My interrogator was pleasant but entirely persistent.
“What you’re trying to say,” he urged, “is that Adventists have always been a contentious people, prone to public disagreements about theology, church governance, and a host of other issues.”
I smiled at how clearly he had pierced the euphemism offered in my presentation. Describing Adventism as an “essentially dialogical faith” was, in fact, my way of placing a century and a half of often public disagreements in a positive light, even while the actual record of those disagreements was sometimes anything but pleasant. The psalmist’s affirmation—“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”1—remains the abiding hope of the church more than a description of its often messy reality.
All reformations begin with disagreement, and thus it should be no surprise to discover that the spiritual DNA of Adventism includes a generous predisposition toward vigorous debate about the meaning and application of the Bible in our life together, the administrative structures needed to move forward the three angels’ messages, and even the kind of music used for congregational worship. The theological platform of this movement was constructed in a series of intense and difficult Bible conferences during the late 1840s and early 1850s: participants recorded that the “discussions” frequently extended far into the night. Through its first two decades as a journal, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (now the Adventist Review) recorded the sharp disagreements of its readers and its leaders about church organization, the proper ways to keep the Sabbath, and even whether Seventh-day Adventists could conscientiously participate in a war to end the curse of slavery. Review founder and first editor James White was strongly criticized for suggesting in one editorial that the obligation to end human slavery might take precedence over the command to not take human life.
Most histories of Adventism—and most Adventist history classes in our schools—focus on the moments of passionate debate that punctuate our record as a people: the 1888 Minneapolis conflict over righteousness by faith; the 1901 debate about reorganizing church structure; the 1919 Bible Conference that opened up the issues of biblical interpretation and the role of Ellen White as God’s prophetic messenger to this people; and the 50-year controversy launched by the 1957 publication of the volume Questions on Doctrine.
Some of this is simply an exploitation of fallen human nature: people have been paying to watch combatants go at each other (or read the stories of how they did) for centuries. But parts of this history—even when it was contentious—are instructive for a people committed to God’s truth. And the lessons learned when we civilly disagree do, in fact, say something essential about dialogue at the heart of this movement.
In a line that has probably provided unintended comfort for too many self-styled reformers, Ellen White once wrote: “The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people, should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error.”2
But can we not plead—should we not insist—that those convinced of a new truth or a new methodology for mission be required to conduct themselves with the civility expected even of nonbelievers? The spate of bitter and public attacks—some by denominational employees—upon the decisions and collective wisdom of the church at its recent General Conference session in Atlanta has surely marked a new low, even for a “dialogical faith” that has clearly been both blessed and chastened by its history of disagreements. Among the reasonable expectations of those paid by the faithful tithe of church members or given access to communication tools is one that requires leaders to conduct themselves with Christian dignity and careful language, even when they disagree—perhaps especially when they disagree.
The apostle Paul’s words announce the ethic by which we must agree to live, and by which we will surely be judged: “Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5, 6).
1 Psalm 133:1. Bible texts in this editorial are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 39.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published September 9, 2010.