Are Adventists Coalescing into Opposing Parties? Part II

In part one, we compared the conservative and liberal ideologies, noted that conservatives and liberals have each established (or at least rallied around) annual meetings that function as party conventions, and also noted that Ellen White predicted that two parties would emerge within the SDA Church.

In theory, the fact that both parties claim Scripture as authoritative should allow them to come together on the important issues. But their different approaches to Scripture make such a concord unlikely. A more extensive discussion of the different approaches to Scripture follows.

A Primer on the Conservative vs. Liberal Approach to Scripture

I am not using the term “liberal” according to the narrow, technical definition it has acquired in theology; a truly liberal theologian rejects any supernatural influence on Scripture and proceeds as though Scripture and religion are purely human and non-supernatural phenomena. A liberal theologian approaches Scripture just as a mainstream scientist approaches origins: needing to explain it strictly and solely on the basis of natural phenomena, with no appeal to the existence and activity of God. Very few Adventists—perhaps none in positions of authority in the church or in church-related institutions—would admit to a pure liberal theology. So, in this discussion, I will be using “liberal” in a looser sense. 

Conservatives tend to revere Scripture, and view it as the Word of God. Liberals will sometimes say that we conservatives are engaged in bibliolatry, i.e., we've made an idol out of Scripture, and are worshiping Scripture instead of God. Liberals will sometimes say that Scripture is not the Word of God but contains the word of God, or that Scripture is not the truth but contains the truth. This formulation gives them license to decide which passages must be believed and which may be disregarded. 

Another variation on this theme is that the truth is not just anything revealed in Scripture, but only those things relating to Jesus Christ. Conservatives acknowledge that the theme of the Bible is Jesus, so this sounds appealing, but it involves a subtle deprecation of Scripture that is dangerous. If we believe God guided the formation of the canon, then God thought all of it was helpful. And if we exalt all of Scripture, we can be sure that we are exalting the theme of Scripture, which is Jesus Christ. But if we say that it is not all truth, and thereby gives ourselves license to criticize portions of it, we will soon be constructing a “Jesus” to suit our own preferences. 

Conservatives tend to read Scripture pursuant to the assumption that it is intended for our admonition, upon whom the end of the age has come (1 Cor. 10:11), and hence tend to view Scripture as having application to the present day. Liberals, by contrast, will sometimes tell a story about a passage of Scripture—relating to the culture or beliefs that prevailed at the time of its writing—the effect of which is to limit the passage's teaching to its own time and place, and thereby strip it of authoritative, universal application to the present day. (I will discuss this technique further in a subsequent column). 

Conservative Adventists use the Old Testament to interpret the New Testament, and the New to interpret the Old; it is difficult to make sense of Scripture unless we do this. For example, unless the New Testament doctrine of the Trinity is applied to the creation account of Genesis, one cannot know what to make of the plural, “let us make man in our image.” Likewise, the identification of the serpent as Satan is not made explicit until Revelation 20:2; if we confine our inquiries to the context of Genesis, the serpent is just a talking snake, nothing more.

But liberals tend to want to isolate passages, refusing to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. For example, some who are uncomfortable with substitutionary atonement will deny that Isaiah 53—surely the clearest scriptural statement of that doctrine—is even a prophecy that points to Jesus Christ. I show them that the New Testament confirms that it certainly is (Acts 8:26-40), but still they are not convinced. I've previously noted how, in the context of the ordination debate, some simply refuse to allow the Pauline Epistles of the New Testament to explain the creation account of the Old Testament, and its significance to the issue of female headship in the church.

Liberals sniff at the traditional Adventist method of topical Bible study as the “proof-text” method. Yet it is often difficult to discern, from just one passage, what is the true biblical teaching. A former pastor of mine explained it this way: when there is only one fence post in the ground, you cannot know which way the fence line is running. But 2, 3 or 4 fence posts convey a much clearer picture of the fence line. It may well be that liberals are condescendingly criticizing the “proof-text” method because they do not want to acknowledge where the fence line is. If a liberal can quarantine and exegete one passage at a time, he can make Scripture agree with just about anything he wants.

The liberal seems to have a low regard for Scripture until you quote Ellen White, and then suddenly Scripture is way up high. “What about sola Scriptura?” he will say, knowing this is a potent phrase to conservative Adventists who value what was accomplished by the Reformation. But, of course, Ellen White reinforces the high view of Scripture and strongly denounces liberal criticism thereof. The sola Scriptura plea is a ruse to get you to abandon Ellen White, just as the “proof text” complaint is a ruse to persuade you to abandon topical Bible study and allow Scripture to be its own interpreter.

Given these differences in how liberals and conservatives relate to Scripture, there is little hope that important doctrinal differences can be worked out by Bible study conferences, conclaves, or the like. How then will they be worked out?

Why do Political Parties Exist?

Political parties do a lot of things: raise money, have conventions, have spokesmen put out communications, and reinforce the beliefs of the party faithful, etc. Parties do all this, but they don't exist to do these things. Their main reason for existence is to get their candidates elected to positions of power in the official government, to the statehouses and governor's mansions, to the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.

The factions developing in today's church will eventually be organized to elect like-minded persons to positions of power in the official church. I predict that conservatives will spend much time in the coming years studying rules, bylaws, and similar legal and quasi-legal documents. Many liberals have already been doing this, and they generally understand church government far better than conservatives or middle-of-the-road Adventists. 

Adventist Church Politics

Adventist Church politics has been like Chinese politburo politics: seldom ideological but often personal, behind closed doors and shrouded in secrecy, and the people hear about it, if at all, only after it is all over. My thesis is that Adventist Church politics will not be like politburo politics much longer. There are now two well established factions in the church, sharing a common institutional infrastructure but not sharing a common religion. This is a recipe for open, Western-style politics. The two parties are going to want candidates for church office to declare where they stand on the issues that are dividing the church, and they will vote accordingly. 

In the Adventist Church, power is concentrated at the conference level. As anyone who has ever sat on a church board knows that the pastor is but a liaison from the conference office to the local church. He is hired, paid, and ultimately may be fired by the conference, not by the local church; he represents the conference in dealing with the local church (although a skillful pastor will try not to let that become obvious). Only a handful of the largest Adventist churches have effectively wrested from the conference the power to hire and fire their own senior pastors, and even then the conference officers retain great influence.

The reason conferences have such power is that they were designed essentially as church-planting mission organizations. They were designed to transfer resources (money) from established churches into evangelism and new church plants, the goal being to spread the young Adventist faith as rapidly as possible. Not all of them, perhaps few of them, function that way today, but their power is a legacy of that design. 

It is very difficult to fire a conference president. They come up for re-election at the conference constituency meeting, usually every four years, but they are rarely not reelected, barring some titanic scandal. In areas where there are several churches within a few miles of each other, the conference officers, by their placement of pastors of a certain style, ideology and/or gender, can effectively herd one party or the other into one church, leaving all or most of the other churches in the area in the hands of the other party. This is a form of gerrymandering, and it is intended to limit the number of constituents, and hence the voting power, of that party that has been thus herded. 

With his ability to hire and fire local pastors, and gerrymander his conference, a conference president, given enough time, has the power to remake a conference in his ideological image. Consider the sharp contrast between Michigan, under Jay Gallimore, and Ohio, until recently under Raj Attiken. Although geographically neighbors, they could scarcely be farther apart ideologically, with Michigan being perhaps the most conservative, traditional Adventist conference, and Ohio being perhaps the most liberal. 

What is the Balance of Power in Today's Adventist Church?

Conservatives often leave tithe-supported work and go into independent ministries. This has had the effect of allowing the official, tithe-supported church to drift farther to the Left. Conservatives also seem to believe that the church will be divinely superintended, such that they need not involve themselves in church government. But the history of several mainline Protestant denominations that are now very liberal—all of whom were once conservative, bible-believing denominations—should serve as stark warning against complacency. It can happen to us. 

In fact, I think conservatives are in denial about the extent to which it has already happened. One columnist recently noted that there is a growing disconnect between America's self-concept and its reality. Americans don't think of the U.S. as taxing and spending like the European, “euro-socialist” countries, but in fact our government expenditure per person is higher than in France, the UK, Germany, Italy, or Spain, and we have the most progressive income tax system in the developed world. We are more “euro-socialist” than many European nations. Neither do we think of ourselves as bankrupt, but our federal debt is now 114 percent of annual Gross Domestic Product; there are only a handful of developed countries with a higher debt to GDP ratio (Japan 230 percent, Greece 200 percent, Portugal 135 percent, Italy 131 percent, Ireland 128 percent, Iceland 115 percent) and all of these except Japan are already widely considered debt basket cases. Among the states, my home state of Texas thinks itself a rock of sober, fiscally responsible government, but the truth that Texas has the fifth highest per person public debt (behind only New York, California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania) clashes rudely with the dominant myth of who we Texans are.

I think there is a similar disconnect between conservative Adventists' conception of the church and the church that already exists. I see a church that is preponderantly liberal in the developed world, including North America, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand. We have a conservative General Conference President, but he is surrounded by a liberal church bureaucracy at the GC and in several of the divisions, including the NAD. The Pacific Union, the Columbia Union, and most of their constituent conferences are dominated by liberals. Liberal conference administrations are springing up all around the United States, even in what we tend to think of as the conservative heartland. Conservative Adventists are being herded into an ever smaller number of local churches. From where I stand, the liberals are winning the contest for control of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

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