A prominent leader in North American Adventism recently stated, during a discussion in which I participated, that the term “nice conservative” has “almost become an oxymoron” in the contemporary church. I countered by acknowledging that while at times needless severity and harshness have certainly attended efforts to defend beliefs and practices peculiar to classic Adventism, one must beware of defining “niceness” pursuant to an agenda of pleasing as many and offending as few as possible. Few if any of God’s heroes through the ages, including Jesus Himself, would qualify as “nice” under such a definition.
Reflecting further on the comments of this church leader, who by most measures would qualify as quite conservative himself, I found myself considering in depth the extent to which our perception of spiritual attitudes, convictions, and issues is driven by professional and social imperatives rather than the transcendent view of reality found in God’s Word. Just how do we decide whether someone is mean or nice? By measuring their words and conduct according to the written counsel of God? Or simply by observing the consequences of their words and actions within the body of Christ, in particular among those we like and respect?
“Mean” Reformers and Urban Legends
From Jehu in the Old Testament to James and John in the New, sacred history notes the sad reality that those with zeal for the Lord at times possess the wrong spirit. In subsequent ages, from the fanatical Protestants who bedeviled Martin Luther to the violence perpetuated by abolitionist John Brown just prior to the American Civil War, the profile of the mean reformer emerges. Some have described such individuals as persons who “work for the Lord like the devil.”
In contemporary Adventism, it seems so many have horror stories about conservative Adventists who allegedly fit this profile. In my own involvement of over thirty-five years with what most would call the conservative wing of the church, I too have met persons who by biblical standards could fairly be viewed in this light. The problem arises, however, when standards other than biblical ones become the means of labeling people as lacking in grace, kindness, or love. And when labels and perceptions are repeated often enough, as Joseph Goebbels once observed, it matters little whether or not they are factual. What sociologists call “urban legend” begins to take over at such times.
In our “different strokes for different folks” society, in which inclusion has become the ultimate virtue and exclusion the ultimate vice, it is easy to see how Christians who—no matter how graciously—refuse to compromise in the upholding of doctrinal, worship, or lifestyle standards, could quickly acquire such labels as “mean,” “judgmental,” “legalistic,” etc. In the culture most of us inhabit in first world Adventism, little if anything is seen as worth arguing about or causing division over. White, middle-class Americans in particular have been taught from childhood the two subjects to avoid in conversation—politics and religion—if one wishes to keep friendships and social ties intact. For such persons, what is wrong is not nearly so bad as what is controversial. When issues arise in the church, such individuals do not ask, “What does the Word of God say on this subject?” but rather, “How soon can we stop all the bickering and get everything back to normal?”
These factors are important to bear in mind when we hear defenders of orthodox theology and standards labeled as “mean.” When godly pastors or church members pursue disciplinary measures against a local elder who abandons his wife on other than biblical grounds, when such persons oppose the introduction of worship styles contrary to inspired counsel, when consecrated constituents demand the firing of a professor who teaches evolution or promotes “monogamous” homosexuality, neither a lack of concern for the lost nor a harsh tone of voice is needed in order for those seeking such reforms to be tarred as “unloving.” No matter how much calmness, grace, or politeness may season such initiatives on the part of reformers, the very effort to draw such lines of clarity and consequent exclusion is sufficient to portray them in a negative light. If you truly love someone, so postmodern thinking goes, you won’t exclude them or denounce as wrong their ideas or choices. Unfettered tolerance has become the presupposed meaning of love, even in the church. Never mind what the written counsel of God commands or forbids.
Prior to my call to full-time pastoral ministry, I spent seven years in a congregation sharply divided over some of the key issues in contemporary Adventism. Thinking of those years, I have no doubt that a deeper spirit of kindness and more visible compassion could have attended our efforts to uphold truth and integrity in that setting. At the same time, the simple facts of that situation tell a story far different from the tales of horror transmitted by two consecutive pastors—and their apologists—to local conference officers and others.
When church activities and initiatives required personal sacrifice, it was these “mean” conservatives who were most visible offering their time, energy, and resources. Evangelistic meetings often found them the first to arrive and the last to leave. When members had special needs—physical, financial, spiritual—these reviled members were the ones who stepped forward to help. I will never forget the occasion when a man struggling with alcoholism was brought to prayer meeting by a young couple outspoken in their advocacy of conservative Adventist beliefs and practices. This man, reeking of drink and obviously under the influence, was greeted by an outpouring of love and welcome by the very members the pastor routinely denounced as rigid, harsh, and legalistic. Far from encountering rejection, the man was probably embarrassed by all the loving attention!
This is not to imply, as noted earlier, that those standing in defense of truth and righteousness might not at times permit zeal to overstep compassion as well as wisdom. But the foregoing cautions and observations constrain me to regard with grave reservation the popular notion that theological conservatives are generally mean, obstreperous types who would rather fight than eat. Too many assumptions and premises, many of them alien to the biblical view of ultimate reality, attend and surround these perceptions. Using the criteria commonly employed in our contemporary culture, it is hard to escape the conclusion that if Enoch, Noah, Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, even the Savior Himself, were present in today’s Adventism, they too would be regarded as inflexible, legalistic, polarizing conservatives.
We cannot repeat often enough the apostle Paul’s admonition to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), nor to ponder the strength of such Ellen White statements as the following:
Of all people in the world, reformers should be the most unselfish, the most kind, the most courteous. Ministry of Healing, 157
You may be true to principle, you may be just, honest, and religious; but with it all you must cultivate true tenderness of heart, kindness, and courtesy. If a person is in error, be the more kind to him; if you are not courteous, you may drive him away from Christ. Let every word you speak, even the tones of your voice, express your interest in, and sympathy for, the souls that are in peril. If you are harsh, denunciatory, and impatient with them, you are doing the work of the enemy. You are opening a door of temptation to them, and Satan will represent you to them as one who knows not the Lord Jesus. Testimonies to Ministers, 150
But our definition of love among fellow Christians can no more be driven by postmodern notions of tolerance and togetherness than can the Christian understanding of sexuality be driven by Hollywood. Reformers in contemporary Adventism who seek a return to Bible and Spirit of Prophecy principles may indeed need to rise higher in their experience of Christ’s love for the erring. But the measure of their spirit, words, and conduct must remain the objective, transcendent Word of God, not the fleeting trends and social priorities of culture, time, or place.