Yet another voice in contemporary Adventism appears to be urging a moderate course on the denomination as the pivotal decisions of a pending General Conference session draw near. In a cover article of the Adventist Review called “Jesus Claims the Center: Between Sadducees and Pharisees" by Gerald A. Klingbeil, a popular paradigm through which many persist in viewing current Adventist controversies is again being promoted.
The article contains many accurate, insightful observations about Jesus, His loving interaction with both friends and foes, His careful adherence to Scripture in contrast with man-made customs and traditions, and His unwillingness to let His work for others be derailed by human agendas. However, when we consider the collective testimony of inspired counsel, the article falls seriously short in its depiction of both the religious environment in which Jesus ministered and the alleged implications of Jesus’ approach for the clash of convictions and world views presently accelerating in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
It’s very complex—or is it?
The article begins by assuming great vexation and confusion among those in first-century Palestine who confronted the ministry of Jesus, in light of the various religio-political parties—Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, and Zealots—then contending for the limelight. The comparison was then offered between these vying factions of two thousand years ago and debates in contemporary Adventism over such issues as ordination, creation and evolution, spiritual formation, and others.
Ironically, the author later notes the statement from the Gospel of Matthew regarding how Jesus spoke with an authority not witnessed among the Jewish teachers of His time (Matt. 7:29). Had the author included the following Ellen White comment on the above verse, the answer to the alleged complexity he described—then and now—might surprise some:
But while His teaching was simple, He spoke as one having authority. This characteristic set His teaching in contrast to that of all others. The rabbis spoke with doubt and hesitancy, as if the Scriptures might be interpreted to mean one thing or exactly the opposite. The hearers were daily involved in greater uncertainty. But Jesus taught the Scriptures as of unquestionable authority. Whatever His subject, it was presented with power, as if His words could not be controverted. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, 253
Another statement offers a similar observation:
The tall reeds that grew beside the Jordan, bending before every breeze, were fitting representatives of the rabbis who stood as critics and judges of the Baptist’s mission. They were swayed this way and that by the winds of popular opinion (218).
As many will notice, these statements don’t exactly fit the stereotype many have developed regarding prominent teachers in the Judaism of Jesus’ time, in which—according to Ellen White—the Pharisees were the dominant party (604). The above statements would seem to place the rabbis of Jesus’ day in the direction most in our time would call theological liberalism, and Jesus very much in the direction of what most would call theological conservatism. It is theological liberals, after all—not conservatives—who present Scripture as full of ambiguity, and who in our present context give every evidence of bending before the winds of popular culture so far as gender roles, theories on the origin of life, and sexuality are concerned. Both Jesus and John the Baptist, as described in the above statements, took a very different approach to the Bible and to God’s will, one many today would likely call absolutist, perhaps even legalistic.
Too many in our time, unfortunately, seem to have crafted an open-ended, spiritually flexible Jesus whose spiritual worldview supposedly upheld few if any absolutes, and who—if He were among us today—would likely urge the church to accept without qualification the various theologies and lifestyle choices currently seeking acceptance among us. The above Ellen White statements, along with Scripture, offer a very different perspective regarding our Lord.
The Centrist Trap
The article in question implies that Jesus stood in the “center” of the theological spectrum of His day, with the equally apparent implication that He would likely stand at the center of Adventism’s current theological spectrum. The paradigm arising from this notion is that today’s theological conservatives are like the Pharisees in Christ’s day, while the theological liberals among us are like the Sadducees. Popular though this paradigm has been for several decades in the modern Adventist Church, the following reasons demonstrate why it is extremely unhelpful:
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; The Desire of Ages 763). 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,” (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 81) the “careless and indifferent,” (Early Writings 271) those “not willing to take a bold and unyielding stand for the truth,” (50) 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” (The Great Controversy 608.).
Each of these statements, and countless others, gravitate in the direction of laxity and self-indulgence—not an excessive concern for orthodoxy and moral faithfulness—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” (Review and Herald, March 3, 1890), 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” (The Great Controversy 572.). 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, presumably 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 farther over from 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 the middle class, Anglo-Saxon penchant for controversy avoidance and “getting along by going along” as the preferred solution to disagreement. This mindset encourages 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 as many and offending as few as possible. Such a spirit nurtures the very neutrality in a spiritual crisis declared by God’s servant to be “a grievous crime, and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God” (Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 281).
Much of our contemporary culture sees inclusion as the ultimate virtue and exclusion the ultimate vice. But open-ended inclusion was not part of the agenda of our Lord. His parables frequently spoke of persons being “cast into hell” (Matt. 5:29,31), cast “into a furnace of fire” where there would be “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42,50; 24:51; 25:30), of those “who shall go away into everlasting punishment” (Matt. 25:46). This same Savior declared, in His Sermon on the Mount, thats “narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:14).
None of this sounds like the malleable Savior of open-ended acceptance, borderless unity, and ethereal “oneness” contrived by so many in our postmodern age. The kingdom Jesus preached was certainly open to all, but it was not offered unconditionally.
Conclusion—An Illusory Refuge
Alleging complexity in spiritual matters is dangerous, as it is often employed as a refuge from the inevitable imperative of painful decision-making upheld by Scripture before all. Issues may appear, at first glance, to be complicated, but the written counsel of God is like the sword of Alexander the Great, which left the tangled, baffling Gordian knot in shreds. Yes, Jesus was willing to engage and dialogue with everyone, even His enemies. His love for all, regardless of their beliefs or choices, was evident and magnetic. Ours should be the same. But Jesus’ answers were not ambiguous, and His loyalty to His Father’s Word was ever supreme. Pleasing as many and offending as few as possible was not His purpose. And as the rich young ruler and others could attest, acceptance into our Lord’s kingdom was not offered without a level of sacrifice profoundly unwelcome in humanity’s ubiquitous culture of self-accommodation—then as well as now.
As the Seventh-day Adventist Church confronts the General Conference session of 2015, may we consider the Jesus of Scripture as our model of self-surrender and conflict resolution, for whom sanctification through His Father’s Word of truth was the uncompromising prerequisite for the unity of His followers (John 17:17-21).