Skip to content

Former Head of National Council of Churches Speaks at Andrews Seminary Symposium—Part II

On February 2, at the annual Seminary Scholarship Symposium at Andrews University, Dr. Michael Kinnamon gave a talk entitled, “The Ecumenical Movement and Why You Should Be Involved.” Then Dr. Nicholas Miller, professor of church history and director of the International Religious Liberty Institute, responded. (A brief summary of Dr. Kinnamon’s first presentation at the seminary today is here.)

In his introduction of the speaker, seminary dean Dr. Denis Fortin shared how he came into contact with Dr. Kinnamon. In the late 90s, Fortin was teaching a class on interchurch relations. He wrote an article for the Adventist Review in 1998 on the upcoming World Council of Churches. The same week dean Fortin got a phone call saying the WCC wanted an Adventist perspective on end times and mission and asked him to write a paper. He wrote on the Adventist perspective on eschatology and mission. Fortin went to the meeting to present his paper on Adventism, the end time and the three angels messages. He presented the Adventist teachings on Babylon, Mark of the Beast, the Sabbath and other Adventist distinctives, giving the Adventist perspective on eschatology and mission.

He made it clear in the introduction that the lecture by Kinnamon would not be about how we see the ecumenical movement, but how Dr. Kinnamon sees it.

Kinnamon opened with things he appreciates about Adventists: Our network of schools and emphasis on education for all, promotion of religious liberty, history of volunteer service, insistence on keeping the Sabbath, support of hospitals and concern for holistic health and celebration of the diversity of the global human family.

He then shared what he doesn’t appreciate as much: The lack of Adventist engagement in interchurch relations.

Kinnamon presented seven points on what ecumenism is in opposition to how it has been misunderstood:

  1. Ecumenism is not a movement aimed at creating the unity of the church.
  2. Ecumenism is by no means the same as tolerant cooperation.
  3. Ecumenism is not a matter of tinkering with the church through compromise, but a matter of conversion and repentance as well as a way of respecting and understanding one another.
  4. In seeking to manifest the unity we have in Christ, ecumenical churches refuse to separate theological truth from social justice; they integrate theology and justice.
  5. Ecumenism isn’t meant to be a movement of experts meeting at conferences in major cities. It was originally a lay-led movement.
  6. Ecumenism cannot be identified with the various structures that give it expression.
  7. Ecumenism or inter-church unity, is not to be confused with interfaith relations (1).

Following these seven points, he suggested two reasons why he believes Adventists resist involvement in inter-church dialogue: (a) An under-emphasis on the “givenness” of the church (2) and (b) an over-emphasis on your own hold on truth.

He told us that we promote unity, but only of our own kind. Kinnamon brought up Laodicea and its belief that it has prospered and that it needs nothing from others. In relation to this he told us, “I greatly appreciate footwashing as an ordinance of humility. It is a recognition that we have all sinned and all have need of our neighbor. Isn’t that same humility demanded of the church”(3)?

He closed by both complimenting and challenging us: “I like who you are and it’s a joy to be here. My concern, if I can put it that way, is with your grammar. “Adventist” is a wonderful adjective, but an idolotraus noun. You are not Seventh-day Adventists, but Seventh-day Adventist Christians.”

Following Kinnamon’s presentation, Dr. Nick Miller responded first by thanking him for his summary of our complacent and often lazy thinking towards ecumenism. He mentioned positives and then areas of contention with Kinnamon’s presentation.

In the process, he included two pertinent quotes from Ellen White:

There are now true Christians in every church, not excepting the Roman Catholic communion (4).


Our ministers should seek to come near to the ministers of other denominations. Pray for and with these men, for whom Christ is interceding. A solemn responsibility is theirs. As Christ’s messengers we should manifest a deep, earnest interest in these shepherds of the flock (5).

Miller asserted that Adventism was ecumenical in it beginning, with Millerites joining the Advent movement while remaining in their churches and then with the Seventh-day Adventist Church later being comprised of people from numerous denominations.

Dr. Miller then stated that the Sabbath provides three challenges to joining the ecumenical movement. First is a practical matter: there is a barrier to worshipping regularly with other Christian groups. His second point was historical and prophetic. We are concerned about the history of united groups pressuring minority religious movements. We feel that some practices of the majority may be enforced by law. Finally, a more theological reason was given. The Sabbath is more than a day for us. “We believe the Sabbath is something we learn only because God tells us. In keeping it, one has a special mark of submission to God’s authority.” Ecumenism tends to say in practice that those things that are important to the majority should be important to everyone.

Miller challenged us to be cautiously ecumenical on particular issues. Miller pointed out that early Adventists worked with like-minded Christian groups to oppose slavery, promote temperance and advocate religious liberty. We can join with others on issues related to shared values, but not compromise or do anything that could cause us to lose sight of our distinctive mission.

In a brief rejoinder to the response, it became clear that Adventists are probably a long ways from fully joining inter-church dialogue. Kinnamon asked if Saturday is the key, or if to make more of an impact on other churches we can speak about Sabbath-keeping with the question of the particular day as a secondary issue. The tension in the room rose and a resounding “no!” could be heard throughout the auditorium. Kinnamon then said that if we hold to the “no,” then we are outside the ecumenical movement as it had been discussed.

Multiple written questions were posed during the following Q&A time. One person asked: Are ecumenists willing to listen to our message? Kinnamon responded: “I don’t know. But I know one sure way they won’t.” He paused and his point was clear. He continued: “If you’re at the table, you can bear witness. Would the churches as a whole hear all of your distinctive beliefs? I don’t know, but I’d like to have you try. I don’t know where the Spirit blows, but I do know that if you don’t share it, they won’t hear it.”

Appropriate to the centrality of the topic of Sabbath to the discussion, at the end of the program, the dean gave Dr. Kinnamon a copy of The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day by Sigve Tonstad.

A recent theology graduate of Walla Walla University, Landon Schnabel is studying at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

  1. To help explain what this meant, Kinnamon made it clear that he was not there as an interfaith speaker. He told us that we are of the same faith. Interfaith dialogue with other religions, Muslims, Jews and others is important. But it is not the same as ecumenism. The goal of ecumenism is the recognition the koinonia, the fellowship, Christians have with one another.
  2. In support of this, he pointed out the church does not appear until number twelve of the fundamental beliefs and the statement makes it sound like a voluntary gathering of like-minded believers. This emphasis on what we do obscures the Bible’s teaching that the church is a gift of God’s grace, not something that humans do. Kinnamon said “the church is not just an outcome or instrument of the gospel, it is a central part of the good news itself because the way we live as the one body of Christ is to be an embodiment, a sign to others, of God’s reconciling love.” He continued to say that “to be a Christian is to be incorporated into the community of Christ’s gracious welcome.” Furthermore, “Christians bear witness to the unity of God not by just what we say and do, but also by what we are; by the way in which we live with one another.”
  3. Interestingly, he told us that “there are a number of ecumenically involved churches that claim to be the true remnant. The Orthodox insist that membership in a council of churches does not necessarily mean they accept the other churches as churches in the full theological extent of the word. The orthodox, however, are able to participate in councils with integrity because they recognize that the boundaries of the church are charismatic, not canonical. It is the presence of the spirit, not canon law or doctrine, which determines the contours of the church.”
  4. The Great Controversy, 449.
  5. Counsels for the Church, 313.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.