How much does the present articulation of Adventist eschatology impact the way we understand and organize our church? One might argue that theology and church organization, even if related, are not necessarily very dependent on each other. The soundness of our theological affirmations would be because they are biblical and thus are in no way dependent on what we do practically. Perhaps our organizational structure and efforts are based more on circumstantial, cultural and practical considerations that only afterwards look for a theological justification, in order to appear absolute and definitive. Theology and church organization could be two coexistent and parallel entities which, after all, don’t really influence each other very much.
However, in my opinion, a denomination’s theology and organization are very much dependent on each other, even though their relationship is not directly causal or linear, but rather indirect, contingent and inspirational. Our church organization doesn’t emerge in an ideological vacuum but rather in the theological milieu made of our most deep and intimate eschatological convictions. And our theological convictions, or at least their formulation, are not so neutral, pure and transparent as they appear to be at first sight. Instead they are rather heavily laden with the weight of our historical age, with a strong Western cultural conditioning and a big dose of America’s pragmatic and managerial ethos. It is certainly not a sin to be American, pragmatic and modern. But it could be if we are incapable of admitting it and consider it the only possible present alternative and destiny for a world-wide church like ours.
We have developed a very static and substantialist approach to theology. Adventist theology is certainly not the only possible biblical theology. And understanding this fact, besides corresponding better to the Bible’s inclusive spirit, would also be healthy for Adventism itself. This view is biblical because the Bible is God’s testimony that allows various possible readings. To elevate one’s own biblical interpretation to be the unique one is idolatrous. But this view is also healthy for Adventism because a beneficial, partial dissociation between Adventism and the Bible can help heal us from the detrimental attitude that compulsively pushes us to make absolute and definitive, that which in fact is relative, transitory and circumstantial.
Adventism and the Bible need to be maintained in a closed relationship, as our pioneers have done, but not symbiotically. A symbiotic relationship dishonors the Bible because it diminishes its universality and openness. But it also damages Adventism in perpetuating our biases, contradictions and fears by giving them a biblical endorsement. And we need to remember that a community’s fears, tensions and uncertainties do not always manifest themselves through insecurity and vulnerability, but often through arrogance, unassailable certainty and an exclusive spirit, articulated as unconscious, social defense mechanisms.
As we have been considering in my three previous columns, Adventist Eschatology is modulated and recognizable by some typical traits. First, by the priority of Apocalypticism over Messianism. Second, by the earnest and fervent defense of a programmed and predicted, rather than contingent and open future. And third by the radicalization of a pre-millenialist ethos over and against our surrounding secularized more post-millenialist socio-cultural context. All this has ultimately had a consistent impact on the way we understand our church.
I would like to characterize this impact in three ways: by the reinforcement of an ecclesiastical isolationism, by the radicalization of an ecclesiastical catastrophism, and by the emergence of a homogenizing ecclesiastical authoritarianism. This is what I call the “ecclesiastical imbalance” present today in Adventism. It is produced not by a wrong eschatology, but paradoxically by a correct eschatology, yet one “formulated” a-critically and in defense of a pretended formal orthodoxy.
Isolationism, catastrophism and authoritarianism are three unambiguous trends of today’s Adventism, visible in the majority of our communities throughout the world, present in our official documents, and particularly recurrent in this General Conference presidency’s public addresses. What if these were apocalyptic anti-trinitarian traits we expected to see in others (apostate entities) but paradoxically find expression in ourselves, nurtured by a lack of self-criticism and an excessive trust in our certainty? Nobody is above the risk of incarnating some of the end-time Beast’s idiosyncratic traits. To consider oneself or one’s own community beyond that risk is simply inadequate, even idolatrous.
Official Adventism would like to consider these characteristics as limited, unimportant and completely detached from our deep theological and eschatological convictions. Unfortunately that’s not the case. We certainly can’t and must not change our founding principles. These are not negotiable. But here we need to introduce an important distinction. What’s not negotiable is the existence of our founding theological principles not their formulation. This distinction is crucial because very often it is not the existence of our founding principles themselves but their formulation which is more influential for today’s Adventist ethos. And the formulation we are giving to our present eschatological convictions is not helping us at all to correct the above-mentioned undesirable trends.
The inevitable though not causal reciprocity between eschatology and church organization should push us to consider present circumstances as both as flexible and negotiable. The specific and historical circumstances we are living in today are not a risk for our faith experience, even though we need to read and assess them critically, with the help of the Holy Spirit. They also represent in fact an opportunity to reformulate the non-negotiable founding principles of Adventism in their best and possible articulation. But instead, through a short-sighted theological and religious attitude, we improperly transfer the justified non-negotiability from the founding principles’ existence to their formulation. We then transfer them to the church organization, making absolute and untouchable what should always remain flexible and contextual. The final result is that we maintain rigid and untouchable theological formulations with a comparable church organization. Let’s briefly consider the three characteristics of this ecclesiastical imbalance.
1. Ecclesiastical Isolationism
The predominance of Apocalypticism over Messianism pushes us to accent exclusivity rather than the strong inclusive character of God’s kingdom. And, if God’s kingdom is exclusive like this, the church must follow the same pattern. We try then to protect ourselves from contamination. We look for God’s Salvation in self-purity detached from others. But by proceeding this way we can forget that the essence of Eschatology is its universality and its inclusive character. Consequently no Church can ever be identical to God’s kingdom. That would be blasphemous. There always will be an unbridgeable surplus in God’s kingdom no church can ever fill. For this reason those I’m ignoring or excluding could be part of the same God’s kingdom I’m pretending to instantiate and defend. This is the dramatic paradox of a narcissistic and isolationist church.
2. Ecclesiastical Catastrophism
The radicalization of our pre-millenialist eschatological stand, over and against our surrounding secularized more post-millenialist socio-cultural context, pushes us to read other religious entities and surrounding culture almost exclusively in dramatic and negative terms. Nothing good can be expected from others outside. This ecclesiastical pessimism is correlative to the previous ecclesiastical isolationism because represents its very premise. But by proceeding this way we reintroduce the anthropological dualism our theology had overcome in its ecclesiastical and social form. After this, there are parts of humanity that are completely good (Adventism) and other parts (the “world”) that are completely bad. In addition, this attitude pushes us to build up our strengths by diminishing others. Just the opposite of Jesus himself and of his Kingdom.
3. Ecclesiastical Authoritarianism
Our earnest and fervent defense of a programmed and prophetically predictable, rather than a contingent and open future, pushes us to use preferentially direct and efficient means to reach our eschatological goals and accomplish our end-time mission as quickly as possible. We Adventists are already very pragmatic due to our historical genesis in the United States. And, with this additional eschatological dose of order and precision, we very easily have become fascinated by the efficiency and reliability that ecclesiastical paternalism seems to guarantee. The human exceptions or alternatives become deprecated. These are only distractions. What really matters is rapidity, compactness and results. And here unilateral, authoritarian and even dictatorial measures are needed, and even praised, because they accentuate a results-oriented approach to mission.
This ethos certainly underpins the recent General Conference initiative given to the Unity Oversight Committee, which has blossomed into a network of five compliance review committees, each with a different topic to oversee. Compliance Review Committees have been created for 1) General Conference Core Policies; 2) Doctrines, Policies, Statements, and Guidelines for Church Organizations and Institutions Teaching Creation/Origins; 3) Doctrines, Policies, Statements, and Guidelines Regarding Homosexuality; 4) Distinctive Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; and 5) Doctrines, Policies, Statements and Guidelines Regarding Issues of Ordination.
We might view the quasi-inquisitorial push through these five surveillance commissions as merely some drastic and ill-considered administrative strategies. In fact they are more than that. They are, unfortunately, the administrative expression of unbalanced and unilateral theological and eschatological formulations, which we seem to be unable to correct and balance, because they “belong” to the very doctrinal heart of Adventism. It would be illusory to try to correct only these administrative strategies without also reformulating our theological presuppositions and convictions. Between beliefs and practices, there is much more dependence, reciprocity and conditioning than we usually think.