When retired leaders choose to speak out about the state of the nation or the church, their interjections are often met with some scepticism, and with inevitable questions about why they are speaking now. The suspicions are that they are exercising their greater sense of freedom after stepping away from their previous responsibilities; that they might be more honest now that they have less to lose; or that they are trying to fend off a growing sense of irrelevance and reinsert themselves into the debates.
Such are the risks that come with a book such as Where Are We Headed? by William Johnsson, now retired from his long-standing role as editor of Adventist Review. But Johnsson’s strident new book has a different motivation: the church he served has changed, and, in his view, not for the better. For him, the climax of that change when it came—you’ll have to read the book to find out when—was “a truly sad day for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
Where Are We Headed? identifies several related features of the changed church Johnsson now sees. He worries about evidence for a tendency to “remnant” arrogance and exclusivity; mantra-like statements about the soon coming of Jesus; statistical focus of mission; the fundamentalism and “flat” literalism creeping into our reading of Scripture; continuing discussions of the role of Ellen White’s writings; and the misuse of calls to “unity.” Johnsson’s “lover’s quarrel” is with what he fears the Adventist Church is becoming: “two radically different versions of Adventism competing for the future.”
While Where Are We Headed? is open-ended, Johnsson’s burden is to call us back to “Adventism at its best” and ultimately to Jesus. This discussion is never far from our need for Jesus, the sufficiency of Jesus, and that the church should be shaped by the presence and ministry of Jesus. While Johnsson writes about big issues in a global church, he draws regularly on his lifetime experience of following Jesus, and writes with a grace and passion that is both Jesus-like and statesman-like.
Where Are We Headed? should not be tarred with the scepticism that sometimes meets postretirement publications. Johnsson is speaking to, with, and for a broad spectrum of the church, and is still held in high regard across multiple generations of Adventists.
As we continue to wrestle with the complicated issues of a worldwide church, we need wise voices that can offer circuit breakers to our arguments and their continuing faith as a guidepost for our progress. Where Are We Headed? does this, calling us to find our best in Jesus, and offering hope for a thoroughly authentic Adventism in the church that still embraces us all, however much frustration it may cause for us sometimes.
Richard D. Martin, youth pastor of Emmanuel-Brinklow Church, Ashton, Maryland, when he wrote this, now leads the congregation of New Life church in Hampton, Virginia. His book is a one-month devotional of 31 brief readings consisting of personal stories and biblically based spiritual applications, calculated to inspire readers again, or for the first time, with the wonder of divine grace.
Martin leads with the identification of salvation as first a medical term. Being saved first meant being set free from danger, restored to some place of safety and wholeness. Martin shows that a proper understanding of this fact allows one to better appreciate what is involved in God’s salvation.
Pursuing the theme of restoration, Martin invokes the word “algebra,” which once referred to surgical treatment of broken bones. His alertness to culture and his ability to help people connect the Word of God with the world of their daily living, show up in his live titles: “Mission Impossible”—echoing the name of a TV series from the 1960s and 1970s, whose Hollywood namesake releases its sixth chapter in 2018; “Despicable Me”—title of another movie series whose third installment was due to open June 2017; or “Pepto-Bismol,” the name of a medication available over the counter for acid reflux.
Martin concludes (Day 31) that every one of us has a story, unique to us individually, yet inescapably containing one truth pervading all: a testimony called “grace.”
For more about “salvation,” “algebra,” and “grace,” read, reread, and apply Martin’s brief essays and apropos applications whenever and as many times as you can, focusing particularly, no doubt, on God’s “Equation of Salvation.” That equation is God’s approach to solving the “problematic equation” of Day 4 (“Doing the Math”), which follows Day 3’s “Infamous Miscalculation.”
Martin has succeeded in providing a brief and intriguing book of godly thought on a subject, grace, that will be studied through eternity’s endless years. The book is also available at his Web site: RichDMartin.com.
When visiting churches, I always find it interesting to scan the church’s notice board. Some are pristine in their neatness and currency; others offer a broad and seemingly haphazard selection of past and present events, projects, products, and promotions. But whatever the curating or upkeep of the notice board, they each offer glimpses into the life, ministry, community, and priorities of that church.
While I was attending an event at a church of another denomination a couple years ago, this curiosity led me to linger in front of their crowded notice board. I noticed a single sheet that announced that this local church was certified as a “Fair Trade Faith Group.” It caught my attention and subsequent research found that this was recognition by the Fair Trade Association in Australia as a church committed “to supporting fair trade through using fair-trade products and raising awareness”1 of the issues of fair trade.
Sadly, this caught my attention because it seemed an unusual certificate to display on a church notice board. In my experience of church executive committee, board, or business meetings, issues such as fair trade, and the potential impact of our purchasing and voices, are rarely prioritized. Our healthy focus on stewardship of our resources has been more likely to push us toward seeking the cheapest possible price for products that we might use in church programs, rather than considering the cost that these cheap products might exact from the people who grow, make, or produce them.
While activists have worked to focus our attention on these issues for decades, tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, in which more than 1,100 garment factory workers died, have highlighted the unsafe and exploitative working conditions and low wages of too many workers in our world.
But this kind of tragedy is only the dramatic headline of a much larger problem. Many of our cheap products and foods come from sweatshops or even slavery in fields and factories, primarily but not exclusively in the developing world.2 And many of the world’s largest companies do this because they know that cheap prices are often more important to us as consumers—and large profits more important to them—than treating poor, oppressed, and exploited people more fairly.
Production in the developing world is cheaper because companies can pay inordinately lower wages than a counterpart in the developed world—often to the point of exploitation (consider Deut. 24:14). There is often less regulation requiring safe and humane working conditions, and no need to comply with or pay the costs of environmental safeguards (consider Rev. 11:18). This globalized economy exploits and entrenches economic and political disparity between nations and people. As such, it “depends on the violent branding of the world’s labouring poor,”3 assuming that in some way “they” are a different class of people to “us.”
While stewardship of our money—as a church and as individuals—is important, stewardship of people is always more important. And in this regard the Bible has a particular focus on the poor: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him” (Prov. 14:31, NLT).4 Commenting on this explicit statement (among other similar statements in the Old Testament), theologian Christopher Wright points out that “the poor should be treated with the dignity that reflects the fact that they too are created by the same God. Indeed, what we do to or for them we do to or for God”5—referring, of course, to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (see Matt. 25:31-46).
These passages express the link in both positive and negative senses. In oppressing and exploiting those who are weak and vulnerable—or participating in economic activity that ignores these terrible costs—we actively deny our mutual Creator and thus deny substantive belief in creationism as a core element of our faith in the God we serve. As the faithful people of God this is a question that gets to the heart of our relationship with Him who claims our honor, worship, and obedience.
Similarly, while many of the statements of the Ten Commandment are brief, Ellen White urges that we ought not underestimate the breadth of their impact. For example, the sixth commandment—“You must not murder” (Ex. 20:13, NLT)—summarizes and includes, in White’s reading, “all acts of injustice that tend to shorten life” as well as “a selfish neglect of caring for the needy or suffering; all self-indulgence or unnecessary deprivation or excessive labor that tends to injure health.”6
In her survey, the prohibition against stealing (verse 15) also condemns “slave dealing, and forbids wars of conquest.” It “demands strict integrity in the minutest details of the affairs of life. It forbids overreaching in trade, and requires the payment of just debts or wages,” as well as prohibiting “every attempt to advantage oneself by the ignorance, weakness, or misfortune of another.”7
We live in an economic system and consumer society that make it difficult not to do these things. Those of us who are not obviously poor or exploited benefit from the exploitation and oppression of others in many everyday ways, often without realizing it. And even those who are not overtly privileged are still part of a system that profits from so much that is wrong and broken. But many of us also make countless choices every day as to how and what we use and consume. More and more resources are available, such as ethical shopping guides,8 to help us make these choices in ways that can cause the least harm to others while supporting companies that seek better production and people practices.
Some of these choices will cost more, but this is a necessary adjustment to our sense of stewardship. Both personally and corporately, “Christians cannot be Christians without making their economic involvements, local and global, a test of their faith.”9
Writing to the early church, James agreed. He was scathing of those who profited from the exploitation of others: “Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies” (James 5:4, NLT). It seems James would have appreciated a “fair-trade” church, being a community of Christians who prioritize other people in how they use their money in their individual and collective lives. It isn’t so much about a certificate on your church notice board as about making better choices to help the world be a little fairer to other people God created and loves—and, in so doing, to honor Him.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing, Warburton, Victoria, Australia.