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Adventist Ecumenism: Theological Diversity in the Local Church

Parade of nations.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church resists ecumenism. Based on worries about losing its identity, it has not applied for membership in the World Council of Churches and strongly advises church entities around the world not to join local ecumenical groups. In some cases, when Unions have joined ecumenical organizations on the national level—often for very pragmatic reasons—they have been heavily criticized by the General Conference. However, the time has come to take another look at the relationship between the Adventist Church and other denominations. 

Our eschatological views have led us to regard other faith communities as enemies rather than fellow pilgrims. I have become more and more convinced that other Christians must be embraced as allies in battling the materialism and agnosticism that permeate our western society. We must also acknowledge that, over time, ecumenical ideals have changed considerably. The goal of organic unity—all churches becoming one super-church—has largely given way to fostering a process of mutual understanding and finding ways to cooperate on projects for the benefit of society. 

This article, however, is not about ecumenism at the level of denominations or denominational families but rather about ecumenism within our particular denomination and, even more specifically, within local congregations. W. Paul Jones's book Worlds within a Congregation: Dealing with Theological Diversity inspired me to think through this topic more thoroughly than I had before. It was published in 2000 by Abingdon Press, a publishing house of Protestant origin. This may be a bit surprising, given that Jones is a Roman Catholic priest, but his earlier Protestant background enabled him to appeal to both groups. 

In his book, Jones calls for a "variegated" church. He opines that "variegation will be the primary ingredient in the church of the future" (14). Congregations must manifest unity, but to serve all of their members, they will have to consist of '"subcommunities" which will provide a "tapestry of perspectives, held together by a warp of common origin" (18). Building off these ideas, I will not use the rather uncommon term of "variegation" but prefer to speak about diversity and internal ecumenism.

The Adventist Diversity Challenge

Today, Seventh-day Adventists can be found in almost every country in the world, except for a few Muslim nations and some mini-states! The church has an immense network of institutions—hospitals and other health organizations as well as thousands of educational establishments, from kindergartens to full-fledged universities. These are all part of a global system, arranged under the umbrella of the General Conference. The Adventist denomination has a tightly orchestrated system that binds its pieces together. It keeps everything united with a catalog of 28 Fundamental Beliefs, which all members are expected to accept; a manual that describes the governance, operations, and functions of local churches; and a voluminous policy book that outlines the rules by which denominational institutions are governed all over the world, at all levels. 

Throughout its 160-year history, the Adventist Church has remained remarkably united, especially in comparison to many other denominations. Take, for instance, the Baptists. The Baptist World Alliance has 253 member bodies—all independent entities that call themselves Baptist—spread over 130 countries. In addition, there are other Baptist groups that have not joined this world alliance. Or, to select another example: The Lutheran World Federation serves as the umbrella for 149 Lutheran denominations. They share their Lutheran roots but manifest a wide range of theological convictions. 

Adventism has experienced some schisms. The most significant disruption occurred about 100 years ago with the emergence of the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement, which still survives with about 40,000 members. But it would be safe to say that Adventists have stayed together to a much larger degree than most other families of faith.

Despite this impressive unity, it cannot be denied that Adventism has become increasingly diverse in the way it is defined and manifested. It was to be expected that a steadily growing organization with people from a wide range of ethnicities and cultures would inevitably become quite diverse. People worship and choose their lifestyles differently. We may all be human beings with many things in common, but we differ a great deal in our physical characteristics, customs, and worldviews.

This is true for society as a whole, as well as for the members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We may all have been baptized by immersion, but our knowledge and understanding of what we said "yes" to can be vastly different. We may, for instance, recognize that the seventh day of the week is special, but the reasons why we keep Sabbath and how we practice it might differ significantly, even for people in the same country and culture. The same principle applies to most, if not all, aspects of how we read the Scriptures, interpret our doctrines, and configure our lifestyles.

Jones begins his appeal for internal ecumenism by stating that we must start "with a frank and honest acknowledgment that in reality the church is one of broad diversity, representing a pluralism of theological perspectives. Far from being a dirty word, diversity is an enduring fact within the Body of Christ" (30). This "broad diversity" and "pluralism of theological perspectives" is an important reality in Adventism. Many are afraid that the Church will fragment, just as other denominations have. Jones would, however, exhort us to look at this situation in a much more positive light: it is possible to live our faith in one community that has diverse components.

The Reality of the Adventist Church

There has been, of late, a strong pressure from the Adventist Church's headquarters to strive for total uniformity in our doctrinal beliefs. The 28 Fundamental Beliefs must be accepted by all who want to become and remain an Adventist. A sermon by General Conference President Ted Wilson during the recent Annual Council underlined that employees of the denomination who do not agree with all the essential doctrines of the church should have the decency to resign from their positions. Wilson has preached similar sermons before, but this one was perhaps even more shocking than any of his diatribes in the past. 

Shortly after the Annual Council meetings, Paul Douglas, GC treasurer, visited the Netherlands. I attended a meeting in which he was the main speaker. In his sermon, he emphasized the same message as Wilson: accept all church doctrines or leave! Fortunately, few progressive pastors and other thought-leaders act on what these top leaders demand. If every pastor who has a problem with any of "the 28" resigned, we would face a very serious problem indeed. 

Even though our Church Manual demands that baptismal candidates must be instructed in detail about the teachings of the church, we all know that, in many places, this is more theory than practice. When we hear of thousands being baptized abroad, often after a very short "campaign," we know that those people are joining the church with only a very limited exposure to Adventist doctrine.

A limited doctrinal foundation is an issue throughout the global Adventist Church. As I was writing this article, I saw an interesting post by an American pastor on the Facebook page of Adventist ministers. He asked his colleagues a question: 

Would you baptize people who believe in keeping the Sabbath and that Jesus was coming again, if: 1. They had no interest in becoming vegetarians; 2. They preferred to live in the city instead of the country; 3. They really couldn't explain the 2300 days and the Sanctuary; 4. They like reading Ellen White, but do not use her to fix the church or other people; 5. They find the concept of the Trinity confusing; 6. They believe in God as Creator but not in Creation happening six thousand years ago?

Almost all those who responded said they would not hesitate to baptize those who fall under one or more of these six categories! I agree: these issues should not determine whether someone can be baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. However, this approach certainly also contributes to diversity among its members.

A recent worldwide survey, organized by the denominational Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, indicated that there is more deviance from "pure" Adventist teaching than many may have thought. Approximately one-third of Adventist believers do not think of death as a "sleep," but continue to view it from a dualistic perspective: we have a physical body which dies, while an eternal soul lives on. The responses to other questions in the survey appear to give less cause for concern. But what does it mean when 64 percent of church members worldwide "strongly" agree with the church's teaching on the investigative judgment, or when 87 percent say they regard the sanctuary doctrine as an essential Adventist teaching? How many of the believers who responded in line with the church's official teachings have an adequate understanding of what the doctrines in question entail?

In addition to significant deviance on doctrinal matters, we also see a large chasm between progressive Adventists and other church members. Although this often has a regional and/or cultural component—for instance, with respect to the ordination of female pastors— it has increasingly become a worldwide phenomenon.

A bewildering array of independent ministries add to this landscape by promoting unhealthy theological views. For example, Last Generation Theology is alarmingly popular at the fringes of the church. Local congregations continue to split over this, including in the last few months. The most destructive doctrinal problems are not about the six-day creation or the investigative judgment but instead concern the schismatic impact of insidious legalism.

In addition, we can discern a trend in the Adventist Church that has long been visible in other churches: denominational loyalty is of decreasing importance to members in choosing a church or remaining in it. Jones states, "Bruised by past loyalties, leery of the content of tomorrow's promises, the real interest is in today—in discovering a community that can speak to a person's particular life experiences" (82). For many Adventists, belonging to a warm and supportive faith community takes precedence over strict adherence to doctrinal fine print.   

Internal Pluralism in Congregations

The diversity in the church is most palpable within its many local congregations. Differences between regions of the world and the assorted roles of independent ministries and media, significant as they are, do not have as much impact on the lives of the believers as the ubiquitous diversity at the local church level. This diversity manifests itself in two ways.

First, we see how individual congregations differ from one another. When churches are in geographical proximity, people can choose the congregation where they feel most at home—whether because of its doctrinal emphases or a number of other factors. As a result of increased mobility, we see that church members will often drive considerable distances, passing other churches, to the congregation of their choice. For some, such congregations may be the only places where they can be "Adventist" in a way that puts them at ease.

But second, we find that most local churches exhibit a state of internal pluralism. Jones speaks of this diversity in terms of “sub-congregations.” This may be an apt way to describe the situation in larger congregations, but it is less ideal for smaller churches. Nonetheless, even smaller congregations consist of individuals with diverse theological views—a situation which many members experience as unpleasant or even disruptive. In all honesty, we must confess that most of us prefer the majority in our church to think and act like we do.

Jones tries to convince his readers that we must not see this diversity as a threat to the well-being of the church but rather as a natural phenomenon. The diversity of theology must "not be seen as a liberal cafeteria of indifferent eclecticism, catering to personal whims." Instead, it must be "visible, acceptable, intentional, and thus creative," and we must not just tolerate it but glory in it. This means "seeing that the seamless robe of Christ, intended to adorn the church as his body, is in fact gloriously woven as a pattern of many colors" (21).

These perceptive quotes also apply to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Yes, we have different backgrounds and unique personal histories. For that reason, we are also different in the way we talk about our faith, read our Bibles, interpret our doctrines, and live and experience our Adventist Christianity!

 A Way Forward: Internal Ecumenism

The crucial question is: how can the body of Christ ensure the spiritual health of all its members? How can the local church welcome a pallet of views that can cross-pollinate and attract people from across the theological spectrum? As we ask this question, we must not forget what I mentioned earlier in this article: the actual knowledge of and interest in our church’s doctrines held by our members is often disappointingly limited.

To say that an Adventist congregation must initiate and give structure to an internal ecumenism does not mean that any kind of theology is acceptable or that Adventists no longer have something special to share with the people around them. Underneath the existing theological diversity is a strand of Christian convictions and Adventist specifics for which there is a broad consensus among the sub-congregations in local churches.

There may be different views about the nature of the inspiration of the Bible (and regarding the role of Ellen G. White), but the great majority of church members

hold a high view of the Bible, regarding it as a divinely inspired and therefore a normative guide for thought and action;

believe in such foundational Christian doctrines as the triune God and salvation through the sacrifice of Lord Jesus Christ, our eternal mediator;

accept the basic Protestant notion of sola gratia—by grace alone;

recognize God as the Creator (though they may differ with regard to the time, the duration, and the method of creation);

are convinced that the Sabbath is a key element of Adventist life and worship;

continue to stress the hope of the Second Coming and the arrival of a new world marked by the resurrection of the "righteous";

see “the great controversy” theme as the Leitmotiv of their worldview (though they may object to a mass distribution of the book The Great Controversy);

support the church’s emphasis on stewardship, especially with regard to selected health issues; and

realize that to be a Christian is to "be there" for fellow human beings, both far and near.

Making internal ecumenism a reality demands planning, patience, and perseverance. It is, first, important to educate the membership about important aspects of Adventist history. The church had an ecumenical start, drawing from men and women from a range of different denominations. They gradually arrived at a consensus as to what constituted "present truth." 

It is crucial that members do not think that the Adventist doctrinal package dropped down from heaven. It developed over a considerable amount of time. As years have passed, the church has been able to amend and even change many of its earlier views, and that variety in theological views has been a constant feature of Adventism. This tradition of doctrinal development and diversity is not a threat to the church but rather a characteristic we must continue to cherish. Presently, our leaders are adamant that theological diversity will rob the church’s message of its clarity and effectiveness. But I am convinced this attitude must not push the local church away from building a healthy internal ecumenism.

A basic ingredient for successful ecumenism at any level is the determined effort to avoid misrepresenting the viewpoints of others. In too many instances, people make caricatures of differing theological positions. This frequently happens among members in the pews when they are tasked with describing the views of others. For ecumenism at the local level to succeed, there must be an ongoing determination to create occasions for true dialogue, where questions can be answered and standpoints clarified. In this ongoing discourse, due emphasis must be placed on what everybody has in common in addition to points of difference. Usually, what we have in common far exceeds where we differ.

This does not mean that, in respecting the opinions of others, we should abandon our search for truth. But it helps us realize that no human being has the full truth. We must always be content with our perception of the truth and be prepared to grow in our understanding of it. 

And, of course, it is important to maintain a studied balance in leadership structures as well as worship and church activities. Each local church’s preaching schedule should carefully reflect the theological diversity of the congregation and support the agenda for internal ecumenism. The church board and other committees should not be dominated by one segment of the congregation but must reflect the diversity of the church. Sabbath School may offer a setting in which diverse viewpoints can be welcomed as an opportunity to learn and make unexpected discoveries. For some members, attending online communities with a specific theological flavor may be a wholesome addition to the spiritual diet that is set within their home church. 

Embracing Congregational Ecumenism

Enthusiastically accepting diversity does not have to result in an attitude of doctrinal indifference. There must be a corporate commitment to what it means to be a Christian—a follower of Christ—in Adventist garb. I found perhaps the best description of an authentic Adventist Christian in Fritz Guy's exceptional book Thinking Theologically. He says that "a minimal definition would include the following theological and experiential elements of our Adventist heritage:

The spirit of openness to 'present truth.'

The adoption of God's comprehensive and universal love as the center of personal existence.

The contemporary importance of the Sabbath.

The hopeful anticipation of the reappearance of God in the person of Jesus the Messiah.

The idea of multidimensional human wholeness.

The choice of the Adventist community as a spiritual home and the adoption of the Adventist past as part of spiritual identity."

This and the message of Jones’s book struck a chord with me. Let's be determined to stay united on crucial matters but at the same time welcome diversity, committing firmly to complementing and supporting each other as members of the one body of Christ. And let us never forget that internal ecumenism demands that we create a "generous spaciousness" in our local church, where all can "live and move and have [our] being" (Acts 17:28).


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Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a BA from Newbold College and an MA from Andrews University, he earned a BDiv with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. Before retiring, he was president of the Netherlands Union.

Title image: Tor Tjeransen / Adventist Media Exchange (CC BY 4.0)

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