The Seventh-day Adventist church is at war with the forces of evil and we are tempted to sacrifice almost anything to keep our troops united. In order to curb desertions, we have even resorted to redefining ourselves—our identity and our mission.
Perhaps the ultimate capitulation is the redefining of unity itself. That has led to the invention and promotion of counterfeit theories that should never have been given a hearing. Even though I have separated these theories under different labels, in reality there is a great deal of similarity and overlap.
Unity in diversity Rightly understood, this concept can be a great blessing to the church. Unity in diversity is just what Paul preached. His gospel testifies to God’s power to take people of differing religions, genders, and economic backgrounds and produce “one new man” (Eph. 2:15). The dividing partitions are gone. In this “one new man” there would still be a diversity of gifts and personality, but there is no evidence Paul intended for ethnic and cultural differences to trump unity on Bible-based doctrine and lifestyle. All would still be strongly united and identified by the seven “ones” we mentioned last month.
Today, “unity in diversity” has become a mantra of the liberalizing element in the church. Its proponents give strong advocacy to the premise that the church must open its doors ever wider in order to welcome and accommodate people of all cultures and lifestyles, even those cultures and lifestyles that may not fully align with Adventist beliefs. Culture, they say, is a wonderfully enriching element which must be welcomed.
Today it would be difficult to find a Seventh-day Adventist church whose members’ lives and worship style have not been impacted by some aspects of the American culture--its music, dress, diet, sports, etc. But there is no Bible support for a cultural accommodation that sets aside those lifestyle practices that define the Christian.
Theological Pluralism This is the acceptance of different doctrinal positions within a denomination. Historically, those who had a serious doctrinal difference with their church would leave and establish a new denomination. But today, in order to keep as many members as possible under one denominational roof, “pluralism” has been invented.
It is the natural fall-out from the unity-in-diversity argument. Eventually, if one is going to defend the incorporation of heretofore unacceptable lifestyle practices, there needs to be some adjustment in how the doctrinal positions of the church that address those issues are perceived. Something must be done to alleviate the nagging guilt of being in violation of one’s baptismal vows. Theological pluralism serves that function by developing a rationale for including divergent views—not a rational rationale, but one which simply ignores what the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy teach on those subjects.
In practice, theological pluralism is often demonstrated by the creation of more than one Sabbath worship service in some of our churches. That is defensible, of course, if there are more people than can be seated in one service. But in many, if not in most cases, the real reason is to keep both liberals and conservatives attending. It is a strategy of compromise and accommodation. Churches that resort to that remedy openly advertise that, in reality, they are deeply divided.
We must all study to know the difference between the pillars of our faith and those things about which the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy do not speak with finality, or subjects on which the Holy Spirit has not yet brought the church to a consensus. That will help us know where to be firm and where to be flexible.
Core Beliefs While pluralism seeks unity through an open acceptance of differing beliefs, “core beliefs” seeks unity through making requirements for membership as small as possible. It is argued that our 28 fundamentals take in way too much territory, too much for the ordinary citizen to believe and practice. Therefore we should consider dramatically reducing qualifications for membership. This is accomplished by requiring “unity on the essentials” while allowing “diversity on the non-essentials.”
This poses two challenging questions. First, what are the essentials and the non-essentials? The Adventist evangelicals among us are working hard to shrink the list down to their version of the gospel. For them, the doctrines of the sanctuary, the Spirit of Prophecy, the remnant, and the three angels’ messages are non-essentials. That goes also for anything that has to do with lifestyle—diet, dress, music, Sabbath-keeping, etc.
Second question: Who decides? That’s easy. The local congregation decides; not by vote usually, but by default; that is, by whatever the common practice is. Open discussion and debate are avoided. In practice this is congregationalism, the ultimate form of disunity. We need to ask ourselves this: Have we come to the place where we are willing to say that anything God asks is nonessential?
Readers of the Adventist Review were told several years ago to expect change—that the uniformity in belief and practice we presently enjoy will eventually be overwhelmed by our burgeoning membership. “Eventually Adventism will have to decide either to allow cultural variations or to forbid them with all the risks of schism involved in such a course. It is probable that the denomination will have to decide between those things that are essential for Adventism and those items or practices that might vary from one culture to the next.” In my view, to follow where that kind of thinking leads is to make schism certain and the Adventist church of the future unrecognizable.
The gospel of tolerance This is not actually a separate strategy for unity but an umbrella under which all of the foregoing take shelter. In practice, tolerance seeks unity through silence. Its advocates believe that the absence of dissent is the best possible definition of unity. They tell us that if we will just be quiet about lifestyle issues, stop giving correction and reproof, and talk of nothing but Jesus and His love, we will achieve the unity Christ prayed for.
According to this “gospel,” intolerance is the church’s gravest sin. In fact, it is virtually the only serious sin left. It is the one sin even the most gentle pastors do not hesitate to condemn. Intolerant people, those who dare to ask that their fellow members be held accountable to our doctrinal positions, must be shamed and silenced. They are rightfully vilified as judgmental and legalistic. “Hate the sin, love the sinner’ is no longer allowed. Sin and sinners are too closely linked to permit that kind of objective separation.
We need to remind ourselves that when we joined the fellowship of light, we chose of our own free will to walk in the light. And within that fellowship we are to maintain unity through holding each other accountable, not through being silent.
So we ask again, did Jesus pray for the impossible? If not, how can we help answer His prayer? First, we look at the great blessings that come to a united church. “In unity there is a life, a power, that can be obtained in no other way. There will be a vast power in the church when the energies of the members are united under the control of the Spirit. Then will God be able to work mightily through His people for the conversion of sinners” (Testimonies to the Church, vol. 7, p. 236, italics supplied). If the prospect of being energized by that “vast power” does not excite us and unite us, what will?
Second, we candidly assess the cost of disunity. We must see how it weakens us spiritually, how it derails our mission, how it absorbs time and energy that should be invested in warning and winning the lost, how it leaves behind a multitude of the hurting and disenchanted.
Jesus prayed for a level of unity that is indeed mind-boggling. “That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You” (John 17:21). We are to be one in nature as They are because we have all become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). We are to be one in character as They are because we all imitate the same Model (1 Pet. 2:21). We are to be one in purpose as They are because we all are engaged with Them in taking the gospel to all the world in this generation (Matt. 28:19,20).
As Christ’s followers, we are called to love people or all kinds and treat them with kindness and respect even if some of their ideas or behavior are unacceptable to the church. We will take a closer look at that next month.
--Lee Roy Holmes, retired Seventh-day Adventist pastor, College Place, WA