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What Will Our Reformation Look Like?

I believe most Seventh-day Adventists welcome the call to revival and reformation. Most of us feel our spiritual deficiency—personal and collective—and would like to do something about it.

Revival is, to me, a return to simple, straightforward and primitive godliness—the kind of peace we felt when we first placed all of our trust in Jesus, and the enthusiasm to tell others that came with it.  We’d like to feel that again. Revival, for that reason, seems to me sited more in the individual than the group: each of us needs a personal heart and soul revival.

The word “reformation” is a bit more difficult. What immediately comes to mind is the Protestant Reformation, that historical period bracketed roughly by the Luther’s 95 Thesis (1517) and the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) that marked the rebirth of a Christianity rooted in the experience and teachings of the early Christian church. With this as our starting point, I’m led to think that reformation is about a change in the community more than the individual—specifically, finding in the past an ideal that can be the model toward which we reform the Seventh-day Adventist community of today.

The Protestant Reformation can be interpreted several ways. Although a personal faith relationship with Christ informed by Scripture is what we Evangelicals reference about it, historians have shown that this was more than a doctrinal conflict. Some even say it was a cultural and political conflict, of which doctrinal reform was one component, and it’s undoubtedly true that for some of the discontented European princes getting the Pope’s armies off their backs was as motivating as a desire for personal spirituality. There was more to it than doctrinal dissonance. Printing had leapt communication forward. Scientific and philosophical curiosity created an audience receptive to new ideas. And in many ways, the Roman church was its own worst enemy, its self-destructive excesses and hypocrisies coinciding with a long-unsatisfied hunger for God, into which opening stepped scholar-leaders like Luther, Knox and Calvin.

I don’t think, when we speak of our reformation, we mean a return to the Protestant Reformation. While it opened the door to an expansion of Biblical Christianity, the Protestant Reformation didn’t create a church that we today would want to be. Among other things, it adopted with little criticism much of the Roman church’s worship style, including sacraments. The new Protestant church was hardly open and democratic: it was as magisterial (particularly in Geneva) as the Roman church had been, and the new Protestants didn’t shy from persecuting the Anabaptists just had been done to them by the Catholics.

And remember that the result of that reformation was a splintering of Christianity into many competing groups. When we call for reformation here, are we saying that we’re willing for that to happen to our denomination?

In search of a model to reform to we’d do better to reach all the way back to the early Christian church before it became corrupted. (Which, by the way, began very early—even Jesus’ church had at least one corrupt leader.) Paul’s letters to congregations sketch an important picture of the Christian church. But two things interfere with its being a perfect model: first, the church Paul was writing to was a mess, succumbing to heresies and general bad behavior often and nearly everywhere during his lifetime, then morphing into a religio-political monster soon after he was gone; and second, he and the other apostles wrote their ecclesiology expecting only a short life for the church and could hardly have imagined the wait for Jesus stretching out 20 centuries.

One of the best pictures of the early church is at the end of Acts 2. “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” [vss. 46,47]. If I could reform us to any picture of what the church should be, that would come the closest.

There are some difficult elements even in Acts 2. For one thing, the story begins with public charismatic manifestations, which would have cleared many of the Seventh-day Adventists out of the room. Also, it appears that in joining the church, the bar was lower than we’d set it, which is why three thousand people who heard the message were baptized and added to church membership (if there was in fact such a list) that very day (vs. 41). I doubt they were instructed in all the fundamental beliefs; there wasn’t time for them to accept much more than that the risen Christ was the Messiah.

Then there’s that communistic element here, not at all appealing to the Western sensibility: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” [vss. 44,45]. Several notorious groups with Seventh-day Adventist connections have tried the communal approach, and they haven’t made us particularly proud, which is why I don’t see us adopting that part of it any time soon.

Many would prefer to look for our point d’appui in our own denomination’s history. There is one period that has always seemed to me especially inspirational, the time just before The Great Disappointment that Ellen White describes in Life Sketches thus:

“As we returned to our homes by various ways, a voice praising God would reach us from one direction, and as if in response, voices from another and still another quarter shouted, ‘Glory to God, the Lord reigneth!’ Men sought their homes with praises upon their lips, and the glad sound rang out upon the still night air. No one who attended these meetings can ever forget those scenes of deepest interest. …Worldly business was for the most part laid aside for a few weeks. We carefully examined every thought and emotion of our hearts, as if upon our deathbeds, and in a few hours to close our eyes forever upon earthly scenes.” [p. 56]

Like Acts 2, it’s an experience that I would long to have in our church (even though this spiritual high was followed by a correspondingly deep low.) Like Acts 2, it rests upon a much simpler profession than we Seventh-day Adventists today are called upon to make, for apart from their hope that Jesus was returning soon, they were missing much of what we hold as necessary components of true end time Seventh-day Adventism. We would love to recapture their faith, but we would heavily amend their doctrine.

So if we are reforming back to a good Adventist past, what period should be our model? 1844, when the believers waited on Ascension Rock? 1862, when the church was organized? 1888, when Ellen White ratified the Protestant Reformation message of righteousness by faith for Seventh-day Adventists? 1915, after Ellen White had completed her ministry of instruction to the church? 1956, before the publication of Questions on Doctrine?

This may seem like splitting hairs, and some may say, “I know exactly what I want this church to reform into.” But it seems to me we all need to know what we’re aiming for so we have at least somewhat harmonious pictures in mind. If we’re commencing a reformation, what will the reformed (or reforming) Seventh-day Adventist church look like? And who gets to decide?

Perhaps the word “reform” doesn’t mean returning to a past ideal. When we speak, for example, of prison reform we don’t mean returning to some time when prisons were better, because prisons in the past weren’t very good. We want to reform them not to some ideal past prison, but according to principles of morality, rehabilitation, safety and correction, and taking into account contemporary circumstances, to make prisons more effective than they’ve been.

We certainly could come up with a list of principles on which we could base a Seventh-day Adventist reformation, but if this forum is any guide they would be too many and too detailed for some, not specific and comprehensive enough for the others. All that we could probably agree on is that we want to be a better church than we have been.

Still, we need to at least talk about a common vision for our reformation. I only hope that our reformed church will still have a place for all of us.

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