Are Advent Christians Fragmented?

Are Advent Christians Fragmented?

eduardo-gutierrez-390584-unsplash.jpg

Corey McLaughlin has put forth a monumental effort in his four-part series describing the nature of what he (and presumably others) means when speaking of “Theological Fragmentation” in the Advent Christian Church. Each article is worthy of your time and consideration- you will not find any lack of intellectual rigor in his reflections. 

After reading these articles, I found myself agreeing with most of them, so much so that it has ironically led me to disagree with the basic contention of the series, that we are in fact fragmented along the lines Corey describes. Now, I am fully aware that disputing this point could appear to be a sort of self-refutation, that by disputing fragmentation I am in fact demonstrating fragmentation. However, I am not denying that disagreement exists within the denomination; I completely recognize that there are many disagreements on a number of practical issues. What I am meaning to suggest is that most within our denomination essentially agree with Corey McLaughlin on the issues he describes. Consequently, this would seem to hint that our ailment lies not in the purported fragmentation in these areas, but rather elsewhere, which I will suggest as I go along.

In commenting on the following areas, I am not intending to regurgitate the full account that McLaughlin has to offer. My intent is only to sufficiently present the broad contours of these articles for the purposes of highlighting what I believe to broad agreement. However, if I offer any mischaracterization, I welcome Corey’s correction.  

Theoretical or Practical Fragmentation?

In his first article dealing with Christian education, McLaughlin offers an expansive account of the evolving and competing models of theological education that have emerged since the genesis of the Church. He describes the shift from a model of church-centered pastoral training to the Berlin model which effectively reduced theology to an impersonal scientific study about God. The former lent itself toward a more a holistic approach to pastoral preparation while the latter fixated on specialization within the narrow confines of particular academic theology departments. McLaughlin believes that we can attribute a substantial amount of hermeneutical confusion within the Church to this latter development, as academics trained pastors according to the narrow concerns of the academy. Thus at the outset he hints at the need for a new approach, “[...]if the machine producing the molds is broken then no amount of training, correction, or re-configuring of the assembly line and its workers will solve the problem.”[1] 

The historical narrative he relates incontrovertibly exhibits the reality of fragmentation throughout the universal Church. We have to look no farther than schools such as Harvard to see how theological education can be stripped down to a purely academic pursuit, the fruit of which has often been heresy. However, the important question is whether this applies to Evangelicals and more specifically to Advent Christians.

It is difficult to account for the entirety of Evangelicalism. I do not doubt that there are some for whom this critique would apply. However, I believe most evangelicals are aware of the limitations of the academy, some even enthusiastically so, and that they do not believe it is sufficiently adequate for preparing pastors. Take for instance this recent article entitled, “Seminaries Don’t Make Pastors. Churches Do.” It is written by Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Speaking personally of my experiences at Gordon-Conwell, I can say that my theological studies have been significantly oriented toward the local church. Moreover, Gordon-Conwell and similar schools basically admit the insufficiency of academic training for pastoral ministry insofar as they require ministry practicums for M.Div students. The practical effectiveness of such programs can be called into question, but there seems to be essential agreement regarding the need for holistic development of pastors within the local church.

Among Advent Christians, there would not seem to be much love lost for the academy. The early Advent Christians spurned the establishment of academic institutions and the education of most pastors did not exceed the undergraduate level even once such institutions were established.[2] I think most Advent Christians would entirely agree with McLaughlin’s assessment, that we need holistic pastoral training and that the academy is insufficient.

If I am correct in my observations, then whatever fragmentation exists is not theoretical in nature. If fragmentation exists, I suspect that it is practical in nature, in terms of how to best achieve this sort of holistic pastoral training. While he is open to other ideas, McLaughlin believes that the Antioch School of Church Planting and Discipleship, a church-based program, is the best solution. On the other hand, there are those, including myself, who believe this program of education has its drawbacks. Adherents of either opinion would agree that simply shipping a prospective pastor off to school is insufficient and that the church has a meaningful and essential role to play in the formation of any pastor. The disagreement rests simply on the matter of a proper solution. 

Going through the rest of his series, this nuance between the practical and theoretical continues to come to the fore. In his article on “Christian Ministry Fragmentation”, McLaughlin lays out an excellent case for why our preaching/teaching should prioritize dialogue over monologue; he even offers some helpful tips to foster such dialogue. I won’t contend that Advent Christians have already been practicing such dialogue, but I would suspect that most would agree that we should be more dialogical. The trick is “how” to effectively practice this sort of dialogue. Must the Sunday sermon be the place for such dialogue? Can this sort of dialogue be made up elsewhere? How will the size of your church effect your approach? Practically speaking, some innocuous form of fragmentation seems inevitable given the variety of church contexts. Theoretically, I think most everyone would essentially agree with what McLaughlin is saying.

Looking to his third article, “The Fragmentation of Christian Perspective”, McLaughlin does a commendable job presenting the subtleties of a sound biblical hermeneutic. He stresses that we ought to have a greater appreciation for the instructive nature of biblical narratives and he dives right into the tension between description and prescription as found in the book of Acts. He argues that rather than falling for one or the other, Acts should be read through the lens of what he calls “Persuasive Precedent”, which he describes as,

The principles and practices of the early church that can be shown to be a repeatable pattern, tied to the author’s intended meaning, and providing multiple lines of evidence, should hold the title of optimus princeps (“the best ruler”) over the church unless something else can be shown to be superior.[3]

Alternatively, he notes that others will hold to “Principlism”, described as the position which says,

While the specific practices of the Apostles are not binding for us today, they were nonetheless led by the Spirit in a special way in order to build Christ’s church so that it would be strong enough to attack the gates of Hell (Matt. 16:18), therefore the underlying principles that motivated and moved them are still binding on us today.[4]

It is here that McLaughlin comes close to putting his finger on a point of theoretical/theological fragmentation among Advent Christians. There is no denying that there are a number of Advent Christians of one or the other perspective. However, I am still left wondering what effective distance exists between the two positions. Their close proximity is brought to the surface in his case study of Acts and his commentary on church types. In excursus A, he writes,  

All have realized at least two things:  (1) small gatherings are essential for a biblically balanced church, (2) any gathering of believers will die on the branch unless they are seeking upward, inward, and outward movement (all three directions are necessary).[5] 

I agree with this observation and I believe most Advent Christians would also agree, despite our failure to effectively respond to this realization. Most would likewise appreciate McLaughlin’s application of the “Persuasive Precedent” which is open to various church models: 

The solution is to find the driving principles more than the particular practice and let those principles find the right soil to grow in. The issue is not house church vs. institutional church per se (both are buildings after all!), but the people that proliferate them. In that sense, small groups can become dynamic missional communities even if they never become house or cell churches (and we believe that is the principle).[6] 

If there is notable fragmentation among Advent Christians, it might be on this issue of “particular practice.” At one point McLaughlin makes reference to the essay, Reading Acts as Normative: A Blueprint for Today, which was put out by the Eastern Region. He brings to light its misuse of Fee & Stuart in making the case that the house church model found in Acts functions as a binding precedent for us today. As can be seen above, McLaughlin disagrees with this sort of particularity, and from the categories he lays out, this position would seem to be closer to “prescriptivism” than his own position of persuasive precedent. If it is being contended that house churches are the only way and that all other church models must eventually be pushed aside, this would undoubtedly cause significant fragmentation among Advent Christians. Setting this aside, I do not believe there is meaningful theoretical disagreement among Advent Christians with the hermeneutic Corey McLaughlin has described nor the implications it draws from Acts for how the church should be shaped today.  

Offering just a very brief comment on his last article, “The Fragmentation of the Christian Worldview,” I believe most Advent Christians would agree that we need holistic forms of discipleship that impart wisdom-based truth. We all agree in theory...we just fail to practice! Some of this is a matter of lacking know-how, but I think it could it just as easily be attributed to spiritual apathy and a need for repentance, which Corey has previously highlighted in a sermon shared on ACV

The sum of the matter from my perspective is that most of our “fragmentation” as a denomination can be attributed to disagreements over practical solutions. We agree on the ends but disagree on the means. I believe these disagreements can be overcome through collaboration and compromise if we will perceive the practical nature of our challenges. How can we holistically train our pastors? How can we more effectively teach and preach? How can we follow the example set forth in Acts today? How can we build disciples up into the full image of Christ? 

Corey McLaughlin's contributions offer excellent groundwork for answering these questions; I would simply like to be the bearer of good news and suggest that we are not as fragmented as we may seem. I think maybe we just need to start listening to one another. I think maybe we just need to come together to develop common solutions...Advent Christian solutions to reach the ends we all in fact agree upon. Christ compels us to come together, to hurdle our pride, to risk bruised egos, all for the sake of His Gospel. This is not the time for cynicism. This is not a season for throwing stones. This is the moment in which we must feel full the weight of our Master’s pending Return and take responsibility for the denomination the Lord has given us.
                                                                Will we do this?

 

[I] Corey McLaughlin, "What is Theological Fragmentation?..."
[2]This is not intended as a slight, just an observation of the values and priorities of Advent Christians which seem to rank church ministry above pursuing academic accolades.
[3] McLaughlin, "The Fragmentation of Christian Perspective..."
[4] McLaughlin, "The Fragmentation of Christian Perspective..."
[5] McLaughlin, "The Fragmentation of Christian Perspective..."
[6] McLaughlin, "The Fragmentation of Christian Perspective..."

12 Key Questions & Answers About BILD International

12 Key Questions & Answers About BILD International

An Amazing Gap in the Hymn Amazing Grace?

An Amazing Gap in the Hymn Amazing Grace?