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Perspective: Overlapping Webs of Complex Relationships


I don’t read advice columns looking for theological insights, but this recent “Ask Amy” item in the LA Times caught my attention. A woman who signed herself “Wedding Blisters” was getting married and planned to exclude her brother’s wife from her “family wedding.” She said her sister-in-law was always unpleasant, scowled at every family get-together, and she dreaded the attitude this person would bring to the occasion. The writer said that her mother was afraid that she was “breaking up the family” by excluding her brother’s wife and she wanted Amy, the columnist, to help her find a way to “fix this rift” with her mom.

In her reply to “Dear Blisters” Amy wrote, “It’s your wedding and you are determined to have only supportive and loving people around—which makes me wonder if you’ve been to a wedding. Weddings are family events. And families tend to be populated not by universally supportive and loving people, but by overlapping webs of complex relationships, featuring some challenging (and sometimes downright awful) people” (LA Times, 8/6/2015, p. E8).

In “Believing, Behaving, Belonging,” the book I wrote on the church which Adventist Forum published years ago, I described several influential metaphors for the church—army, business, family—and concluded that of these three the image of family was the best way to express the biblical view of the church. As the Apostle Paul in particular envisions it, I proposed, the church, like a family, is a close-knit community whose members care deeply for one another, bear one another’s burdens, and share each other’s joys and sorrows. At least, that’s the ideal. And that’s what I had in mind in BBB. Amy’s answer jarred me with the realization that the family metaphor includes other features of family life as well. In fact, her description of a family sounds like something Paul might have written about some of his congregations. And it sounds like the way Adventists behave from time to time.

As the Apostle’s correspondence makes abundantly clear, however, the ideal he describes was never easy to reach. The letters he wrote to the various Christian groups he helped to found, in Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, and Galatia, for example, indicate that there was often a lack of unity and mutual good will among their members, even though he never lost hope that they would become everything God wanted for them.

With the controversial actions taken at the recent General Conference session, this facet of family life becomes apparent, too. Some are so discouraged by the vote on women’s ordination that they are tempted to “give up on” the Adventist church, and look for other sources of spiritual meaning, support other forms of religion, if they do so at all.

This is where the other aspect of the family metaphor comes to mind. There is a givenness to one’s family. We don’t choose our family; we just find ourselves a part of it. Your family is the people you belong to, and who belong to you, whether or not you agree on everything or even enjoy each other’s company. Who doesn’t go to a family get-together now and then where things are strained, people find it hard to talk to each other, some come as late as possible and leave as soon as they can?

Still, families endure. No matter what the tensions and diversity, we generally manage to cope with and affirm each other over the years, in spite of our differences. This feature of family life has an application to the church, too. The church is our family. It is part of our identity. It’s the group we belong to, for better or worse, when we are happy with it, and when we are disappointed. True, there are people who would like everyone in the church to agree on things. There are even some in the church who would like those whose views on certain issues differ from theirs to pack up and leave. But this is not a picture of the church we need to accept, and we should not allow others to impose it on us.

Am I happy with every position the church takes and every decision it makes? Of course not. And I know others in the church are not always happy with mine. Still, I’m convinced that the things that unite us in the Adventist family are more fundamental than our differences. I know my family members are not going away. But neither am I.

Richard Rice is a professor of Theological Studies at the Loma Linda University School of Religion.

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