Recently I watched an online forum featuring several Seventh-day Adventist Church administrators and a group of Adventist college and university students. It was one of the most frustrating, heart-wrenching encounters I have ever witnessed.
For starters, let me be positive. For church leaders at any level to interface openly with laypersons, especially the young, is an imperative beyond question. I am deeply grateful for those in administration who make themselves available for such exchanges. Dialogue and candor are essential for the credibility of those who lead and govern in any setting.
But notable problems of understanding, both obvious and hidden, became evident as this discussion proceeded. And they broke my heart. I found myself craving the opportunity for just ten minutes to address the group and to lay before them decisive issues which the conversation appeared to totally ignore.
No Transcendent Authority
First, it seemed that the Biblical foundation of Seventh-day Adventist belief and practice played a very minor role in the conversation taking place on this particular forum. While the students present were certainly straightforward in expressing their concerns about the various issues raised (e.g. social justice, race relations, sexuality issues, current political challenges), little if anything was said by either the church administrators or the students about any kind of transcendent authority by which opinions regarding these issues should be measured.
Sadly, unless I missed something, I didn’t hear anyone refer to the Bible or the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy as the means whereby either young or not-so-young Adventists are to find their way through the morass of contemporary moral confusion and polarization. Much was said, for example, about social justice and its role in the Christian message. I fully agree that love and justice for all is a gospel imperative, and one that too many professed Christians—including many Adventists—have ignored. But unless the written counsel of God is upheld as the Christian’s supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct, social justice will prove little more than a passing intellectual and cultural fad.
Those with any doubts on this point need only to check their history. At a point of pivotal transition in American government during his younger years, the future President Franklin D. Roosevelt observed, “People tire quickly of ideals and we are now repeating history” (1). The late Arthur Schlesinger Jr, in his insightful book The Cycles of American History, notes the swinging pendulum of reform and apathy that has beset the American social conscience for much of the past century (2). What is thought to be a moral imperative by today’s culture can easily be marginalized and ignored by tomorrow’s culture.
Only a transcendent, supernatural authority—above and beyond human culture, human opinion, human scholarship, and human experience—offers any hope of sustaining zeal for a noble cause. No endeavor that requires material or reputational sacrifice is likely to endure when such an endeavor commands no higher authority than frail human judgment and momentary pressures.
No Reference to God’s Word
This absence of reference to God’s supreme authority through His written Word was tragically evident during the conversation in question as the LGBT issue was raised by certain ones present. While reference was made by some of the leaders to the position of the church on this subject, no reference whatsoever was given to the unqualified denunciation of same-gender sexual intimacy found in both Old and New Testaments (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; I Cor. 6:9-10; I Tim. 1:10).
Without question, the church has too often lacked compassion in dealing with members who fall into sin, including homosexual practice. Certainly no sin is any worse in God’s eyes than another; the Scriptures are clear that any one transgression—unconfessed and unforsaken---is sufficient to bar us from heaven (James 2:10). But if the only definition of respect and compassion certain ones will accept is open-ended acceptance within the church of lifestyle choices condemned in God’s Word, no faith community adhering to that Word can embrace such a definition.
No church leader should ever participate in such a conversation without upholding God’s written counsel as the Christian’s supreme authority in all issues of faith and practice (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11). No love is shown in such a setting by omitting such clarity. And in a context where racial and social issues are being addressed, those listening should understand that the same Bible which commands us to surmount racial and national differences in our relationships with others, the same Bible which commands us to treat the stranger with justice, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, is the exact same Bible which forbids ultimate sexual intimacy outside the limits of monogamous heterosexual marriage.
Open Doors, Empty Churches
One found it ironic to hear one of the young participants in this discussion complaining that he couldn’t invite his friends to an Adventist church because of our “homophobic” position on the LGBT issue. Do he and the others at that forum realize that those denominations whose doors are wide open to practicing LGBT persons are the same denominations that for decades have been—and continue to be—in free-fall membership decline (3)?
For more than half a century, in the United States and elsewhere, theologically liberal churches who hold an ambiguous view of Biblical authority, who embrace such aberrations as Darwinian evolution, the LGBT lifestyle, and other notable departures from Scripture, who make few if any doctrinal or moral demands on those choosing to join their fellowship, have lost both members and influence in a most dramatic way. It seems those in contemporary Adventism—whether young or not so young—who wish for our denomination to pursue “relevance” by following similar theological and moral paths, fail to consider the growing irrelevance experienced by faith communities who nurture and tolerate such permissive thinking within their ranks.
Expensive Schools, Diminishing Youth Involvement
Many questions were raised in this particular forum regarding expensive tuition costs at Seventh-day Adventist schools—an understandable concern among those present, as most if not all the students in this gathering hailed from non-Adventist educational institutions. But the proverbial “elephant in the room,” so to speak—unmentioned and unaddressed—was the precipitous loss of doctrinal and moral clarity in the instruction and expectations of so many mainline denominational schools in the Western world just now.
People aren’t likely to spend large sums of money for a product of dubious, questionable value. Though I still believe, for several significant reasons, that a mainline Adventist education is preferable for our youth to a non-Adventist one, the case for our schools becomes increasingly difficult to argue with the accelerating compromise on many campuses of distinctive Adventist doctrinal and moral standards.
So long as discussions about decreased attendance at denominational schools ignore this glaring reality, any proposed solutions to the problem will land wide of the mark.
Many participants in the forum here described complained of limited involvement in church life and government on the part of youth and young adults. Yet again, the issue of a cause worth identifying with and living for was largely missed, due to the discussion’s lack of focus on the need for a transcendent standard of right and wrong and the relevance of the church’s distinctive doctrinal, spiritual, and moral witness to our contemporary world. Those present at the discussion in question seemed entirely unaware of such forces among contemporary Adventist young people as the GYC movement, whose adherence to the church’s Bible-based distinctive message continues to draw thousands to its annual gatherings and generate massive involvement by the young in Adventist life and mission.
Have any of those present at that forum ever been to a GYC? I wondered. Have any of them ventured to inquire as to how and why large numbers of educated, intelligent young people in today’s church do in fact find our classic faith still relevant? Have any of them asked themselves why so many more young people are to be found at GYC than at any other youth/young adult gathering in the contemporary church? Numbers don’t make a cause or movement right, to be sure, but when relevance to current trends becomes such an imperative in many minds, the visible appeal of various convictions is hard to dismiss.
Conclusion: Misguided Anguish
In sum, the anguish witnessed on the part of the young at the gathering in question was understandable, but misguided. Neither justice—social or otherwise—nor inclusion of any kind can be espoused by a faith community unless both are defined, guided, and measured by the written counsel of God. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has never been, nor can it ever become, a fellowship of believers to which all are welcome regardless of what they choose to believe or how they choose to live.
Youthful participation in church life has ever been a passion of my own spiritual journey, going back to the days when I was much younger myself. But such involvement bespeaks responsibility as well as privilege, Biblical clarity as well as Biblical compassion—for indeed, without the former the latter has no meaning. It is my prayer that many future discussions will be held between church leaders and members of the rising generation. But it is also my prayer that Bible-based answers to whatever questions are raised will assume a vastly higher profile, and that those young Adventists who have found enthusiastic and passionate fulfillment in the distinctive message and destiny of their church will be invited to such meetings and that their voices will be heard.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.