A critique of church in our own image
The beards and dress-ups at the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Annual Council in historic Battle Creek (Michigan, USA) were possibly worse publicity than the debate about preserving church authority. And, in that context, it was hardly surprising that President Dr Ted Wilson then had to “clarify”—later during the meetings—his Sabbath sermon comments that seemed to discourage the church’s engagement with “social issues.”
When we have made church in our own image or seek to revive some imagined “golden age” past, we then tend to fit our version of the gospel around that same image: “A gospel message that doesn’t try to change the world and that concentrates only on individuals works only for those who don’t need the world to be changed. Therefore, it ends up being too white, too privileged, too male and too American” (Jim Wallis, The (Un)Common Good). This seems to sum up many of the problems our church is wrestling with today. Visuals matter—and the photos from the costume play in Battle Creek prove the point.
It was the leaders of the regional conferences—read, Black—from North America who met with Wilson to express their concerns with this aspect of his sermon at Annual Council. We need to hear and listen to more of their voices in our church. The more I read from Black Adventist leaders and some other cultures around the world, the more I hear of the broader possibilities of our church and its mission, particularly in responding to those who have suffered injustice, oppression and racism for so long.
On the whole, majority-culture Western Adventism is middle class, educated, healthy and wealthy. And these are mainly the people who lead and speak. As Wallis suggests, this shapes the gospel we preach and practice. We might talk about justice as a righteous cause—if and when we do—but for much of our church membership around the world, the struggle for justice is their everyday reality. Their world must be changed or they will be crushed by it, and we are invited into the privilege of being able to listen to, speak with and sometimes speak for them to others who refuse to listen.
Beards? Really? When our continuing failure to recognise the equal and unique ministry of women is one of the key tensions in the church? The greatest challenge for the church on this issue might be that we are yet to speak strongly enough in recognition and defence of women and the equality that is acknowledged in our Fundamental Belief #14.
Perhaps we were right to vote no at the most recent of the worldwide church’s five-yearly business sessions in San Antonio—the proposal was not good enough. When women around the world remain inordinately the victims of poverty, violence, exploitation and discrimination, equal respect and recognition of women cannot be a cultural matter. The church must lead on these issues—how we love, value and treat all people—not merely follow our respective cultures.
Our church has always struggled with its American-ness, given our traditional understanding of Bible prophecy, but we have probably not wrestled enough. And in some quarters this tension seems to have dissipated at the same time as an American Adventism is increasingly being broadcast to our globalised church. This is a problem for our credibility, our prophetic voice for justice and our witness in many parts of the world.
On the other hand, given the principled stand of church in North America leadership on this particular issue, we might argue our church is not being American enough, but the reality is we are not being Jesus enough. The larger issue is we tend to make everything—even our faith—about ourselves and in an organisational context, this often comes in the style of those who are “in charge.”
This is not about making anyone feel guilty about finding themselves in any of these categories—or even most of them, as some of us are. Rather, it’s a call to be aware of the cultural lenses, privileges and assumption many of us bring to our understanding of church, evangelism and the gospel.
Jesus said, before all the things we are tempted to be distracted and subverted by, we should seek first the kingdom of God and live with His righteousness and justice (it’s the same word, see Matthew 6:33). His kingdom is not white, privileged, male nor American—when we look at the story of Jesus, it was definitely not that—but thankfully it is large enough to include and redeem all of these. And then “he will give you everything you need” including an Adventist Church with a renewed understanding of itself and its mission, a gospel that includes and welcomes everyone, and perhaps better representations of who we are than more pictures of bearded, white men.