By Thursday lunchtime last week, the 19 men at Friedensau Adventist University had told their stories of the various responses of the Seventh-day Church to the First World War and looked at the effects of the war on the church. In facing the call to arms, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, like any individual facing conflict, had found out a great deal about itself. The story showed that the major effect of the First World War was to reveal the fault lines in Adventism – areas where there was work to be done if the church was to become the Christian community it had always aspired to be.
The systematic theologians had identified narrowness and naivety in the church’s eschatological vision. The sociologists and anthropologists looked at the social structures of the organization and asked themselves where power and authority lay as the church expanded outside North America. Church historians studying the role of Ellen White’s writings in the development of the church, recognized the need for a decision-making process which is mature and community-centred alongside recognition of and reliance on the views of a prophet who is no longer with us to make specific pronouncements. Others recognized the need for more mature and developed thinking about pacifism in different parts of the world. Many scholars suggested that the organizational church needs to be less easily threatened by those who differ from it both inside and outside the church. It needs to be quick to try to understand and slow to pass judgment. The Tuesday night presentations by the brethren from the Reformed Church had suggested to many of us that the original schism between “us” and “them” need never have occurred.
So ironically, perhaps the biggest effect of the Great War which took place outside the church was to throw an ironic spotlight on the nature and causes of conflict within the church and our lack of skills in handling disagreement among us, especially disagreement about biblical interpretation. Schism with the Reformed Adventists was the early expression of that lack of skill. Fragmentation and polarization will continue to be the greatest threat to the unity and identity of the church unless we can learn to walk together with those from whom we differ.
So what lessons does this conference offer the church? Here are the lessons it taught me as a church elder and member who is interested in community and evangelism at grassroots level:
- We Adventists, it seems, need to work smarter, not harder. We need to develop a better balance between our concern for truth and our belief in peace. We need to improve our internal communication with each other. We need to learn the skills and disciplines of discernment, of community life, of solving problems together, of seeking consensus. Telling the truth in love to each other is sometimes more demanding than preaching the truth to the unchurched. Unless we learn that discipline, we are doomed to worsen the kinds of schism and fragmentation that alienate people both inside and outside the church and distort our witness.
- Peace-making, as one contributor said, is a category missing from the Seventh-day Adventist conversation. It must be an active process among us and we Seventh-day Adventists must learn to speak the various languages of peace as we bear witness to each other and the wider world. To speak the language of peace is not to abandon our identity or our commitments, nor to collapse into shapelessness, colourlessness and passivity. Quite the opposite. Speaking the language of peace means knowing clearly who we are and what “message” we wish to send to the world. And, like Jesus at the last supper, knowing clearly who we are, where we have come from, and where we want to go allows us to strike out in new and surprising directions in teaching people about the God who has called us.
- We need to keep asking ourselves: “What is the ‘everlasting gospel’ that we are called to preach?” Is it the good news of salvation – that God loves us – or is it the prophetic news that God is judging us? Worshiping a judging God often creates judgmental people. We probably need to think more clearly about the evangelistic language which will best communicate the gospel of God’s love. Can we allow the generosity of God’s spirit working within us to translate the sometimes militant foreign language of evangelism into the reconciling tones of the love of God? Unless we can, our ability to speak peace to each other and to the nations will surely be compromised?
- The other language we need to speak better in the local and global church is the language of reconciliation – living out our relationships with each other influenced by the grace of the “everlasting gospel.” This is the most important way to preach. It’s a language our neighbors and fellow-citizens can clearly recognise as expressing life and hope rather than fear and judgment.
After the symposium, a Friedensau postgraduate student took us to the train station. As a graduate in theology, he told us, he had gone into the mission field with “priest” on his passport. That single fact had prevented him from getting a visa and being able to share the gospel. So he was back in education studying both theology and social science to strengthen his chances of exercising the ministry and mission he was called to – a pastor “dressed” as a social worker is no less a pastor. God “dressed” as a carpenter is no less God. How might God be asking me in my church to dress the third angel so that the gospel is well communicated?
Helen Pearson is a counselor and psychotherapist based at Newbold College in England, and a longtime elder of Newbold Church. Since 2003, she has been part of the Bridge Builders’ Network, which trains church leaders to understand conflicts in the church and work to resolve them. She trains Adventist pastors and others in conflict resolution.