In recent years, there has been an increased use of “threat” language in Adventist circles. This seems to be in response to what are regarded as ungodly and worldly teachings permeating our faith community. Of course, the list of threats is not only subjective but often contentious. Out of this we are deeply divided and visibly polarized on various theological issues. Many of the questions that confront Adventism today go to the core of our identity. They touch on familiar topics, such as church governance, biblical interpretation, the role of Ellen White’s writings, apocalypticism, gender equality, and the inclusion of sexual minorities. One thing positive is that we all love the Bible, even though we disagree on how we interpret it. Even in conservative contexts, it is Adventists who are increasingly and openly critical of Adventism! But, as people who inherited an argumentative approach to interpreting Scripture, we prefer certainty over ambiguity, which makes it difficult to confess that we have no answer. In a world that is changing in unprecedented ways, we find it safer to be suspicious of what we don’t understand or dismissive about anything new. Tradition has become our hiding place; in defending it we find it easier to blame contemporary culture (often labelled as worldliness) for decreased religious interest or our failure to be effective in mission.
Faced by deep divisions and polarization internally, we find ourselves coalescing around those who think like us while painting others as enemies. Labels like conservative, traditional, liberal, and progressive have become tools to sift who we allow in our pulpits. It’s very saddening to notice how views at various levels of the church are no longer evaluated on their merits but by who their proponent is. The same goes with church elections where persons representing certain views are “prayerfully” propelled into leadership positions to serve as vanguards of what is regarded as true Adventism. Notice the applause that comes after such voting processes in our business meetings. It is not the outcome of the voting as much as the applause and jubilation that expose this as more political than spiritual. Consequently, in becoming more alienated over theological issues, we end up investing more energy in winning political battles and control.
Victims of Groupthink
Sadly, this has degenerated into a habit of othering those who hold views that differ from ours. Our desire is now more for group consensus than to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion. The need for group cohesion inevitably drives out good decision-making, resulting in loss of individual creativity and blind conformity. I am sure many readers have been in situations where they thought about speaking up in a church meeting and then decided against it because they did not want to appear unsupportive of the group's efforts. Social psychologist Irving Janis, in his classic 1972 study Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos, aptly captures this experience as “the mode of thinking individuals engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”
However, what is more insidious about groupthink in a church is that after a few successes, there emerges a belief that any decision made is the right one because there is no disagreement from any source. While it is normal to celebrate uniformity, the danger is when we begin to see outsiders as possessing a different and inferior set of morals and characteristics from ours. These perceived negative characteristics are then used to discredit those who oppose. With groupthink, church members convince themselves that despite evidence to the contrary, the decision or alternative being presented is the best one. Who am I, they wonder, to disagree with the wisdom of the wider body? Even when a member expresses an opposing opinion or questions the rationale behind a decision, the rest of the group members work together to pressure or penalize that person into compliance.
At a local church, members make decisions or choices based on how they think the group will respond in order to maintain harmony in the system. To avoid the discomfort that comes with tension and disagreement, many are okay living with a superficial sense of connection. This level of harmony should not be confused with health, because members are just hapless victims of groupthink. The few courageous ones who decide to break ranks and speak out are then labelled as threats. They will inevitably be pushed out, and it is the threat of rejection that is terrifying. This can translate to loss of friendships, spiritual security, and group identity, which no one wants to lose. Because conformity is often rewarded, many would rather sacrifice their convictions to secure inclusion and acceptance.
I have seen many Adventists who are not happy with the status quo but, because unity is often weaponized, would rather stay silent. When threatened, a group will exert energy in defending this faux harmony and trumpeting displays of solidarity without really dealing with the issues raised. Our meetings are reduced to praising the group or system and celebrating being part of it. While this looks okay on the surface, it inevitably leads to zero tolerance for questioning—a system that sees those who raise questions as undermining unity and being unnecessarily divisive. Those who dare ask are quickly othered, which means survival is only guaranteed by silence. The church becomes a system that treats boundaries as covert methods of control and coercion. In the name of preserving false unity to avoid tension of disharmony, many held hostage by such systems are unable to honor their thoughts and feelings.
Groupthink also thrives when there is a strong, persuasive group leader whose views often carry the day. Without realizing it, we create mega-saints whose charisma and charm gives them greater influence in our churches. As long as we allow the church to be run on individual initiatives, we become vulnerable to manipulation in the name of loyalty to an individual. Criticizing these leaders becomes akin to an attack on God, which results in the church being held hostage to the whims and urges of an individual who might be replaced tomorrow. Rather than having corporately defined vision and priorities, we end up rallying behind what the revered leader deems important. Because their appointment was political, they prioritize painting political opponents and critics as anti-establishment, which then perpetuates groupthink.
The Othering Pandemic
Othering in Adventism often occurs when some individuals are defined and labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a church group. It influences how people perceive and treat those who are viewed as being part of the in-group versus those who are seen as being part of the out-group. Othering also involves attributing negative characteristics to people or groups that differentiate them from the perceived normative social group. This leads to looking at others and saying, "They are not like me," or, "They are not one of us," which plays a role in the formation of prejudices against people and groups.
Where belonging implies acceptance and inclusion of all people, othering suggests intolerance and exclusion. It becomes the greatest threat to a church community as it sees diversity of thought and expression not as a resource but as something to be fought. In the name of harmony and in the interest of group cohesion, it becomes common for individuals to be excluded or denied opportunities to serve because their views represent a threat to this faux harmony. The subtle forms of conscience control we have instituted will only breed resentment in the long term. It is by othering those whose views challenge the conventional position that we lose opportunities to grow.
Where Do We Go?
The starting point for a church group is to acknowledge the diversity within its ranks as an asset rather than risk or threat. The vision of church unity and harmony should not be used to consolidate uniformity or stifle questions but rather to cultivate a community that thrives because of its diversity and differences of opinions. The only viable solution to the problem of othering is one involving inclusion and belonging. The most important good we distribute to each other in society is membership. Belonging entails an unwavering commitment to not only tolerating and respecting differences but to ensuring that all people are welcome and feel that they belong in the church. Differences of opinions will always exist, even on issues we consider fundamental. The key is to learn to separate the person from the point, not allowing someone’s views over a theological issues to influence how we treat them. Just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean we are enemies. There is need to desist from the rhetoric that paints those holding different views as embodiments of the things we call threats. This leads to deep polarization and division, the careless use of labels as we are quick to other those who do not conform to our way of thinking. The worst we can do is to regard ourselves as more Adventist than everyone else.
Given these concerns, I am asking myself and readers:
How long are we going to allow differences over theological questions alienate us and turn us into foes?
How long are we going to continue finding it easy to enter into theological debates than into the suffering of others?
How long are we going to avoid defining what is core to Adventism so that we can accommodate multiple expressions of Adventism?
How long are we going to allow leaders to treat us like a political constituency whose utility is merely in voting rather than holding them accountable?
How long are we going to regard as problems those who stand up against certain issues instead of focusing on the issues themselves?
How long are we going to be content with criticizing other religious groups but not ourselves?
On a practical note, we need ideas on how to prevent groupthink, which could include: the introduction of multiple channels for dissent in decision making, mechanisms to preserve the openness and heterogeneity of a group, and mechanisms to minimize the creation of mega-saints. I believe we have reached a point where, as Ellen White put it, we should encourage rather than penalize people for applying their minds. “Some need to discipline the mind by exercise. They should force it to think” (Testimonies, vol. 2, 188).
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana, where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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