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UMC Rather than SDA – Again

This was brought to my attention when I read the text of Ted Wilson’s address to the SDA General Conference. (I listened to he first 10 minutes as well, but preferred reading.) Why am I interested in the sermon presented by the new president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists? I am, after all, a member of a United Methodist congregation.

There are three reasons. First, I was raised SDA, and one’s upbringing tends to stay with one. In this case I’m not at all sorry about my background. I received an excellent education in SDA schools and being homeschooled using SDA materials. I had many wonderful experiences as a member of the SDA church. Second, I still have friends and colleagues who are SDA, and I appreciate their friendship and their ministry. Finally, I still hear the question pretty regularly: “Why are you no longer a Seventh-day Adventist?”

I should note that there is another common question that arises in connection with the first, which is to ask just why I’m not an angry ex-SDA. It seems that there are so many of those. I’d simply like to point out that one can disagree with the positions an organization takes and can determine that one should not be a member of that organization without also hating that organization, or even thinking that organization is negative on balance.

From the other side I get the question of why I will not more forcefully distance myself from “that cult.” The reason for that is that while I disagree vigorously with certain positions of the SDA church, I do not believe it is any more or less likely that a member might be a true Christian or not. I could hardly give statistics since I don’t believe it is up to me to judge. What I am concerned with is mission and ministry.

Before I give a brief response to the question of why I am now a member of a United Methodist congregation, rather than still being SDA, I want to look at some quotes from Ted Wilson’s sermon. (You can find the complete text here, so you can put these into context. I provide page numbers.)

As I read this text I felt a concern for my many friends who are members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. At the same time I feel a concern for what I see as the potential blessing that the SDA church could be to the broader Christian community.

Let’s look at some quotes:

This church is not just another denomination; it is a unique, heaven-initiated movement with a mission of salvation to the world that must continually go forward in the humility of Jesus. pp. 3-4

In my view, the “unique, heaven-initiated movement with a mission of salvation to the world” is not the SDA church but the universal Christian church. This is a critical point for me. If Seventh-day Adventists believe they have a message for the rest of Christianity, I think that is a positive thing, and they should be heard, not relegated to the status of a “cult.” But that line puts a single denomination in the position in which the church universal should be placed. I think it would be difficult to find a scriptural warrant for such a thing. This quote figures in the most critical reason I’m not SDA.

Go forward, not backward…….Do not succumb to the mistaken idea, gaining support even in the
Seventh-day Adventist Church, of accepting worship or evangelistic outreach methods merely because
they are new and “trendy.” We must be vigilant to test all things according to the supreme authority of
God’s Word and the council with which we have been blessed in the writings of Ellen G. White. Don’t
reach out to movements or megachurch centers outside the Seventh-day Adventist Church which promise
you spiritual success based on faulty theology. Stay away from non-biblical spiritual disciplines or
methods of spiritual formation that are rooted in mysticism such as contemplative prayer, centering
prayer, and the emerging church movement in which they are promoted. Look WITHIN the Seventh-day
Adventist Church to humble pastors, evangelists, Biblical scholars, leaders, and departmental directors
who can provide evangelistic methods and programs that are based on solid Biblical principles and “The
Great Controversy Theme.” p. 7

That’s a longer quote, even though it carries a great deal of baggage. It is, I believe, a call to look inward. I would point out that this impulse is not exclusive to Seventh-day Adventists. My wife was in a curriculum meeting in a United Methodist church in which a piece of curriculum was criticized for being “too Baptist” and having “too much Jesus.”

If you have to look only within your own denomination in order to keep people on the road to truth, I have to question whether it is truth you are protecting. In both Wilson’s paragraph, and the remarks made in that curriculum committee, what is being protected is power, not truth. Truth can withstand examination.

Go forward, not backward! Stand firm for God’s Word as it is literally read and understood. p. 8

All I can say is that this statement and its many variants is probably the worst advice on Bible study that is commonly given–and unfortunately believed by many. Even in reading a vision, such as the book of Revelation, people are told to think literally. Bad advice! Very bad advice!

This unbiblical approach of “higher criticism” is a deadly enemy of our theology and mission. This approach puts a scholar or individual above the plain approach of the scriptures and gives inappropriate license to decide what he or she perceives as truth based on the resources and education of the critic. p. 9

Yet whenever we read scripture we interpret. This criticism of higher criticism does nothing more than reject it because one disagrees with the results. There are problems with higher criticism, just as there are problems with reading everything literally. These are problems that require thoughtful responses. I would reject a version of higher criticism that stands on purely naturalistic assumptions. But such a foundation is unnecessary to find value in many of the tools provided.

While the Bible is paramount in our estimation as the ultimate authority and final arbiter of truth, the Spirit of Prophecy provides clear, inspired council to aid our application of Bible truth. It is a heaven-sent guide to instruct the church in how to carry out its mission. It is a reliable theological expositor of the Scriptures. p. 9

I would simply point out that this issue stands out as one of the milestones on my own departure from the SDA church. If you treat Ellen White as a definitive interpreter of scripture, you are placing her above scripture, whether you like it or not. I recognize that Wilson didn’t use the word “definitive,” but I think the intentions are clear. As a Christian, I do not reject the idea of a modern prophet, but I do reject he idea that any person can be the definitive interpreter, denying me the opportunity of full examination, discussion, and disagreement.

So having responded to some key points in the sermon, what does this have to do with my own departure from the SDA church?

I think it highlights it rather well. Let me begin by noting that my key issues with Adventism were not the standards of the seventh day Sabbath, legalism, or the state of the dead, which seem to stir people up so much. Let me be clear: I disagree with SDA positions on the Sabbath and somewhat on the state of the dead. They just are the critical issues for me.

The state of the dead doctrine is trivial in my view. I really don’t care how much time elapses between death and going to be with Jesus–eternally. There is no time lapse which will matter, in my view. I think there are some scriptural arguments on both sides, but I don’t care that much about the answer.

I envy Seventh-day Adventists the doctrine of the Sabbath, even though I don’t accept it. What it did for many SDAs of my acquaintance–and still does–is give them a much stronger sense of sacred time than I find in other churches. Time stewardship in Christianity is in poor shape, and this is something the broader community could learn from SDAs.

But at the same time we see legalism. Those in the SDA church who worship on Saturday for legalistic reasons also often miss the valuable blessings it can have. I don’t think such legalists are in the majority; my experience was of many Adventists truly refreshed by the Sabbath rest.

The critical element for me was eschatology. I find the SDA approach to Daniel and Revelation almost completely wrong. The interpretation of Daniel 8:14 is completely unjustified by the text. The doctrine of the investigative judgment also runs contrary to any number of other orthodox Christian doctrines. But I’ve written about that before.

Even that disagreement is not necessarily a deal breaker. I know any number of United Methodists who believe things about eschatology that I find profoundly troubling, yet I can be a Methodist.

The problem comes in the doctrine of the remnant. Again, I must specify that I do see a doctrine of the remnant in scripture, but it’s specifically the identification of the remnant with an organization that I would call the critical deal breaker.

When SDAs ask me why I left the church they often respond to my early, brief remarks by noting that the United Methodist Church also has problems. Their assumption seems to be that I left the SDA church because it was imperfect and have found the church in the UMC. But that isn’t the case.

The SDA church is imperfect. So is the UMC. But nobody (that I know of) in the UMC expects me to equate my membership in that organization with my Christianity or my salvation. It doesn’t make me part of a special remnant. That membership means that I choose to find fellowship in my UMC congregation, to find accountability there, and to serve as part of the body of Christ there, i.e. to find my place of ministry there.

When I said I would uphold the UMC with my prayers, presence, gifts, and service, I did not also affirm that I would regard the UMC as better than all other churches, much less as the one organization representing what Christianity ought to be.

I believe that my disagreement with the SDA church on a number of doctrinal issues means that I do better not to be a member. But combining those doctrines into a core set of beliefs defining the one true organization out there is the most critical element.

Love, appreciate, enjoy, yes. Join, no.

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One Comment

  1. But nobody (that I know of) in the UMC expects me to equate my membership in that organization with my Christianity or my salvation. It doesn’t make me part of a special remnant. That membership means that I choose to find fellowship in my UMC congregation, to find accountability there, and to serve as part of the body of Christ there, i.e. to find my place of ministry there.

    And this is why we are not attending a UMC congregation.

    Excellent post, Henry. While I am not SDA, I am an ex-something and sometimes, rather angry. I needed this post. Thanks.

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