April 9, 2015

Am I an Adventist?

The eye winces at the question, and somewhere deep below the intellect, the heart grows mildly indignant.

“Am I an Adventist?”

“Wrong question!” some instinctively reply. “The better question is: ‘Are you an Adventist—a member of God’s end-time people, part of that remnant confidently expecting the soon return of Jesus?’ ”

Others find the interrogative unsettling
. “I AM an Adventist!” they growl, “and no one should question that. I still go to church on Sabbath.”

Still others wrestle with the challenge to their personal norms.
“Must I share an identical set of beliefs and lifestyle practices with other Adventists in order to consider myself one of them? And if so, which kind of Adventist is my standard?”

If any—or all—of these responses flitted through your mind in the past 60 seconds, consider yourself in good company. The question, with its open-endedness and call for self-examination, seems, well,
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For 150 years, belonging to the Seventh-day Adventist Church has usually meant asserting a unique spiritual identity and way of life, one often associated with costly choices and deep sacrifices. In many homes, in many families, there are stories of jobs lost, friendships cooled, and difficult lifestyle changes. Someone—Grams or Grandpa, Mom, Dad, brother, sister—took a stand for Bible truth and paid the price a callous world demanded.

We’ve grown accustomed to defining ourselves by things both positive and negative—by specific, countercultural beliefs we hold in the sacredness of the seventh-day Sabbath and the literal return of Christ, as well as things
not done, like partying, playing the slots in Vegas, smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, dancing, and until 20 years ago in some regions, going to the movies. Gathered as a people around a core commitment to follow Christ as revealed in Scripture, we made the innocent assumption that other Adventists were defining and describing themselves just as we did—“those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).*

But the evidence continues to mount that what we thought was near-unanimity about the definition of an Adventist has now expanded, much like the bellows of an accordion or the dimensions of a desert tent. In one and the same community of faith are men and women holding highly different beliefs and practices.

Some of these differences are personal, like not celebrating Christmas, or a choice for veganism. Others challenge the very heart of the gathered biblical consensus that for a century has defined Seventh-day Adventism. Anti-Trinitarianism is still alive nearly 120 years after Ellen White put it decisively to rest in her 1898 classic,
The Desire of Ages. Theistic evolution, which carries at its core a belief that Genesis 1-3 can’t actually be referring to the creation of the world in six 24-hour days, is now the refuge of some Adventists uncomfortable with both the Bible text and cold Darwinism.

And in the living of this faith there’s even more diversity. Some codify appropriate Sabbath behaviors like Pharisees of old, urging fasts instead of feasts, banning all that even seems like pleasure on God’s holy seventh day. Others underline the joy and family connectedness they’ve found in Sabbath, seeing nothing troubling in a good meal at a quiet restaurant or an afternoon of leisurely shopping.

These aren’t merely markers on the familiar conservative-liberal spectrum. One and the same Adventist can be adamant about the validity of the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8 while studying it over a steaming Starbucks cappuccino. Conversely, some who publicly doubt the historicity of the Exodus and Sinai can’t imagine consuming a hamburger or drinking a diet Coke.

One explanation for this wide range of Adventist convictions and practices emerges from our history as a people. Constricted by the creedal faiths out of which many of them came, most early Seventh-day Adventists were adamant about not spelling out all doctrines and practices with the precision of the Christian denominations they termed “Babylon.” Seventh-day Adventism has always insisted, at its heart, on the sacredness of the individual conscience as shaped by the Word of God. Adventists have fiercely defended that right when governments, ecclesiastical powers, or corporations sought to infringe on it.

The movement that grew up through the 1850s and was officially organized in the midst of the American Civil War was initially less spelled-out than some now imagine. Through the 1860s some early Adventists ate pork, chewed tobacco, and publicly doubted—in the pages of this magazine!—the validity of Ellen White’s prophetic gift. Still others, even some in leadership, gravitated toward what theologians call “semi-Arianism”—a mistaken belief that Jesus was in some way a lesser form of God, not coexistent and coeternal with the Father. Agreeing with other Christians about a belief wasn’t a goal unless it could be established—to their satisfaction—solely from the Bible.

Some codify appropriate Sabbath behaviors like Pharisees of old, urging fasts instead of feasts, banning all that even seems like pleasure on God’s holy seventh day.

Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (now Adventist Review) editor Uriah Smith published an 1872 compendium of key Adventist beliefs, he noted that there was, so far as he knew, “general agreement” on the 25 “principles” he articulated, even though the list wasn’t yet “official.” In 1889 the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook adopted Smith’s list and sharpened his assertion to indicate that there was “entire unanimity throughout the body” on these points. For 30 years a consensus about both Bible truth and holy living had been forming among Adventists, and these early documents made that consensus public.

Neither of these nineteenth-century statements of “Fundamental Principles” specifically mentioned a belief in the Trinity, however, nor any reference to the significance of abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and “unclean” foods, even though most Adventists of the era would have agreed with both. By 1932 the “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists” appearing in the
Church Manual specifically referenced the Godhead Trinity, and declared that “the believer will be led to abstain from all intoxicating drinks, tobacco, and other narcotics, and to avoid every body- and soul-defiling habit and practice.” Decades after most Adventists had come to a belief in Ellen White’s prophetic gift, the 1959 Church Manual added a clear statement to the “Fundamental Principles.”

Delegates to the church’s General Conference session in Dallas, Texas, in April 1980 voted a major revision of the church’s Fundamental Beliefs, and included for the first time separate statements on what Adventists had historically believed about Creation, the Lord’s Supper, marriage and the family, and unity in the body of Christ, among others. Recognizing the reality that the church must stay awake to what Adventists have always termed “present truth,” the 1980 preamble aptly noted that:

“Revision of these statements may be expected at a General Conference session when the church is led by the Holy Spirit to a fuller understanding of Bible truth or finds better language in which to express the teachings of God’s Holy Word.”

At this summer’s General Conference session in San Antonio, Texas, the first comprehensive review of the church’s Fundamental Beliefs in 35 years will be discussed, no doubt debated, and finally voted on by more than 2,600 delegates from around the globe. Proposed changes, which have been moving through a careful five-year period of review and discussion, include emphatically reaffirming the church’s statement about a Creation week of 24-hour days, as well as minor adjustments to replace outdated terms.

The unfolding quality of each of these articulations of what Seventh-day Adventists believe in common should be apparent. Adventist belief, unlike some of the creedal faiths that emerged through centuries of Christian tradition, is always a dynamic and consensus thing. Answering the question “Am I an Adventist?” has always required a keen awareness of the others who make up this movement—an ability, if you will, to discern “the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29).

Even the briefest history of Adventist belief and practice (and this one has been brief!) underscores the unique way in which Seventh-day Adventists historically formed themselves into a faith community. There has always been a centripetal, attractional nature to what we hold in common. Sociologists could identify Adventism as an “affinity faith”—a voluntary association of like-minded believers who gather around a common set of biblically taught doctrines, shared forms of worship, and the caring fellowships where we practice the life of discipleship and service.
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No one is born a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, nor can they be propelled into it simply by heritage, culture, or language. At the heart of what it means to be an Adventist is an unshakable certainty that only the “truth as it is in Jesus”—freely chosen by each individual—“can change the leper’s spots, and melt the heart of stone.”

No synod of bishops, ecumenical alliance, or college of cardinals ultimately defines what it means to be an Adventist. Instead, in language bettering Thomas Jefferson, Seventh-day Adventists might describe the things they hold in common this way:
“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’—in Scripture.”

In an age when litigants sue even religious groups to demand inclusion in a group to which they want to belong, Adventists continue to assert the priority of voluntary personal choice to affiliate—or not.

Accompanying this, of course, is the inevitable ethical point: Should I morally continue to describe myself as a Seventh-day Adventist or give lip service to beliefs and lifestyle implications that I actually reject or no longer practice? The ninth commandment specifically requires that a believer not “bear false witness.” If I depart from the broad Seventh-day Adventist consensus on key points of faith and life that they have articulated for more than 140 years, may I honestly call myself one of them—and if so, for what honorable purpose?

Those waiting for others—some General Conference session vote or a gathering of world church leaders—to define them as “in” or “out” of Adventism have missed the vital, beating heart of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. Once we remind ourselves that having a name on the membership rolls of an Adventist congregation saves no one, then the takeaway point is squarely personal: Am I still walking with this people? Do I believe as they say they do? If not, what should I call myself? Do I intend to live the common, biblically-ordered life of those who still describe themselves as “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus”?

Three poignant and enduring invitations still comprise the warm heart of the Seventh-day Adventist movement. How you respond to them will determine your personal answer to that challenging question “Am I an Adventist?”

Moving toward Jesus: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Moving out of Babylon: Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4).

Moving toward heaven: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).

*Texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.