ideological clashes in American government and society have caused certain
historians and commentators—and much of the public as well—to yearn wistfully
for the days when compromise and moderation more easily bridged the gap between
widely different convictions and courses of action. But the wisdom or lack thereof in such
approaches within the non-sacred realm is not the burden of what follows. Rather, the focus of this essay is the quest
of certain ones inside the church for middle-ground compromise in the realm of
At times such as the present—when significantly divisive issues of theology, worship, and lifestyle threaten the unity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—various well-meaning souls occasionally enter the conversation who try to ignore the inspired evidence relative to such disputes, and who simply call for both camps to “stop the arguing” and find some “centrist” meeting point where most if not all can find accommodation. From time to time, in modern Adventist discourse, the label “centrist” has appeared as pinpointing what is presumed to be the ideal place from which thinkers and decision-makers should craft solutions for the church’s dilemmas.
The middle-class culture of white Western civilization, from which much of First World Adventism originates, has much to do with this mentality. Many raised in this culture have grown up hearing that “the two subjects never to discuss with your friends are politics and religion.” A bit of countering folk wisdom might be another adage—most likely intended to discourage gossip about the lives of others—which states, “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.” The only problem is that strong minds unafraid to discuss ideas aren’t always popular!
But the lure of spiritual neutrality, ambiguity, moderation, centrism—whatever term you prefer—is viewed most unfavorably by the testimony of Inspiration. Let us consider the record.
“Knowing Good and Evil”
The original temptation thrust at humanity was not to abandon good and embrace evil. Rather, it was to find room for both. In urging Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit, the serpent stated: “God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Religious pluralism—the notion that all religious and moral perspectives should be given free access within the church—thus traces its roots to the initial deception of human history.
One is fascinated at Ellen White’s description of those who were most prominent in rejecting God’s message for the world just before the Flood:
The men of that generation were not all, in the fullest acceptation of the term, idolaters. Many professed to be worshipers of God. They claimed that their idols were representations of the Deity, and that through them the people could obtain a clearer conception of the divine Being. This class were foremost in rejecting the preaching of Noah. As they endeavored to represent God by material objects, their minds were blinded to His majesty and power; they ceased to realize the holiness of His character, or the sacred, unchanging nature of His requirements (1).
In Adventism today, many would call these people “moderates” or perhaps “progressive moderates”—those desiring company with the old religious ways while at the same time remaining open to “new” methods of sharing those ways with an increasingly hostile world. Some in the contemporary church might call these worship forms “seeker-sensitive.” But the servant of the Lord tells us it was these spiritual centrists, not the blatant apostates who offered human sacrifices and stole their neighbors’ wives, who were foremost in rejecting God’s message for that time.
Here we glimpse the essence of the pagan clash with Biblical religion so evident throughout the Old Testament as well as the early Christian centuries. One Jewish historian, writing of the Maccabean rebellion in the second century B.C, observes:
In antiquity religious persecutions were something of a rarity. The polytheistic and polyethnic empires of both Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean basin tolerated religious and cultic diversity. As long as the peace was maintained and the taxes were paid, the state did not care much about the religious life of its citizens. What provoked the persecution by Epiphanes remains an enigma in spite of intense study by many scholars (2).
A quick dip into the Old Testament would solve this enigma rather fast. Religious persecutions in the ancient world were indeed “something of a rarity,” for the simple reason that the religion of the Bible was something of a rarity! Polytheistic religions tolerated each other, then as now, because each was open to the multiplicity of gods and eclectic spiritual variety each system represented. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament offer an entirely different worldview—that of a single Deity personifying a changeless standard of love, justice, and mercy applicable to all, in contrast with the self-accommodating, morally ambiguous, ethnocentric worship of paganism. A religion like Israel’s threatened the status quo of heathen cultures like no other religion possibly could. Hence the persecution of prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah by apostate Israelite rulers and occasional pagan accomplices (such as Jezebel).
Another historian, writing of the persecution of early Christians by the Romans, underscores the contrast noted above:
Rome could accept their version of the Supreme God, whom others called Jupiter or Sol; it could accept Christ together with other heroes and divinities (the eclectic Emperor Alexander Severus honoured Christ in his temple alongside Orpheus, Abraham and others). But what was preposterous was the Christians’ arrogant insistence that no gods had ever walked the earth until an obscure Jewish teacher who was executed in the reign of Tiberius (3).
The use of the word “arrogant” with regard to the early Christians’ exclusive veneration of Jesus is not without contemporary relevance, as this adjective is increasingly applied in our day to church members who eschew compromise in seeking to practice and uphold faithfulness to the doctrinal and moral absolutes of Scripture.
“Neither Cold Nor Hot”
Perhaps the strongest denunciation of spiritual ambiguity is found in the Savior’s rebuke to the church of Laodicea:
I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or not. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of My mouth. Because thou sayest,. I am rich, and increased with goods, and in need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked (Rev. 3:15-17).
Two metaphors in this passage describe this state of spiritual neutrality, which so nauseates the Lord that He feels like throwing up: lukewarmness and nakedness. The latter is particularly interesting, as this is not the first time in Scripture when the spiritual condition of God’s people is compared to clothing or the absence thereof. Isaiah 64:6 speaks of how “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Zechariah 3:3-4 speaks of the “filthy garments” worn by the high priest Joshua as symbolic of the sins of Israel. But the message to Laodicea does not portray the church as clothed in filthy rags or garments. Rather, Laodicea is depicted as naked, wearing neither the spotless righteousness of her Lord nor the filthy rags of her own righteousness. Indecisive and uncertain, desperate to please as many and offend as few as possible, she vacillates, unable to make up her mind. So she stands unclad—an embarrassment to herself, to the watching world, and to God.
The Centrist Trap
It is always dangerous, of course, to approach spiritual issues with notions of what is extreme and what is balanced already in place, before permitting the weight of inspired counsel to determine where one stands. The goal of the Christian should never veer from strict faithfulness to the written counsel of God, regardless of where that might place a person’s ideas or practices on someone else’s abstract continuum. But to make the search for a perceived “middle ground” the primary focus of theological study or administrative governance is to disregard the pattern of the Sacred Record. Was any middle ground possible between Noah and the antediluvians who scorned his message? Was there a “sensible center” where Jezebel and Elijah might have made peace? Was Jeremiah too extreme in his denunciation of Judah’s apostasy? What of the conflict between John the Baptist and Herodias? Or between the Protestant Reformers and the established church of their day?
The notion of a “centrist” option as the solution to theological controversies in modern and contemporary Adventism has taken a number of forms, but perhaps the most popular has been the suggestion that the liberal/conservative divide in Adventist doctrinal and moral disputes is comparable to the split between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the time of Jesus (4). This theory draws a parallel between present-day conservative Adventists and the ancient Pharisees, while a similar parallel is drawn between present-day liberal Adventists and the ancient Sadducees. What is frequently implied by this paradigm is that just as Jesus eschewed the thinking of both these parties, faithful Adventists today should avoid both liberal and conservative theological camps in the church, and thus find the “center” with Jesus.
No one, of course, will argue for the strict accuracy of the liberal and conservative labels in theological or any other settings. But that isn’t the issue here. The issue is whether or not this Pharisee/Sadducee polarization model is a useful way to help contemporary Adventists better understand the spiritual dilemma facing the church just now. In the end, the basic assumption of this paradigm is that the present Adventist conflict in its varying struggles does not present choices between truth and error, but rather, between equally undesirable extremes.
I have long considered this way of understanding the present polarity in the church to be both misleading and dangerous. And for the following reasons:
First, Inspiration nowhere depicts the last conflict, either in the church or the world, in such terms. Both Scripture and Ellen White depict this conflict as a struggle between commandment-keepers and commandment-breakers (Rev. 12:17; 14:12) (5). In describing the conditions which will cause the great majority to be shaken out in the last days, we read of “those who have step by step yielded to worldly demands, and conformed to worldly customs” (6), the “careless and indifferent” (7), those “not willing to take a bold and unyielding stand for the truth” (8), those who “have not been sanctified through obedience to the truth . . . uniting with the world and partaking of its spirit. . . prepared to choose the easy, popular side” (9).
Each of these statements, and countless others, gravitate in the direction of laxity and self-indulgence—not pharisaic rigidity—as the predominant apostate forces in the end-time church. Ellen White, like Scripture, is fully capable of describing the excesses of religious conservatism, speaking at one time of those who had “preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa” (10), and writing elsewhere of how the papacy is “prepared for two classes of mankind, embracing nearly the whole world—those who would be saved by their merits, and those who would be saved in their sins” (11). Even a cursory study of the Bible, as well as the Spirit of Prophecy, makes it clear that the latter problem has been the overwhelming tendency throughout the Sacred Record, and will again be the primary pitfall of professed Christians before Jesus returns.
In short, the idea that the end-time church will be divided, as was the Jewish community in Christ’s day, between two opposite factions of equally destructive extremism—with the conservatives, like the Pharisees of old, being in the majority—has no foundation in the inspired predictions. This should be sufficient reason, by itself, to warrant rejection of this particular paradigm.
Secondly, this paradigm fails to address, because of its ambiguity, the very extremism it seeks to correct. To simply claim to be “in the middle” between two extreme viewpoints offers no guidance as to how to correct the extremes in question. The average extremist, listening to such talk, can easily rationalize that the speaker in question can’t possibly be talking about him, but about that other extremist presumably closer to the “fringe” than himself. A sobering thought—one difficult to fathom, perhaps, from our safe harbor in history—is that many Germans backed Hitler in his rise to power because they believed his agenda and views to be less extreme than some of the alternatives.
Thirdly, such a paradigm tends to encourage believers to first ask, when faced with conflict in the church, “How can we restore peace as soon as possible?” rather than, ”Which view in the present controversy is correct on the basis of God’s Word?” Rather than pleasing God through strict faithfulness to His written counsel, the goal in conflict management and resolution becomes pleasing people.
Conclusion: Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos
Syndicated columnist and talk show host Jim Hightower once observed, regarding moderation in the secular political sphere, that “all you find in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” Perhaps this isn’t always true in the secular political realm, but in the great controversy between truth and error, righteousness and sin, Hightower’s observation is pointedly relevant. The following Ellen White statement speaks in even more decisive tones:
If God abhors one sin above another, of which His people are guilty, it is doing nothing in case of an emergency. Indifference and neutrality in a religious crisis is regarded of God as a grievous crime, and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God (12).
The inspired testimony is painfully clear. When it comes to the choice between the broad road leading to destruction and the narrow road leading to eternal life (Matt. 7:13-14), no “middle” or “third” option is possible.
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 95-96.
- Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987), p. 30.
- Stephen Williams, Diocletian and the Roman Recovery (New York: Methuen Inc, 1985), p. 169.
- See Ty Forrest Gibson & James M. Rafferty, Trials and Triumph of the Remnant Church (Malo, WA: Light Bearers Publishing, 1992), pp. 63-67.
- White, The Desire of Ages, p. 763.
- ----Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 81.
- ----Early Writings, p. 271.
- Ibid, p. 50.
- ----The Great Controversy, p. 608.
- ----Review and Herald, March 11, 1890.
- ----The Great Controversy, p. 572.
- ----Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 281.