The new queen of the Netherlands, formally known as Princess Maxima, is of Argentinian origin. After she and the crown prince of the Netherlands fell in love with each other, her life changed dramatically. Maxima and Willem-Alexander married in 2001, and Maxima soon became the most popular member of the Dutch royal family. She mastered the Dutch language in an admirable way and has won her place in the hearts of the Dutch people. Willem-Alexander succeeded his mother in 2013 and became the king of the Netherlands. Maxima received the title of queen.
Six years before she became the queen, Maxima made a statement that drew severe criticism. In a formal speech before a Dutch advisory council of the government, she addressed the topic of “identity.” She said, “The Dutch identity does not exist and neither does the Dutchman.” Then she added, “And the Argentinian does not exist either.” While the second statement was hardly quoted, her reference to the Dutch identity was little appreciated by many of her new fellow citizens, who are usually quite proud of being Dutch.
However, Maxima was right. Identity is a complex phenomenon. Individual variations are so numerous and so different that one can hardly ascribe one single identity to a group of people. That is also true of religious identity. Therefore, what do Seventhday Adventists mean when they speak of the need to carefully maintain their Adventist identity? Does the Adventist exist? And if some fear that the church may suffer an identity crisis, what exactly are they afraid of?
What is identity?
According to one sociologist, identity is a definition, an interpretation of who we are, and where we are sociologically and psychologically.1 Among countless definitions, the following is helpful to me: “The identity of an individual is not fixed, but is a complex of characteristics that develops as the individual interacts with his social environment.”2 In a world that is constantly changing, not the least through the effects of grand-scale migration, more and more people can be said to have multiple identities.
Identity is a composite of many factors and far from static. It develops as we go through life, interact with people, and have all kinds of experiences. Who I am is not simply determined by the fact that I was born in Amsterdam. Neither is it by my profession or my religious choice. My identity has to do with numerous factors. My ethnic origin and nationality are important elements. My gender and the fact that I am a husband and father are also essential elements in my identity makeup. But so is my family background, education, and professional vocation. My political and social convictions and my hobbies likewise helped to shape me into the person that I have become. And yes, the fact that I am a committed Christian, and not just any kind of Christian but an Adventist Christian, is a significant element of my identity.
What is Adventist identity?
When I identify myself as a Seventh-day Adventist, I believe I make a significant statement. But it must be admitted that, in itself, this label is not very precise. It does, indeed, put me in a category of people who worship on the seventh-day Sabbath and expect the second coming of Jesus Christ. This identity also points to other beliefs that allow people around me to expect certain characteristics, opinions, and behaviors, while it tends to exclude certain other opinions and behaviors. But, in many ways, the label remains quite vague.
This label makes, for instance, a great deal of difference whether I am married, single, or widowed; male or female; well-educated or illiterate; European or American. It also makes a great difference whether I am a thirdgeneration Adventist professional or a blue-collar worker who recently joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Am I exposed to the cultural diversity of Adventism, or am I an elderly person in a small village church who has never traveled beyond a 50-mile radius? Am I a fundamentalist and legalistic Adventist who abhors contemporary worship forms and any Bible version other than the King James Version? Do I consider myself a somewhat postmodern Adventist, who reads from a contemporary Bible version on his iPhone and enjoys an “alternative” kind of Sabbath School?
I am not saying that the various characteristics are always found in these combinations, and I do recognize that there are many possibilities in between these extremes. But the point is simple: Seventh-day Adventists come in many varieties.
To make things even a bit more complicated: identity has to do not only with reality but also with perception. This is true, in particular, of our collective identity. How do people around us see the church? Much depends on the part of the world in which we live. In some countries, Adventists are a major religious movement and seen as an important Christian church, while in other parts of the world Seventh-day Adventists are only marginally present and may still be regarded as a strange sect. Sometimes Adventists are seen as positive Protestant Christians, who, in spite of their distinctive views, nonetheless truly preach and live the gospel message. But all too often they are still better known for what they are against than what they are for. This aspect undoubtedly also impacts how we see ourselves.
In addition, it must be noted that, although there usually is permanency in our individual or collective identities, there also is a gradual development over time of who we are. I am not quite the same person I was 25 years ago. And my church is not in all respects the same as it was when I attended church as a teenager.
Is there one single Adventist identity?
Let us be honest: The Adventist identity is a rather fluid concept. There is not one single way in which 18 million Adventists around the world can (or should) be Seventh-day Adventists. Moreover, I believe the quest for such a static, uniform Seventh-day Adventist identity is a misguided venture. The main problem with such a quest is that it usually seeks to recapture something that never existed and never can exist. The search for such a “true Adventist identity” often focuses on the past, tends to read all kinds of personal preferences into that past, and then selects—either consciously or subconsciously—those elements from that past that supposedly form the core of this “true” Adventist identity that must be recaptured. For many believe that “only if we can regain our true Adventist identity” can we successfully address the problems the contemporary Adventist Church faces. Only then will we be ready to complete our mission.
The beautiful reality is that God’s people constitute a very diverse worldwide community that consists of young and old, literate and illiterate people with numerous different ethnic and national identities, educated in a wide variety of social and political contexts, and living within a myriad of vastly different cultures and traditions. In addition, many are, to varying degrees, affected by secularization and postmodernity, while others have remained relatively unaffected by these trends. This reality of diversity is the direct result of the church’s faithful response to the command of Jesus, “ ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations’ ” (Matt. 28:19; NIV; emphasis added), and also a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit, who transcended all borders on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and has continued to do so through the ages. As God intended it to be, His church today consists of a multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues (Rev. 7:9).
Individual and collective identity
Does this mean that we, therefore, cannot ask some serious questions about what many of us are, or should be, individually and that we should have no concerns whatsoever about some conditions existing in the church—locally and on the different organizational levels?
Certainly, not all is well everywhere. On the collective level, no doubt, in many instances there is a need to give careful thought to whether the church always chooses the right priorities and whether enough is done to create a climate in our communities that helps members better understand the major Adventist beliefs and to incorporate more intelligently and consistently the Adventist lifestyle into their daily lives.
On the individual level, many of us will have to admit that the various factors that constitute our identity are not always sufficiently in balance. But we must also remember that, as was indicated earlier in this article, our identity is not something completely fixed. This means that important elements of our identity as Adventist Christians may yet be underdeveloped or gradually have been eroded. This certainly needs our constant attention.
There is the continuous challenge to develop and grow—individually and collectively. But this aspect must immediately be linked to another: we are all in different stages of our development, of our growth—or, theologically speaking, of our process of “sanctification.” This presents another reason why there is not one “standard” description of the Seventh-day Adventist identity. As a faith community, we are supposed to grow spiritually as we continue our pilgrimage, but we are at very different stages in our journey to the kingdom. This reality greatly impacts who we are.
The essence of being a “real” Adventist
One of the greatest dangers of our postmodern times is that of fragmentation with regard to who we are. When asked the simple question “How are you?” one postmodern philosopher would retort with a somewhat strange counterquestion: “On what floor?” He compared his life to a house with a number of floors. He wanted to say that how he felt at a particular moment, and how he would react to things, depended on where he happened to be in his “house.” He expressed a phenomenon that is more and more common. People may have different “lives”; they may interact with people and situations in very different ways. In fact, their lives can be very fragmented, and they may not be the same person at work as they are at home, or in church, or among friends. To some extent, this is natural as we play a number of different social roles. But when people can change their values and behavior like chameleons as they move from one “floor” in their “house” to another, and at times can hardly be recognized as one and the same person, there is, from a Christian point of view, a major problem with their identity. Adventist Christians must show a coherence and stability in their identity on every “floor” of their “house.” They must be clearly recognizable as Adventist Christians whether they are at home, in church, at play, or at work.
Is this all that can be said about our Seventh-day Adventist identity? Is our identity so vague that only a few essential common elements can be discerned? I do not believe that is the case. If we are to be identified as true Christians, there are a number of basic things we must believe and there are ways in which we will behave. If certain essential elements are missing, we lose the right to refer to ourselves as Christians. Likewise, we may only claim the right to call ourselves Seventh-day Adventists if we subscribe to the church’s key beliefs and translate those beliefs into a lifestyle that is sufficiently different from the average lifestyle of people around us. Only then we can indeed be recognized as Seventh-day Adventist Christians.
This latter element is crucial. What we are—our identity—is determined by many factors. Our Adventist faith is, however, not just one factor among many. Our commitment to God, in love and obedience, must inform all other aspects of our identity. It must be the element that gives coherence and credibility to our identity.
The doctrinal content of that faith— our fundamental beliefs—remains important. The way in which the Adventist community has progressed in its understanding of its faith and the heritage that has shaped the way in which this faith is confessed in theology and worship are some things of which we must never lose sight. But that is not all. The manner in which this faith is given tangible expression in our daily lives must undergird our Adventist understanding of the biblical message that we support and proclaim. Perhaps there is no better way to describe the one thing that should form the underlying essence of our individual and collective identity than the words of the apostle Paul that we are “in Christ” (e.g, 2 Cor. 5:17).
Who am I? Who are you? Who are we collectively as a unique Christian community? There is, in spite of all diversity, a great measure of commonality that ties us together. Whatever questions we may have, and however much we may be challenged by some aspects of our identity, there does not need to be an identity crisis, when all the elements that make us into who we are, are rooted in the Lord Jesus Christ (Col. 2:6, 7). Let us ever remember that beyond everything else, “being in Christ” means that we are God’s children (1 John 3:2) and that we are called to be disciples, that is “learners” and followers of our Lord. Ultimately, that is what counts. And, should we insist on defining the Adventist identity, that definition should, at the very least, find its center in the sublime assurance that true Adventists are sons and daughters of God.
1 Monserrat Guibernau, Nationalisms: The Nation-State and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995).
2 Vivienne Jabri, Discourses on Violence: Conflict Analysis Reconsidered (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).