By Cherie Lynn Milliron, Senior Theology Major at Southern Adventist University
Last weekend I was invited to attend the Adventist Forum's Conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., through Southern’s History department. Ten of us were sent as part of the program’s attempt to broaden the education of their students through learning opportunities outside the classroom. When I first heard about the conference, I understood it as a time for Seventh-day Adventist Christians to come together to discuss how we can better relate and minister to those from other faiths. Glancing down the list of speakers, I saw Dr. Gordon Bietz and Dr. Lisa Clark Diller amongst the group. I respect both of these individuals greatly, so I quickly requested to be one of the students sent on the trip.
The first speaker of the weekend was Brian McLaren. Previously, I was entirely unfamiliar with his work. Friday night, he spent the vast majority of the evening discussing the atrocities of Christianity’s past. He walked the audience through the horrific acts that have been committed in the name of Christianity. It was a solemn evening. His focus was to highlight the need for change in Christianity. The logical fallacy was found in his jump from past to present. While there have been people who have associated themselves with Christianity in the past who behaved in ways that are counter to Christ, we must learn from them, not take ownership for their grievous sins and offer apologies to other religions for our supposed wayward ways. Dr. Clark Diller provided five copies of McLaren’s book for Southern students to keep. I took one home in order to further understand McLaren’s claims.
The next morning, Brian McLaren continued his talk. He was quite a bit more open on Sabbath as to his true motivation. He wanted the church to let go of their views on what he referred to as “liturgy.” However, his usage of liturgy was vastly different than what I have learned in my theology classes. His examples of liturgy were baptism and communion. Those are doctrines. However, McLaren did not want to name them as doctrine. To point out that they were doctrines would raise red flags in the minds of his listeners. This would be contrary to his charismatic way. McLaren went as far to trivialize baptism as being no more than a statement of “We are clean; they are unclean.”
Dr. Bietz spoke in the afternoon. Personally, I found it to be the highlight of the evening. He boldly proclaimed the Seventh-day Adventist message, without expressing the need to water it down to make it fit into the lukewarm waters of the world.
My fiancé and I came in after lunch. We saw a group of our fellow students sitting at a table with McLaren, and we chose to sit in an adjacent seat. I could not hear much of the conversation. However, I did hear McLaren respond to a verse that Aaron Muth had raised in objection to McLaren’s views. “You are a perfect example of what it means to not listen,” McLaren remarked curtly. Most at the table seemed to agree with McLaren’s every word, even while he chose to publicly reprimand someone for expressing any dissension. The conversation continued. McLaren expressed that since Muth had already made up his mind, he shouldn’t even be there. He continued for a good amount of time upholding Muth as an example of everything he (McLaren) was opposed to. At one point, I heard him say to Muth, “Now what was it you were griping about?” It was extremely inappropriate for a speaker to respond in such a manner. His actions certainly did not match his words. For someone who claimed to be offering love, his demeanor and words seemed to be in strong opposition to what I’ve always found to be love. Only later did I learn that Muth spoke up when McLaren was expressing his disdain and disagreement for the blood atonement of Jesus.
Semir Selmanovic spoke in the afternoon. Honestly, I was more concerned by his words than McLaren’s statements, because he claimed to be Seventh-day Adventist. I had never been exposed to any of his teachings before. Semir considers himself to be a “Progressive Adventist.” In his talk, Semir put down the fundamental doctrine of Sabbath. He felt that Seventh-day Adventists treat Sabbath with an air of mysticism. We act like everything is better once Sabbath comes, however in reality, it has nothing to do with the onset of the Sabbath. Rather, we are simply time-starved. Sabbath bears no special mark. If we were not so elitist about Sabbath, we would do a better job of communing with other religions. Semir ran out of time before he could discuss the remnant in detail. To me, the clearest point of Semir’s message came at the end of his talk. He requested that everyone stand and bow their heads as they prayed to the universe for a blessing. Please note, this is not a prayer to the God of the universe. It was a prayer to the universe. The Muslim representative to the conference, Amin Issa seemed uncomfortable with the prayer he was asked to give. He said, “This will be as much of a new experience for me as it is for you.” I would like to have stepped out at this point, however it did not seem possible.
Charles Scriven came on the platform to offer up a response. In his message, he spoke very disrespectfully of Ted Wilson, and he was quite demeaning of the Adventist Review. He said something to the effect of, “What would you do if Ted Wilson and the Adventist Review were your only source of information?” The inference was quite obvious and extremely negative. I was shocked. Whether Scriven agreed with Ted Wilson’s stances or not, he is still the General Conference President. The position God placed him in merits respect.
The remainder of the weekend exhibited more of this inappropriateness and stark comments against Seventh-day Adventism. I was amazed that this group of people could be considered amongst the church that I know and love. In the discussion groups on Saturday afternoons, I was privy to a student claiming that post-modernism and Seventh-day Adventism were complementary, and Nietzsche was really saying the same thing as Paul. It was a very sad situation. Clearly, there was a combination of those who had been hurt by the church, yet could not cut ties with Adventism and those who were militantly against the Seventh-day Adventist church, looking to gain support. By the end of the night, my fiancé and I could not continue. We excluded ourselves from the “Inter-faith Celebration” dinner and did not stay for the Jewish dancing later that evening.
Sunday morning, I returned to the meetings (one of the conditions of my ticket was that I had to attend the entire weekend). Compared to Saturday afternoon and evening, the Sunday meetings were fairly innocuous. Ryan Bell spoke. However, he stayed focused on general, abstract ways to better “love each other.” When I texted in a question on the role of evangelism and the Great Commission, there was no real answer other than that “Evangelism happens when we stop trying to do evangelism.” I leave it to you to try to interpret the statement.
All in all, the weekend was an extremely educational experience, however it was not the type of education that I anticipated it to be. I try to be fairly open-minded to new ideas, however, I felt as if my open-mindedness was taken advantage of. The weekend clearly had a hidden agenda. There was very little true inter-faith dialogue as advertised. In truth, the Jewish and Muslim speaker only offered responses to Christian speakers (all of whom were some version of Adventism other than McLaren). Most of the students were so thirsty to hear topics that they are struggling to understand (such as homosexuality) that they were willing to accept any stance given to them. With the exception of two other individuals in our SAU group of ten, the rest seemed to have few reservations about what they were hearing. After all, they trusted the people who were presenting these ideas. If you don’t dig deeper, the words of these speakers sound friendly as if they will solve the problems of the world. Critical-thinking and spiritual discernment has to be in play to safeguard someone from what is being said. For me, it was an opportunity to become aware of the Emerging Church and how some, who claim to be Seventh-day Adventist, are deemphasizing biblical doctrine as a means to emphasize relationships without evangelism or gospel truth.