It has been said that the Lord does not change (Malachi 3:6). Likely this was an overenthusiastic observation by a “spokesperson” untroubled by putting words in God’s mouth. A different writer credited the same God with pledging to “visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5 KJV). But when the people rebelled against the perceived injustice of this edict, God “changed” his mind. Scripture has him renouncing the idea of generational/corporate sins and transferred accountability because a different time demanded change. And with gusto equal to his original pledge, this same God would embrace the merits of individual responsibility, evidently disavowing his previous stance. Ezekiel would ask on God’s behalf (18:2 NIV): “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb: ‘The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’”
Jeremiah would concur with Ezekiel: “People will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.” (Jer. 31:29–30 NIV) While Ezekiel and Jeremiah’s immediate concerns were the shifting demands from group to individual accountability, the underlying premise remains that the God on whose behalf they spoke is dynamic and “changes” with the times. Therefore, the church should take notice and not be over-reliant on ideological precedence, or that its teachings are steeped in tradition or were augmented by Ellen White’s insights. Rather, we should be open to and welcome change as our knowledge increases; for it is only by updating our beliefs based on the truths of our lived experiences that we fortify our future for the generations after us.
The need for reforming our theological positions, as well as our governance system, predates the Wilsons. But Ted Wilson has used the current structure to essentially “bind” the church to his personal beliefs and in the process extend his stay in power. This has made the need for reform even more urgent. With an anticipated exit at the end of his current term as the church’s foremost administrator, Adventism has an opportunity to start imagining a better and more efficient organization. The current system, inherited from our founders, arguably no longer serves the best interests of the church. This essay discusses areas of needed theological reforms; a future column will be devoted to governance improvement.
This is the time to borrow from our past, 1919 Bible Conference-style, and reevaluate some of our 28 Fundamental Beliefs (FB) that have not aged well. I address such reassessment with two goals: 1) salvage those that are salvageable, and 2) jettison those beyond repair. Category #1 should include beliefs that could be modified by taking advantage of what we’ve learned from our history. Consider FB #14 (Unity in the Body of Christ) and FB #18 (The Gift of Prophecy) as two examples of what could be improved.
Properly optimized, the unity statement in FB #14 could exit the quagmire of a discriminatory posture against women who feel called to Adventist ministry. The statement says all the right things: “In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ.” But we fail to live up to these lofty ideals, especially when it concerns the role of women. Some of our leaders have drawn a red line, leaving us to infer, by their opposition to unrestricted ministry, that women are not good enough.
How could we all be equal laborers in the master’s vineyard if our mothers, daughters, sisters, and nieces are redlined, as it were, preventing them from using their God-endowed talents to his highest service? We sow the division we claim to eschew when leaders arbitrarily contrive mechanisms to exclude women from high church offices. This, then, is low-hanging fruit that leadership after Ted Wilson could pick by adopting a gender-neutral ordination policy. In doing this, we honor Paul’s call to universal equality between the sexes, especially in ministry.
Our belief statement about Ellen White (FB #18, The Gift of Prophecy) has always been a parochial position in Christendom. It’s not unlike how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approaches their prophet Joseph Smith. We have paid a heavy price in the eyes of the protestant/evangelical world, including being deemed a cult, because we claim a prophetic role for White in the “remnant church.” For much of our existence, we’ve seemed comfortable viewing her as a prophet because we were confident that her writings—the “lesser” to the Bible’s “greater” light—were God-inspired.
That is, until we learned in the 1970s and ’80s that some of those straight-from-God writings were, in fact, unattributed material from other humans. Knowing what we do now about her writings, we should at least amend FB #18 to include some recognition of her indebtedness. This would humanize her and could actually position her as a better writer, not “just” inspired. And in the process, it could also help absolve the church of being complicit in her excessive prophetic claims. The plagiarism charge has badly damaged White’s image, and the only option the church is left with, I suggest, is to reintroduce her—less as a prophet but more important as the co-founder of Adventism. This would tarnish the halo but still preserve her as founder and leader of the church she dedicated her whole life to.
These examples are only two of our 28 Fundamental Beliefs that could be reworked to better reflect an understanding of what we stand for. But there are several others, as I see it, that no amount of massaging could rescue. The statements in FB #6 (Creation) and FB #24 (Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary) fall squarely in this camp.
The current iteration of our creation statement includes words and phrases added in 2015, under the guidance of GC President Ted Wilson, which mandate the young earth creation viewpoint. They include “authentic . . . historical account,” “recent six-day creation,” “six literal days,” and “same unit of time that we call a week today.” The (over)emphasis on “recent” and “literal” in this statement is intentional but doesn’t derive from the Bible itself. It is done to ward off the potential encroachment of deep time and other evolutionary thinking from our theological discourse.
Some argue that a group can choose to believe whatever it wants, and it is then up to those members who disagree to accept this or leave. But there is a third option: those who disagree could remain and keep causing “good trouble” until there is, in a Christian group like ours, moral clarity about the professed beliefs. This is how people progressed into accepting the proposition that the earth is spherical and not flat, as was widely believed for a very long time. Or that the earth revolves around the sun, not the inverse. We should not, in the 21st century, willingly ignore the overwhelming evidence that our world did not come into existence a mere 6,000 years ago. That view is traced to Bishop Ussher, a 17th-century Anglican clergyman who added up the ages of the initial 21 Old Testament generations, then concluded that God created “heaven and earth” in 4004 BC.
We now know Ussher was irredeemably wrong, as there is scientific near-consensus that this earth is much older than his 6,000 years. And we acquiesce to Ussher, teaching the 6,000-year position in grades K–8. But when our kids get to high school and beyond, their teachers reverse course and treat them as adults, introducing the contemporary scientific understanding that the earth’s age is billions of years.
So, if we can trust our academy and college youth to handle science in our schools, why do we still teach 6,000 years to our elementary students, not to mention parishioners? The answer, I believe, is in how we understand Ellen White. She restated Ussher’s discredited position, though it’s not clear if she did this out of conviction, through supposed divine revelation, or merely following the understanding of her time. Regardless, because White took the 6,000-year position, we seem stuck and unwilling to contradict her, however obvious the error. Thus we maintain a two-tiered position, depending on the audience. The earth is 6,000 years old in pre-high school classrooms and church pulpits but billions of years old in high school and college. Because our higher education venues, together with many informed Adventists, sensibly ignore what FB #6 teaches, isn’t it time we took this albatross off our necks? The world has accepted good evidence. We should not be the last people to admit reality.
And what could we say about our investigative judgment teaching in FB #24? It is now largely a pretend position because, after Glacier View, we no longer actively teach it. Yes, it’s in the books because it was our original raison d’être, which our 19th-century founders saw as a way out of the Great Disappointment, and also because Ellen White advanced it. This is a position that has now lost its salience. But the seeds for its demise were sown almost 15 decades ago at the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference Session. There we accepted the gospel truth that we are justified by faith alone. And the laws—both ceremonial and moral—have no salvific function. Since then, we’ve seesawed between the primacy of justification and sanctification, depending on the theological bent of church leaders. Progressive-leaning leaders, admittedly few and far between, tended to favor justification; conservatives have emphasized sanctification and the law.
The investigative judgment idea is a throwback to our pre-1888 fascination with legal obedience. If we kept the law as perfectly as possible, we are assured of salvation. Hence the need for books in heaven with records of our behavior, a balance sheet showing good deeds on one side and bad on the other. It is this ledger that Christ has supposedly been examining since October 22, 1844, to determine our individual fates. A tipping point on the goodness scale thus determines whether we’re saved or lost. The implication is that we each work out our own salvation through good deeds, which invariably comes by submission to the law.
It is this attempt to save oneself by good behavior, much more than flawed assumptions about Daniel 8:14, that Desmond Ford objected to. The investigative judgment is a bad idea on many grounds, but the worst is that it keeps adherents perpetually unsure of their salvation, as Christ’s “It is finished” declaration is not really believed. No wonder that only within Adventism is Christ waiting on humans to attain perfection before ushering in the second coming. Such thinking embodies a spiritual poverty that can disappear if we can retire the investigative judgment doctrine.
Change is hard for most of us, but stasis of ideas only breeds irrelevance. It takes moral strength to acknowledge that one has been wrong. And we have been wrong on some things in our past and should recognize this and reject them in order to go forward. Are our leaders today, unlike those who met for six weeks in 1919 to grapple with difficult questions but failed to act, up to the challenge? They need to be, because we now know better. And when we know better, we should do better.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.
Image Credit: Photo by Rachel Strong on Unsplash
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