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It was a tough job to pull the early church together. "Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved. 'This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them" (Acts 15:1, 2).*
The Jewish party and the Gentile party were not having parties together. They had argued themselves into different camps and were taking potshots at each other. The Jewish party was the sanctification-perfection wing of the church. They kept many laws and traditions. They had "the truth" and had been "in the way" for many years. They feared that the Gentiles who were flooding into the church would cause them to be no longer a peculiar people. They questioned whether the Gentiles were really being changed by the gospel, at least as changed as they should be. The flood of Gentiles were "polluting" the pure Jewish church, and the Christian Jews were getting nervous about where this would all lead.
The Gentile party was the justification-libertine element. They lived rather free lives and were not uptight about the Jewish traditions. In their minds the Jewish party was a holier-than-thou group who wanted to put them under the law. They were a threat to their freedom in the gospel.
One need not be too perceptive to note the similarities between the problems then and ours today. We have the conservatives and the liberals, the perfectionists and the new Adventists. We have FROGS (Friends of the Gospel) and TOADS (Traditional Old Adventists). This lack of unity in the body of Christ and the fragmentation over easily applied labels does an immense disservice to the church. If we are to fulfill our God-given responsibility as a people of God, we can't polarize and fragment into camps. We must discover a solution.
Now, the cry for unity can be a two-edged sword. I remember conference constituency meetings in which appeals were made for unity because there was a threat to an officer's position. I'm not talking about that kind of unity, the unity that is a papering over of ineptitude. I'm not talking about uniformity, but unity, and there is a vast difference. Uniformity tries to make all men simply reflectors of others' thoughts, to make things look smooth at least on the outside. Uniformity casts everyone in the same mold. God forbid that we have uniformity!
What we need is the unity and oneness that comes with the Spirit of Christ. "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:4-6).
I can't imagine Christ coming to receive His own if His own are tearing one another apart with criticism, rumor, and innuendo. I can't imagine living in different camps in heaven.
"It is the purpose of God that His children shall blend in unity. Do they not expect to live together in the same heaven? Is Christ divided against Himself? Will He give His people success before they sweep away the rubbish of evil surmising and discord, before the laborers, with unity of purpose, devote heart and mind and strength to the work so holy in God's sight? Union brings strength; disunion, weakness." E. G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, p. 240. We need unity, not of thought, but of love. We need a unity, not of style, but of the Spirit.
What stands in the way?
One obstacle is perception problems. Everyone approaches reality through the filter of his past experiences. Those experiences frequently distort perceptions. As Nisbett and Ross have said: "The perceiver... is not simply a dutiful clerk who passively registers items of information. Rather, the perceiver is an active interpreter, one who resolves ambiguities, makes educated guesses about events that cannot be observed directly, and forms inferences about associations and causal relations."—Human Inference, p. 17.
For example, pollsters find that unemployed adults tend to overestimate the percentage of the work force who are currently unemployed, but currently employed workers tend to underestimate it. Again Nisbett and Ross point out, "People give inferential weight to information in proportion to its vividness. Vividness is defined as the emotional interest of information." Ibid., p. 62.
All of us are very active observers of present phenomena in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We all have a lot of emotional interest in what is happening. For one reason, we have a political stake in the issues; our jobs are often affected. Second, we have a theological stake in the issues; our religious convictions are involved. Third, we have an emotional stake in the issues; our very lives are tied up in the outcome of the struggle.
We are not unbiased, unattached observers. The level of distortion within our perceptions is directly related to the impact that such observations have on our lives. As leaders in this church we need to be very sensitive to how our perceptions of present issues in the church can be significantly distorted because of the emotional vividness the issues have to us personally.
Here is how perception can affect reality. Jane is a trusting and secure person. She enters a room full of people and waves at Bill on the other side of the room. He does not wave back. Her perception: "He must not have seen me."
Sue is a suspicious and insecure person. She enters a room full of people and waves at Bill on the other side of the room. He does not wave back. Her perception: "He must be angry at me."
We are confronted, then, with the likelihood that our perceptions of issues and people are distorted. Distorted perceptions result in suspicion, and suspicion results in more distortion. All of this complicates the search for unity. The result? We pull apart instead of press together.
Because of perception distortion, I believe that the general church member ship and some of us as leaders are becoming paranoid about attacks on the church. What happens when you feel under attack? Especially when the stakes are high? You find sides; you identify the other side with an appropriate label. You get into a them-and-us mentality. We use catchwords to identify, categorize, and stigmatize people as enemy or friend. Code words indicate sides (words like "sanctuary," "remnant," "faith," even TOADS and FROGS).
The result of these perceptions distorted by suspicions is that mutual trust is gone. Who will tell on you? What can you feel safe to say, and who can you feel safe to say it to? The trusting fellowship of the body disintegrates. But the church is built on trust and confidence and cannot survive in such a climate.
We are in danger of a kind of McCarthyism in the church. I can imagine nothing more effective in stifling theological growth and Christian maturity than such an atmosphere of suspicion. Someone expresses a thought that seems to put him in a certain camp; he is labeled and classified. Receiving this unsubstantiated stigma, he becomes suspect and unemployable. Theological growth, spiritual growth, and organizational movement are threatened by such a creeping miasma of intimidation. Teachers become increasingly unwilling to speak in public on controversial issues because of the propensity of the misguided few to label, tape, and misquote for the purpose of publishing and dis crediting. Ministers become reluctant to preach on sensitive subjects for fear of raising the ire of the publishing letter writers. In an organization as relatively small as ours the poison of the grapevine can murder the career in short order.
"Floating rumors are frequently the destroyers of unity among brethren. There are some who watch with open mind and ears to catch flying scandal. They gather up little incidents which may be trifling in themselves, but which are repeated and exaggerated until a man is made an offender for a word." The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Prov. 26:20-22, p. 1163.
Instead of moving into the future with intentional, planned direction we become prisoners of events, reacting to crises and responding to telephone calls. Perceiving that the enemy is all around us, we become unwilling to develop the necessary confidence and trust in one another to move into the future. Preoccupied with internal strife, we cannot become involved in external action.
The church is under attack. I do not deny it. Satan is seeking to blunt its efforts and to destroy its influence. But I suggest that his goal is realized more by those seeking to identify the good guys and the bad guys than it is by some who truly may have wrong theological conceptions. The major damage to the body of Christ comes, not from theological misfits, but from our paranoid response to them.
So how can leaders in today's Seventh-day Adventist Church lead in this environment of suspicion and dis trust.7 I am not suggesting that we ignore real problems and convince ourselves that an elephant is only a mouse with a glandular condition. Let's face real issues, but let's make sure we are facing substantive issues and not someone's misperception of another's supposed statement. If we split as a church, let's do it right—on real issues and hard facts!
We must fight some change and fight for some change. There is a significant danger in our church of allowing paranoia and fear of any change to lock the pillars of the church in the archives of the nineteenth century. We must be change agents—conversion agents—in our church. The fact that we are not yet in the kingdom leads me to believe that there must be some changes in the way we are presently doing things if we expect our generation to usher in the second coming of Christ. Something is wrong, and it is time we faced up to it. Israel could not wander in the desert for thirty-nine years and continue to give good reports to the constituency. They could not claim wonderful progress no matter how optimistic the administration. No matter how many miles were covered, no matter how many children were born, no matter how many statistics they compiled, no matter how strong their educational system, they were not where they were supposed to be, and that pointed to problems. We are not with our Lord, and that means problems.
Some things must change. The church, of course, tends to resist change, especially in an environment of suspicion and mistrust. Ralph W. Neighbour points out that change need not make us nervous; it should cause us to become enthusiastic about the potential ways God has to use this church, and us, in the future. Yet no one is more threatened by change than those whose bread and butter may be affected. Church workers have a built-in incentive to opt for the status quo and increasingly so the closer they get to retirement.
The SDA Church will not grow or deepen its understanding of its doctrines if no one is allowed to teach more than the church has taught historically. In that case, are we not simply bowing before tradition? It is nice to say that truth can bear investigation and that our understandings of truth grow, but if no avenue exists for the thoughtful exploration of and application of church doctrines, then our minds really are closed. The real threat to the future of our church is the tendency to be politically safe. The trend toward safe thinking, teaching, and preaching will truly doom the growth of our church as it seeks to move into the future and minister the grace of Christ in the twenty-first century.
Too many of us who are workers in the church have been guilty of theological malpractice. It is painful to do the work necessary to be a skillful teacher or preacher, so many of us have taken the easy way out. We do our jobs, keep our noses clean, and don't rock the boat!
Controversy and crises can bring some benefits. Mrs. White wrote: "The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God's people should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. ... I have been shown that many who profess to have a knowledge of present truth know not what they believe. . . . Agitate, agitate, agitate. The subjects which we present to the world must be to us a living reality. . . . When God's people are at ease and satisfied with their present enlightenment, we may be sure that He will not favor them." Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, pp. 707, 708.
Unfortunately, too many malnourished minds exist in the work of God, minds that have atrophied rather than enlarged, withered rather than grown. Too many non-growing minds are passed from church to church and school to school when the supply of sermons or lesson plans dries up. Too many retired minds still inhabit unretired bodies, unwilling to be change agents for fear of the results of change in themselves and the church.
The danger is merely to reflect the thoughts of others. The habit of uncritical credulity—of taking the ideas of books, magazines, and tapes without independent thought—encourages a dependent dogmatism that will not stand the spotlight of criticism that is descending on our church. Don't borrow unexamined convictions from others simply to avoid paying the price of disciplined, thoughtful study. The unexamined life is not worth living, and the unexamined belief is not worth holding.
We can be instrumental in answering the prayer of Jesus that He offered for all believers: " 'My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me'" (John 17:20,21).
What does it mean to be one? I know what it means for marriage. It means to be as interested in the welfare of my wife as I am interested in my own welfare. What does it mean to be one in Christ? It means that only in Him can we have the security that will relieve us from the suspicions that destroy our unity. Only in Him and with Him as our head will we be able to build a church that can live in theological security while it moves into the twenty-first century.
The Holy Bible: New International Version.
Copyright 1978 by the New York International Bible
Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible