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What About Dissidents?

The statistics about retention of recently baptized members are not encouraging. A year or two after a large baptism in Latin America, very few are still members of the Church. In the United States, where large baptisms are unknown, the young are the ones who leave. Almost all the sons and daughters of Adventists are baptized between the ages of nine and twelve, but a large proportion have left before they are twenty-five.

While in the past those leaving would become un-churched, these days most of them become members of other Christian denominations, or satisfy their spiritual thirst in small groups of fellow seekers. However, many who remain in the Church feel uncomfortable with this or that aspect of it, but think that not much is gained changing religious affiliation because all denominations have their weaknesses. These may be doctrinal, liturgical, or administrative.

Some Adventists deplore the dictatorial abuses of some ecclesiastical administrators. Rather than being discredited, they are frequently promoted to positions higher up. Some lament the poverty and the lack of imagination of worship services that are devoid of organic integrity and do not promote adoration. Many times, they become vehicles of popular entertainment with a religious varnish. At the core of our services is the sermon. Sometimes it leaves the congregation disappointed for not having heard the Word of God. The sermon was another Sabbath School lesson, the presentation of the prejudices or the presumptions of the pastor, or a series of stories for children. In the worst of cases, it was nothing but ecclesiastical propaganda.

There are Adventists who regret the anti-intellectualism and the doctrinal paralysis that has the Church fixed looking backwards to a “glorious” past in the nineteenth century. Although the faith of the saints of the first century is the same faith of the saints of the twenty-first, the doctrines, of necessity, must adapt to the historical moment lived by the saints. The first Christians knew nothing about the presence of two natures in the person of Jesus, nor of the manifestation of God in three persons. They had not heard of original sin or of the doctrine of free will. Of course, they conceived the universe as a two-story house with a basement, that is, the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth.

The pages of the New Testament preserve the evidence of the great doctrinal differences among the early Christians. While some wished to keep Christianity as another Jewish sect, others wished to radically re-interpret their Jewish traditions. While some understood the human condition in apocalyptic terms, others conceived it in Hellenistic terms. While some kept the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, others kept all the days of the week as Sabbath. While some wished to establish an ecclesiastical hierarchy, others defended the spiritual liberty of all believers.

Doctrinal and cosmological differences have been always present within Christianity and are still to be found in all Christian denominations. Recognizing this, the writers of the Twenty-seven Fundamental Doctrines of Adventism made clear in the Preamble that they were not writing a creed and that the document was not to be used to judge the orthodoxy of church members. When the Twenty-eight Fundamental was added, the temporal nature of doctrines was being loudly proclaimed. Doctrines are changeable. Unfortunately, there are some who think that the Church is constituted by its doctrines. They see the Twenty-eight now printed in the Church Manual as immutable and infallible. Many purposely forget the Preamble, or fail to include it when making reprints. The only one immutable and infallible is God. Doctrines have always been and shall continue to be changeable and capable of leading one astray. The faith with which we believe in God and the doctrines with which we explain to ourselves the God we believe in are not the same thing.

In our church, there are those who believe that every page of the Bible was dictated by God, and those who believe that the Bible was written by humans whose inspiration by the Holy Spirit did not trump their human limitations. There are those who believe that for the Lord to return there must be on earth a people who have the same perfection before the law that the incarnate Jesus had, and those who believe that the only thing that counts is love and faith. There are those who teach that there is in heaven a material sanctuary with two compartments and that on October 22, 1844, Christ entered for the first time the second, and those who believe that since his ascension Christ has been sitting at the right hand of God governing the universe. Others, moreover, think that both of these descriptions of the Christ’s heavenly activity are metaphorical, parables that demand the awakening of our imagination.

There are those who think it is impossible to believe in the God who created all things and take seriously the conclusions reached by a consensus of scientists who formulate an evolutionary process, and those who think that such a thing is not only possible but necessary. There are those who defend the untold number of abortions performed in Adventist hospitals in the United States, and those who fight the very idea of an abortion. There are those who grant the government the authority to impose and carry out the death penalty for heinous crimes, and those who believe that the commandment “Thou shall not kill” applies to criminal justice. On this basis, there are those who refuse to carry deadly weapons, and those who volunteer for the armed forces as combatants willing to kill. None of these various views may be termed insignificant, but those who hold them extend to each other the right hand of fellowship.

It is well known that there are those who think that the organizational structure of our church is a perfect model, that our lack of a liturgy is admirable and that our doctrines are the only ones perfectly Christian. Such self-deception and paroxysm of pride is, without doubt, lamentable. It makes some of us into witch hunters. At the moment the hunters are galloping on the meadows of La Sierra University. But cavalcades of this kind have trampled other meadows in the past.

Finding oneself in dissent, it is not easy to decide what to do. My reflection on this theme was sparked by the article Richard K. Haass wrote in the May 11–18, 2009, of Newsweek. Haass reviews his dissent with the Bush administration’s decision to go to war against Iraq when he was the chief of the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department. Thinking that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that as in the previous Gulf War the United States would go to war with considerable international and domestic support, and with sufficient military power and a sensible plan, Haass says that he was 60/40 against going to war. He decided not to resign, but to stay and try to influence as much as possible the foreign policy of his nation. He digresses to say that if he had known in 2002 what he knows now, he would have been 90/10 against. He does not speculate what he would have done then.

Haass concludes his article saying,

Those looking for hard and fast rules on dissent should be prepared to be disappointed. Sometimes it is better to confront, other times it makes more sense to work around. Sometimes it is better to leave, other times to stay. When it comes to dissent, there is no right answer. Much less one that’s right for all situations. That’s what makes it a dilemma.

I take it that this observation also applies to those who find themselves dissenting with their church. As long as we live in the flesh, we shall live with dissidents.

The dissident who opts to stay forces the church to reconsider its identity, and for some this is a serious threat. To others, however, to recognize the fluidity of our identity is only part and parcel of our search for truth and what makes possible improvements, perfectionings. To chain ourselves with our doctrines and hope in this way to secure our identity is not the way to serve the God who creates a universe in permanent development and without limits. The dissident who offers reasons with love and patience may be the one who helps us to grow in faith. He/she should not be the one who awakens destructive passions. The young people who are baptized when they are nine and abandon us at twenty leave because they discovered that the church lives for a past of fixed ideas and identities. They wish to live for a future open to the surprises that the love of God constantly is pleased to create.

When I was a student at the Adventist Theological Seminary in Takoma Park, 1956–58, quite often Dr. Edward Heppenstall would come to class late because he had been detained at inquisitorial meetings with the administrators of the General Conference at the building next door. He had been forced to defend himself from accusations leveled against him by some of my fellow students. Heppenstall was the voice crying in the wilderness who taught us about the love of God and righteousness by faith, rather than perfectionism, the investigative judgment, the wrath of God, and apocalyptic cosmic battles. Thank God he decided to stay and teach us the everlasting gospel.

Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.

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