While pastoring I often had a particular conversation. Someone would want me to read a book, article, or pamphlet, or to watch or listen to a DVD or CD. Usually what they wanted me to consume was a rant against this or that issue, person, church, religion, and so on.
The conversation went something like this. “Pastor, I have something you really need to see.”
Jesus was and still is much loved and respected by the general public.
“Yes, I just read a book that really hits home concerning __________.” (Fill in the blank with any number of topics, such as the pope, music, spiritual formation, etc.).
“Absolutely! Will you read it?”
“It depends. Is it a book that tears down or builds up?”
When I ask people what they know about the sect of the Sadducees, right away they respond, “The Sadducees were the ones who didn’t believe in the resurrection.” Some 2,000 years after the Sadducees disappeared we still know them by what they stood against, because that is their legacy preserved in Scripture. We do not know them for what they stood for, what positive contribution they made, if any.
It’s the same with the Pharisees. They have a negative reputation today, but the Pharisees were a group intent on a noble purpose. They wanted to be holy. Their noble purpose, however, was thwarted by their methodology. They sought their holiness primarily by avoiding evil, which they accomplished by creating rule upon burdensome rule.
Thus Jesus informed them that in concentrating on their minuscule rules they ignored the weightier matters of the law. In other words, they defined themselves not by what they stood for but by what they stood against. Instead, Jesus said, they needed to identify themselves by what they stood for, things such as justice, mercy, faithfulness, and the love of God (see Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42). How differently the Pharisees would be known today if they had made their public attitude one of holding up those standards and only quietly avoiding evil. That’s what Jesus did.
It’s an interesting study to read through the four Gospels and note what Jesus did not spend much time fighting against.
The Sadducees accepted a major doctrinal error concerning the resurrection, and Jesus never even addressed the problem until they brought it to Him. The Pharisees forced oppressive rules on people, but Jesus’ sermons didn’t focus on this except for a couple of instances when they drove Him to it as they worked against Him.
Ellen White tells us that Judas was paying himself from the disciples’ moneybag,* but Jesus never seems to have brought it up. Again and again Jesus passed right over doctrinal, even behavioral issues, choosing instead to work the positive, up-building angle. As a result Jesus was and still is much loved and respected by the general public. Ask people in the streets what they know of Jesus, and it’s more likely that they will mention the good He did rather than the evil He stood against.
If you were to walk down the street asking people what they know of Seventh-day Adventists, what would you hear? Most people, I fear—if they know anything about us at all—would probably reply with something along the lines of: “Adventists are against eating meat.” “Adventists reject the sacredness of Sunday.” “Adventists are against the doctrine of hell.” “Adventists think the pope is the antiChrist.” Whether or not those statements are true, the problem is that we are often known more for what we are against than what we stand for, such as loving one another, the soon return of Jesus, the gift of the Sabbath, living a healthful lifestyle, and so on.
I get the feeling at times that many Seventh-day Adventists consider it a badge of honor to stand boldly against something. I sat at our church fair booth one day in a small town in Minnesota. A man walked up to the booth, read our sign, and said flatly, “Adventists. You are the ones who hate Catholics.”
Although the accusation was untrue, the fact is that Seventh-day Adventists deserve that reputation. I questioned the man specifically to find out if he had attended one of our Revelation seminars. Sure enough, he had. He had walked out of the meetings offended, not because we were lying, but because we were tearing down rather than building up. I congratulated him for walking out on such terms. He was right to do so. It doesn’t matter how true a message is when the takeaway is a feeling of disrespect, unintended as that feeling may be.
I wish I could believe that the incident at the fair was an isolated one, but I’m sorry to say that similar incidents have happened to me on other occasions, too. We deserve our reputation. The reason we deserve it is not because of our message in and of itself, but because of the way we present our message. Whatever our subject, we too often approach it from the point of view of what we are against rather than what we are for.
The question I ask my church is whether we wish to be known by what we are against, or by what we are for.
If we wish to be known by what we stand for, then only one course of action is available to us: we must begin to talk about what we stand for rather than what we stand against, not just in our sermons but in our private conversations as well. God knows what He’s talking about when the Bible says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11). He’s serious about that!
* Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif., Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 718.
Jeff Scoggins works for Adventist Mission.