Each day the young Swiss pastor sat silent. Each day he brought two massive folders and flopped them down on the table in front of him. His body language shouted unhappiness. We wondered: What is in those folders?
We were meeting on the campus of the Baptist seminary in Prague, Czech Republic, for an official dialogue between the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). The latter, with more than 600 million members, had selected their team from several different nations. For many years the Evangelicals, who emphasize the Bible as the Word of God, conversion, salvation in Jesus, and belief in the Second Coming, had been uncertain how to relate to Adventists. Are we a genuine Christian body, or are we a cult?
I could feel the tension building in the young pastor. Just before the end of our week together, the dam broke. We Adventists had presented our position on the Scriptures and Ellen White—while we believe that she was a messenger inspired by God, we look to the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice. Opening up the large folders, the pastor launched into a tirade against Ellen White. He had gathered reams of material from the Internet, which includes several bitter Web sites run by former church members and pastors.
On this contentious note the week together came to a close. A second round was scheduled for the following year, when the venue would be Andrews University, with Adventists serving as hosts.
I came to the dialogue with grave doubts that anything good would emerge from it. As we got under way, my misgivings seemed about to be confirmed. The Evangelicals handed out a draft of the consensus statement of the joint conversation. The document was altogether unacceptable to us: it asserted that Adventists base their distinctive beliefs, including the Sabbath, on the writings of Ellen White, not on the Bible.
We Adventists protested: the draft statement was inaccurate and misleading. But the Evangelicals stood their ground; the dialogue was at an impasse. Then Bert B. Beach, veteran Adventist administrator, broke the ice. He stated, “If you insist that Adventists base their teachings on Ellen White’s writings, we insist that the statement also indicate that Evangelicals base Sunday observance on tradition, not on the Bible!”
We Adventists hold strong convictions, but we don’t always need to present them strongly.
“Well, then,” the Evangelicals responded, “why don’t you develop a draft that we can work on together?”
Bert Beach went to work. He put together a statement that pointed out similarities, differences, and areas of possible cooperation. After considerable discussion and several adjustments, both parties were ready to adopt it.
The upshot? The WEA now regards Adventists as Christians with whom they can fellowship. (Adventists are not members of the WEA.)
For some 25 years I was involved in interchurch conversations with a variety of denominations. Several of these dialogues began like the meeting in Prague: cold as ice. But in each one the ice eventually melted, and we concluded on cordial terms. After I left the Adventist Review office, I served as assistant to General Conference president Jan Paulsen in developing relationships with leaders of world religions. Most of these conversations involved civic and religious leaders of Islam. Once again we were able to develop positive relationships, some of which grew into close friendships.
All around us today we see the collapse of polite discourse. Means of communication continue to burgeon, but every advance seems only to feed the worst tendencies of our fallen human nature. Talk shows are an abomination, the nadir of nastiness as guests from opposite ideologies shout, interrupt, lie, and insult. Their object is not truth but scoring points for the other side.
How should Christians relate in this age of nastiness? By seeking to build bridges instead of walls. We are followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who in His famous sermon on the mount declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9, NRSV).*
Building bridges isn’t complicated. The principles that led to an amicable outcome between Adventists and the WEA still work:
Having the right attitude:We should look on everyone we meet as a child of God, created in His image. The old adage still holds: We all have one Father, so we are brothers and sisters. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, not their destroyers.
Taking time to make friends:Building bridges takes time. Before we can begin, maybe a wall has to be torn down. That wall may be in our minds as much as the other party’s. Only as we become acquainted and begin to understand do we see how wrong our thinking has been, how different the reality from our preconceptions.
Some of my closest friends are Muslims. When Noelene and I meet with them, they overwhelm us with love, kindness, and generosity. Some of our Adventist brothers and sisters find this extremely difficult to accept. They have heard so many negative reports about Muslims that they conclude that we have been deceived.
If only they would take time to befriend a Muslim! Their thinking would undergo a radical transformation.
Eating together: From ancient times a shared meal has worked to knock down walls and to build bridges. To sit down at the table with the “enemy” means to cease being enemies.
Seeking common ground: We Adventists hold strong convictions, but we don’t always need to present them strongly. The apostle Peter advises: “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, KJV). Paul tells us: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6).
Joining hearts: The strongest bridges are held together with heart cement, when friendship has led to trust and trust to love. This is the ultimate blessing that the peacemaker experiences.
Of all the people with whom Noelene and I tried to build a bridge, the most difficult were with the next-door neighbors. We had nothing in common. Their values and lifestyle were the opposite of ours. We barely exchanged greetings.
Our son and his wife came for a visit with our first grandchild. We organized an open house for friends and neighbors. Those from next door came, for the first time without cigarettes in their hands. Tasting the punch and noticing it wasn’t “spiked,” he quickly put it down. Nevertheless they stayed on.
Long story short: slowly the wall came down. We invited them for a meal; they reciprocated. When they retired and moved away, they kept in contact, urging us to retire near them. We visited them in their new home, and with pride they shared that it was smoke-free.
Yes, we can build bridges. It may be one of the most important things we can do.
* Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
William G. Johnsson, now retired and living in Loma Linda, California, is former editor of Adventist Review.