From the earliest days of our movement Seventh-day Adventists have seen themselves as a special people raised up by God to proclaim a distinct message to the world. This warning message is to be sounded to all people in all churches and in all religions of the world.
But how should we relate to the actual churches themselves—to the organized bodies of Methodists, Baptists, Evangelicals, and so on? Should we keep them at a distance, declining all invitations to engage in fellowship or conversation? Or should we unite with them in an attempt to fulfill the prayer of Jesus that His followers might be one (John 17:11, 20-23)?
Early on Adventist leaders decided upon a course of action that lies between these two poles. On one hand, we strenuously resist all arrangements that would bind us or restrict the scope of our worldwide mission. In the twentieth century as the ecumenical movement gained momentum with its goal of organic unity of all the churches, Adventists respectfully declined to be part of it. We have never had membership in the World Council of Churches, nor will we.
On the other hand, we Adventists do not seek to be an exclusive church that shuns relations with other Christian bodies. On occasion we participate with clergy of other denominations in ministers’ fraternals, and so on. When invited to preach in their churches, we accept. We cooperate with them in selected areas such as defense of religious liberty and disaster relief.
This position concerning relations with other churches finds support in both the Bible and the work and writings of Ellen White. Jesus, our example in all things, associated with people from all backgrounds, even with those who opposed Him.
The apostle Peter counseled: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). We Adventists certainly have a hope, so we take every opportunity to share this good news with anyone and everyone. We share, not aggressively but gently, not in the spirit of debate or superiority, but respectfully.
Ellen White associated with other Christians and Christian organizations. A strong opponent of the liquor industry with its attendant social ills, she frequently accepted invitations to speak at public meetings advocating temperance.
The pioneers of our movement shared this openness to other churches. As far back as 1870 we find the following action voted by the Eighth Annual Session of the General Conference:
“RESOLVED, that for the sake of our blessed Redeemer we desire to cultivate fraternal feelings, and maintain friendly relations, with all who name the name of Christ; and in particular with those who in common with us hold to the unpopular doctrine of the second advent of our Savior near.”
For almost 100 years Adventist relations with other churches have been officially defined and guided by a policy in the General Conference Working Policy, O 110, “Relationships With Other Christian Churches and Religious Organizations.” In part it states: “We recognize those agencies that lift up Christ before men as a part of the divine plan for evangelization of the world, and we hold in high esteem Christian men and women in other communions who are engaged in winning souls to Christ.”
Time has shown the wisdom of the decision taken by our leaders long ago to interact with other Christian churches but to avoid any union or connection that restricts our mission. Worldwide, Christianity is growing fast, but the growth is among churches that are not part of the ecumenical movement—the Evangelicals numbering about 500 million, the Pentecostals with perhaps double that, and the newly emergent indigenous churches of Africa.
Meanwhile, as the mainline churches of the World Council of Churches have declined in numbers, the Seventh-day Adventist growth, enthusiasm, and youth have become the envy of other bodies.
What changes a century has brought! We who were small and passed over as being insignificant and parochial have become the focus of attention by other Christians. More and more they want to know who we are, what values we hold, what lies behind our amazing growth and strength.
These are days of unprecedented opportunity to share our faith with leaders of these churches. When they seek to know more about us and to explore possible areas of cooperation, shall we not joyfully engage them in conversation? To do so isn’t in any sense compromise; it is mission.
Thus, at all levels of the church, from the local congregation to conference, union, division, and General Conference, Adventists today are interacting with leaders of other Christian churches and religious organizations. Way back in 1910, when the World Missionary Conference convened in Edinburgh, we were there. The more than 1,000 persons representing global Protestantism included six representatives from the General Conference. In 2010, at the 100-year anniversary of the historic event, also held in Edinburgh, Adventists were among the official guests and played a significant role in the conduct of the conference.
The Christian World Communions (CWC) especially demonstrates the manner in which Adventists engage with other Christian leaders without binding ourselves in message or mission. The CWC, a gathering of the secretaries of the major Christian bodies worldwide, represents some 2 billion Christians and meets annually for discussions and reports of developments of interest to Christians in general. The CWC is purely consultative—it does not pass resolutions.
The CWC is loosely organized, with the chair serving for two years on a rotating basis among the various member communions. The organizing and functioning of the group depend upon the secretary, who is also elected for a two-year term.
This is the sort of meeting of Christians that Seventh-day Adventists have felt free to be part of. And we have indeed been made part of it! For 32 years without a break, Bert B. Beach, then director of the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) Department, served as its secretary. Every two years the chair rotated, but every time the group asked the Adventist representative to continue as secretary.
And that wasn’t all. When Beach retired, the CWC turned to his successor, John Graz, the current PARL director at the General Conference. He has now served as secretary the past 11 years. Thus, for the past 43 years the key person in the CWC has been a Seventh-day Adventist.
The CWC most often meets in Geneva, Switzerland, but in 2011 it met in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the Seventh-day Adventist world headquarters. The work involved with the multiple arrangements, including a visit to Capitol Hill for discussions with representatives from the White House regarding religious liberty and other concerns, was huge. Everything went like clockwork; our guests were effusive in their appreciation of the Adventist hosts. And when the CWC met the next year, one leader revealed that as a result of the visit, he had adopted a vegetarian lifestyle!
Meetings like this can have huge and lasting benefits. As Christian leaders interact with Adventists and come to understand us, misconceptions and prejudice disappear. They see us and appreciate us for our distinctive values, lifestyle, and beliefs; they welcome us as sincere, Bible-believing, and Bible-practicing brothers and sisters.
A more recent development is the Global Christian Forum. It is not an organization; rather, it provides opportunities for Christians from many backgrounds and countries to meet for worship, fellowship, and discussion. Ganoune Diop, associate director of PARL, serves on its planning committee.
With the growing desire by leaders of other churches to know more about us, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has become involved in official conversations with a series of churches and organizations. These conversations are approved by the Administrative Committee of the General Conference and reported to the same body at the conclusion of each discussion. Planning for the conversations comes through the General Conference PARL office, usually with involvement of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute.
We select the finest scholars in our midst to represent our church. We aim to be open, honest, and forthright, stating the reasons for what we believe without compromise or equivocation. At the same time in our presentations and all interactions we endeavor to be gracious and winsome.
Some of these conversations have been completed with just one round of several days; others have extended over two or more years. Some have had far-reaching results, especially the meetings with representatives of the Lutheran World Federation. This conversation extended over four sessions from 1994 to 1998 and was of such value that all papers from both sides plus recommendations we had arrived at were published. The resulting book, Lutherans and Adventists in Conversation, 1994-1998, includes among the recommendations the following: “We recommend that Lutherans in their national and regional church contexts do not treat the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a sect but as a free church and a Christian world communion.”
During the past quarter century, our church has also engaged in conversation with leaders from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Salvation Army, the World Evangelical Association, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Church of God (Seventh Day), and some other smaller churches.
The most recent conversation involved representatives from the Mennonite World Conference. Adventists hosted the first round, held at General Conference headquarters in 2011. The following year the Mennonites reciprocated; we met at a retreat center near Basel, Switzerland.
This conversation was perhaps the most rewarding of all those of the past 25 years. With roots in the Anabaptist reformation of the sixteenth century, the Mennonites share much in common with us, such as “believer” baptism by immersion. They strongly believe in separation of church and state and practice a simple lifestyle. Advocating peaceful means, they refrain from bearing arms. Because of their distinctive practices, the Mennonites suffered for their faith, even to martyrdom. Driven from place to place, many found refuge in the New World.
The time together with the Mennonites was deeply spiritual. Excellent papers were prepared from both communions; they are to be gathered together and jointly published in book form.
In my judgment, all the conversations with other churches have been of significant benefit to Seventh-day Adventists. Christian leaders have come to see us as we are, without the distortions and stereotypes that led us to be dubbed a sect or a cult. And we ourselves have become less exclusive, more open to work with and learn from other agencies that the Lord is using.
Truth can stand investigation; truth is still the best answer. That is why we can—why we should—engage other churches as part of the fulfillment of our divinely ordained mission.