About a decade ago I befriended a couple guys, one of them a pastor, who were members of another denomination. Our relationship focused mostly on debating theology, as we’d send long emails back and forth, discussing various topics such as the Sabbath and last-day events. It was all fairly cordial, but they seemed very dogmatic, very stark, speaking in categorical terms.
What stands out to me the most was when the pastor in an email declared to me in no uncertain terms that the Adventist Church was (and I quote) “preaching a false gospel and therefore not part of the Reformation.”
I’ll be honest: that hurt. Being the recipient of such an attack didn’t feel good.
As I’ve reflected on that experience, though, it’s led me to wonder: If being on the receiving end of dogmatism doesn’t feel good, why does it seem like we, as Adventists, so often dish it out ourselves—whether to those within our own ranks or those outside?
One scriptural passage that’s been exceptionally thought-provoking for me lately is Paul’s reflection on knowledge, in the context of love, in 1 Corinthians 13. Twice he makes a point of saying that we “know in part” (verses 9, 12). Sandwiched between verses 10 and 12 is a comment about how he spoke, understood, and thought as a child, but now having become a man, has put away childish things.
How do children speak, understand, and think? As if they know everything (examples from my own children are legion). But as Paul got older, he realized his knowledge was partial, and he didn’t see the whole picture. Indeed, he saw “in a mirror, dimly” (verse 12).
I’ve been convicted lately that inflexibly dogmatic thinking is one of the greatest threats to the gospel in my life. I don’t have to have it all figured out for faith to be operative, and I certainly don’t have to attack others for their beliefs—which usually doesn’t change their views anyway, but simply causes them to defend them even more determinedly.
Indeed, my confidence is based not on being infallibly right but on being infinitely loved. There’s a world of difference between the two. One is based on trust, but not immune to questions or doubts; the other depends on some sort of Enlightenment-defined, absolute certainty that yields, as I’ve known it, in arrogance and condescension. Humility is a better and more attractive posture than dogmatism anyway. And counterintuitively, I’ve discovered that the more dogmatic I am in my demeanor, the more insecure I actually am about the belief in my heart.
But my security is in Jesus, not in being right—which has been a huge and liberating realization for my Adventist heart. “The kind of certainty proper to a human being,” Lesslie Newbigin has thus written, “will be one which rests on the fidelity of God, not upon the competence of the human knower.”*
Simply put, our security is based on God’s faithfulness, not on our omniscience.
This doesn’t mean we can’t have strong convictions. It simply means we try to hold them with an open hand, humbled by the glory, grandeur, and omniscience of God.
* Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 28.
Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose most recent book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), details his and his congregation’s recent journey into a mission-centered life. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity.