The openness that lies before us

The president of the Adventist Church discusses the forces that impact and shape us as a church, and how we will safely move forward into the future without losing our way.

Jan Paulsen, Th.D., is president of the General Conference of Seventh-dayAdventists.

Editor’s note: On Sabbath, July 8, 2006, Seventh-day Adventist world church president Jan Paulsen, Th.D., addressed an international gathering of some 250 theologians and church leaders in Izmir, Turkey, meeting under the theme “The Nature, Mission and Unity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” The following is the text of Pastor Paulsen’s address, adapted for print.

Four years ago, at a conference similar to this one, I sought to outline what I saw as “the theological landscape” ahead for our church. Without redoing that presentation, the following parallels what was said at that time.

Consider with me all that we have and are as a church—our faith, our theology, our values, our identity, our history. This wall we have placed our backs against—it’s what we lean against. We feel its solidity and support. It does not crumble, it is not fluid. And from this position we look out to what lies ahead, remembering the classical injunction that, in my paraphrase, says “we have nothing to fear for what we see ahead unless we forget what we have backed up against.”

Sometimes I wonder whether we may be more inclined to attend to the wall behind us, examining it and fixing cracks in it, than we are on focusing on what lies ahead. With that in mind, I need to remind us all: The only life we have to live is that which lies ahead. All the assignments in mission we must complete lie ahead of us. All the policies we adopt, all of the adjustments we make to structures, the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, and fundamental beliefs are made with an eye to the future. Our future beckons and challenges us. And we must walk into that future without distancing ourselves from the wall at our backs. We must feel its support constantly.

Before us lies an undefined openness—a potentially huge future—whose challenge must not be underestimated. What are the forces that should shape us, or contain us, as we move into this future?

There are forces within the church that are shaping Adventism around the world, and there are forces external to the church that will impact us. The big question is, “How do we determine the boundaries that will define the openness we are moving into? What are the markers that will guide us into the future and keep the journey safe?”

We cannot say, “Well, I don’t like the scenario, so I’m not going to go there.” The future, with all its challenges of globalization, diversity, and openness, is the only place we can go. We must go there—clearly knowing who we are and what our mission is. We must walk into the future creatively and without fear, knowing that every human being we encounter on the way is the object of God’s saving love. At that time, we must admit that we don’t know precisely what God requires in every culture and every situation in order to lift that human being from “lostness” into salvation.

What is clear, however, is that we cannot do mission if we are content only with reinforcing the wall at our backs. Then, as we move into the future, we must also ensure that we have markers in place that we can see and can trust.

And so, with these introductory comments, I would like to look at this matter in two sections. First, the forces, or realities, within and outside the church that will in some way impact and shape us as a global community. And second, the markers that are necessary for the way ahead, which will function as boundaries to keep us safe.

Forces that impact and shape us

Our own rapid growth. Rapid growth means that the church becomes more localized, and thus more decentralized, in how it is managed and served. While not necessarily a deliberate decision or process, it is simply a fact—something that happens.

Expansion, numerically and territorially, means that the kind of control and guidance that may have come from one central headquarters, such as the General Conference or division, is neither sustainable nor effective. There may be technical reasons, such as limited communication logistics or language barriers. Or there may be political reasons or government regulations that severely limit the involvement of an international headquarters. But, in most instances, it is simply the growth in membership and the development of local leadership that leads to this shift.

Are we ready for this? Rapid growth and expansion may not only shift the “weight” of the organization, it may also, by default, impact the unity of the global church.

Contextualization of Adventism. Our beliefs are constantly being filtered through cultural prisms, which could result in an Adventism that may look and feel somewhat different from one part of the globe to another. How good are we at making sure that, in this process, the heart and mind of Adventism has not changed?

Contextualization, by which I simply mean making the message culturally appropriate, is an inevitable process. None of us is asked to step out of our own culture to become an Adventist. Through our culture and our history we experience life, and this cannot, and should not, be shed. So, within proper limits, contextualization must happen.

The counsel is clear: “People of every culture have their own peculiar, distinctive characteristics, and it is necessary that men should be wise in order that they may know how to adapt themselves to the peculiar ideas of the people, and so introduce the truth that may do them good. They must be able to understand and meet their wants.”1

And: “In laboring in a new field, do not think it your duty to say at once to the people, We are Seventh-day Adventists; we believe that the seventh day is the Sabbath; we believe in the non-immortality of the soul. This would often erect a formidable barrier between you and those you wish to reach. Speak to them, as you have opportunity, upon points of doctrine on which you can agree. Dwell on the necessity of practical godliness. Give them evidence that you are a Christian, desiring peace, and that you love their souls. Let them see that you are conscientious. Thus you will gain their confidence; and there will be time enough for doctrines. Let the heart be won, the soil prepared, and then sow the seed, presenting in love the truth as it is in Jesus.”2

In other words, share the message gently and at a pace that will carry the people with you—for there can be no doubt that a person’s capacity to receive and understand truth is shaped and conditioned by his or her own history and culture. The noblest and most exquisite values can be grasped only as they connect with our own experiences.

Changing demographics within the church. Our church is becoming “younger” and “newer,” and in these areas of rapid growth it is also becoming increasingly flavored by “southern Christianity.” This means that in the 80 to 90 percent of our global church that is experiencing this growth, the church is distinctly conservative, affirming historical Christian values in faith and conduct—a factor that is probably a significant contributor to its growth.

The older church (“northern Christianity”) is increasingly impacted by secularism, “spiritual relativism,” modernism, and a range of other “isms,” which will, in many observers’ views, move the church further to the left and make it increasingly liberal. How do we resolve the inevitable tension this creates?

This is where honesty, humility, understanding, cultural tolerance, and love are so critical. As I have said on many occasions: “Unity does not take care of itself.” It does not follow naturally. It has to be pursued very deliberately, and the elements that preserve unity have to be cultured and nurtured. In this setting, the need to have love and understanding for one another is of greatest importance.

The younger, newer, quite conservative Seventh-day Adventist Church lies immediately before us. This is what we are looking at. We cannot walk around it or ignore it. How do we go about affirming the legitimacy of the “younger” and “newer” and letting them also take hold of the reins of the church?

To my understanding the answer is found in two simple steps: First, you do your best to train and equip them so they may share the values and identity of historic Adventism. And second, you trust them and the Lord of the church. Those are steps in respect to which we have no choice; we must take them.

Globalization. While it is true that the church is becoming increasingly more local and decentralized, there is an opposite force at work. The so-called “flatness” of the world means a rapid spread of ideas, experiences, and expectations; the Internet and international media see to that.

We welcome the potential of global communication systems—Internet, television, radio—as instruments for the mission of the church. Yet these same systems fl ood the same market, in virtually limitless ways, with alternative values and beliefs. Web sites are set up to market values and teachings directly hostile to core values of our church. Once you step into the global communication market, no one is sheltered.

Globalization has also led to an extensive movement of people, whether prompted by war with its resulting flood of refugees, or by the search for a way out of poverty. Multiple millions are on the move, often carrying more “in” their person than “on” their person.

The process of the world becoming one village is in some places quite advanced. Unprecedented numbers of ethnic churches are part of our global family. Although they are a long way from their traditional home, who can fault them for wanting a voice and fair presence in the life of the church where they are now located? This part of the reality challenges us as a global church and must be addressed fairly and without prejudice.

Also, as a church everything we are and do is based on free and voluntary choices. Into this setting come some individuals and organizations, focused on mission, who seem more “independent” than “supportive.” The nature of their initiatives, as well as their norms of accountability, can present a challenge to the church organization. How do we relate? Freedom is fine, but when a group considers itself free-standing, in the sense of answering only to God and themselves, it does not work well within the church. A community can function only when the rules of community living are respected and adhered to.

These are some of the realities immediately before us. They should not be seen as threats but as challenges that must be faced openly and creatively.

We are a mission organization; we have a clear mission mandate. It is our faithfulness to mission that will largely determine our faithfulness to God. We go forward with strength and conviction into the open space of the future, for that is where we do mission. If we do not do mission, we have lost our reason for being and our usefulness to God. We will stay global; we will stay united; and we will do mission.

As we attempt to do all of this, the second major question we ask is:

What markers or boundaries will take us safely into the future and keep us from losing our way?

Scripture. Our first marker is God’s Word itself. Whatever faith values we hold and affirm must be biblical. God’s Word, the Scripture, is the unique and authoritative source of Truth as saving knowledge. Our values are shaped by Scripture. Our spiritual directions are set by Scripture. Absolutely reliable markers, which will keep us safely on course, must therefore have Scripture as their constant point of reference.

The moment we step outside the boundaries of Scripture, our struggle with the challenges of contextualization and “staying current” becomes treacherous. We are either in the territory of syncretism or in a haze where spiritual values are unclear. Without God’s Word as a marker, the church will be confronted with demands to be “flexible,” “reasonable,” less dogmatic, less authoritative and absolute, ready to compromise, and, yes, more open—but in a sort of undefined way.

The future is open, but God’s markers for a safe way into the future are not. There are hazardous ditches on either side of the road. Beware! For adrift from Scripture we will surely land in one of them. We hold, furthermore, that the writings of Ellen White constantly and comprehensively inform us about Scripture (the lesser light leading to the greater light).

And that, in a way, may cover it all. But I would like to highlight a few additional markers which, although rooted in Scripture, warrant special attention.

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ must be unequivocally identified and acknowledged as our Guide into the future. He who said of Himself, “I am the way. . . . No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)3; and who brought Peter to confess “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), must be proclaimed as the unique One singularly equipped to take us through this world into the next.

This must be very pronounced. Just as Scripture leads one, inevitably, to the person of Jesus Christ, so must every manifestation of Seventh-day Adventism be focused on drawing individuals to a knowledge and acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior. This must be a clear marker in non-Christian global settings as well as in the historic Christian parts of the world. Any “brand” of Adventism that does not have Jesus Christ at its center, recognizable and affi rmed, should not be allowed space within our community.

Open minds. As a people, we must have the humility to acknowledge that we do not know it all. And therefore, we must have minds open to discovery as we search for a better and clearer understanding of truth. This may seem risky, but I know of no other way we can be true to ourselves and to what we have always held about the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

We have been counseled repeatedly that we are to engage in this search. For instance: “God requires of them [God’s true people] continual advancement in the knowledge of the truth, and in the way of holiness.”4 And speaking of the search for truth, which has been the hallmark of the church in all ages, Ellen White writes, “As real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s Word and discourage any further investigation of Scripture.”5

With honesty and humility we must grant that the openness before us—the space of time and opportunities just ahead—must find a corresponding openness in our own minds as, led by the Spirit, we search for where He wants to take us. This has to be acknowledged as a basic stance, notwithstanding the risks. The alternative is to shut down discovery and search.

Scripture, accompanied by the enlightenment that comes from the inspired pen of Ellen White, will keep us safe in this process of discovery. The search must keep us close to God’s Word but must be void of the attitude that says, “I have discovered it all!” What I am talking about is primarily an attitude, reliant on the Holy Spirit. Are we good at projecting this attitude? I believe that this mind-set must be a marker in the road ahead for the Adventist people.

Rejection of relativism. An “open mind” must be accompanied by an equally clear stance that refuses to compromise Scriptural values. Postmodern relativism will relentlessly push us towards being more accommodating and presenting a message that appeals to the majority. According to this relativism, the legitimacy of our faith-values is defi ned, to a considerable extent, by what “comfort level” they offer. (“Whatever works for you is fine!”)

We must be very clear that faith-values are not born from within and are not authenticated by our personal experiences. Faith-values come to us, brought to our minds by the Holy Spirit, and they, in turn, authenticate our experience. Jesus Christ said of the Holy Spirit, “[He] will teach you all things and [he] will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Prioritization of mission. Through the prophet Isaiah, God said to His people then, “I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). Christ said to His followers, “You will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Ours is a mission movement—God’s people have always been focused on mission—and this must also be a clear marker on our road into the future. Mission must clearly drive decisions at all levels of church administration, in the board meetings of our institutions, and in the local church. Mission should be at the top of the agenda in planning and use of resources. The language of mission must be the chosen “dialect” of the church. If mission is not the primary objective, then all our councils and meetings at every administrative level are simply a waste of time.

Sensitivity to suffering. Another important marker for the church is our engagement with the plight of the poor, the ill, the refugees, and the disenfranchised. This must be a clearly visible value on our mission agenda, because without this engagement it is reasonably certain that we have lost our way. The Lord’s comment that “the poor you will always have with you” (Matt. 26:11) may have sounded like an aside about a sad reality, but Christ made it clear He will hold us accountable for how we deal with those whose needs are greater than they can handle themselves (Matt. 25:31–46).

Through service the church demonstrates that mission is more than the spoken word, that there is continuity between making life better for people here and now and preparing them for eternity. The rich meanings of the Hebrew word shalom should tell us something about how comprehensively God is committed to seeking our good.

Acceptance of diversity. As our church grows rapidly and spreads across the globe, into every culture, race, and nationality, we must do better at working with the diversity of humanity. Those who share faith in Christ discover that He is the Great Equalizer of all believers (Gal. 3:26–29). Therefore, this will be a very visible global marker, for it has to do with the value of human beings, fairness, behavior, participation, and representation. The internationality and ethnic mix of our church, as well as the fact that we are male and female, must be reflected in the trust we have for each other and the room we make for all to participate. This will not happen of itself. It requires right decisions.

Commitment to unity. I have often spoken of the unity of our church, and I cannot complete my list without returning to it. The unity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, spiritually and structurally, locally and globally, remains as an unqualified marker. This was one of the elements that Jesus Christ reflected on during the final few hours He had with His disciples before Gethsemane. In some mystical way, the unity of faith that binds believers together is anchored in the unity Christ has with the Father (John 17:20–23). It is a unity that is ministered to by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4).

A spiritual community, whether a local congregation or an international spiritual family, which affirms a shared faith on the one hand but is divided by internal strife on the other is a community in denial. Should we choose to walk away from each other rather than face differences, we will have lost our way. As a global family of faith, we cannot relent on our commitment to unity.

Anticipation of Christ’s coming. As a community we live in anticipation of the Second Coming of our Lord, and our values reflect this reality. This is a marker embedded in our identity. The transitory nature of this world, the certainty of Christ’s return, the task we have been given of sharing this message, all these things must be central to our preaching and teaching.

But this marker must be profi led with more than words. Living in anticipation of Christ’s return implies more than just an intellectual assent to a doctrinal position. This marker fi nds its best expression in the way we live. Our confi dence that Christ is indeed “preparing a place” for us flavors our everyday activities and shapes our choices. Or as the apostle Peter puts it, our knowledge of what is to come helps us know how we should live (2 Pet. 3:11–17).

As a church, our identity, values, and mission are inextricably linked with this marker. We lose sight of this at our peril.

This is who we are and how we shall go into the future. As we do, I pray we will trust, not only the Lord, but each other. As we hold fast to the essentials of our identity, we need to accord each other the courtesy of trust, believing that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can move forward into a more open future, united in faith and mission.

1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1923) 213.

2 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington DC: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 1915), 119.

3 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New International Version.

4 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1948), 345.

5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1948), 706, 707.



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Jan Paulsen, Th.D., is president of the General Conference of Seventh-dayAdventists.

September 2006

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