February 2, 2017

Love One Another

Taking Jesus seriously is serious business.

Lamar Phillips

y parents were Adventists when I was born. I was baptized when I was 14, and at 43 I was ordained to the gospel ministry. I studied in Adventist schools and graduated from an Adventist college.

My Neighbors

I grew up with four siblings in a rural environment in California’s Central Valley. Our only neighbors were a family of Mennonites, another of Baptists, and one of no religion at all. We had a wonderful relationship with all of them. There were no Lutherans or Methodists, or any of the many and varied other representatives of Protestant or Evangelical faith. My relationship with others who did not share my beliefs was quite limited.

From my parents, pastors, and teachers, and the books I read, I learned the doctrines of other Christian denominations and came to see that their beliefs obviously conflicted with several of Adventism’s biblical understandings. Furthermore, I learned the history of Christianity’s falling away from the early church’s teachings, the rise of the Papacy, the Inquisition, and other atrocities. I came to develop quite a negative attitude toward other denominations, particularly Roman Catholicism. Years of pastoral ministry taught me that most of my parishioners shared similar feelings. Eventually I came to learn that many Adventists were like my parishioners and me.

Recently, in conversation with a lovely young Catholic woman on many subjects of mutual interest, I was suddenly challenged when she said, “You Adventists hate Catholics, don’t you?” Her statement left me stunned and stumbling for words, because I knew some among us have such feelings. I know about the Roman Catholic Church's history, and what the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation tell us to expect before the second coming of Jesus.

Being a Good Neighbor

I now felt obliged to think through my attitude in relation to people who do not share my convictions. I need to determine what my attitude should be toward those who believe differently than I do. Jesus’ familiar words in Matthew 5:44 loomed before me in an unprecedented way as I reflected on the apostate church’s historical atrocities and what the Bible warns us to expect before the end of time: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And I reflected on another verse of Scripture: “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1 John 3:15).

I wondered now about the spirit of my own Christianity for so many years. It became clear that my negative perspective toward other denominations targeted the people who belonged to them based on the fact that they differed from me. For me, difference inspired hostility. But it seemed now that difference is hardly a valid basis for hostility. My recent ruminations have now led me to six simple conclusions that have redefined my understanding, attitudes, and behavior as a Christian.

Six Truths

John’s use of brother or sister in 1 John 3:15 means that my family is much larger than I so often acknowledge. I may be coming late to the celebration of kin, but I know now that many people of many ages, races, nationalities, languages, and Christian denominations are my siblings, my brothers and sisters. I understand now that becoming a Christian means accepting Jesus as my Savior from sin; and every boy, girl, man, or woman who does this is my sister or brother.

As Peter put it to church leaders in Jerusalem after his trip to Cornelius’ house: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:34, 35, NKJV).* I have brothers and sisters all over. Our knowledge of Scripture, our belief in Bible teachings, our practice of the Christian faith, may all be different, for all of us are still growing toward God's truth. But what’s unique about that? It happens to be true among the members of my own Adventist congregation.

Second, these family members in other Christian communities are often just as sincere about following Jesus as I am. My years of ministry introduced me to a wide variety of contacts of whom I now can make this claim.The God who is patient with me is patient with His other children, too.

Third, many Christians resist Adventism because they misperceive our faith as legalistic. All Christians should resist legalism, including Adventists, with our unique mission to call attention to God's forgotten Fourth Commandment.

Fourth, God’s love extends far beyond Adventism or Christianity. He loves criminals of all kinds, and irreligious people, too—agnostics, atheists . . . How well do I know Him and show Him if I hate those He loves?

Fifth, many Adventists were once non-Adventists. In Latin America, where I lived for 22 years, I met many Catholics who earnestly love the Bible, and sincerely love Jesus. In Costa Rica my wife and I got acquainted with a young neighbor who was raised a strict Catholic; she was an innocent, warm, and friendly woman who became a dear friend. As a result of Bible studies with my wife, she was baptized. Later she married someone who was not and has not yet become an Adventist, but has been a close friend for the past 35 years.

These five conclusions now reflect my commitment to another word of Jesus: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1). For many years I had been privately determining people’s eternal destiny based on how they differed from me, as if I could read their hearts. Yet I had always known that only God can do that.

I must share one more realization that came to me like a breath of refreshing air: my hatred was too generalized. I needed to hate error, not people. Erroneous teaching deserves our rejection. Subscribing to the wrong ideas can lead to perdition. But I would not want my Savior to reject me because of gaps in my knowledge of truth. That would be a fearsome test for admission to glory.

So I can no longer reject anyone simply because they teach doctrines different than I do, or Adventism does. There is so much I can do for them if Jesus is my example, and His Word is my instructor. That Word tells me how He would prefer me to relate: “Be devoted to to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:10).

Just Getting Started

I quote John again: “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”

My church has Bible doctrines on law, Sabbath, the heavenly sanctuary, Second Advent, and much more. There is none labeled, “Loving those who are not yet Adventist.” But relating rightly to those who believe differently is surely part of learning to know Jesus and walk in His truth. However far I have walked so far, given the time it has taken me, I guess I still have a ways to go.

Lamar Phillips retired after 40 years of denominational service in a number of countries and a variety of capacities, including pastor and ADRA country director.