A phrase that kept emerging in my college denominational history classes was present truth. This phrase seemed to embody a set of biblical understandings that, while not new, emerged with greater clarity. Early Adventist preachers and writers appeared to sense their raison d’etre in proclaiming these understandings. But more than a century has passed since the time that such truths were “present.” Has the time come to ask whether we might need to articulate broader “present truth”? This is not to turn away from the biblical theology that Adventists cherish, but I sense a lessening of interest in today’s audiences in our cherished understandings of God’s law, the Sabbath, sanctuary understandings, and even the great controversy. Those who understand the times tell us that we are now living in a postmodern world, where those who sit in the pews, never mind those who never enter church premises, have
This is not to turn away from the biblical theology that Adventists cherish, but I sense a lessening of interest in today’s audiences in our cherished understandings of God’s law, the Sabbath, sanctuary understandings, and even the great controversy. Those who understand the times tell us that we are now living in a postmodern world, where those who sit in the pews, never mind those who never enter church premises, have lessening interest in theological orthodoxies.
What does the church have to say today that is “present truth,” relevant to modern people? An increasing number seem to say that we should be focusing on a central theme of Scripture: doing justice. This growing chorus of Christians in general and Adventists in particular are pointing to issues of justice as critical for twenty-first century agendas . The concern especially acknowledges that most Christians in the developed countries have a sacred responsibility both to those marginalized and unjustly treated in their own communities and to those in the majority, or the developing world. The prophetic word is coming from evangelical Christian thought leaders, our own Adventist community, and even Pope Francis: “How I would love a Church which is poor and for the poor,” he stated shortly after his election.1
Issues of justice
How can we ignore the estimated 870 million people, one person in eight, suffering from chronic undernourishment?2 Can we ignore the 783 million people who lack access to improved water sources and 2.5 billion people who have no improved sanitation?3
Perhaps, like me, you learned in school about William Wilberforce and believe that slavery was abolished. But slavery did not end with abolition in the nineteenth century; the practice continues in every country in the world. From women forced into prostitution to children forced to work in sweatshops to entire families forced to work for nothing to pay off generational debts, the illegal practice blights our contemporary world. About 21 million men, women, and children around the world are in a form of slavery.4 Thus, Adventists can not only recognize the importance of rest for ourselves, we can also see the issue as one of justice for all.
As one who grew up in a world coming to grips with the end of the colonial era, I was immersed in, and yet strangely oblivious to, issues of racism and multiculturalism. Our denomination had its roots in the United States of America, and our pioneers struggled to articulate a just approach within that culture. Some have argued that although we can be pleased with many things, we nonetheless occasionally failed to rid ourselves of racist approaches.5 Many of our church communities have growing ethnic and cultural mixes: how do we find respect and tolerance for all and yet preserve a comfortable community for each individual? Can we share these conversations in our meetings? And then share our lessons learned with a broader audience?
We look for personal safety and protection, but a United Nations statistical report compiled from government sources showed that more than 250,000 cases of rape or attempted rape are recorded by police annually. The reported data covered just 65 countries.6 And this is only the beginning of a tragedy that many countries and cultures do not report nor address in law or enforcement. We cannot take over the proper role of the authorities in law and order, but we can (especially if we live in a democratic environment) advocate, seek to protect, and assist the desperate people who are victims of trafficking and smuggling, many of whom endure unimaginable hardships in their bid for a better life.
Two key theological emphases
Given our distinctive denominational name, let us review the two key theological emphases embodied there. We may be in for a surprise on how they impact this issue.
1.Seventh-day Adventists rightly call people back to an experience and appreciation of the Sabbath. But, while finding proof in such texts as Isaiah 58:13, 14, do we forget to read the whole chapter, with its clarion call to justice and compassion? Is it possible that we are more focused on “not breaking the Sabbath” than on “doing good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:12)? Ellen G. White frequently referred to Isaiah 58 as the “message for this time, to be given over and over again,” and “of the highest importance.”7 Even the Sabbath commandment itself contains a call for justice: “no work [for] . . . your son, daughter, or slaves—whether men or women—or your cattle or your house guests” (Exod. 20:10, TLB).8
2.As we consider the proclamation for the universe-impacting event of the First Advent, what might we have expected? Prophecy analysis, sacrificial system decoding, and timeline proclamation? Standing at a similar point in the salvation timeline proclaiming the Second Advent, should we not also embrace and share God’s values of justice and mercy?9
After noting so much bad news, there is good news to report, both in thought and action.
I was surprised to learn that more than 2,000 verses throughout the Old and New Testaments focus on poverty and justice, underscoring that this has always been at the core of salvation history, and Christ’s ministry in particular. If you want to see this visually, pick up a copy of The Poverty and Justice Bible,10 and as you review its pages, you see that highlighted texts focusing on poverty and justice appear all the way through. As a minister charged with sharing and preaching the Word, do your presentations embrace this major cross-cutting theme? Being aware of this emphasis can help you see stories and presentations in a whole new light. Take, for example, my favorite story of the widow’s oil jar in 2 Kings 4:1–7. In that delightful story you can explore issues of slavery, engagement, gender, and personal finance, as well as the wonder of God’s (literally!) overflowing blessings.
A poignant and forthright series of essays is captured in Do Justice: Our Call to Faithful Living,11 in which prominent Adventist thinkers and theologians are calling the church, especially the Adventist Church, to a thorough engagement on issues of justice. These essays call for recognition that humanitarian action and concern for justice should be at the heart of Adventist theology and history (although not always with undivided focus).
These concerns are being articulated with increasing clarity by evangelical authors. My colleagues and I have been challenged and blessed by Richard Stearns’s book The Hole in Our Gospel.12 While his presentation inevitably draws attention to the ministry with which he is associated, his analysis of Old and New Testament passages (not to mention his dramatic personal story) captivates our attention and resonates with our own understanding. From a different organization, Jim Martin’s The Just Church presents not only a theology but also practical steps for helping your church engage in justice issues.13 Have you already engaged your church, or are you thinking about it? Take time to read practical counsel with a biblically based framework in When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.14 Those more academically inclined may wish to dig into Wagner Kuhn’s Redemption and Transformation.15
The obvious difference
I wish to highlight the obvious difference being made by the Adventist Church in more than 120 countries through the ministry of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). According to the 2013 annual report, ADRA touched the lives of more than 21 million people through more than a thousand projects valued at almost US$138 million! While we in the ADRA network have a specific professional responsibility to be engaged, how much better if our actions flowed from the determination and engagement of all our members and leaders? Other denominations have similar faith-based agencies engaged in the same mission. In Canada, many of us work together cooperatively through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (a partnership of 15 churches and church-based agencies representing 30 denominations).16 In such consortia, Adventists engage with and, in turn, are blessed by other Christian missions.
This is new but not new. Dorcas societies in nineteenth-century America were copied by Adventists in 1874. Galvanized by the needs of others, members organized food and clothes for those in need. From earliest times Adventists understood that helping in the name and spirit of Jesus meant to meet needs, irrespective of creed, class, nationality, or ethnic origin. Gradually Dorcas societies became known as Adventist Community Services, and men, as well as women, have become involved. The Seventh-day Adventist Welfare Service (SAWS) was organized in recognition that Adventists needed to respond to world needs, not just those of their local communities. And ultimately a passion for excellence in Christian response helped our leaders to morph SAWS into ADRA, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency. Those of us involved with the agency from the beginning may have previously seen ourselves as involved in something “good” yet somehow almost peripheral to doctrinal primacy. But more and more I sense that all of these responses stem from Christ’s central mission, touching the heart of humanity with compassion and offering just solutions to urgent needs. While in the early years of ADRA there may have been some temptation for the agency to veer off on a professional but undenominational track, I have sensed in recent years a determination by both ecclesiastical and agency leaders around the world to ensure ADRA’s prime role in church ministry to the wider world.
As a church pastor sensing the imperative of this “present truth,” what are some of the waypoints ahead?
1. Prayerfully consider this potentially new paradigm, a way of thinking that sees justice ministry as central, not as peripheral. Delve into the biblical mandate, using resources such as those given above. Look for points of intersection with young people and those who do not regularly attend. You may find that this aspect of “present truth” grabs their attention and helps them see the church as relevant and compelling.
2. Invite your local church(es) to engage with ministries of justice and compassion locally. I am impressed, for instance, by how the Aldergrove Adventist Church (British Columbia, Canada) incorporates specific ministries to those struggling to survive with programs such as extreme home repair, single moms’ oil change, and a breakfast club to provide nutritious meals for needy school children.17Again, invite young people and occasional attendees to engage in these programs. We can also affirm those engaged in more traditional Dorcas, or community service, activities. Justice for all? That could be a powerful motivator.
3. Have a few individuals share publically their journey in understanding biblical justice issues and conclude with your own reflection and challenge. Give reading assignments to good presenters in your congregation (such as from the suggestions given above) and have them make brief presentations for the 13 weeks of the quarter in the main service, calling it something like “Justice Gems.”
4. Reflect on how acts of justice and compassion best integrate with the mandate to extend God’s invitation to a life of faith. Those involved with any organized Christian ministry or charity know that regulation and legal considerations often appear to hinder what is perceived as necessary Christian witness or evangelism. This perplexing issue has often divided thoughtful Christians and their leaders from those in frontline organizations. But I have come to believe that with more good will and dialogue, we can achieve all of the mandates embodied in Matthew 28:19, 20.
5. Encourage members to actively support the ADRA office in your country. Some pastors, I have found, tend to see their responsibilities solely at the personal or church-community level. But we need to see our parish as including the whole community in which we live, and the global village that we inhabit, for the first time in the history of our planet. That extended community is now beeping at us from our smartphones, crying to us from the radio, and pleading from the news bulletins on the television. Faith-based ministries need prayer support.18 I believe the success that church agencies enjoy by securing significant government and other grants comes from divine intervention.
Expanding our understanding of “present truth”?
The time has come to renew our commitment to making a significant impact on the world, the global village in which we live. This is not new. Our pioneers showed us the way. But with God’s help, we can engage our church and society like never before.
1 “Pope Francis on Social Justice: Quotes and Resources,” Catholic Charities, www.cctwincities.org /pages/advocacy/pope-francis-on-catholic-social-teaching.
2 “Globally Almost 870 Million Chronically Undernourished – New Hunger Report,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, October 9, 2012, www.fao.org/news/story/en /item/161819/icode/.
3 Previous link deleted. See: www.compassionuk.org/blogs/world-water-day-water-photos/
4 “What Is Modern Slavery?” Anti-Slavery, www .antislavery.org/english/slavery—today/what—is— modern—slavery.aspx
5 See Chuck Scriven, “Living Ahead,” in Do Justice: Our Call to Faithful Living, ed. Nathan Brown and Joanna Darby (Warburton, Western Australia: Signs Pub. Co., 2014).
6 “UNODC on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling,” UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/index.html?ref=menuside.
7 Ellen G. White, Welfare Ministry (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), 29–34; Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies, Series B 02, 5; Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 159.
8 Emphasis mine.
9 See Jeff Boyd, “The Deck-Chair Shuffle,” in Brown and Darby, eds., Do Justice.
10 American Bible Society, The Poverty and Justice Bible (New York: American Bible Society, 1995).
11 Nathan Brown and Joanna Darby, Do Justice: Our Call to Faithful Living (Warburton, Victoria: Signs Publishing Company, 2014). Available in the South Pacific from Signs Publishing; available soon through AdventistBookCenter.com in North America. Also available as a Kindle ebook from Adventist-ebooks .com.
12 Richard Stearns, The Hole in our Gospel (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009, 2010).
13 Jim Martin, The Just Church: Becoming a Risk-Taking, Justice-Seeking, Disciple-Making Congregation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2012).
14 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009, 2012).
15 Wagner Kuhn, Redemption and Transformation Through Relief and Development: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives of God’s Holistic Gospel (Berrien Springs, MI: Dept. of World Mission, Andrews University, 2013).
16 Canadian Foodgrains Bank, http://foodgrainsbank.ca.
17 AOK (Acts of Kindness), www.aokaldergrove.org.
18 In Canada we invite people to become “prayers angels,” to be engaged with us in our triumphs and challenges. (http://adra.ca/PrayerAngel). Other offices have similar programs (www.adra.org/site/PageNavigator/involved/prayer—requests.html).