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Ecumenical Unity as Adventist Mission

I want to share with you why I believe that ecumenism is central to Adventist mission. But first I will share a part of my journey to this conclusion:
Theology From The Bottom Up: Life With Other Christians
One of the ways that God has blessed me in recent months is through the community that I have found in the church I attend, CrossWalk Church. Not too long ago, my friend Ron Osborn and I, with the gracious help of Pastor Jeff Gang, started a new kind of Sabbath School class. The idea was simple: we wanted to create a space to have discussions about relevant theological issues and questions from diverse perspectives, faithfully engage the biblical text, and foster a community that was committed to both Christian faith and critical thinking. Discipleship of the mind. And so, CrossWalk U was born.
We launched the project with a four-week series taking the name of Albert Schweitzer’s monumental book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. During that first week, I presented a broad survey of the 3 major “quests,” and spoke about some of the challenges in interpreting the Gospels historically, theologically, and politically, and then I posed some of my own thoughts. During the second half—during the discussion—people disagreed with me, challenged me, raised critical questions, and posed counter-arguments. It was fantastic. One is reminded of the words of Mao Zedong: “There is disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.” [1]
Every week either Ron or I open the class with a prayer and reading our class vision statement. The most important part of that statement says that “we strive to be careful listeners and learners in a spirit of friendship and dialogue with people of diverse views and experiences.” And the whole class really has strove to do just that, and it has shaped the ethos of our discussions. This has been a deeply transformative experience for me.
Early on, one man made a statement suggesting that the doctrine of the Trinity was problematic. Being over-zealous for orthodoxy, I dismissed his comment. I didn’t see the man for weeks. But, graciously, he came back. In the weeks that followed, this man with serious doubts about the Trinity became one of my favorite conversation partners. I found that we were still able to have solidarity with one another because, albeit understood differently, we had both found salvation in and through Jesus of Nazareth. We are able to speak together, agree, disagree, pray together, worship together. And this experience of solidarity is not just with this man; I have found this to be the case with the majority of this class. Our disagreements are not minor, and yet we have unity in our commitment to Jesus, the search for truth, and our community with one another.
Most recently, I led a three-week series entitled “The End of the World”—a study of eschatology grounded specifically in the writings of Paul. For the last week, we discussed the idea of ‘remnant’, its relevance and function. And even though our intention was to stay strictly within the Pauline corpus, we did find ourselves reflecting on Revelation (we are Adventists, after all). We considered the text from which our denomination developed our mission statement and doctrine of the remnant: Revelation 14:6-12.
Towards Remnant: Being Faithful to Adventist Mission
It is not even slightly surprising that one of the first issues that came up was some of the conceit that has emerged as a result of Adventists identifying their church with the eschatological remnant, and that this self-identification necessarily condemns and alienates Christians and Christian churches that are not Adventist. Indeed, one of the most current examples of such alienation may be found in some statements made my Ted Wilson in his July 3 sermon (such as ecumenism being “pervasive and compromising” and a sign of the end). The question must be raised: Is this an idea worth hanging on to? Is this even morally justifiable to hang on to?
My answer is “yes” and “no.” I need not equivocate about the fact that I wholly reject any notion of remnant that ends up identifying the Seventh-day Adventist Church as the only faithfully Christian church, and that others must join our church to be a part of the remnant. No, that idea is not at all worth keeping. However, I also believe that that idea is a fundamental betrayal of the truly biblical and truly Adventist understanding of the remnant, and that we can think about remnant in a life-giving, mission-inspiring way.
In biblical terms, the remnant is a group within God’s people who are remaining faithful to God when the rest of God’s people are being, in some sense, unfaithful. For this reason, the existence of a remnant is always contingent upon the unfaithfulness of God’s people, and the call of that remnant is always to draw God’s people back to faithfulness, so that there will not be a need for a remnant. Likewise, the message proclaimed by the remnant is always contingent upon the unfaithfulness of God’s people; the remnant speak to the unfaithfulness of the day. This contingency means there is no fixed identity of the remnant, nor a fixed message.
As Adventists, we have identified one such remnant in the apocalyptic vision of John. In the midst of Babylon—the great world city, that embodiment of human achievement and human glory—God’s people recognize that they are truly in Babel, in confusion. They recognize the Babylonian structure of what humanity has made, that its coercive order and glory are in fact confusion and shame and enmity toward God. And they recognize this because they have heard the messages of the angels sent from above the confusion, from a vantage point of clarity:

    “Fear and worship the God who created the world in its true, organic, beautiful form (and not humanity with its self-glorifying edifice)! God, who is sovereign, has pronounced this judgment!”
    “Because of God’s judgment, Babylon is as good as fallen. Indeed, it will surely fall!”
    “Do not align yourself with Babylon, or you will fall with it!”

And in this context, in the midst of great confusion and great worldly power, there is a remnant among God’s people who, not having the clear sight of the angels, can do but one thing: hold to the faith of Christ and obey God’s commandments to guide them. They are ignorant and immersed in the confusion of Babylon, and their only hope is the message of the angel, that God is still sovereign, even though God’s reign is not always evident, and that God’s justice is coming.
This remnant in this context exists because God’s people have been drawn into the confusion of Babylon, and so the line which separates the world from the church has been blurred. And the remnant are all those who recognize Babylon for what it is, who in the midst of oppressive power, coercion and confusion find their hope and clarity in the faith of Jesus and in obedience to him. They cannot be identified as a specific group, nor do all of them believe exactly the same things. Rather, their identity is in the One in whom they hope and trust.
And so it was indeed wise for our church not to officially identify us with this remnant, but rather describe simply that God has graciously raised up a remnant, and it is our goal to one day be recognized among them, and it is our mission to draw all people into unity with them.
Taking seriously this mission, to “unite [all people] with [God’s] remnant church,” then we must take seriously the fact that the remnant are scattered throughout Babylon, throughout denominations and churches and sects. Some would even go so far as to say they are scattered among religions. Wherever they are, if our mission is to be remnant and to unite all people with the remnant, then we have no choice but to blur the line that divides us from others. We have no choice but to enter the city of Babylon, and band together with all those who recognize it for what it is. If we are striving to be remnant, we must let go of our exclusivity among God’s people, so that there will not be a need for a remnant.
As I mentioned earlier, just in the context of a Sabbath School class I have discovered how much I can learn about being Christian from others with whom I have serious disagreements. Through our unity with and commitment to one another, despite our irreconcilable differences, we have found oneness in Jesus. Is this not what it means to be remnant, to be Adventist?

  1. I found this in Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (New York: Verso, 2010).

Matthew Burdette is a theology student at La Sierra University and blogs at Constructing Adventist Theology, where this article originally appeared.

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