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Perspective: Can a Church Survive if It Gives Up Its Sectarian Identity?


Sociologists of religion define “sect” in a way that differs significantly from that of the dictionary. Dictionaries define “sect” as a group that has broken with either the orthodoxy or organization they once were part of. Sociologist, however, use “sect” to designate groups that generate a “high state of tension with their environments.” Churches, on the other hand, are defined by sociologists as “religious bodies in a relatively low state of tension with their environment.”1 Between these two manifestations of religious faith, church and sect, there will always be tension and often outright enmity because both view the other as betraying their common faith. In Adventism conflict between sect and church broke out in the 1950s over the publication of “Questions on Doctrine (QOD).”2

When a sect is successful it tends to fills up with successful people, and successful people typically want respect and recognition from the people they interact with in society at large. They want religious services that are orderly and dignified and they want preachers who are polished and educated. Adventism was destined to move in this direction when it began to build health institutions. Sanitariums and hospitals needed nurses and doctors and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and accountants and lawyers—educated people, professionals. And when they interacted with the American upper class (the only people who could afford the health services offered by the church), they did not want to be embarrassed by undereducated Adventist ministers. Consequently, the pressure was on to establish colleges and a seminary to bring the Adventist clergy up to the educational standard that well-off Americans were used to see in their own ministers.

By the 1950s Adventist leaders felt confident enough theologically to challenge the evangelical world to reassess its classification of the church as a “cult” (essentially the dictionary definition of “sect.”). The result was a series of high level meetings that led the church to issue QOD—a restatement of Adventist beliefs (in the words of Edwin Zackrison) “in language the evangelical world could understand.”3 Almost immediately, a section of the church—those who relished the high tension sect life that Adventists had led since its beginning—rose up in protest.

In North America, retired Adventist administrator and theologian, M.L. Andreasen4 accused the Adventist leadership of having betrayed the historic Adventist faith.5  In Australia, college student Robert Brinsmead sounded the tocsin. For the first time in Adventist history, the sacrosanct leaders of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists were publically attacked as enemies within the walls, traitors to the faith. From the late fifties to the Glacier View conference in 1980, a low-level civil war disturbed the peace in the Adventist church, especially in North America and Australia.

Echoes of this conflict between sect and church can still be heard, but with the virtual destruction of Ellen White’s authority and with it, the credibility of the sectarian elements of Adventist theology, the church won out over the sect, although it was very much a pyrrhic victory. Sociologists Finke and Stark put it this way: “When successful sects are transformed into churches, that is, when their tension with the surrounding culture is greatly reduced, they soon cease to grow and eventually begin to decline.”6  Church growth has always been driven by high-tension “sects” and not churches.

The sociology of religion is quite an eye-opener to those who stumble into its world. What you thought was unique, what you saw as a struggle between good and evil, between right and wrong, between conservatives and liberals, turns out to fall into well-established sociological categories. There is nothing unique about the conflict that Adventism underwent between 1950 and 1980. Methodism, the lay movement that Ellen White came from, went through a very similar development in the second half of the 19th century, and as the former sect became a respectable church with educated clergy, the church began losing members and groups broke out and started the sect-church cycle all over again. The Lutheran church in North America and its struggle with the Missouri Synod in the 1970s is another close parallel.

Christians of all types are faced with the fact that churches come in two basic varieties: a low-tension church for the successful and a fire-brand sect (in the sociological sense) for the less successful. Unfortunately for the low-tension conformist churches, they are doomed to wither on the vine unless they are able to recreate some of the qualities of the sect within its walls. When there is no tension between church and society, there is little need to sacrifice time and money to celebrate the beliefs and values you already hold. Sects, however, emphasize the gulf between world and church and the dire consequences of remaining on the wrong side of it. That is a message that both delights and offends, and that is what drives growth.

The rise of the American prosperity-worshiping mega churches might seem to contradict this principle, but what has happened here is that the sect has redefined the gulf between believer and unbeliever in terms of wealth. They have substituted wealth for heaven and poverty for hell. They address people who find themselves in financial hell and promise them the wealth of heaven both here and in eternity. It is a message that offends most of us here, but that sets it apart and gives it power to grow.

Finally, churches not only have to deal with the impact that wealth and success have on their members; there is also the problem of scholarship. One thing that has always shorn sects of their high-tension theology is scholarship.

It may be that secularization ensues whenever religion is placed within a formal academic setting, for scholars seem unable to resist attempting to clear up all logical ambiguities. Rather than celebrate mysteries, religious scholars often seek to create a belief system that is internally consistent. Finding that things do not fit exactly, they begin to prune and revise and redefine.” 7

So what does this tell us about the future of Adventism? First of all, it’s bad news for people who live in countries in which this article is being read. The good news is that outside the developed world, the Adventist Church is still a sect, hence the massive growth that has taken place there. And if the General Conference wants that growth to continue, it should do the counter-intuitive thing and convert all colleges in the developing world into Bible schools with a vocational emphasis—and pray that these countries remain poor.

Once a sect has become a church, to survive it needs to offer something that people don’t have, such as a community with friends and causes that appeal and offend.8 And for the sake of its survival, it must embrace those who have been less fortunate in life. Churches made up of successful people will die. Don’t the synoptic gospels imply as much?

1. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990 (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J. 1992) pp. 40-41
2. Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. An Explanation of Certain major Aspects of Seventh-day Adventist Belief (Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, D.C., 1957)
3. Edwin Zackrison, chapter 9 of upcoming “Profile of a Religious Man”
5. Letters to the Churches (Hudson Publishing, 1959)
6. Finke and Stark, p. 148
7. Finke and Stark, p. 45
8. In politics, that is how Fox News became such a success. It created a community for people who had always lived on the margins of politics and they offered everybody the chance to identify with a cause that was bound to delight and offend a lot of people. The challenge that Fox now faces is to remain a sect in the face of its success. You can already see that the daily taunts of comedians and pundits have taken a toll. Most people, at the end of the day, crave respect and recognition, but if they give in to that yearning, the sect is gone and growth will stop.


Aage Rendalen is a foreign language teacher in the Richmond Public School system in Virginia.

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