A friendly outsider looks at Seventh-day Adventists

More interaction between Adventists and other evangelicals would benefit both.

Arthur F. Glasser, Ph. D., teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

In the September 1956 issue of Eternity, Dr. Donald Grey Bamhouse did a dangerous thing. He went public on a very controversial matter! Although in three subsequent is sues his associate, Walter R. Martin, sought to provide Eternity's readers with comprehensive, well-documented articles on the reasons behind Dr. Barnhouse's action, the "damage" was done, and many evangelicals howled.

At issue was the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Was it Christian, or was it, as many evangelicals had long regarded it, a troublesome and unorthodox sect? During those years Dr. Barnhouse's Evangelical Foundation was studying the cults. In his day evangelicals had the careless tendency of tacking damaging labels on many religious groups--the pejorative words liberal and cult were on the lips of too many who could and should have known better. But this superficial judgmentalism irritated Eternity's editor. Was it right to conclude so hastily that confessing Christians with whom one differed were hence to be castigated as non-Christian or even anti-Christian? For all he knew, some of those being relegated to outer darkness might actually be his brothers and sisters in Christ. He feared he wasn't "discerning the Lord's body" (1 Cor. 11:29)?

The Apostle Paul charged all who pro fess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour to "welcome one another" as Christ had welcomed them "for the glory of God" (Rom. 15:7). Paul contended that those who confess Christ dare not arbitrarily separate from one another even though they should find that they disagreed in their understanding of truth. The best of Christians lack 20/20 vision of truth and rarely if ever live up to all the truth they profess. Only as they receive one another and share their limited knowledge of truth will the unity of the people of God be displayed and deepened.

For nearly two years the Barnhouse/ Martin team had been meeting with Seventh-day Adventist leaders face-to-face, asking every conceivable question arising from their study of Adventist literature and listening to their answers. One report has it that their list of questions covered almost 100 pages. In the end, for truth's sake, Dr. Barnhouse went public. He stated that he was in hearty agreement with Seventh-day Adventists over the cardinal doctrines of the faith--matters pertaining to the unique authority of Scripture, the nature of the Godhead, the "finished" redemptive work of Christ, and the truth of salvation "by grace through faith plus nothing else." True, he and Dr. Martin had uncovered alternate views on themes of vastly secondary importance and some concepts that only Adventists held. But they found no reason for excluding Adventists from fellowship within the body of Christ.

Meeting the Adventists

Dr. Barnhouse's repudiation of his previously held caricature of Seventh-day Adventists caused him to lose some friends and Eternity some subscriptions. But it impressed me! Here was a man concerned not only with truth but with its practice.

Actually, I had had few contacts with Seventh-day Adventists before this. I think it was an Adventist who, in a chance street encounter in Chicago in 1939, sought to help me understand what "666" meant. He didn't succeed!

When my wife, Alice, and I arrived at Wuting, a remote walled city in China's Yunnan province, to take up the assignment the China Inland Mission had given us, I learned that a few weeks earlier the missionary couple we were re placing had denied hospitality to some Adventist missionaries. For justification they told me that 2 John 7-10 gave them no alternative--"That's the way we must deal with Seventh-day Adventists." But I wondered where those missionaries spent that night. There was no Hilton in Wuting!

It was a happy day for me when a stalwart Dane of incredible intellectual hunger and boundless energy--as I later discovered--came into the office of Fuller Theological Seminary's School of World Mission to inquire about graduate study in missiology. He had served fruitfully as a pastor and as a leader of Adventist mission work in the Middle East and in West Africa. Well, that day marked the beginning of years of ever-deepening friendship and plenty of shared hard work, for I was assigned the role of mentor for his doctoral dissertation. In the end, we at Fuller found no alternative but to award Borge Schantz not only a doctorate but our 1983 prize for the most creative and significant contribution to the field of missiology (912 pages--and I resonated over every line!).

During the years Borge and Iris were in southern California--and Iris is as gifted and charming as Borge--they graciously introduced my wife and me to the Adventist movement. We worshiped together, attended occasional lectures together at Loma Linda University, and were enabled in many ways to see things from the inside. We also came to feel the struggles within a movement whose institutionalization processes of almost 150 years have eventuated in a troika of alter natives other evangelical bodies in our day also face. Shall it be a withdrawn, separatistic sect, just another accommodating church, or increasingly a prophesying remnant?

Could the Adventist movement lose its spiritual vitality? Of course. Every evangelical movement operates on the edge of the abyss. And Adventism must never underestimate the enemy's unchanging determination to divert the people of God from obedience to Holy Scripture and their worldwide mission. Yet while we came to believe that no Adventist leader knows for certain the church's ultimate direction, we cannot but affirm that the Lord is indeed in the midst of His people.

Sharing with Adventists

A while ago I went to Birmingham, England, to participate in a conference on conversion sponsored by the British Church Growth Association. This trip gave my wife and me the unusual opportunity to be with Borge and Iris for two full weeks as the official guests of the two European divisions of Seventh-day Adventists, namely, the Trans-European Division, headed by Dr. Jan Paulsen, a missiologist in his own right (Tubingen), and the Euro-Africa Division, headed by the Austrian pastor, Edwin Ludescher. We visited Newbold College, the Adventist training facility near London. I addressed the church leadership of the Trans-European Division at their head quarters in St. Albans, and then I gave a series of lectures to Adventist theology students at Friedensau Theological Seminary, near Magdeburg in the German Democratic Republic.

When one examines the Seventh-day Adventist movement statistically, some significant details soon surface. It has the largest Protestant educational system in the world--about 5,000 schools. Al though only about 5 million strong, Adventists are uniquely missionary minded, having already planted churches in 190 of the 216 countries listed by the United Nations. In 1985 they completed a special worldwide evangelistic thrust called "1,000 Days of Reaping," averaging more than 1,100 new members a day for each of its 1,000 days. This sign of God's favor has prompted them to work and pray for 2 million new members by 1990. Non-Adventist evangelicals can learn a great deal from studying this movement.

And yet the tragedy is that whereas Adventists are willing to invite non- Adventist evangelicals to participate in their gatherings; Adventist leaders are almost never invited to address evangelical gatherings. I inquired about this while at their seminary in Friendensau. What we heard there was the same as in England: "Lutheran bishops and other church leaders are willing to come and address us--indeed, they are very friendly to us and seem impressed with our churches and schools--but the traffic never goes the other way. They don't feel we have anything to share with their churches, theologians, or students." Therein lies tragedy.

While in England I was given a special opportunity to speak on a subject they had chosen for me. My invitation read: "Come to us as an outsider and make some observations on the World Council of Churches, the evangelicals, and Seventh-day Adventists." Quite an assignment! It gave me the opportunity, in the midst of a very friendly audience, to range widely.

With a certain measure of trepidation, I felt I had to begin with a mild rebuke: "Why did your church's observers at the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (Vancouver, 1983) not stand with the sizable number of evangelicals who in the midst of that gathering sought to present a united testimony to the churches concerning the truths that needed to be affirmed and that seemed largely ignored? Your witness was needed! And the rest of us were impoverished to the degree that you did not stand with us."

Of course, I knew that behind this was the Adventist policy of sending only observers to WCC gatherings. But if I as a press representative was encouraged to speak out, why shouldn't they have joined us? They have so much to say!

Actually, my address at their head quarters in England focused more specifically on their obligation to reflect biblically on the new debate brewing within their ranks. All the reports I had read of their fifty-fourth General Conference session (1985) referred to extended discussions on leadership and church structure. Some inferred that this would be the last quinquennial gathering at which White and Western ideas would dominate. Already the rumblings of dissent were gathering momentum: Third World leaders, mostly Black Africans, were asking for more authority and freedom and representation at headquarters. This can only mean that their restless constituencies will soon begin to push for new agendas. Actually, Third World Adventists tend to be more conservative in doctrine and lifestyle than their counterparts in the northern tier of nations. But if one is to judge from what has happened in other "mission" churches, Adventist leaders are going to be confronted with new and unexpected agendas in the days ahead. Even so, Adventists believe that their financial policy (a common pool) and the distinctive components of their mes sage and lifestyle will enable them to cope with the growing ferment in their ranks and remain a dynamic world unity.

Throughout the world a new Seventh-day Adventist leadership is arising. One has only to interact with their theology students to sense this inevitability. They are impressive. I have also heard of the lay discussion groups that are functioning in East Germany. One such group near Friedensau meets weekly. All of its members are young, ranging in age from 18 to 30 years. None are involved in institutional academics. All have been government-assigned to work in the trades. Why do they meet? They answer, "We are in the real world; we must know what it means to be Christians there!"

These young Christians sense that if their church leaders convey the impression that Scripture does not encourage Christians to interact dynamically with the changing world around them--in other words, to direct new questions to the Bible--the Adventist movement has no future. They don't want their church to become a collection of encapsulated Amish-type communities scattered throughout the world, to withdraw in order to conserve Seventh-day Adventist distinctives. To do so would be to abuse the remnant concept in much the same way that the Israelites did after the Babylonian captivity. These young Adventists want to be lights in the world, sheep among the wolves, and the salt of the earth! Fortunately, the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist movement realized that their church's understanding of the Bible would grow with time. This Protestant principle caused them to define truth as progressive.

On the other hand, these young leaders do not want to accommodate them selves to the secular "religious" culture around them and become like those denominations here and there that have terminal diseases! They have no desire to betray either Jesus Christ or their own history. The result is tension. Their desire to escape these two extremes will be increasingly heightened by pressure from the new generation throughout the non- Western world to develop a new authenticity in the face of the world's tragedies and needs.

Most evangelicals see Adventists only as sectarian and tend to overlook their essential evangelicalism. In America the typical evangelical evaluation is that they have opted for withdrawal over witness. Their non-participation in witness at Vancouver in 1983 would be a case in point. Indeed, Adventists have every thing to gain by more positive interaction with evangelicals. I can believe that Dr. Barnhouse, by his bold action 30 years ago, brought much benefit to the Adventist movement. Not that he caused many evangelicals to revise their attitude toward Adventists (in the 1950s he was almost too controversial a person to change the direction of the amorphous evangelical movement!). But I cannot help believing that his public advocacy caused changes to be made here and there in Adventist literature and public emphases.

Adventists see themselves as a remnant movement. When encountering their high-quality medical facilities, their impressive educational institutions, their health message, their temperance ministry, and their service on behalf of the drug-enslaved, one cannot help admiring their attempts to apply biblical principles.

My concern is that Adventists not limit their efforts to evangelism and church growth and the need to rethink their distinctives in the light of today's questions and Scripture's answers. I challenge them to be a renewal movement as well as a remnant movement. Biblically, a remnant movement must always be concerned for renewal, not only within itself but within all the churches. In these days of widespread Christian nominality, all groups with "the testimony to Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:2; c.f.rev. 12:17), all who have the "eternal gospel to pro claim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people" (Rev. 14:16), need one another. No group has all the answers. Each group impoverishes itself and others to the degree that it withdraws from the rest. And all are under the obligation to work for the renewal of the church.

*Bible texts in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

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Arthur F. Glasser, Ph. D., teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

January 1989

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