Inspired by Josephine Elia, Amy Lee Sheppard Ratsara, and Sikhu, I had begun to write this piece a day before Wednesday’s vote on women’s ordination. But after Wednesday’s vote, I felt it all the more necessary to affirm that it is still okay to be proud to be a Seventh-day Adventist. There still is cause to be proud of our church. But I think it would be somewhat disingenuous for me to tell you why I love my church without acknowledging some of its blatant blemishes – some of which have been made most apparent most recently.
The fallout (yes, fallout) and response from Wednesday’s vote has been interesting and heartbreaking all at once. I have friends and acquaintances on both sides of the issue, and social media was filled with sobering reactions and frustration, as well as calls to conscience and mission. What really disturbs me, however, are the threats I have read from others about leaving the church as a result of this vote. I’ve seen Facebook posts from people contemplating and going through the steps to withdraw their membership. I’ve seen posts from people trying to figure out ways to redirect their tithe from the General Conference (the world church governing body – the Adventist church is highly structured). To say that there was a lot of emotion tied to Wednesday’s vote is an understatement.
To give you some perspective, I will say that I am a third generation Seventh-day Adventist. I was raised in an Adventist home. On both sides of my family, I would say that my family is 90% Adventist with the remaining family members being Baptist or non-practicing Adventists. Uncles, aunts, cousins, second cousins – most were raised in Adventist homes. My paternal grandparents strongly believed in Adventist education and so most of my aunts went to Adventist schools up to and including the university level. My grandfather was a church elder. My family includes pastors and Bible workers.
Because my roots in Adventism run deep enough, and because I have been heavily involved within my local church and the church at large, I’ve benefitted from the blessing of Adventism. I have also, however, been privy to a glimpse of its not so righteous and saintly side. I have heard words, seen actions taken, and heard stories that could make anyone become jaded with Adventism.
I could give you a laundry list of all of the appalling things that I’ve seen or heard members of the Adventist church do or say – yes, members of the remnant (also known as the so-called people of God). I could extoll the many problems with the Adventist church. I could talk about unfair (read: callous) treatment of women who have had children out of wedlock and unfair disfellowship or censorship practices. I could talk about nasty board meetings and board of elders meetings. I could talk about the salacious gossip that can dominate nominating committee discussions. I could talk about the fact that we still have regional conferences (conferences that were originally set up to segregate Black church members from White church members — video footage can be found here). I could talk about situations in which pastors refused to baptize an individual because that individual still had dreadlocks. I could talk about how women make up 57% of the Adventist church but only formed 17% of the General Conference delegates. I could even talk about Wednesday’s ordination vote, which (at least in North America) effectively allows for male pastors to continue to be ordained, while female pastors receive the (not-widely recognized or accepted) credential of “commissioned.” Separate but equal eh? That’s what many would have you believe. Molestation and sexual harassment happen in our church. Rape has been committed by some of our members. It is not a perfect church.
No matter where you go on this earth, you will not be able to find a perfect church. If you do decide to attend church, you choose the church that is the least imperfect and one in which you can grow, despite its glaring imperfections.
I mean, how could we ever expect it to be, given its composition of sinners (myself included)? No matter where you go on this earth, you will not be able to find a perfect church. If you do decide to attend church, you choose the church that is the least imperfect and one in which you can grow, despite its glaring imperfections.
People may be mad at me for airing the church’s dirty laundry. People may call me a bad witness. At the moment I really don’t care. All of what I have referenced above is widely and publicly available – just not widely or publicly discussed. Maybe tomorrow I’ll amend this post to wax poetic on the spotless Adventist church. But not today.
My aim, if it is to be said I have an aim, is to win people to Christ, not to my church. I’m called to be a witness for Christ, not a witness for my church. Yeah, I want you to get to know my church, and yeah, I’d like for you to join, but I also think you should know what you’re getting into if you do choose to join my church. If you want to come visit, and you’re in the area, let me know and I’ll join you. If not, I must say that I don’t blame you.
Truth is, I actually want you to get to know my God more than I care about you knowing my church. I’m more concerned about protecting the image of God than protecting the image of the church. One of the aims I have in my life is to make God look good. My prayer is “help me not to embarrass You.” I’ve never had a similar goal as far as the church is concerned. If, after getting to know my God you still want to belong to my church, so be it. That’s great. If you feel like belonging to another church, that’s okay too.
As former general conference president Elder Jan Paulsen mentioned in his comment on the floor in support of the motion for ordination, “…[w]ith compassion in your hearts, do not let delegates return bruised and bleeding, because they are not judged to be worthy of the responsibility that they have; we need everyone’s involvement. Look — we are struggling. In some parts of the world, we are struggling badly to try to hold the church together, to engage young and old, men and women in the mission and ministry of the church. We need everyone’s involvement. We are bleeding in many ways. We’ve got to stop this. We are losing so many of our youth and young professionals. They have problems with the moral integrity of the church and they say why is the church having problems with this matter? The public does not. It’s not a problem to the public. Why should the church?…” As a young person and a young professional, I have and will have a hard time convincing any one to join a church where inequality is still rampant and almost legislated. But hopefully I can win someone over to a God who fundamentally believes in equality.
I say all that to say I don’t get disillusioned by religion or the church because it – the main point of life and mission — was never about the church. It was always all about my relationship with God. It was always about Jesus. Religion is supposed to be a conduit to God. Religion (at least supposedly) merely serves to enhance that relationship, but to the extent that it is imperfect or does not do its job or gets in the way, it still was all about Jesus in the first place. So while I may be disappointed in my church I feel I don’t have to leave my church because it wasn’t about them anyways. Never was. Never will be.
…I don’t get disillusioned by religion or the church because it – the main point of life and mission — was never about the church. It was always all about my relationship with God. It was always about Jesus. Religion is supposed to be a conduit to God. Religion (at least supposedly) merely serves to enhance that relationship, but to the extent that it is imperfect or does not do its job or gets in the way, it still was all about Jesus in the first place. So while I may be disappointed in my church I feel I don’t have to leave my church because it wasn’t about them anyways.
Because I know that the church has the potential to hurt me, as a defense mechanism and measure of protection, I have always placed more of an emphasis on my relationship with God than with the church. I draw a line of demarcation between the two. My relationship with Christ is not inextricably bound to nor is it synonymous with my relationship to the church. I realized a long time ago that to confound the two could prove spiritually fatal.
That said, I can stay in this church and I love this church because its virtues and its premises far outweigh its perceived, expected and unsurprising faults.
That said, I can stay in this church and I love this church because its virtues and its premises far outweigh its perceived, expected and unsurprising faults.
To quote Pastor Myron Edmonds, “Adventism is not my identity. Christianity is my identity. Adventism is my mission.”
The following is why I love being a Seventh-day Adventist.
I find the doctrine and theology and hermeneutics of the Adventist church to be sound. It just makes sense – to me at least. The premises on which the church has been founded and its twenty-eight fundamental beliefs line up with what I read in my Bible (I know that surely many people would disagree). Adventists can explain – using Scripture alone – why the Sabbath is on Saturday and why it still needs to be kept. We can explain – again, using Scripture – that the second coming of Christ is imminent. Sure there are things I don’t understand in the Bible, but these are things that many people struggle with regardless of denomination. I’m an Adventist because when I read the Bible, the church that most closely reflects its teachings is the Seventh-day Adventist church. I love being an Adventist because I can back up any one of my beliefs with biblically sound arguments. I haven’t been able to say the same for many other religious groups…
I love that the Seventh-day Adventist church has a strong youth arm. We do youth ministry. I know of no other denomination with such robust youth ministry. From One Project to GYC to Just Claim It to Adventist Christian Fellowship and public campus ministry to the Pathfinder ministry to Sabbath school…the Adventist church has well-rounded, spiritually edifying programs for its young people from ages 0 to 35ish. What other churches call “youth group” we lovingly call AY (or Adventist Youth Society). Back in my parents’ day, it used to be called Missionary Volunteers (or MV) and had, as its focus, going out into the community and doing community service. The Pathfinder ministry is probably one of the main reasons why I am still a part of this church. No question in my mind – the Adventist church does youth ministry and does it well.
Many churches have even begun ordaining youth elders and having youth serve as deacons and deaconesses. I’m happy that my church (by and large, though not enough) involves its young people, recognizing that the church began with young people and that young people will most likely finish the work. Youth are the present and the future of the church.
I love that the Adventist church is such a proponent of education, and not just education but higher education for all of its members. I love that conferences often help sponsor aspiring pastors to attend our seminaries. I love that our churches help support those families that want to send their children to our schools. I love that the Adventist church has the second largest parochial educational system in the world – second only to the Catholic church.
I love our focus on healthy living. I love that we don’t only focus on spiritual development but we focus on the health of the whole person. I love that vegetarian food is served in our schools and hospitals. I love that, as a vegan, I have a supportive community and I don’t have to wonder about what I will eat at church potluck no matter which church I go to in this world. I love that we preach a NEWSTART way of living. I love that Loma Linda is a Blue Zone. I love that an Adventist – John Harvey Kellogg – founded Kellogg cereals. I love the sodium-filled Worthington/Loma Linda and Morning Star meats (dinner roast!! Swiss steak and Fri Chik are okay I guess…).
Adventist Culture and Community
Because Adventists are often separated from the world in terms of time (Sabbath-keeping), diet (vegetarianism), and social activities (no going to movies, no dancing, no card playing — only some Adventists adhere to this though), Adventists tend to stick together. This has created a tangible subculture which would be interesting to study. I find that where nationality, ethnicity, or race would so easily be a divisive factor outside of the church, (often, but not always) inside of the church, the Adventist subculture overrides any cultural or ethnic differences. You can literally spend your whole life within an Adventist world or “bubble” if you will (which is not always a good thing). The culture is supported and solidified by our youth programs, schools, book stores, food stores, publishing houses, hospitals, retirement homes and rampant use of our own abbreviations and jargon (SDA, GC, AY, GYC, MV, Sevvy, Sabbath, vespers…). You can spend your whole life interacting with only Adventists (I don’t know why you would want to). But the Adventist culture is alive and well and definitely keeps many of us from leaving. I like being a part of this culture and community.
Speaking of culture, I love that haystacks (aka taco salads) have become a ubiquitous Adventist meal…at least in North America.
I love that the church is so international and diverse. I love that, especially in Toronto or Montreal, I can find a church and worship in English, French, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese (just to name a few) and still feel at home (most of the time).
I’ve never been to General Conference, but I have been to an international Pathfinder Camporee. I loved meeting Pathfinders from all over the world – from France and Papua New Guinea and Singapore and Mongolia etcetera — and I loved knowing that no matter how diverse we were, we all shared the same beliefs and, as Pathfinders, sang the same song. I loved that despite our origins or nationalities, we were automatically linked in a fundamental way. To sing the Pathfinder song with 30,000 Pathfinders from around the world was a moment I will never forget. I love that no matter where I go in the world, my family is just a drive or a bus ride away. All I need is to locate my nearest Adventist church and I have found myself a temporary home base.
I love that the Advent message to all the world in this generation is taken to heart by Adventists. I love that we have Hope Channel and 3ABN – the second largest Christian network in North America. I love that we have Amazing Facts and It is Written (and Il est écrit and Escrito Está). I love that we have AWR (Adventist World Radio), VOAR (Voice of Adventist Radio) and other programs. I love that they are available to the general public. I love that the church is becoming less and less insular and more and more well known.
Diversity of Opinion and Thought
In some Adventist circles you may hear talk of progressive Adventists or liberal Adventists or conservative Adventists. While the main focus should be that we are all Adventists, and we should pay less attention to “brands” of Adventism, I’m happy that our church allows a diversity of thought. I don’t believe in groupthink and I think unity does not necessitate conformity. I’m proud to belong to a church that encourages thought, because, at least for me, there’s an intellectual appeal to faith that we don’t often talk about.
Many divisions, unions, and conferences, but the General Conference and North American Division most notably, commissioned their best and brightest theologians and Biblical scholars to study, over a period of years, the theology of ordination, especially in light of women’s ordination. I’m glad I belong to a church that was (is?) willing to have that discussion. A friend from law school who is a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints commented on the Washington Post article about the women’s ordination debate that I posted on Facebook and said, “Boo, but yay for even having the discussion. Salt Lake’s current approach is to simply keep excommunicating women for even asking the question.” I had never even thought of it that way. I’m glad my church honestly and assiduously studied ordination and still studies other doctrinal issues (I love that we have a Biblical Research Institute). I’m glad that, for the most part, my church allows for discussion (and dissension).
I have often wondered if I will always be a Seventh-day Adventist. I’m not saying I won’t leave the church and I’m not saying I will. I’m just saying I don’t know. I’d like to think though that I will remain in this church, since, at the present moment, I have no reason to do otherwise. But I also know that life is funny and life is long and life is complicated, and I have surprised myself on numerous occasions as my understanding of myself continues to evolve.
At the end of the day, Christ loves the church. Christ loves this church. We are homeward bound. As long as Christ is the captain, I don’t think I’ll ever have reason to jump ship.