Planet Earth is laced with all kinds of electronic signals. Can you imagine what someone might think about our society by listening to the audio traffic that floats across our airwaves?
“Good evening, we have a lot to get to—. More indictments and guilty pleas coming down today from the Robert Mueller investigation and another school shooting—. Good evening, I’m Chris Matthews, —let’s play hardball—.”
“Bravo 34, respond to a 10-32 at 1236 Becklin Avenue—. Shots fired. Sierra 14, respond with Bravo 34.”
“Yes, thanks for taking my call. I think the corrupt Democrats are just making up all kinds of lies against our President—. He is the leader of the free world and the fake news media just needs to stop all these false reports and to let him do his job—.”
“Hey it’s me. Just to follow up on our conversation—. I feel like we should develop some guidelines to help administrators evaluate who is loyal to the church, and help us to identify non-supporting ministries—. I know you’re preaching tomorrow but—. Well, —just an idea for you to think about—. Okay, have a blessed Sabbath, I’ll see you Monday.”
“Hi Fran, this is Dr. Richardson’s office. We have the results on the lab work—. We need to see you right away, so let us know.”
“Houston, we have a problem—.”
We have a problem alright, but Houston is not going to help. In a world of violence, dissension, and chaos, thought leaders and policy makers search for elusive answers to problems that earlier generations never envisioned.
The universal watchword seems to be safety: safety for our schools, safety for our streets, safety for our country. And who threatens our safety? North Korea? Russia? Iran? China? Perhaps. But we are ever more aware that most of the threats come from within society. Violence permeates our popular culture, yet we are dismayed when these very scenarios are acted out in real time with real weapons and real victims. Stricter laws and harsher punishments have not stemmed the tide of crime and violence flooding our streets. It is a sad day when we have to admit to the rest of the world that we are actually debating who is eligible to buy an assault weapon. It is astounding that our police officers feel the need to get vehicles and weapons intended to be used in war and roll them out onto our streets just to keep the peace. But this reality greets us every day.
As Christians, we are not immune to the same dissensions and unrest that plagues secular society. The words from the Apostle John take on a renewed sense of urgency. In panoramic vision, the entire destiny of the world is revealed to the aging prophet. Overwhelmed by the scenes played out before him, John cries out, “Even so Lord, come quickly—.”
While people of faith have always looked forward to the culmination of God’s plan of restoration, they have also wrestled with the prospect of making a positive difference for the here and now. But there has been a slow, evolutionary shift in the way Christians envision their mission. Early Christians concentrated on winning converts by demonstrating in concrete terms God’s love for mankind. Christianity commissioned itself to change the way people viewed God and, in turn, the way people related to each other. But in modern Christianity, the task of conversion has been supplanted in part by more aggressive tactics designed to bring unbelievers into submission. In the place of persuasion, Christianity is growing more comfortable with forced compliance through religious legislation.
Bart D. Ehrman, a prominent historian of Christianity, did an interview with NPR’S Terry Gross in which he asserted that what distinguished Christianity from pagan religions was the belief that there was only ONE pathway to God’s acceptance. That pathway was to acknowledge the death and resurrection of Jesus, a little-known teacher from Galilee. Ehrman points out that Christianity is the first religion in history to emphasize conversion. Jews were not known for proselytizing, and people who practiced pagan religions often accepted a new deity but would not need to renounce their faith in gods they previously held in esteem. In Ehrman’s view, Christianity took on a different nuance by asserting that their beliefs were exclusively true while all other religious persuasions were patently false and led people straight to the fires of hell.
Growing out of a handful of believers, the Christian religion gained over 300 million converts in just 400 years. As the movement grew, so did the need for structure and organization. Small gatherings of like-minded Christians gave way to large councils determined to govern the church and cull out false teachers. Written creeds summarized and codified beliefs. A Christian movement turned into a Christian empire complete with the power of secular governments at its beck and call. Dissenters were identified, targeted, and persecuted. Still carrying the name of Christ, Christianity drifted very far away from anything that Jesus taught.
Despite a course correction brought by the Protestant Reformation, I believe that the Christian faith today is dangerously close to repeating the mistakes of the post-medieval church. Christians downplay conversion as a mechanism to shape culture and quickly enlist the help of governmental authority to push their agenda forward. Christian ministers spend little or no time helping the disadvantaged, and many church leaders seem unconcerned about world poverty or hunger. Instead, the Christian movement is intent on shaping social issues through legislation, namely: tax policy, gay rights, abortion, religious liberty, and gun control.
While Bart Ehrman no longer believes in the miraculous events recounted in the New Testament, he does believe that Christ’s life of love is a proper template for a modern ethical society. He observes that Christians today often abandon the real mission of Jesus and substitute a social and political agenda which detracts from Christ’s message of love and acceptance.
Seventh-day Adventists have been on the same trajectory as the Christian Church at large. What started as a movement has grown into a very tightly organized denomination complete with committees and councils designed to protect the integrity of our teachings and oversee the business entities of the church. There are enough shiny, dark suits at the top of our organization to keep Men’s Warehouse in business for years to come.
We agree with our Christian friends that the pathway to salvation is through the shed blood of Jesus, but we also assert other doctrines of faith that we believe are necessary to understand the will of God. It is interesting that the latest statement from the General Conference titled, “An Invitation to Uplift Jesus: A Statement from the General Conference Executive Leadership and Division Presidents,” posits the following question regarding whether or not a particular organization should be regarded as supporting the church:
Do they have a clear understanding of the uniqueness of the Seventh-day Adventist movement? Are they clear in how Adventist faith differs from other evangelical denominations that exalt Jesus?”
This concept of differentiating ourselves from other Christians leads to a version of theological elitism. The unique points of doctrine to which the document alludes creates some degree of an aura of Biblical Correctness that, apparently, must be used as a litmus test to measure whether someone is “In the Faith.” Because we view ourselves to be a repository of truth in some fashion or another, we are predisposed to vilify those who express points of view which are contrary to our understanding. In this “Invitation to Uplift Jesus,” our church leaders appear to convey the idea that we have incontrovertible truths that completely preclude us from learning or accepting any new ideas. Far from demonstrating tolerance and acceptance, we instead draw a clear and, perhaps, false line of distinction between truth and error.
As Jesus goes about His ministry on earth, He provides His followers with an example of how to carry forward the will of His heavenly Father. Every thought and action originates from His heart of love. He does not engage in tactics designed to sift people into artificial categories. He does not attempt to correct the ills of society or preach against Roman oppression. He does not rail against sinners and insist that God is punishing the world because of them. Instead, our Savior extends healing to the oppressed and downtrodden. Jesus does not embrace a tribal “us-against-them” mentality but instead opts to treat everyone as valuable and precious gems crafted by His own hands.
When we hear of church leaders who exhibit negative, destructive attitudes toward those who practice different lifestyles or hold opposing points of view from our established theological dictums, then we can be certain that Christ is not being uplifted. After all, doesn’t it make sense that those who claim to represent Christ would, in some small way, actually mirror the example and teachings of Jesus?
We can all agree that this old world is spinning on a collision course with the mighty King of kings and Lord of lords. Someday soon the Majesty of Heaven will shatter the horizon of time to usher in a new order and make everything new. Our airwaves will no longer carry messages of hate and violence. Our skies will not be filled with missiles and fighter jets. We will not pledge allegiance to a flag or stand for any national anthem. We will not need to place ourselves above any of our brothers and sisters. Nationality, ethnicity, and tribalism will at last be a distant memory.
Seventh-day Adventists will soon discover that the standard of God’s perfect judgment has very little to do with correct biblical interpretation; rather it has everything to do with how we treat His precious creation. May God help us to be a beacon of hope, a community of acceptance, and a fountain of love so that the name of Jesus can be truly uplifted.
Leroy Sykes lives and writes from Alabama.
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