May 11, 2006


I got into one of those “whatever happened to” conversations recently at the General Conference. I ran into a college buddy, and we started reminiscing about some of our former college classmates. We soon centered on one name and the incredibly shocking news that not only was this person not knocking on the GC presidential door, but they had left the Adventist Church. “Doctrinal issues,” was my friend’s take on the matter. “Something about legalism.”
I’ve been pondering ever since. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives this definition: “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code <the institutionalized ~ that restricts free choice>.” What loaded words!
Taken in parts, some sense is evident. For example, if I strictly believe that my claim to eternal life is in accepting the gift of salvation that came from Jesus’ sacrificial death, then I am conforming to this religious belief. Does that make a rule or code? Perhaps some would argue that it does.
But “strict” and “literal” certainly don’t mean “excessive.” And if something, once it is institutionalized, restricts free choice, how can it be good? God created human beings with free choice: does that mean once we are Christians and part of an “institution,” our freedom is restricted? Perhaps the choice of accepting salvation is a self-imposed restriction that we freely chose.
1513 page6OK, before I give myself a headache getting into things probably better left for the philosophical eggheads among us, I must come back to my original musings: Has the Adventist Church imposed institutional codes that restrict a person’s free choice? Or are the freedoms still there, protected by a moral bearing that comes directly from God?
What is it truly that causes some to dismiss Adventism? Our doctrines? Or is it our application of them? Have we obfuscated them with a dictatorial welding of the law?
I did a bit of Internet research on former Adventists. Here is some of what I read: “I am so glad to be free from the legalism of my past, to find my security in Christ alone, not in a denomination, or anything else.”
“What an awesome revelation to know that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone! . . . I couldn’t believe that I had been missing out on experiencing the fullness of Christ and developing a true relationship with Him all of this time.”
Saved by grace. Security in Christ alone. I am not ready to take my name off the church books, and I believe almost exactly the way these two people do. What has happened? Are we not a Christ-centered, Bible-believing people? Did the message somehow get lost? Have we codified Christ? If so, how did it happen? Who is to blame?
Structure is vitally important. And as a novice parent, one thing I’ve learned from various experts is that discipline and structure are crucial to the development of a child into a healthy adult. I’ve also learned that within structure, within (gasp) the rules there can be lots of freedom. Disorder is binding. But there is a point when structure can become restrictive. When doctrine is no longer measured by or understood through the Bible.
It was Mrs. White herself who declared: “The Bible must be our standard for every doctrine. . . . We are to receive no one’s opinion without comparing it with the Scriptures. Here is divine authority which is supreme in matters of faith. It is the word of the living God that is to decide all controversies” (The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, vol. 1, p. 201).
“We are to believe truth, not that which is pronounced truth upon the authority of popes or councils, not because a minister pronounces his decision as to what is truth, but on the only sure and safe ground, ‘Thus saith the Lord’” (Sabbath School Worker, Apr. 1, 1893).
I don’t have definitive answers to the questions I raised. But I do see a problem in the way we have explained our faith to members and nonmembers alike. It cannot be said too much that we are saved by grace alone, and that we are a Christ-centered, Bible-believing people. And more than saying it, we all need to live it.
Structure and standards are important. People also need to know the whys and hows of the system--and know that for all the “rules,” Christ is still the Ruler. If more emphasis is placed on these, perhaps things will be different.