Unity and Conformity: an Advent Christian assessment
by Thomas Loghry
Anyone who is familiar with the Advent Christian denomination knows that much of our history as a denomination has been defined by ardent non-creedalism. This has stemmed from the steadfast conviction that while Scripture is infallible, man is inescapably fallible, and thus whatever interpretation man may render of infallible Scripture, his fallible interpretation cannot be used as a reliable means of determining correct belief. The result then is that what organizationally unites Advent Christians is not any interpretation of Scripture, not even those Advent Christian interpretations laid out in the Declaration of Principles, but the source material of any interpretation which is the Bible. As we technically stand today (functionally this is otherwise), Advent Christian organizational unity is fundamentally Bibliocentric rather than Christocentric. Christocentricity requires an answer to the question, “Who is Christ?” Answering this demands nothing less than “fallible” interpretation.
In light of the upcoming ACGC Triennial convention that promises to consider taking up the NAE statement of faith as our own, it is of utmost importance that we address this philosophy of non-creedalism that will undercut whatever statement of faith we might adopt. To do otherwise will leave us without any real objective measure of inclusion and exclusion and would subject our conferences to utter parochialism. In the coming months, I intend to address this issue more fully and I would encourage you to do likewise. In any case, I will now do a hop, skip, and a jump over this issue of non-creedalism to examine the subsequent reality of our inclusive tradition, its merits, and some questions that I believe arise from recent comments by Greg Twitchell and Steve Brown regarding “unity”.
The Theological Misfits
As has already been mentioned, the formation of our denomination has been greatly influenced by its non-creedalist tradition. It is the principle that has allowed for diverse opinions to exist in our circles,including undoubtedly heretical opinions regarding the nature of God. While troubling, considered historically it is no wonder such a principle was so readily welcomed. The Millerite/Adventist movement drew persons from all walks of denominational backgrounds. This combined with the fact that many of these persons were not welcome back in their churches of origin made the movement rich for Christian Connexionist picking. While our denomination is now mostly rid of those heretical elements, the heritage of inclusivity has continued. Even in the midst of efforts to refine the Declaration of Principles’ statement on the Bible, efforts that proved divisive, then executive secretary J. Howard Shaw concluded in his observation of the matter, “The ‘Declaration’ has not been a club with which to coerce people into conformity, but rather a unifying instrument of free and joyful witness. Let it so remain.”[i] This principle has effectively remained in place and the present diversity in our denomination is evidence of the continuance of this tradition.
Today, we are faced with the tangible reality of this heritage. There continues to be diversity in all sorts of theological and ecclesiological matters among our ranks, even if our cognizance of this has faded with the dissipation of dialogue. Given this reality, we must ask the question: “What does Advent Christian unity look like?” Given the reality of our diversity and our congregationalist practices that privilege the local autonomy of the church, I do not believe it can look like conformity in most cases. At this point, the genie has been let out of the bottle and there is no stuffing him all the way back in without killing him; a demand for comprehensive conformity would likely mean our dissolution. (I do believe there is a need for minimal theological conformity, something like a mere Christianity with wide but firm boundaries that is able to give free range to a variety of viewpoints, but I leave this to be teased out for another time.) Does this then mean that the cause for unity is lost, that unity can only exist where full agreement exists? This admittedly appears to be the case when one looks at the socio-political scene in America, but ought it be the case in the Church?
The Basis of Christian Unity
Inasmuch as the Church truly needed the Protestant Reformation, it came at the high cost of Church unity. True to its name, the Protestant Reformation did not arise from a desire to divide the Church but to reform her. I believe the Adventist movement parallels the Reformation in some significant ways. It was never the intent of Miller and his followers to create new denominations, but rather to restore the hope of Christ’s return to its proper place in the Church. It was only when those who would become Advent Christians were turned away for their conditionalist beliefs that a new denomination was begrudgingly formed. However, unlike the Protestant Reformation, no further division has continued in our midst.
We have already noted some of the troubling rationale behind this and recognized that it has borne some bad theological fruit. However, before utterly condemning our heritage, I think it is important for us to consider whether all of the results have been bad. Going back to the Protestant Reformation, I think we can agree that things could have gone better. The best imaginable result would have been for the Roman Catholic Church to reform and the unity of the church to be maintained. The next best imaginable result would have been for Protestants to remain more greatly united even in the midst of their differences. Obviously negotiating these differences is where the rubber meets the road. Though critical of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers were also her children and were somewhat bound to deal with theological differences in a manner similar to which Rome dealt with them. However inevitable division may have been, the result remains dissatisfying.
Why are these divisive results dissatisfying? Fundamentally, I think it is because they defy the words of Christ in John 17. Therein Christ prays,
The division of the Church is nothing less than the betrayal of our witness of the truth of Christ to the world. Excommunication is at times necessary, but this is not the division of the Church but the identification of that which is not the Church. While the various Protestant sects would likely not deny one another’s identification as part of the Church, their division tends to speak louder than their words. Can they say amen to Christ’s prayer even as they hold each other out at arms length? Has this not brought shame to the name of Christ?
Returning to our Advent Christian denomination, I believe it is here that we have the opportunity to reclaim the inclusivity of our denomination even as we reject its excesses. In so doing, we would not be reclaiming inclusivity for the sake of inclusivity, but for the sake of our witness of Christ to the world. Having grown up in this denomination, one of the most beautiful things I have experienced is just how diverse we are. The beauty comes not from the diversity itself but from the reality to which it points; who else could hold together such a motley bunch other than Jesus Christ? This here is the best of Advent Christian humility, in that we submit ourselves to the reality of being joined together as the Body of Jesus Christ despite our differences. This clears the way for the centrality of the Gospel mission among Advent Christians, the message of a Risen King who offers resurrection hope.
In the March newsletter for the Eastern Regional Association, Eastern Regional Superintendent Greg Twitchell shared a brief word about the church planting conference that would meet from March 21-23. Among his comments, he wrote, “As we consider laying the foundation of new churches, I believe that theological unity needs to be part of the discussion.” Subsequently, he encouraged readers to review Steve Brown’s recent article written for this conference entitled, “The Church Planting Paradigm- A Foreword.” In that article, after surveying Advent Christian history and some of the theological difficulties that have occurred throughout the years, Steve takes up the matter of “oneness”, which brings to mind the issue of theological unity that Greg mentioned in the newsletter. I quote Steve Brown here at length regarding this issue for the sake of clarity:
As you can see, Steve is playing out the tension here in which oneness is ours in Christ even as we work to appropriate that oneness. Of course to be in Christ requires one to have assumed some minimally necessary theological beliefs, which is why one would not want to deny the need for any “theological precision”. However, the question of “How theologically precise?” seems to haunt his explication of our oneness in Christ.
By the end of the paper, Steve Brown supplies this conclusion:
Here Steve seems to take us more sharply in a direction that was less distinct earlier on. In his earlier comments, it may have been supposed that the sort of “theological precision” he may have been referencing was broad in scope, perhaps simply excluding non-Trinitarians and the like. But by his conclusion, Steve appears hopeful that there will eventually be no “theological fragmentation” in our denomination. What sorts of consequences might follow from this?
I believe we would all admit that we wish everyone would share the same theological opinions- at least so long as they are the same as our own. That’s really the trouble in the whole matter. We understand- without here defining- that there exists a minimal set of beliefs necessary to call oneself a Christian. To that degree, I would hope we would be faithful to be that precise. But what about everything else we believe? Given the reality of our unity in Christ, ought we divide over these other matters? What about our witness and all that was discussed above? Now, it is possible to seek comprehensive theological unity simply through persuasion and dialogue. This is the best meaning of Steve Brown’s paper. But what will occur if the day arrives in which there exists a substantial majority opinion? Will the tolerance for theological diversity run dry and will persuasion be replaced by division? If this occurs, what will this say to the world about the reality of our unity in Christ? Will it not appear fabricated, merely the natural assimilation of likeminded people?
We must anticipate these sorts of questions- I believe the answers to them have immense theological and evangelistic consequences. Inasmuch as we work toward the oneness of Christ, we must not stumble along our way and effectively deny the reality of our unity in Christ by spurning the presence of theological differences in our denomination. We must be faithful to that reality by intentionally committing ourselves to the practices of admonition and persuasion and refusing to employ compulsion and division.
[i] J. Howard Shaw. Henceforth VI, no. 1 (Fall 1977).
[ii] Steve Brown. “The Church Planting Paradigm- A Foreword” pp. 5-6
[iii] ibid. p. 12