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Why We’ve Never Quite Been Part of the Community

I’m on a plane, sitting next to someone who (it eventually comes out in conversation) is also a clergyman. I’m glad he doesn’t stumble around for my identity, like some lay questioners would, confusing our church with Latter Day Saints or Jehovah’s Witnesses. But he does ask me a question you and I hear frequently when someone learns our denominational affiliation: “What do you Seventh-day Adventists believe?”

I have friends who would first volunteer our distinctive doctrines, even some of our marginal ones. I have always felt that our most important beliefs have to do with Christ and salvation, which we happen to have in common with other Protestant Christians. Only then do I mention our day of worship and our belief in the 2nd coming.

The other pastor correctly points out that the 2nd coming of Christ, if it was ever a belief unique to us, no longer is. While not convinced about Sabbatarianism, neither is he alarmed by it, noting that both Saturday Sabbatarianism and Calvinist Sunday Sabbatarianism have a long history.

But why, he asks, do you Seventh-day Adventists seem so isolated from other Christians? If most of your fundamental beliefs could be affirmed by any orthodox Christian, and if the remaining are benign (even if thought unimportant by other Christians), why do you stand apart from the rest of the Christian community, gathered on your own little hill in the distance, with a fence around it?

The answers, I believe, are rooted in our history. Those who survived The Great Disappointment felt rejected, and when they established a new denomination they brought a psychology of disappointment with them. They grew exclusive and oppositional (stories of evangelists offering to debate any other clergyman in town on the subject of the Sabbath come to mind) and asserted that only Sabbathkeepers would be saved. Elevating Ellen White’s contributions to the level of the Bible (which I still believe was not her intention) became another barrier.

That may be the genesis of it, but how is that “peculiar people” identity kept so strong from generation to generation, such that someone who leaves the church disappears from our lives almost instantly, and those who join the church lose touch with their family and friends outside of it just as quickly? There are probably several reasons, but I’d suggest three practical ones: food, time, and personal appearance.

The first instance when I had to define myself against my community was my first day of the first grade in the Gackle (North Dakota) Public School. My mother had rehearsed me to say, as I went through the hot lunch line, “I’m a Seventh-day Adventist, and I can’t eat pork. Is there any in the food today?” One of the broad-hipped old German lunch ladies had Adventist relatives, and after asking me who I was (we all knew one another’s families—many of us were related in some way), and chuckling at such a little guy giving such a big speech, assured me she’d always warn me.

I wasn’t a ball player, but I do remember having to explain to my band teacher that I wouldn’t be there to play for the pep rally and basketball game on Friday night because that was the beginning of my Sabbath. The teacher looked puzzled, and said, “Why don’t you just ask your priest to give you permission?” I had to explain (with a little embarrassment—I was a teenager) that it didn’t work that way.

As for appearance, that was not as big a factor for Adventist males as it was for females, who back in my childhood did without jewelry (including wedding rings), makeup, and hair color (at least that anyone would admit.) The stated reason was vanity, though I wonder if there isn’t something about maintaining control over the dangerous female sex encoded here.

I’m not evaluating the spiritual importance of these particular mores, but just pointing out that if you’re looking for ways to effectively separate yourself from others, having religious expectations around food, time, and appearance is crucial. Look across the religious world, and you will find that these markers separate Christians from Muslims from Jews, Catholics from Protestants, Hindus from Buddhists—almost every religion from every other. Visibles and doables are essential in passing along a group’s attitude toward the world. You can tell the members of your group that we are special, different from and perhaps even better than everyone else, but it is the practices that keep that identity charged from one generation to the next.

Even those who have but a dim understanding of why they do what they do still sense the distinguishing power of these practices. I’m surprised at how much of their spiritual life some will hang on things that aren’t really central to our faith. “It’s true that I haven’t had anything to do with the church for 40 years, pastor. But I want to assure you that I’ve never eaten pork!”

Food, time, and appearance divide both ways. That is, they pull us away from others, but can also keep them away from us. I asked a friend who’s a president of an Adventist college why, when Christian liberal arts colleges have had their strongest growth in the past decade, Adventist schools haven’t. “We get some interest from other conservative Christian students,” he said. “But we lose them on two points: the unusual weekend schedule, and the vegetarian cafeteria.”

The important thing, it seems to me, is not how habitual these mores are, but what values they communicate. They require occasional reexamination, because their meanings change. Wearing a wedding ring means something different than it used to, a distinction Ellen White recognized for different cultures of her day. Hair coloring, makeup, and earrings don’t mean now what we’re told they meant in Ellen White’s lifetime, either. We have a great health principle in vegetarianism, but the distinction between a pork chop and a beef steak on your plate really doesn’t say much of substance about good health, if it ever did. And I have a suspicion that even the Sabbath has, for many Adventists today, less of the eschatological significance that defined it at the church’s beginning, and more to do with lifestyle.

At some point, given cultural mores can cease to say anything significant, except that I’m different from you. Is that enough? For those who believe different and separate is better, and care to look no farther, perhaps it is. But I’d like my life practices to convey a bit more than that, to say something true about God other than that God has very particular, demanding tastes in food, apparel, and weekend activities.

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