An old friend wrote recently of his plans to leave a successful ministry career earlier than expected.
“The last year has been tough. I have decided to retire. I have had a hard time figuring out how religion and politics got so tangled up in even the Adventist Church.”
His lament has been echoed a dozen times by friends who tell of unprecedented conflict in the congregations or institutions they serve. Some blame the fractiousness on the pervasive social and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic: isolation and fear have accentuated the natural self-absorption of human beings and unraveled the fabric of cooperation in both the culture and the church.
Others point to the ghastly spectacle of American politics, in which a “winner takes all” imperative drives partisanship and polarization on a scale never before witnessed. No human organization, not even the remnant church, could be immune to the slash-and-burn strategies that have pitted races against each other, the protection of accumulated wealth against the well-being of the less privileged, and made enemies of those who previously could sometimes be gracious with each other about their political or theological differences. Despite its sometimes lofty self-perception, the church now often mirrors the culture.
The gospel’s call to teach and practice the virtue of humility is the most countercultural act of which the believing church is capable.
In the overheated rhetoric of this moment, “bipartisan” is another word for “foolish,” and “consensus” is a synonym for “weakness.”
Missing is any sustained attempt to either teach or practice the foundational virtue on which God’s church is built. Jesus offered a vast blessing to those He called “meek.” Paul framed that virtue in both negative and positive terms: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3, NRSV).1 The fact that the naturally assertive apostle felt constrained to offer that counsel to a congregation he had planted illustrates how well Paul understood both his own sinful nature and the disintegrating nature of pride in the life of the congregation. The church’s never-ending battle isn’t chiefly with oppressive “principalities and powers” but with our corrosive, destabilizing habit of privileging our own preferences over the good of the gathered community.
This is a fundamentally deeper problem than the bitter debates over “to mask or not to mask” that divided many Adventist congregations during the past year, or the reality that a believer armed with a remote in his living room has very little inclination to listen to anything that he doesn’t already prefer. The church’s struggle is always with itself: can we covenant to live together with all our differences—in skin color; wealth; political viewpoints; and theological preferences? Or will we watch with dismay the continued atomization of what Ellen White called “the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard”?2
The gospel’s call to teach and practice the virtue of humility is the most countercultural act of which the believing church is capable. No greater testimony of our prized “separation from the world” can be found than our willingness, halting though it may be, to listen patiently to each other, acknowledge the possibility of our own mistakenness, and gather around our shared commitment to the Lord.
The “mind of Christ” that Paul sought to evoke requires the intentional reversal of long-established patterns and privileges among us. White must learn to yield to Black and Brown; male to female; elected leadership to the expressed will of the company of believers; and personal opinion to the proclaimed Word of God. Without the essential quality of humility, the remnant church is only a fractious collection of theological partisans held tenuously together by tradition and custom.
The witness that wins the world is the revelation of a people who refuse the polarization wrought by prejudice and pride and who practice the humility without which there can be no community of believers.
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).