One of the greatest problems Jesus faced was how to describe the inter-personal relationships He wanted to build within His earthly Kingdom. The types of connections He envisioned were something that was very foreign to human society. People had never heard about anything like that before.
It reminds me of the book Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot. It is the imaginative story of a world that exists in only two dimensions like lines drawn on a piece of paper. Flatland is inhabited by points, lines, triangles, polygons, squares, and other geometrical shapes. The inhabitants of Flatland have no concept what “up” means.
At some point in the story, the Square is visited by a Stranger who claims to be a three-dimensional sphere. As the Stranger passes through Flatland, the Square can only perceive him as circle. The circle starts very small, gets larger, and then becomes small again, and disappears.
The Square responds by saying,
To me, although I saw the facts before me, the causes were as dark as ever. All that I could comprehend was, that the Circle had made himself smaller and vanished, and that he had now re-appeared and was rapidly making himself larger. When he regained his original size, he heaved a deep sigh; for he perceived by my silence that I had altogether failed to comprehend him.
The difficulty the Sphere faced in trying to explain a three-dimensional world to the two -dimensional Square is somewhat analogous to Jesus’ attempts to explain the Kingdom he was trying to establish to human Flatlanders. The people of His day struggled mightily to understand.
His Kingdom is not simply an enhanced version of the aberrant civilization we call home. The relationships in the Kingdom are to be as different from this world’s culture as three-dimensions are from two.
Jesus dropped a real bombshell when He said, “The relationships in my Kingdom will be modeled after the relationships within the Trinity!” In John 17 Christ prayed, “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21 NIV)
The model for church is the amazingly close relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! The Savior’s statement should continually stretch the minds and hearts of all church leaders and members. It is a goal that we can only keep reaching toward through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Adventist theologian Richard Rice, observes,
The Christian community owes its identity, as well as its origin, to its unique relation to the triune God. God’s activity as Father, Son, and Spirit not only brings the church into existence, the love that characterizes God’s eternal existence imparts to the church its essential character. If this is true, then the cultivation of true community, the development of caring relationships among people in the church, is the most important work of the church’s ministry.
Because the church was brought into existence to reveal the life of the Trinity, its highest priority should be the development of in-depth relationship among its members and with the world. Besides the bible, the most important books in any church pastor’s library should be the best books available on how to develop effective, transformative, relationships.
Larry Crabb observes, “Christianity is about the life of the Trinity released in human community . . . I have come to believe that the root of all our personal and emotional difficulties is a lack of togetherness. Tears without an audience, without someone to hear and care, leave the wound unhealed. When someone listens to our groanings and stays there, we feel something change inside us. Despair seems less necessary; hope begins to stir where before there was only pain.” 
Community building is the Trinity’s most powerful vehicle for changing lives. It is God’s solution to the plague of loneliness and alienation in society at large.
The Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy recently issued a Press Release called the “Surgeon General’s Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” This advisory lays out a framework for the United States to establish a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection. Dr. Murthy writes,
Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health…Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.
We cannot assume that Adventist members are immune from such loneliness. You can be lonely in a crowd. If close, supportive relationships are such an urgent matter for the United States government, it should be an even more urgent matter for the church.
In the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul gives us additional insights into the Trinity’s plan for inter-personal relationships in the church. The main theme of Ephesians is stated in the first half of chapter 1, “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in. Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10 RSV, emphasis supplied).
The expression “fulness of time” refers to the period between the first and second comings of Christ. The Greek word translated “plan” means to administer or manage. Paul, therefore, is stating that now God has revealed to us His plan for the management of the universe. It consists in bringing together all things in Christ. The overarching intention of the Trinity, Their highest goal, is to bring into relational oneness all the discordant elements of the cosmos that have been torn apart by sin.
John R. W. Stott observes, “It would be hard to exaggerate the grandeur of [Paul’s] vision. The new society God has brought into being is nothing short of a new creation, a new human race, whose characteristic is no longer alienation but reconciliation, no longer division and hostility but unity and peace.” 
Paul then talks about a stunning development in his day that illustrated, in the most compelling manner imaginable, the power of the Trinity to accomplish Their plan. The apostle points to the fact that Jews and Gentiles had become united in Christ.
We cannot imagine two groups of people who hated each other more. Deep racial animosities went back for generations. Signs on the outer wall of the Jewish temple warned, “You Gentiles can stand outside of our church and watch from a distance, but if you try to come in we'll kill you” (paraphrased).
Both sides had to overcome mountains of mistrust and forgive all the oppression, rejection, prejudice, and abuse. The situation was not unlike the animosity between Israelites and Palestinians today.
Miraculously, Jews and Gentiles who accepted Christ as Savior were now hugging each other, praying together, studying together, eating together, laughing and crying together, supporting one another in times of difficulty, listening to one another, and sharing their lives together.
For Paul, this thrilling reconciliation was proof that the Trinity’s lofty purposes were becoming a reality.
The wonderful news today is that God raised up the Adventist denomination to play a leading role in creating the kind of Trinity-like communities He has longed to see for centuries. We cannot make the mistake of Old Testament Israel in thinking that we are special or better than other Christians. God has many spiritual giants in other churches. He is actively using any entity He can to accomplish His purposes.
That said, the Savior is looking to Adventists to help lead the way, to be a catalyst, to be in the forefront of developing the kind of extraordinarily loving, accepting, spiritual fellowship that makes it easy for people to understand what the Godhead is really like.
Ellen White makes this very clear, “From the beginning it has been God’s plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and His sufficiency. The members of the church . . . are to show forth His glory. The church is the repository of the riches of the grace of Christ; and through the church will eventually be made manifest . . . the full display of the love of God." 
This is the essence of our mission. The love within Adventist churches is then supposed to spill over and impact the deepest needs of society. God longs for us to become a denomination full of Mother Theresa’s, a denomination overflowing with Martin Luther King Jr’s, a denomination teeming with Nelson Mandela’s, Mahatma Ghandi’s, Greta Thunberg’s, and Malala Yousafzie’s, deeply involved in making a difference in the world because of love.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that our top denominational leaders continue to ignore God’s urgent relational vision. As it is currently structured, the central feature of Adventism is not relationships, it is information. Doctrine is our organization’s DNA. It is the rationale we give for why our denomination even exists – to share doctrinal truth. The General Conference has repeatedly said that the fundamental goal of Adventism is to share the information contained in the Three Angel’s Messages.
What is missing is the fact that the purpose of all doctrine, including the Three Angels' Messages, is to foster loving relationships. Jesus made that clear when He was asked which was the greatest commandment. The Savior replied that the entire Old Testament, all its laws, stories, and exhortations, were given for one overriding purpose, to enable us to love God and others more. (Matt 22:36-40)
Truthful, biblical, information is vital, but it cannot become an end in and of itself. As the apostle Paul stated so eloquently, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1Cor 13:2 NIV)
The bottom line is that our denomination needs to move from what I call the Adventist Information Model to the Biblical Relational Model of church as depicted in the following graphic.
The biblical relational model highly values truth but understands that it is only part of a much larger relational purpose. On the other hand, the Adventist information model encourages friendly relationships but makes understanding and sharing bible truth the ultimate good. Which model we choose has dramatic implications for all aspects of church life, from outreach, to assimilation, nurture, and discipleship.
The biblical relational model says that the primary, overriding, purpose of Adventism is to reveal the love of God to the world. Restricting our role to only sharing biblical truth is to reduce God’s gigantic vision to the size of our own narrow thinking.
It is certainly much easier to focus on facts and information than to love like Jesus loves. Facts come from the head, requiring very little personal investment. Love comes from the heart, requiring deep personal investment. Facts are static. Love is dynamic. Facts can be controlled. Love requires letting go. Facts can be shared at a distance. Love must be shared in person. Facts require no revelation of self. Love requires baring the soul. Facts are cheap. Love is costly.
Jesus endorsed the way of love when He said, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another. (John 13:34-35 NIV)
One of the most unique privileges I had as a pastor was to give Bible studies to a deaf husband and wife. I chose to take one of my church elders along for training purposes. He was known as a supportive, servant-minded man.
The elder and I knew no sign language, so instead we brought reams of paper to write on. The deaf couple was eager to learn, and the messages went back and forth many times during our hour together.
On the fourth night, as we began to leave, the wife motioned for us to remain seated and wait. She disappeared into the kitchen and came back out holding a tray containing four cups of coffee and several delicious looking muffins. As soon as the elder spotted the coffee, he grabbed some paper and began to write furiously. He then passed it to the wife. The big smile on her face suddenly vanished. Tears glistened in her eyes before she turned and hurried back into the kitchen with the tray of goodies.
Puzzled by the sudden tension, I gestured that we would be leaving. In the car, I asked “What on earth did you write?”
He replied, “I just told her that we couldn’t drink the coffee because it was bad for people’s bodies.”
I could barely keep from yelling at him. But later I thought, “How could a normally generous man treat someone that way?” I concluded that in his mind information trumped relationships. It was a very sad example of the kind of fruit that can come from the information model.
In the face of our higher organization’s continued commitment to the Adventist information model, my hope is that local congregations will very intentionally choose to follow the biblical relational model and let their example inspire others in ever widening circles of influence. Perhaps that spark can be used by the Holy Spirit to do something amazing today like He did within the church in the days of the apostles.
To help churches adopt the biblical relational model, I wrote a book about the Trinity and the church called The Team, published by Pacific Press. It explores how the local congregation can reflect the life of the Godhead. I would suggest that church leaders and members study the book together in small group settings and in Sabbath School.
Notes and References:
 Larry Crabb, Connecting (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1997), 95, 99.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 110.
 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), 9.
Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at www.hi54teachers.com, which is currently accepting donations.
Photo by Kim Allan Johnson | Spectrum
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