n my early days as a Seventh-day Adventist I heard this mantra: ?No one ever leaves the Adventist Church over doctrine, only over personality disputes or the like.?
Keep dreaming, folks. People leave us, all the time, over doctrine. We fool ourselves, consoling ourselves into believing otherwise.
Everyone?s an exception, so who can pigeonhole anyone? But from the stories I hear, and from the testimonies (that?s a new spin on the word, eh?) given, the scenario?s often like this: A third- or fourth-generation Adventist, educated in our schools, and with strong ties to the church, struggles with legalism and the assurance of salvation. Over time he or she discovers grace, gets an understanding of justification by faith, and before long--usually with help from the Internet--starts throwing out one after another of our beliefs: the pre-Advent judgment, the Spirit of Prophecy, and the Sabbath.
Also, despite the notion that those who leave become atheists, demon worshippers, or homeless degenerates, many join other Protestant churches and, it seems, are doing just fine, thank you. Finally, far from interpersonal relationships being the cause of their departure, it?s the relational ties that, at least according to their own accounts, often create the biggest hurdle to leaving.
How, then, might we process this unfortunate phenomenon?
To begin, we must remember that people leave churches all the time; this isn?t just a Seventh-day Adventist problem. As far as legalism goes, well, what conservative church that upholds any standards doesn?t struggle with legalism to some degree or another? Also, many who leave complain about Ellen G. White statements that (taken out of the broader context of her writings, I might add) seem to sound in conflict with justification by faith. But one can do the same thing with the Bible, especially with statements by Jesus Himself (see Matt. 19:17; Matt. 12:37; Luke 13:27; Matt. 18:23-34; Luke 14:33; Luke 6:46-49).
Then for some reason, not really hard to fathom (because if you stick with the Sabbath, where else do you go?), once these folks discover justification by faith, as sure as two is less than three, they?ll soon conclude that the new covenant defines violation of all Ten Commandments--except the fourth--as sin.
In the end, what can we do? Not much, not really. People will always leave the church for a myriad of reasons, doctrinal or personal, regardless of whatever changes we make. At the same time, however, we could do a few things that might help stem, at least somewhat, the numbers of those ?deducted? from our church books.
First, we have to place the gospel, salvation by faith in Christ alone, as the absolute center of all our beliefs. Though great progress has been made here, we still have a way to go. Christ our substitute, whose righteousness is credited to us by faith alone as our only hope of salvation, must permeate every doctrine. There?s a power in the gospel not found in the health message or in teaching about the scapegoat.
Second, we should do everything possible to ground our members in the distinctive aspects of our message from the Bible alone, without Ellen G. White. However convinced of her prophetic gift, I?m persuaded by the strength of our positions because I took the time, early on, to get grounded in things such as the 1844 pre-Advent judgment, the state of the dead, and the Second Coming--all from the Bible, without a comment from Ellen White. I can?t begin to tell how that strengthened my faith, not just in the doctrines but in her prophetic gift as well.
Finally, when people leave, let?s love them, let?s keep in touch, let?s not judge and call them ?apostates.? Even worse, let?s not hurl Ellen G. White quotations at them about people who ?fall away.? Instead, let?s use these sad experiences to, as Paul said, ?examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith? (2 Cor. 13:5, KJV) and ask what we might?ve done differently, if anything, that would have helped keep these souls among us. Most important, let?s not do anything that, should they change their minds, would make it harder for them to come back.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.