It appears that significant hostility toward Roman Catholicism lurks just beneath the surface of respectability among those of us who consider ourselves to be less traditional and more progressive Seventh-day Adventists. It also seems that we easily exploit these negative feelings when we want people to do what we believe they should.
Even if only because SDAs and Catholics interact so much in educational and health care settings, we should give this some attention. On the one hand, many students in our colleges and universities are Roman Catholics. So are many patients, clinicians, and administrators in our medical centers. On the other hand, quite a few of our university students study on Roman Catholic campuses. Also, many SDAs have been or now are patients, clinicians, and administrators in Catholic health care facilities.
This is not surprising because today Roman Catholicism is serving 1/6 of all the patients in the United States. Some say that Roman Catholicism manages 26% of all the health care facilities in the world. I have not mentioned Adventist and Catholic “joint ventures” in health care because there is some uneasiness about them in both denominations.
Adventist roots run deep in anti-Catholic soil. Two thick layers of it are theological and liturgical; however, other layers of it are historical, sociological, cultural, political, ethnic, and economic. Our difference in size, with 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and 20 million Adventists around the world, is another important layer. We need not excavate these layers in this discussion because they are well known and because they should make no difference in how Adventism and Roman Catholicism relate to each other.
Do we believe that Roman Catholicism is the “beast” of Revelation 13? The best answer to this question is the accurate one. It is that most of us around the world believe that this is what John the Revelator had in mind but many others of us don’t. Either way, despite our differences on this, from the beginning we SDAs have also thought of the “beast” as a fitting image for any coercive combination of religious and political power. Our denomination’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs do not mention Roman Catholicism. We all know that many others will vastly outnumber us in the Kingdom of God. Many of this much greater number will not have even heard of Jesus Christ but, as we often put it, they will have “lived up to the light they had.”
Many of us are SDAs by chance and by choice and most of us who are will always be Adventists inwardly even if we “leave” the denomination outwardly. Although we reject Roman Catholicism, we should be able to applaud it for its many contributions to human wellbeing. A baseball team can win a game even if the other team makes many points. Also, the winning and losing teams in close games often thank and congratulate each other for playing a closely contested game. The same is true in church membership. We Adventists do not need to have all the theological and liturgical points in order to justify our denominational choice.
Why, then, do we so often shoot arrows named “Catholic” or “Congregational” at church structures we don’t like? If we would add to our quiver another arrow named “Presbyterian” and use lower case letters, we would have the three primary ways Christians have organized themselves over the centuries. They respectively give the most power to bishops, congregations, and elders. There is nothing inherently bad or necessarily wrong about any of them. Everything depends upon the Christian group’s setting, history, self-understanding, resources, and mission.
Our church structure has served us well since 1901; however, rapid and diverse growth are decreasing its effectiveness. We are, therefore, experiencing increasing tensions between those who honestly believe that the denomination can meet the needs of the current situation only by becoming much more centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian on the one hand, and those who honestly believe that it can succeed only by becoming much less of all three.
This is a legitimate issue which we should openly and thoughtfully discuss. We are having too few of these discussions for at least two reasons. To use an analogy from science, one of them is that we are spending too much time discussing issues within administrative paradigms rather than among them. A second problem is that we are not encouraging people openly to make cases for the three basic options, or some combination of or alternative to them.
I fear that those of us who think of ourselves as less traditional and more progressive are no more likely to encourage such freedom of thought and expression than others. This because we are certain that centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian church structures are evil. We don’t put it this way. We instead signal that they are Roman Catholic and all adult and mentally alert Adventists get the message.
Adventism will never become Roman Catholicism and we shouldn’t scare each other into thinking that it might. Even if we were to become much more centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian than we already are, the most important theological and liturgical differences between us and Roman Catholicism would remain and this is what matters to most of us.
Few of us care what form of church government we have as long as it works. We do care about what we believe and how we worship. We don’t want to arrive at church some Sabbath morning and encounter a baptismal pedestal at the entrance, confessional booths lining the sides, and icons at the front where priests are preparing to perform a Mass. This isn’t going to happen!
Ours is the only denomination which is trying to have a single global denomination which is not centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian. In every other case, denominations have had to choose between centralization and decentralization. Roman Catholicism is sticking with the first option but virtually all Protestants have chosen the second alternative. This is why there are many different Lutheran, Calvinist, and Wesleyan denominations which try to cooperate without losing their independence. It is the same in other theological traditions.
It would be easier for those of us who are Adventist to choose either air or water than to choose either centralization or decentralization because either way we die. This means that we have no choice but to try to accomplish what no other large denomination in the entire history of Christianity has been able to do. This is to develop a continuingly revising mix of centralization and decentralization which is sensitive and subtle enough to adapt to changes within and around us.
If this were easy, every other Christian denomination would have done it. The odds are against our success. We deceive ourselves if we think that we can succeed where everyone else has failed because we are superior in some way. Although successfully establishing an effective and self-correcting mix of centralization and decentralization is improbable, it is possible if we collaborate with each other and with the Holy Spirit; however, our recent success at this is limited.
This should make us much more sympathetic to both the episcopal and congregational ways Christians have organized themselves over the centuries as well as to the presbyterian option. We should disparage none of them. We should also be hesitant to arouse and appeal to our negative feelings about any of these alternatives in order to advance our own causes.
Dr. David Larson is Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University.
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