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The Slow Death of Adventist Sectarianism


I cannot write a column about bioethics, Adventism, and Adventist healthcare this week without referring to the massacre in Orlando, Florida. I have often said I can find an ethics issue behind every bush. It is not hard to find one here. Fear and hatred appear to have taken hold in my United States in ways that I do not recall as a youngster. The demonization of Others is so prevalent and acceptable that national leaders gain followers by appealing to it. The embrace of violence in American culture combines with a supposed liberty to own any gun we wish, to deadly effect. In the wake of such murderous events as the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub, we tiptoe around the issues as if we are powerless to make changes. What happened to the America that made decisive, pragmatic advancements to our society? And what happened to the Christians within this mixed-up, pluralistic experiment who functioned, as Jesus said, as the salt of the earth.

How are we Adventists the "salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth," as The Message paraphrase puts it? What has our posturing, and preaching done for the Others who were attacked in Orlando? Unless your head is stuck in the sand, you know that our Church has formally rejected persons of same sex orientation. We say, of course, that we love them because we love all people, but the official position statement makes it clear that we reject their presence among us as members. Our General Conference, just over two years ago, approved a statement at Spring Council entitled, "Responding to Changing Cultural Attitudes Regarding Homosexual and Other Alternative Sexual Practices." Within this statement we read: "It is inconsistent with the Church's understanding of scriptural teaching to admit into or maintain in membership persons practicing sexual behaviors incompatible with biblical teachings. Neither is it acceptable for Adventist pastors or churches to provide wedding services or facilities for same sex couples.” Yet I have held membership in Adventist Churches who openly accept and love gay and lesbian persons as Church members. So, there is a mess of inconsistency between local practice and public statement. What charade is the Church attempting when it officially rejects one type of person (read: sinner) while accepting other persons (read: sinners)?

The only way I can make sense of the Church's presence in America today is through the three-part sub-culture I have identified in previous columns and in other publications. Reaching back to Battle Creek, MI and the emerging forces within the Church, I see a ministerial branch emerging alongside a medical/healthcare branch. A significant portion of the tension between these developing sub-cultures revolved around whether or not our offering of healthcare was to be an evangelizing tool in the hands of ministers. Healthcare professionals did not see their work this way, instead offering their care primarily for the simple purpose of health improvement. The medical branch lost the fight in Battle Creek, most dramatically noted by the disfellowshiping of Dr. Kellogg.

Our ministerial sub-culture is dedicated to a sectarianism that divides humans into Us and Them categories. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sect” as: “A group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong.” For Adventists, being sectarian means we often cloister ourselves as protection against the Other. The OED goes on to say the term is “often derogatory.” Sectarian groups, it says, have “separated from an established church” and are, as such “a nonconformist church.” The Us and Them thinking goes like this: We may be among Them, but we cannot be like Them. We are the saints, they are the sinners. We are God's chosen remnant, they are the rabble.  

Of course, there cannot be a definable entity such as a church without distinctions, but when those distinctions serve primarily to identify God’s condemnation of others over and against his offer of love and grace, then we have strayed. When efforts to clarify our Fundamental Beliefs turn into a tool to divide people, we fail ourselves and God. I submit that it is time we purposely reject sectarian Adventism. We may be as different, distinct, and obtuse as we wish but we cannot and must not use God's word to divide and condemn others, something that seems all too common among us these days.

With specific regard to the context of violence and our American response to it, Pastor Alex Bryan (of the Walla Walla University Church) put it well when he posted on Facebook, “What part of violence must we own? Every dirty joke about women creates a climate where it’s okay to do violence against them. Every disparaging remark about Muslims, every nasty word for people of another color, every crack about Catholics or Jews, every despicable word with reference to another’s sexual self-identification, cheap shots at liberals or conservatives, mocking those who are other-abled, cursing the previous or coming generation, employing a venomous vocabulary to destroy those who differ from us….Hateful speech is the mother of violent acts. We must not be in the business of giving birth to such monstrosity.”

Of course, there is no straight line from our Church’s sectarian and formal rejection of gay and lesbian persons to a psychotic killer in a nightclub. I believe in our Church’s effort to make clear statements about ethical issues that matter. The problem is our sectarian Us and Them attitude. When we formally espouse God and his word as divisive and condemning we exacerbate an already contentious human spirit and culture. Grace is supposed to draw out and enhance the best in humankind, not serve to heighten partisan discord. The embrace of sectarianism seems instead to have compelled us to tell others just how different and special we are. From too many of my fellow Church members I see and hear the spirit of division and discord rather than the gospel of grace and peace. I am no more innocent than the rest of us at failing to remain focused on the beauty of God’s grace, but if I am going to make an error in living a life of faith I would rather err on the side of inclusion and non-sectarianism than exclusion and sectarianism.

The distinction between the sectarianism of the ministerial sub-culture and the non-sectarian healthcare sub-culture is both functional and authentic. Yes, anyone offering a public healthcare service to citizens of the U.S. must comply with Federal and State regulations. Healthcare professionals must functionally orient their service toward others because of these regulations. But altruism, purposefully placing the interests of the Other above your own, is authentic and essential to the healthcare professions. So, when a hospital opens their doors to the public they must prioritize the patient’s health. But when our sectarian Church opens its doors to the public our primary goal is self-centered. Rather than attentive effort to offer the gospel to our communities, we allow ourselves to be distracted by measures of growth and success. Rather than craft a basic, uplifting gospel message of grace, we primarily seek an opportunity to introduce Them to Us.

I understand the complexities of motivations, intentions, and goals. They are inextricably intertwined. But the fact of our sectarian and non-sectarian experience is that these two sub-cultures embrace different motivations, intentions, and goals. Adventist healthcare systems practice an openness toward Them that Adventist churches do not. As I said above, this difference is not just regulatory and functional, it is authentic to our identity as healthcare providers. While our churches become havens of division in a society that is polarized, our healthcare services have embraced diversity, inclusion, and a lived experience of God’s grace.

One way this difference is maintained is the sectarian Church practice of membership. It is one thing to be welcoming to potential worshipers, but quite another if and when that person seeks membership. Hospitals, conversely, offer a full range of care without discriminatory guidelines based upon personal identities. As one healthcare administrator put it to me regarding reproductive services offered to same sex couples, “We follow the Mission Statement and do not discriminate when it comes to patient care.”  What I wonder is if our need to build membership can be secondary to our effort to provide a community of faith for those who wish to worship God with us. It may be that membership is more important to Us than it is to Them. Is it possible for us to provide a full congregational experience to people in our communities without pushing them toward membership?  

I see pockets of rejection of sectarian Adventism in America, moving instead toward an altruistic focus on Others. Places like Kettering, Loma Linda, and Orlando. The churches associated with our healthcare institutions are dramatically different than other Adventist churches I am familiar with in North America. Many of these churches have embraced a non-sectarian approach to sharing our unique Adventist message. But there are too many churches still dependent upon obsessive attention to winning converts and building numbers. If our Adventist healthcare systems are to have a good relationship with the denomination these old, underlying tensions surrounding motives, intentions, and goals will need to be resolved.

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Mark F. Carr is an ordained minister and theological ethicist with experience as a pastor, pilot, commercial fisherman, professor, and now clinical ethicist. He writes from his home town of Anchorage, Alaska. 

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