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One Big Tent or Many Little Camps?


Our church has had some major disagreements. We've disagreed on the bounds of academic freedom, had vigorous debates on the role of women, had protracted discourses about race relations, and fervent volleys regarding homosexuality. There have been heated and passionate pleas among all those involved in these conversations. People quote texts and cite personal experience. People get upset, some cry, or even leave. Some become persuaded, some have changes of heart, some become champions for positions they previously disdained. Yet through all the back and forth, it was clear that we all were representatives of different perspectives within one faith. Yes, there were those who screamed, "If you don't agree with me, then get out!" True, there are the diehards convinced that there's only one way to be Christian (much less Adventist). But, for the most part, except for the most extreme on the fringes, the majority of people actually do understand that you can have different opinions and not be mortal enemies. Our faith is a Big Tent covering a multitude of viewpoints. We share a foundation in belief of the most basic things. Right?

Lately, I'm not so sure. Are we really one church with multiple perspectives or are we really separate churches? Because the presupposition that we all share the same bedrock beliefs seems not to be as certain anymore. Not the ever increasing list of fundamental beliefs on the church website. I mean even more basic. Like the understanding of good and evil. While it's true that we have different outlooks, wouldn't you think we'd all be able to agree about whether certain basic things fall within or outside the bounds of Christian behavior? I'm not talking about the actions of those conflicted about their decisions. I don't mean someone who is cyclically messing up and repenting. I'm talking about brazen actions such as displaying unabashed contempt for other human beings; unapologetic discrimination; unashamed pettiness; and unrepentant instigation of violence.

For those of you outside of the US, you may or may not have heard about a little election happening here soon. And unfortunately, actions such as those described here have been regular occurrences in the discourse of some involved. But aren't these things we should all be able to agree are not Christian ideals?

No one is perfect. That is why we also ask forgiveness for sins. It’s another core Christian belief. So as 1 John 1 plainly states, when someone says they are without sin, they are lying—they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them. I want us to think about that. The very heart of Christianity is admitting that we have all fallen short. To claim you don’t need forgiveness is diametrically opposed to the most fundamental of all Christian doctrines. And yet I hear and see fellow Christians (pastors included!) performing mental contortions to excuse away behavior that—by any measure—is antithetical to Christianity.

I have a problem with people using our Lord's Name in vain. That no-no is right up there in the top 10—even before our beloved #4! And when you call yourself a Christian solely to score points with others, and meanwhile espouse absolutely no teachings of Christ—when you instead, repeatedly, unremorsefully, and purposefully engage in behavior that is the polar opposite of Christ's teachings—then that's taking the Lord's Name in vain! But even more upsetting is when I witness ministers making up all manner of excuses to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance they are faced with when they not only support those who commit this sort of affront, but moreover, they claim it is indeed reflective of Christian behavior!

Again, I cannot reiterate enough that God gives restoration when we fall. God is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And we repeatedly fall. And we get back up. We also don't judge hearts which we cannot see. But we do examine fruit—the actions that reveal the heart. And we are discerning about words, because out of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). We never dare claim to know if someone is headed for salvation or damnation: we can't label if a person is a wheat or a tare. But we do call out inappropriate actions and speech to label them what they are. If they are hateful, if they are scornful, if they are of ill-report, these things are not born from the spirit of God.

Listen, if you're going to say that others' religious preferences are not important in your consideration of who you support, that's fine. That's honest. But don't try to shoehorn anti-Christian behavior into a faithful box. That attempt causes you to lose your credibility to speak to the importance of accountability. Yes, God says not to judge. But it is an unfaithful interpretation to insinuate that this suggests we should turn a blind eye to evil and/or call it good. Of course, that presupposes we all have the same understanding of what good and evil look like. And we can all agree on that…Can't we?


Courtney Ray is a native New Yorker who ministers in the Greater Los Angeles Region. She is a PhD clinical psychologist and ordained pastor serving in Southern California Conference.

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