An article by Ted N.C. Wilson in the Adventist World magazine (May 2013) caught my eye. It both asked and answered a question. “Who are we as a unique movement? God’s remnant church.” This sweeping assertion caused me some discomfort, not least because it is a self-made claim of special status that seemingly excludes others.
The remnant doctrine has emerged as a point of discussion among Seventh-day Adventists. I observe that many Adventists have grown uneasy with the theology as stated above.
I recently taught a Sabbath School class in which I described this belief as our most dangerous doctrine because of its potential for unintended consequences: undesirable impacts on Adventists. As if to illustrate my point, a class member who disagreed with my theory responded that he was “proud to be a member of the remnant.” I wanted really badly to respond, “I rest my case.” But I refrained.
Adventist remnant theology rests primarily on Revelation 12:17. In Adventism’s reading of this text, the references to God’s commandments and the testimony of Jesus have been distilled down to two specific, definitive identifiers: the Sabbath commandment and the ministry of Ellen White. These two factors have prompted us to claim for ourselves the identity as THE remnant.
I would like to offer a different perspective on this text, specifically the “commandments of God” phrase.
Jesus often redirected people’s attention when matters of the Law were under discussion. He quite consistently elevated the dialogue about Law to an order of magnitude higher than the Ten Commandments. In the Sermon on the Mount, he looked past the prohibitions against murder and adultery and focused his hearers’ on the attitude and intent of the heart toward others. He suggested that one might well refrain from actual murder and actual adultery, but be guilty of violating the law just the same by virtue of the attitude that resided in the heart.
Likewise, when Jesus was asked to identify the most important commandment, he again elevated the discussion. He focused His hearers’ attention on love to God and love to other people.
I believe Jesus was saying that merely refraining from the commission of proscribed behaviors might be necessary, but was surely not sufficient. He was saying there is a higher standard to which we are called, a standard that goes beyond the avoidance of negative behaviors. Jesus set forth a new target for believers that called for proactive love toward others, which got to the root of the matter – the attitudes of our hearts. He cited the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example.
New Testament writers followed in the footsteps of Jesus by calling attention to the higher order objective.
Paul writes, “…love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10.
James says, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” James 2:8
John states, “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” I John 3:11. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34,35.
Jesus and his first century followers sought to raise the spiritual sights of their hearers to a higher calling than just the Ten Commandments, to a standard that required something positive rather than just avoiding the negative. They desired their listeners to focus on the real issue, which was that Jesus’ true followers would provide to the world a proactive, uncommon demonstration of love toward humanity. Jesus went so far as to say that this uncommon love would be the distinguishing characteristic by which the world could identify His followers.
So, because Jesus, Paul, James and John actively elevated the discussion about Law from a regulatory approach to an attitudinal approach, why would we not want to follow suit when it comes to interpreting Revelation 12:17? Adventists are fond of saying that the law is a transcript of God’s character of love. And yet, in interpreting the text in Revelation, we fall back to a legal definition that focuses on the commandments, not the standard of love. We currently take a tack that says the Sabbath is a unique identifier. Why wouldn’t we choose the same standard as Jesus did in John 13:35?
Why don’t we take Jesus’ approach of focusing on the higher standard, the standard that focuses on being loving Christians? Some might say that it is all the same thing, that the Ten Commandments define love. I don’t think it is the same. Telling me to avoid bad behavior is not the same thing as urging me toward loving relationships. And frankly, I find the latter more challenging than the former. I think that the words used in discussing this issue must matter because Jesus consistently reframed the idea of God’s law. He must have thought that His attitude-based approach was more effective than a regulation-based approach, and the words of His teaching consistently reframed the issues.
What would the impact be if our Church consistently taught and preached that when remnant people “keep the commandments of God” they will be identified as the most loving, gracious, generous, compassionate people on the planet? What if Adventist parents, teachers, preachers and evangelists conveyed the following message? “You might keep the Sabbath, but if you are not among those people who are known for their unselfish love to humanity, you are not among the remnant. You won’t be known as a disciple of Jesus.” I daresay this approach would be more transformational.
After all, Jesus did not say, “People will know you are my disciples if you keep the Sabbath.”
Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He is President of The Reifsnyder Group and Senior Vice President of FaithSearch Partners. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, is married to Janelle, and has two daughters. He spends time thinking about how the Adventist church needs to change to be more effective in the 21st century.