I always seem to get into this really interesting discussion about criticizing the church. We’re existing in such a space now, when various discussions in the church regarding women’s ordination, the role of social justice, and the limits of unity have led many to disagree with the party line on these matters. In one such conversation, a person argued that a critique of decisions by the General Conference (“GC”) was tantamount to disagreeing with the voice of God. I found this stance interesting, considering that the very person cited in support (Ellen G. White) had herself been critical of the GC on several occasions. I don’t want to go down that well here, but I think it’s important to more fully delineate the idea of criticism and why it is important, but also how to criticize and what we do when we criticize.
I admit it – I have a critical nature. I am more ready to speak out on the negative than the positive. Therefore, much of what you have seen and will see in this space relating to religion and Adventism will be negative in the sense that I will comment more about what I don’t like than what I do. This isn’t because I hate Adventism, it’s because I love Adventism. I want to see it go to positive places, ascend to higher heights. So when I see my church not doing that, I think it is my place to at least attempt to make my voice heard.
Criticism is important. Our church would not be where it is without criticism. You could argue that our church was founded on good and well-meaning criticism. In the aftermath of theology gone wrong, the founders of our denomination did not leave, neither did they throw up their hands in empty bloviating gesticulation. Instead they were critical of themselves and their beliefs. They went back to the Bible in an attempt to discover where they went wrong. That search led them to a better understanding of the Sabbath and the Second Advent, amongst a host of other issues. They decided to preach that message, and the Adventist denomination with all its good works for over 150 years are the results. How was that criticism bad then?
Some have said that we shouldn’t air the church’s dirty laundry, that we should focus more on the positive things the church does. I have two responses to that. One, those who think the church should not air their internal grievances are exhibiting the thought process of a bygone era. Maybe there was a time when that was true. However, we now live in an era where people outside of the church want to see that the church realizes they are an amalgamation of people seeking true answers, as opposed to a conglomeration of people who already know all the answers. In short, people outside the church already know we can be fallible (there’s enough evidence to prove that), and they are looking to see if we know it too. Commenting on our doctrinal differences is a witness to the world that the Adventist Church is a place where you can come to learn the truth, and grow that knowledge in an environment of nurture and support.
To me, patting the church on the back for the positive things it does is like getting excited when we find a father who, contrary to stereotypical gender norms, takes a more active role in raising his young children. That is not extraordinary – a father should be involved in the rearing of his children. Our church gets most doctrines right, does tons of humanitarian work around the world, and has an extensive network of hospitals and schools. Why be overly excited about that? Churches are supposed to do those things! I would expect my church to be getting doctrine right and helping suffering people. I don’t think it’s beneficial to focus on those things over and above the sticking points in our theology and culture. There are tons of other places anyone can go to get that.
That doesn’t mean that all criticism is valid or proper. How we criticize is also important. What you will see from me (hopefully) is criticism of ideas and actions, not of people in and of themselves. You will also never see me criticize people’s faith (i.e., you’re not a good Adventist/Christian unless you believe “x”), and you won’t see me make ad hominem attacks. Those type of statements undercut the legitimate idea I’m trying to express.
Make no mistake – I love my church. A large section of my work both in life and in this space is built around my love for God and my church, and sometimes negative critique is the most positive thing I can do to show that love.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines
Image Credit: Rich Hannon, Spectrum Magazine
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