Editorial Note: The following paper was presented at the 2017 Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) during the Sabbath morning Panel Discussion on the topic of William G. Johnsson’s book Where Are We Headed? Adventism After San Antonio. Read more about the six young scholars who presented and the publishing schedule for the papers here.
William G. Johnsson, author of Where Are We Headed?, is an experienced worker, editor, and theologian for fifty years in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He calls this book his “Isaac,” because it came in an unexpected way just as Isaac did (p. i). He wrote this book based upon his love for this denomination. He believes “Adventism is a movement of promise” (137). He wants to see the Church become more effective in fulfilling the three angels’ message. He observes several obstacles that need to be settled in order for the Church to accomplish this task (v, vi).
The impetus for this book was the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, specifically the vote on women’s ordination. He sees the Session “as a moment comparable to the 1888 Minneapolis” (1). From this starting point, he argues that the conflict in San Antonio should be described as one that could threaten the Church and cause other divisive conflicts.
In addition to women’s ordination (discussed in Chapter 1), there are other issues that could divide or hinder the growth of the worldwide Church. Johnsson identifies the exclusiveness of some people (Chapter 2) who say that we are the only people chosen by God in this world, and who focus on the date for the Second Coming rather than the Person of Jesus Christ (Chapter 3). These are two factors Johnsson identifies as preventing others from seeing the truth that God has entrusted to us. He suggests that Adventists should concentrate on the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for their sins, and that should be the only thing we emphasize (Chapter 4). He recognizes some failures by the Church that should become important lessons, so that such mistakes are not be repeated.
Johnsson emphasizes a check and re-check management style that is necessary in order to maintain organization effectiveness. He proposes that the Church organization should anticipate world change that could affect the Church (Chapter 5). One example he gives is the change from print to digital reading. If this phenomenon had been anticipated, the loss of The Review and Herald and some other institutions would not have occurred. He calls on the Church to align its understanding with the ongoing facts of the present and not merely on traditions of the past. Johnsson says the belief that our world is only 6,000 years old should be re-studied and redefined (Chapter 6) rather than unswervingly adhering to this time limit. He requests the Church stop stressing to the number of baptisms and focus on church mission instead (Chapter 7).
As a biblical scholar, William Johnsson calls on the Church to give its attentions to Scripture and apply the wisdom found there to all its practices and decisions. There should be no dichotomy between the Word of God and its application. He identifies many Adventists who pay more attention to Ellen G. White’s writings than the Bible (Chapter 8), even though we believe the Bible is the supreme authority. He also desires that the Seventh-day Adventist Church live with “no baloney” (Chapter 9) and instead follow the biblical structure of bottom-up leadership (Chapter 10).
Johnsson’s opinion on these ten potential fractures in the Seventh-day Adventist Church should cause all Seventh-day Adventists to pay attention. He identifies these potential threats as the upcoming danger for the Church, and describes the tension as resulting from two different views in the Church. Two poles of conflict within Seventh-day Adventism is not new.
Since the beginning, Sabbatarian Adventists — who later become Seventh-day Adventists — were involved in two-sided debates: whether we should have an organization or remain as unorganized groups, when to keep the Sabbath (from sunset to sunset or from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m.), Jesus as co-eternal or subordinate to the Father, atonement that started at the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven or at the cross, verbal or thought inspiration, righteousness by faith only when we accept Jesus as our Savior or from the conversion to the end, etc.
Thus, the two poles of conflict can fit many topics. All of these conflicts in the history of the Church, whether doctrines or practices, could be settled by allowing unceasing discussion in a Christ-like spirit and through Bible study. When reflecting on these facts and the challenges Johnsson has identified in his book, I am confident that by showing the love of Jesus in our discussion, engaging in unending Bible study, and by God’s grace, we can have consensus in solving our differences today.
Donny Chrissutianto is from Indonesia and is presently studying church history and historical theology at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines.
Image Credit: ASRS / Oak & Acorn Publishing
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