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A Call for Historical Adventism (It’s Not What You Think)

Adventists Past and Present

The last week before I graduated from a public law school, I met the only other Adventist at a small social gathering. We both couldn’t stop smiling as we asked ourselves how we’d shared classroom space for the past three years but had never known. That Sabbath, I attended her church—one that I’d heard of for the first time the day before. As I entered the sanctuary, I was greeted with unconditional love. I’d struggled to find a church home in my college town, and it was hard not to wonder what could have been. 

But, as I was later informed, the situation was complicated. The reason that I never heard of her church was because our denomination still practices segregation, and most of the people at her church were Black. As I drove home, back to a part of town where more people looked like me, I had to face the reality that while Jesus might have torn down the dividing wall, modern Christianity preferred to stay on their respective sides.

But my thoughts were dismissed as naïve. Repeatedly, I was told that such an issue is too complicated for church leadership. Never mind that one day we will judge angels—our ability to work together as siblings in our belief in Jesus breaks down when we intersect with modern Christianity’s regressive approach to race relations. Culture, perhaps, is stronger than our love for God.

Where is the church that once took a strong stand in support of abolition and the idea that all humans deserved dignity? Where is the church that fought against false, dehumanizing Christianity throughout the 1800s? When mainstream Christianity decided that racism, warfare, and forced Sunday observance were hills to die on, Adventists opposed slavery at great personal risk, helped define non-combatants as a legitimate class, and condemned the hypocrisy of a Sunday law in the very halls of congress. 

But somewhere along the way, we changed our tune. Like the Israelites of old, we rejected the Lord in order to be like the other churches. 

As Adventists, we brand the Protestant churches as Babylon. “Come out of her, my people!” is our bold proclamation. Most of us believe that the mark of the beast—the identifying trait of those who follow the devil at the end of time—will have something to do with evangelical Protestantism legislating their beliefs into law. But as Evangelicalism lobbies politicians to enforce their views on the general public in the form of laws against teaching Black history, laws restricting reproductive rights, and laws restricting self-expression of queer people, Adventism proudly unites with them. We turn a blind eye to the way far-right money influences other countries to pass regressive, theocratic laws. It appears that we’re okay with legislating morality, as long as it does not conflict with our personal beliefs.

But it’s not just in the legal sphere that we’ve abandoned the roots of Adventism. We’ve allowed the self-hatred from Evangelical Christianity to seep into our churches. The things that make us unique human beings become treated as objects of disgust. People who are different are often pushed to the side simply because church members are afraid that difference will displease God. The evangelical church has married itself to restrictive dogma, teaching women that they are responsible for men’s moral failings, leading to abuse and unwarranted guilt; this too has become an Adventist doctrine. The two sides of the prosperity gospel coin have been used to remove our last vestiges of empathy: “God gives me good things because I am good” or “God gives me good things because I suffer.” 

Even in liberal Adventist churches, the shame and self-loathing from evangelicalism’s core tenets are palpable. We hesitate to stand up against this type of religion, simply because we supposedly worship the same god.

But we don’t believe in the evangelical god. Charitably, this god extracts unimaginable pain in a never-ending torture chamber from those who reject him—worse, some believe that an unlucky majority of humanity was created for divine sport. To believe this madness without driving oneself insane, one cannot love. Believers must reject empathy and teach themselves that others deservesuffering. Therefore, they change the definitions of love and forgiveness and turn religion into a weapon. Phrases such as “there’s no hate like Christian love” become popular—and hard to rebut.

As Adventists, we believe in a different kind of God. We do not serve a God who delights in torture. Instead, we serve a God who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).” We no longer need to cut pieces from ourselves until we become the shape that God wants to love. Instead, we recognize that the Bible is a story of how, through the ages, God has collaborated with imperfect people to do perfect things. Our “distinct” doctrines should make us stand out from the callousness of cultural Christianity.

Now it’s time to act like we believe something different. In a world where therapy and self-actualization have become popular, it’s time to frame our religion in a progressive light. We must tell others that not only do we support their same goals of self-improvement, but that we have supernatural help at our disposal. 

There are three things we as a church must get right if we want to make Adventism relevant to an increasingly secular world. In ancient Israel, the people began to mimic the oppressive behaviors popular at the time, while attempting to appease God by engaging in rituals that carried the appearance of piety. God sent his prophets to rebuke their continued oppression cloaked in religion. Without rejecting self-serving cultural practices that harm people, the rituals of religion are moot. “The Lord God has told us what is right and what he demands” (Micah 6:8).

“See that justice is done”

Our church, once again, needs to fight for social justice. In a society where capitalism has pushed people to their breaking point, the Bible teaches that there remains one day where we can rest, find community, and be valued not for what we produce but because we exist. This is the message our world is looking for. But to proclaim it, we must first look within and end segregation in the Adventist church, whatever it takes. Then we must stand in opposition to evangelicalism’s attempts to force its religion into the political sphere. Though there remains space within private discourse to change people’s minds about religious issues, Christianity should never be forced. 

“Make mercy your first concern”

When we’re faced with a choice between abandoning someone and abandoning our beliefs, we should question our beliefs first and ask why they’re telling us to abandon someone. Often, it’s zeal for our own social standing that tells us to cruelly exclude people without reason. God commands us to give all people the benefit of the doubt and show unconditional kindness even to those whom we believe to be dead wrong. Even further, we must be open to the fact that we may be wrong ourselves. Our love may be the only way people ever get to see Jesus. Let it be full of mercy.

“Humbly obey your God”

In a misguided attempt to push back against the misuse of rules and regulations in the Adventist church, Adventists have increasingly avoided our core doctrines. But we must preach our traditional beliefs with newfound fervor, as they offer the much-needed hope that people are searching for: In a male-dominated world, God sent a woman to lead his church. The rituals of the Old Testament Sanctuary illustrate that we can have a complete divorce from the habits we hate. When we inevitably mess up, we can remain confident, because God is not a monster who tortures humanity. Instead, he lovingly set aside the last day of the week for us to rest, reflect, and remember what it means to be human. And in the near future, God Himself will arrive on this planet to help us win the final victory over injustice and death.

That is a Christianity that we can be proud of. That is the good news this world desperately needs. It’s time to embrace it. 

About the author

Caleb Howard is a lawyer passionate about civil rights and giving people another chance at life. He has an undergraduate degree from Southern Adventist University and a law degree from The University of Alabama. In his spare time, he hosts the Redemption Arc podcast to show that Bible stories are freeing and empowering. More from Caleb Howard.
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