NAD Adventist Intercollegiate Association statement: affirmation and concern

Throughout my years in school, from junior high to graduate study, student government was one of my persistent passions.  I was honored to serve as Student Association President at Loma Linda University during the final year in which my Master’s degree in systematic theology was finished.  Too often, unfortunately, this particular arena of campus life has been maligned both as the province of frivolous popularity seekers and as a soapbox for the allegedly “troublesome young” who—in the words of the late U.S. Vice-President Spiro Agnew---dare to meddle in the grown-up world.

In sharp contrast to these cynical perspectives, I have always held student leadership to be a wonderful opportunity to both sharpen a young person’s people skills and—within Adventism—to advance the mission of the church.  So when I see a statement published by the Adventist Intercollegiate Association (AIA)—the organization which for several decades has gathered under its umbrella the various higher educational student governments within North American Adventism—I am always interested.  I well remember the AIA convention I attended during the year I was S.A. President at LLU.  The convention was held at Walla Walla College (now Walla Walla University), and the LLU Religious Vice-President and I were the featured speakers for Sabbath School and church, respectively.

A newly-released statement by current North American Adventist student leaders, speaking through the Adventist Intercollegiate Association, seeks to address a number of contemporary issues and challenges facing the denomination.  As a former student leader who still enjoys hearing and mentoring dedicated young people within the church, I would like to share some thoughts of my own regarding this statement.

Positive Goals and Affirmations

For starters, I am very glad that the Student Association Presidents—and others—who signed the AIA statement were invited to be present at the recent North American Division year-end meetings.  This is a most positive gesture on the part of church leaders, one which I hope will be repeated in the years to come.  The denomination deserves to hear from the elected student representatives of our campuses, and to take their thoughts seriously even if they don’t always agree with them.

Much of the statement in question carries a positive and supportive tone.  It is especially heartening to read the declaration affirming “commitment to the mission and message of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” and urging that our doctrines be presented in a Christ-centered fashion “without compromising our distinctive message.”  The call for the church to address such pressing global issues as “loneliness, addiction, poverty, and environmental degradation” is certainly needful as well.  Equally welcome and insightful are the statement’s appeals for the integration of education, evangelism, and practical spirituality, the desire to “make every campus an epicenter of evangelism,” and the urge to utilize social media in the proclamation of the church’s message.  The need to make the church a safe place for the growing immigrant population in North America is also an important priority.

The suggestion that young people be given important leadership positions in the church likewise merits serious consideration.  And of course the call for the fostering of mentorship in helping the young participate in articulating and applying the church’s agenda is most essential as well.  

The Need for Clarification

Having noted positive features of the AIA statement, I would now like to note some areas of concern.  More than once, as I’ve pondered the content of this statement, I have wished I could listen and interact with these leaders who now bear burdens and hold responsibilities which form some of the fondest memories I cherish.

First of all, a statement such as this often runs the risk of sounding as if it speaks for a larger group than is fairly being represented.  To speak of “our collective vision on behalf of our generation” could come across to some as a bit grandiose.  On what basis do the authors and signers of this statement assume themselves to be speaking for “their” generation?  What about those large numbers of North American Adventist young people who don’t attend mainline SDA colleges or universities, such as those who attend both non-SDA schools and self-supporting SDA centers of learning and training?

The above questions particularly come to mind when we read the statement’s assessment of what it calls “increasing disaffection and disillusionment with Adventism in our generation.”  Few would doubt, of course, that such disaffection and disillusionment exist among contemporary Adventist youth and young adults—as well as among many who are much older.  What is instructive to ask and explore, however, is exactly how widespread these problems truly are.  How familiar, one might ask, are the authors and signers of this statement with the growing movement among many contemporary Adventist young people toward a deeper, more passionate acceptance of fundamental Adventist beliefs and the lifestyle witness they enjoin?  How many of them, for example, have attended conferences of the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC), whose numbers in recent years have far exceeded those at mainline denominational youth gatherings?

The point here is that no particular segment of contemporary youthful Adventism can be presumed to speak for the whole.  All segments need to be taken into account.  Anyone whose focus is concentrated within a particular sphere of influence and a limited exchange of ideas can be fooled into thinking such a sphere is bigger and more representative than in fact it might be.

Another comment in the statement’s introduction speaks of the need to move “from a church too often focused inward to one passionately focused outward.”  This observation isn’t really surprising, as young believers I’ve observed across the decades tend to be markedly impatient with the church’s internal challenges in deference to what is often perceived to be the much bigger, more exciting task of winning the world for Jesus.  The problem too often overlooked by this mindset is that in the Biblical record and beyond, revival and reformation have always been the needful prerequisites for a credible Christian witness to the world.  The New Testament apostles weren’t able to convert thousands till the power of their Savior had radically, internally transformed them.  Once true revival and reformation take place in the church, outreach to the world follows as naturally as morning follows the night.

One observation in this statement which particularly needs clarification is the stated need we would all acknowledge to “live and teach our doctrines from a Jesus-centered perspective without compromising our distinctive message.”  Again I salute these leaders for making it clear they don’t seek to abandon or compromise the distinctive teachings of the church.  But what in fact does it mean to teach our distinctive doctrines “from a Jesus-centered perspective”?  Specifics are badly needed here.  What does a “Jesus-centered” perspective on one or more of our doctrines sound like?  What would a “non-Jesus-centered perspective” sound like?

Most importantly of all perhaps, are we sure—when we speak of a “Jesus-centered perspective” on our doctrines and standards—that we’re talking about the Jesus of Scripture?  Much of the “Jesus” talk we hear nowadays gives evidence of having more to do with postmodern notions of open-ended acceptance than with the Biblically-structured, principled compassion taught and practiced by the Christ of the Bible.

I fully endorse the statement’s admonition that the church should “effectively communicate and demonstrate the ultimate purpose of our many doctrines: living a life of freedom, abundance, and joy.”  But again, such language needs to be clarified.  Do we as individuals get to define what freedom, abundance, and joy truly are, after which we go to our Adventist teachings and then decide how they fit into plans and objectives we’ve already decided upon?  Or do we permit the written counsel of God to explain what genuine freedom, abundance, and joy represent as defined by God’s eternal Word, after which we submit our lives unconditionally and without reserve to the transformative guidance of that Word?

Women in Leadership

One very specific area of unease evoked by the AIA statement, so far as the present writer and others are concerned, are its comments on the continuing discussion in the church regarding the ordination of women to the gospel ministry.  As a member of the General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee, this is an area of intense interest and concentrated study on my part just now.

Some may not realize this, but I am one who has previously held a position on this issue quite comparable to the one taken by the AIA statement, and whose convictions were changed by Biblical evidence I had hitherto not considered.  Had such a statement on this topic been presented to the AIA convention I attended while serving as LLU Student Association President, I would have enthusiastically endorsed it.  It was a deeper study of the Bible on my part, not the opinions of church leaders or anyone else, that altered my stand.  In light of this, I truly wonder how much exposure the authors and signers of the current AIA statement have received to the evidence of both sides in this controversy.  Is their support for full gender equality in ministry based on a careful and in-depth study of Scripture on their part, regarding the roles of men and women in both church and family?  Or is it based on a reading of the Bible through the lenses of culturally-driven, egalitarian assumptions?

As the church discusses and explores this issue, I would hope the young leaders who have signed this statement would use their influence to encourage productive conversation and the full weighing of Biblical evidence, particularly on the campuses they represent.  I would also encourage them to keep their minds open to perhaps a fuller and deeper consideration of the Biblical message on this subject.  

Concluding Observations

Again I welcome the insights and participation of the leaders of our higher educational student bodies in the present dialogue over issues within contemporary Adventism.  The commitment expressed by this statement to the distinctive teachings and witness of the church is most encouraging.  I would, however, urge that vague and general pronouncements be avoided in the future and that more specific recommendations be offered so far as initiatives of this sort are concerned.  Church administrators are busy people, and are thus not likely to take much time with suggestions which could come across as containing more platitudes than practical specifics.

I would also suggest that these campus leaders perhaps take a more deliberate and substantive interest in the growing movement among their peers toward the rediscovery and fresh appreciation of distinctive Adventism and its continuing relevance found in such groups as GYC.  Broad-brush labeling and negative stereotypes, particularly when fostered by authority figures, can be stumbling blocks even for otherwise inquisitive and thoughtful minds.  My prayer is that leaders such as those who signed this statement will not be led astray by such dismissive attitudes.  They need to investigate for themselves this growing interest among Adventist youth in classic Adventist teachings, as set forth in Scripture and the writings of Ellen White.  The disaffection and disillusionment lamented in the recent AIA statement might prove less pervasive than some have assumed.

Finally, I hope the authors and signers of this statement will lead the way in encouraging frank and candid consideration of evidence in the various discussions now transpiring in the church.  A major, even monstrous irony in some places is that some who claim to support the free interchange of ideas in the church are often quite vigorous in prohibiting access to campus platforms and other venues for those presenting ideas with which they differ.  Even in today’s networked world, an institutional environment can so close itself to perspectives it finds disagreeable that those who study and work there can find themselves making presumptions about issues based on very limited data.  While in no way am I an advocate of unfettered pluralism in the church, I do find myself astonished that persons who claim in fact to encourage free discussion seem more than willing to limit such freedom when it is in their power to do so.

I look forward, in the future, to more statements by our student leaders regarding denominational issues.  And I pray that those among our young people who have made their faith their own by finding in our distinctive message the supreme joy, passion, and purpose of their lives, will take a greater interest in leadership on the campuses of mainline SDA academies, colleges, and universities.

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