I have struggled with the fruitless question of who is a real Adventist more often than I would like to admit. Mostly the question haunts the edges of my consciousness, only occasionally forming itself into words.
The ideal Adventist is (make your choices), in agreement with all 28 Fundamental Beliefs, ready to seek present truth, conservative, liberal, legalistic, grace-centered, rich, poor, smart, ignorant, short, tall, straight, gay, male, female, etc…. All of which insinuate that a true Adventist can be broken down into a single ideal prototype. That is not the case.
A real Adventist is any individual who chooses to connect with a local Adventist community. Period.
It is imperative that we define ourselves through belonging rather than by behaving or believing.1 I have heard influential Adventist leaders state bluntly that those who hold errant beliefs and eschew other vital beliefs should leave. I have read about Adventist churches that resisted outreach because it might bring imperfect sinners who would disrupt the otherwise sterile purity of their desolate church. Instead, I long for an Adventist church which recognizes that the strength of unity in diversity includes but goes much deeper than the amount of melanin in our skin.2
But, you say with furrowed brow, Jesus prayed that we would be one.3 Yes, he prayed for unity but not manipulative coercion to conform to some prototypical, imaginary, ideal person. Never unity by force.
The issue is illustrated in a comparison of Babel and Pentecost. The tower of Babel was built through unified human effort that had no room for diversity. Minority voices were an unnecessary distraction to the ultimate goal of creating a grand edifice to save humanity. As soon as diversity was introduced, the whole project failed.4
Some contend that Pentecost is a reversal of the loss of unity at Babel. However, Miroslav Volf points out that this interpretation does justice to neither story.5 Pentecost occurred in a humble prayer meeting as men and women struggled together to understand God. The result was not a conformed community that spoke with one homogeneous voice, but a transformed community who spoke and related to every tongue, tribe, and nation, causing diverse passersby to exclaim, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”6 Notice, the foreigners didn’t suddenly conform to speak Galilean. The Galileans were transformed to relate to others in their native context.
John records Jesus’ prayer that we would be unified in the same way He was unified with His Father. Unified in love.7
Of course, love is not license. There may be times when we should do as Paul says and expel the immoral member. 8 When the actions of one are to disrupt the community, their choice is clear. The cancer of arrogance whether in flaunting errant ideas, unrepentant debauchery, icy legalism, or divisively narrow theological understanding should be carefully excised. This painful process may go both ways and involve removing oneself from a toxic community or letting go of a member disrupting the community.
The problem with cancerous cells is that they have lost all connection to the wider body they inhabit. They begin to grow without regard to signals from the other diverse cellular components of the body. They express their own cellular material at unhealthy levels and ignore feedback from other cells in the body. They metastasize as a homogeneous mass into areas where they are not fit to function. This results in destruction of the natural cellular diversity. Eventually they kill their host and themselves in the process.
Despite, or perhaps as a result of the powerful technology and overwhelming wealth of information available to us in the 21st Century, we are becoming increasingly disconnected from those who are different from us. Oh we have connections; but, those connections are all too often to those who share our own perspective and opinions. The problem is, as Cass Sunstein notes, the more connected we are to those who think the way we do the more ingrained and extreme our views become.9 We need one another and we need to be exposed to differences within and beyond our Adventist enclaves.
The body of Christ functions best as Paul described it. Christ is the head and we are a diverse group of individual parts performing our unique functions in a coordinated, communicating miracle of life.10
In short, there is no more a single ideal Adventist than there is a single ideal cell. So, will the real Adventist please sit back down and connect with the diverse community?
- Richard Rice’s book Believing, Behaving, Belonging is a brilliant and persuasive call for the primacy of belonging.
- I am in no way attempting to minimize the need for unity among racial diversity. I realize we have a great deal of growth ahead of us in this area as well. What I am attempting to highlight is the fact that issues of diversity are much more diverse than skin pigment. Think of the rich diversity along the spectrum of traditional to progressive Adventists. Assuming we have achieved unity in diversity because we have a racially diverse church like the one I currently attend ignores the rich depths of experience awaiting us as we dialogue with many different cultures, traditions, backgrounds, perspectives, orientations, and ideas.
- John 17:20-22
- Genesis 11:1-9
- Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace
- Acts 2:1-9 (NRSV)
- John 17:23
- I Corinthians 5
- Cass Sunstein, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter
- I Corinthians 12…
Brenton Reading is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine.