Are Adventists coalescing into opposing parties? (Part I)

Sociologist and political scientists have long understood that when people take positions on issues, they tend to do so not randomly but in predictable clusters or groups, corresponding to an intellectual system, ideology, or way of seeing and evaluating the world (“worldview,” Ger. = Weltanschauung). In the realm of secular politics and government, this phenomenon has often caused political parties to be organized based upon shared ideology.

Today, two parties are emerging within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. A plurality of the membership seems unaware of, or apathetic to, the ideological fissure rapidly opening within the church. But at the ever-broadening margins, the members are coalescing around two parties, a liberal and a conservative party. I use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” not in a technical sense, but to have two words to identify two opposing ideologies, and because these terms have established meanings that are already associated with some of the positions.

Conservatives and Liberals: Contrast and Compare

When I was growing up in the 1970s, “conservative” vs. “liberal” was nearly always defined in reference to behavioral issues. Liberal Adventists were those who wore a wedding band, or ate at restaurants on Sabbath, or went swimming on Sabbath, or went to movies, or ate meat, or, in the extreme case of those “California Adventists,” drank wine. There was much buzz about these types of issues, but it was assumed that, at least on the basic doctrinal beliefs, we all shared a common religious faith. And when Desmond Ford publicly broke with the church on the 1844 doctrine, the church's reaction was swift and sure.

But we are no longer living in that gentler time. Today, the differences between liberals and conservatives relate to basic issues of scriptural interpretation and the doctrinal system of the Adventist faith. My awareness of this fact has grown slowly over the past decade, and more rapidly over the five years since the publication of my book, “Dinosaurs- An Adventist View.” The promotion of Darwinism within the church, in some of its schools, is a frontal assault on the doctrinal system of Seventh-day Adventism and the prophetic authority of Ellen White. In today's Adventist Church, it seems that many of our doctrines are up for grabs, not just our doctrine of creation. Below is a comparison of conservative and liberal views on ten controversial, disputed issues roiling the church:

Topic Conservatives tend to: Liberals tends to:
Concept of and reading of Scripture have a high view of Scripture, seeing it as inspired by the Holy Spirit and hence unitary, consistent, essentially inerrant, and not subject to criticism; reading Scripture literally except where an obvious allegory, symbol, or figure is employed view Scripture as “containing” the word of God, not being the Word of God; call conservative Adventists “fundamentalists;” subject Scripture to historical, cultural, literary, and scientific criticism; and read Scripture as containing its writers' uninspired opinions and cultural prejudices
The Church and its institutions view the church’s message and mission as paramount, and its institutions—its schools, hospitals, etc—as servants of its message and mission, not an end in themselves view the church and its institutions as paramount—an end in themselves—and view doctrine as relatively unimportant, even obtrusive and inconvenient
Ellen White believe in the prophetic authority of Ellen White selectively quote Ellen White to conservatives, but ignore her on issues such as origins, preferring to see her marginalized and phased out
Origins and the literal creation week be a young earth (or young life) creationist, and understand the importance of the Sabbath to the SDA Church and the importance of the literal creation week to the Sabbath be fully or somewhat accepting of mainstream origins science, typically advocating theistic evolution or progressive creation over hundreds of millions of years as a compromise
1844/sanctuary doctrine understand that the twin pillars of Adventism are the 1844/sanctuary doctrine and the Sabbath doctrine not accept the 1844 doctrine, and base the Sabbath on man's need of a day of rest, not on God's institution of a memorial to His creative acts
Bible Prophecy be interested in prophecy, be of the historical school of prophetic interpretation, and employ the Sabbath and the sanctuary doctrine to interpret prophecy, especially the Three Angels Messages in Revelation have little use for or interest in prophecy, be critical of the historical school of interpretation, and ridicule traditional Adventist evangelistic presentations of the beasts of Daniel and Revelation
The Social Gospel understand that Christianity entails doing good works for the poor (Matt. 25:31-46) but tends to view correct doctrine and moral conduct as more important than works of charity emphasize the social gospel, that is, the doing of good works for the poor and attempting to create a better society, even through secular political activism (in practice, the liberal allows good works and political activism to displace correct doctrine and moral conduct)
Gender and sexuality be submissive to the teaching of Scripture on gender roles and sexual conduct, including homosexuality not be submissive to the teaching of Scripture on gender roles and sexual conduct, but criticize Scripture as reflecting outdated, sexist norms, and read Scripture as proscribing only “exploitative” same-sex sexual activity, not all such activity
The Atonement accept the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ (that He had to die for our sins so that we could participate in His righteousness) be very uncomfortable with the concept that God required Christ's death on the cross in order to legally atone for our sins, preferring a “healing” or “moral influence” theory of the atonement
The Emerging Church be troubled by the “emerging church” movement, and suspicious of its leaders and agenda, including spiritual formation techniques and liturgical and worship forms heretofore associated with Rome promote the leaders of (Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet) and the practices associated with (mysticism, innovative worship practices, spiritual formation) the “emerging church” movement

Obviously, not everyone in the conservative camp will hold all positions characteristic of the conservative world view, nor will every liberal hold all positions characteristic of the liberal world view. These are tendencies, generalizations, stereotypes, etc. Because of Adventism's unique sub-culture, many otherwise fairly conservative Adventists accept the liberal position on female ordination and headship in the church—but it is still very much the liberal position; in fact, it is the liberals' best opportunity to persuade the church to adopt an effectively liberal hermeneutic. 

Party Conventions?

Political parties and other ideological movements have meetings, rallies, and conventions where like-minded speakers fire up the party faithful with rousing speeches. These are not official government meetings, but independent conventions sponsored and paid for by the parties themselves. Do we see anything comparable in the Seventh-day Adventist Church today?

The national conventions of Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) and Adventist Laymen's Services and Industries (ASI) have emerged as conservative rallying conventions. I have attended five ASI national conventions (three times to promote my book and twice to promote and two regional meetings. The ASI speakers are traditionally Adventist, pro-Ellen White, and very interested in mission, evangelism, and Bible prophecy. In the exhibit halls, scores of independent Adventist ministries have booths, including Amazing Facts, Amazing Discoveries, Secrets Unsealed, White Horse Media, 3ABN, and many others. Independent, self-supporting ministries generally tend to be more conservative than the official church and its tithe-supported auxiliaries. I have not attended a GYC convention, but from all accounts its speakers and exhibitors are of a similar ideological perspective, if not even more conservative than at ASI.

On the liberal side, the Adventist Forum conferences and the “One Project” are emerging as liberal rallying conventions. Janet Lundeen Neumann, in her recent article about the “One Project” convention at Seattle, describes what is clearly a liberal Adventist rally:

I heard people disillusioned with the established church structure, some seeking to deconstruct traditional worship. I heard an urging that a “narrative” truth be interpreted by “current culture.” I heard an advocacy for a social gospel with no mention of evangelism. I heard an urgency that we dip into “other streams” and “streams that flow both ways” for truth. And I heard mockery of our church both in word and in tone from the platform and attendees. I heard an emergent truth.

The meeting described in her article is unmistakably a liberal Adventist gathering: Social gospel? Check. Derogation of organized evangelism? Check. Ridiculing Adventist expositions of Bible prophecy? Check. The whooping, hollering, yoohooing, laughter and thunderous applause that Janet reported are typical of a political rally.

The liberals' transformative agenda is revealed by the non-Adventist speakers who were invited: Brian McLaren was the keynote speaker at last September's Adventist Forum Conference in Chattanooga, and Leonard Sweet spoke at February’s “One Project” meeting in Seattle. McLaren and Sweet are two prominent leaders of the “emerging church” movement. For a brief discussion of the “emerging church” phenomenon by an Adventist professor who has studied it, see here.

The “Emergents” prefer “innovative” (but in fact ancient) worship styles: experimental worship, candles, stained glass, incense, paintings, sculpture, drama, dance, stations of the cross, etc. They decry the “stripped-down,” sermon-prominent worship style of the typical Protestant church, complaining that “the Protestants changed worship into a lecture,” but they are rarely critical of Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, or Orthodox worship practices. Theologically, the “Emergents” seek to replace existing Christianity with a new Christianity that syncretistically mixes Eastern Spirituality, Catholicism, Protestantism, atheism, and paganism. They tend to reject Bible prophecy, the concept of the Adversary—Satan is an example of the dualistic thinking they reject—and the doctrine of hell, and they tend to embrace universalism. As I've written, the “Emergents” promote mysticism, which leads its practitioners to a direct experience of the supernatural that devalues written revelation and blurs religious demarcations. “Emergent” theology tends to be an often subtle combination of truth and falsehood that is not easy to discern.

The recent inception and rapid growth of these “party conventions” is phenomenal and quite startling: GYC was founded in 2002 and had attendance of 5,000 at its latest national convention. The One Project was founded even more recently, in 2010, and yet had over 700 at its Seattle meeting last month. Probably most people associated with these organizations would deny that they are intended to be analogs of political parties, but the intent of the founders does not always prevail, and the facts speak for themselves. These meetings have clearly become rallying points for the liberal and conservative factions developing in Adventism. 

Did Ellen White Predict this? 

Did Ellen White predict the very phenomenon we are witnessing today, almost a century after her death? In Selected Messages, book two, we find the following statement: 

The work to be done now is that of sounding this last message of mercy to a fallen world. A new life is coming from heaven and taking possession of all God’s people. But divisions will come in the church. Two parties will be developed. The wheat and tares grow up together for the harvest. 2 Selected Messages, p. 114 (emphasis added).

Her prediction was made about the church: divisions will come in the church and two parties will be developed within the church. The last sentence seems to indicate that these parties will exist together within the church until the eschaton: “the wheat and tares will grow up together for the harvest.”

So did Ellen White predict the current emergence of liberal and conservative factions within the church? I do not know. I am not sure whether this particular prophetic passage applies to the coalescing into conservative and liberal factions that we see in today's SDA Church. But it might. It well might. 

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