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Whose Christianity?


On Monday, President Barack Obama was publicly sworn in for his second term as president of the United States. Every inauguration is celebrated as a testament to the peaceful transition (or in this case continuation) of power and to the democratic system. For me and many others, the luster of the festivities was tarnished by a tweet from Pastor Mark Driscoll, a Calvinist pastor who is popular in conservative evangelical circles. On the morning of the inauguration Driscoll tweeted, “Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.” Although he removed the tweet shortly thereafter, the damage had already been done. A day normally filled with bipartisanship, excitement, and well wishes was momentarily (even if insignificantly) sidetracked for many by one pastor’s self-righteous judgment. Unfortunately a parallel example exists in Adventism. In a recent article in the Adventist Review, the author described President Obama as, “a self-professed Christian with a Muslim-influenced upbringing…” While this is certainly not as explicit a statement as the one given by Pastor Driscoll, it accomplishes the same goal. To describe President Obama as a “self-professed Christian” implies that at the very least the author does not think of President Obama as an actual Christian.[1] I find these types of statements particularly troubling. I am an Adventist, who I am sure says and believes things that are not in keeping with this author’s view of Adventism.[2] I have wondered this week if this author would call me a “self-professed Adventist.”

There are two problems with Christians (and Adventists of course) making these kinds of statements, opining on the status of another’s relationship with God or loyalty to a particular faith tradition. The first is the issue of judging. Jesus clearly states, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”[3]I do not think that this verse means that we can never deem another person’s actions right or wrong. However, I do think that when we use another person’s actions in order to judge their relationship with Christ (as in to say that it is likely that someone does not know God or that someone is just a self-professed Christian) we cross an unacceptable line. Moreover as Adventists we should be especially careful when making theological pronouncements about who may be in or out of Christendom. Adventism did not gain theological acceptance from the broader Christian community until the late 1950s.[4]I have not so fond memories of having to explain why my church was not a cult in high school and college. It was not so long ago that Adventists were considered “self-professed Christians.” We would do well to remember that before we cast such labels onto others.

The second problem with making such statements is our inability to make proper judgments. I assume that Pastor Driscoll made such statements about President Obama because of the President’s policies on such moral issues as abortion and gay marriage. Pastor Driscoll feels that because the President does not hold the positions that Pastor Driscoll believes are biblically based on these issues, then the President does not believe in the Bible and likely does not know God. It is at least possible that these things are true. However, it is just as likely that the President’s relationship with God and belief in the Bible has led him to the positions that he holds. There are literally millions of Christians who hold the same positions President Obama holds because of their faith, not in absence of it. As right as Pastor Driscoll thinks he may be, the truth remains that “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”[5] Until Pastor Driscoll, or anyone of us for that matter, devises a way to know the heart of another human being, we all should probably refrain from determinative statements about who does and does not know God.

Finally, this issue has repercussions for where we are today in Adventist culture. Over the course of the last year, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the issue of unity in the Adventist church.[6] Contrary to the beliefs of some, unity is not uniformity. We do not all have to believe the exact same thing in order to be unified as Adventists, or even as Christians. True unity comes when we are able to find a way to coexist and truly love each other despite the fact that some of us may feel differently about various points of doctrine. It is a harder goal to accomplish, but infinitely more rewarding in the end. While the way to the seemingly illusive goal of unity is unsure, the path we should avoid is clear. There is no way to be unified if we assume that someone does not know God simply because they do not think like us.

[1] Not to be circular but just to close the argument – If the author himself thought of President Obama as a Christian, I doubt that he would have felt the need to emphasize that the President thinks of himself as such. He probably would just call him a Christian. It is possible that the author is merely reporting the debate over Obama’s religious status amongst others but not himself. Even if that is the case the issue is still clumsily handled.

[2] Furthermore, I assume that I say and believe things that are not keeping with anyone else’s view of Adventism but my own, and I assume the same for every other Adventist. Those are the idiosyncrasies of being an individual.

[4] Walter Martin, an evangelical pastor, published a series of articles in 1956 concluding that Adventism is a legitimate Christian denomination, despite having some unique doctrines. These articles were expanded and published as the book The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism in 1960.

[6] Please see Spectrum’s extensive coverage of the issue of women’s ordination, including my more detailed discussion of unity.

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