiah 52:7; Matthew 28:19).  But in both Testaments love of and care for creation—a kind of sacred this-worldliness—belongs to the center of the human experience with God.  The divine covenant, Ezekiel declares in a crucial passage, is a “covenant of peace,” or human flourishing (Ezekiel 34:25f.).  God’s call to faithfulness prompts the prophets to say: “Seek Justice, rescue the oppressed” Isaiah 1:17); work for “the welfare [that is, the peace, or shalom] of the city where I have sent you” (Jeremiah 29:7).  And Jesus puts this very prophetic passion into the heart of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he declares, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Is this new?  For all their otherworldliness, some Adventist pioneers joined the struggle against slavery.  One of them, Anson Byington, remarked wittily in an 1850 letter to The Advent Review that you should no more postpone a slave’s freedom until Jesus comes than postpone your “breakfast” until then.1  But this aspect of pioneer spirituality, evident also in Ellen White, faded.  More recently, Roy Branson re-awakened Adventist seminarians to the vision of the Hebrew prophets at just the point when some of today’s GC leaders, including Ted Wilson, were studying for ministry at Andrews University.  Just a bit later Gottfried Oosterwal, by now himself a fresh voice at the Seminary, was arguing, in his widely read book Mission: Possible, that the church’s work is both rescue from sin and “the fight against disease, hunger, social injustice, and the evil structures of society…” The church’s work, he said, is “never completed just with proclamation.”2

Such views have stayed alive in Adventism, so that just this past year, Australians Nathan Brown and Joanna Darby published a book of essays entitled Do Justice: Our Call to Faithful Living.  But these views have little sway in today’s General Conference Adventism.  What is old and well-attested is largely ignored.  The Adventist Development and Relief Agency stands braced against the tide, but the Agency’s underlying convictions figure hardly at all in General Conference Adventism—not, that is, if you judge from the preaching in San Antonio.

A truncated Bible thus produces a truncated vision of the Christian life.  For many church members—certainly for many younger and highly educated members—this is simply baffling.  How could the actual message of Jesus—so redolent of the Hebrew prophets, so focused on our responsibilities today as well as our hopes for tomorrow—be so lost at a General Conference session?  How could this happen when our community’s signature Bible text (in Revelation 14) calls us to keep “the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus”?

I could guess, but I do not know.  What I do know is that today’s General Conference Adventism is simply not the full Gospel.  Grace is both forgiveness and empowerment, and the empowerment enables us, like the once-blind beggar Bartimaeus, to follow Jesus.  If grace heals our anxieties, it also enables our discipleship.  And if discipleship turns ours eyes upon Jesus, it also aligns our hands and feet and voices with his hands and feet and voice.

The current leadership seems too rutted—and too self-satisfied—to catch on.  More than ever, therefore, women and men from other sectors of the church than the General Conference are going to have to step forward and actually define Adventism for today.  The best lay people, pastors and theologians are going to have to overwhelm bureaucratic communication channels by banding together, through websites and social media, for Adventist renewal.  And they are going to have to do this in the name, precisely, of biblical faithfulness and relevance.

All this may seem harsh, or self-righteous.  And it is certainly true that any iteration of the Adventist message will fall short, not least any attempt to fully align Second Coming hope with the sacred this-worldliness implied in the doctrine of Creation.  Here as in in many aspects of lived faith, the effort to communicate bumps up against intractable mystery: God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours.  But the effort must be made.  It is certainly no lapse into arrogance to resist half-discipleship and the truncated Bible on which it is based.

Everywhere the world is strife-torn.  Wherever the world is “modern,” it is doubt-ridden and (paradoxically) self-satisfied, not to mention impatient; it is particularly impatient with mere otherworldliness.  So if, in such a context, we specialize in otherworldliness, we doom evangelism and even pastoral care.  What is worse, we betray the very Gospel, just as we would if we abandoned Second Coming hope. 

Again, our best lay people, pastors and theologians are going to have to overwhelm—out-perform—bureaucratic communication channels if anything is going to be accomplished on this front.  Aligning Bible-based hope with Bible-based this-worldliness is one good starting place for conversation.  Half-discipleship is not what Jesus had in mind.
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1.  Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic, 28.
2.  Gottfried Oosterwal, Mission: Possible, 70, 71, 77.

 

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, which publishes Spectrum Magazine.

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