A couple of years ago, I ran into an article that was summarizing a talk given by an official in the church. Although I have since forgotten where the article was located, there is one thing I have not forgotten—the boiling sense of irritation I felt as I read a quote from this official complaining about the rising trend within Adventism to make our church appear like other denominations.
Having grown up a conservative Adventist, I had been exposed to the “us vs. them” mentality for far too long. In my experience, such a mentality did nothing but breed narcissism, elitism, and ignorance. And I was tired—tired of the ridiculous arrogance that continued to be passed around as “faithfulness” or “love of truth.”
I’m referring to the idea that Adventism is somehow better than other denominations, that we have no need to learn from other Christians, that we should only ever read Ellen White and other conservative Adventists, while refusing to read anything written by fellow evangelicals. I am referring to this rebarbative sectarian attitude that somehow places everyone else in the category of “Babylon” and us in the category of “remnant” with no grey in between. I was done with it.
At that point in my life, I had benefited greatly from discovering how Adventism was like other denominations. It was a breath of fresh air. I also enjoyed reading books written by fellow Christians in other denominations. I learned a lot from them and came to appreciate and value their faith journey and heritage. I attended their churches, and was amazed at how simple and contagious their love for Jesus was. I was motivated by their passion and excellence. But most of all, I had found that my faith heritage was rooted in the same soil as theirs, that I really wasn’t that different from them, neither practically, historically, nor theologically.
We were all protestants. We all held to the five “solas” of the protestant reformation. Martin Luther was as much their hero as he was mine. The legalism which had enveloped the medieval church was just as repulsive to them as it was to me. From John Calvin down to John Wesley there was a continuum of truth that we all shared. I learned that Adventism wasn’t born in a vacuum, but instead derived its identity from the same pool where the “Sunday churches” (a term I have come to despise) gleaned theirs.
Through my journey of exploring the faith of my fellow Jesus-followers, I came to appreciate Adventism more. I had discovered, for the first time, an Adventism divorced from sectarian ideology and self-adulating platitudes—one that had a beauty securely planted in the person of Jesus and did not need, even for a moment, to put another denomination down in order to make up for its own deficiencies.
Perhaps now the reader can better understand why I found the GC official’s statement so vexatious. Granted, I had no way of knowing exactly what he meant. However, that was how I interpreted it based on my own emotionally unstable experience with the church. I wanted Adventism to be the same as others. I hated the way in which we, with our misguided zeal, had taken such a beautiful message and managed to morph it into such a repulsive narrative that the rest of the Christian world found it necessary to label us a cult. For me, this official’s words were a reminder of the very thing I saw as detrimental to our mission and identity.
However, the story doesn’t end there. I am now a pastor. I continue to interact with other Christians, learn from them, read from them, and be amazed by them. However, I also have a responsibility to teach the Bible, and I have young people, teens, and youth asking me why Adventism is unique. I have others who, with no hesitation, tell me they would just as happily attend a Baptist church as they do the Adventist one, and if it weren’t for the fact that we go to church on a day where most other churches are closed, we would likely see a much bigger youth exodus.
So, over the past couple of years, I have had to pull the reigns on this issue and get a bit more objective. The questions I have asked are:
- Is Adventism, apart from some surface peculiarities, really no different from other denominations?
- If it isn’t, then what reason do I have to stay in Adventism?
- If it is, then what is it that makes us unique? Is it the Sabbath? The judgment? 1844? Or is it perhaps something deeper and more fundamental?
- What reason does Adventism have for its existence? In short, what story are we telling? And is it true, necessary, or unique? If so, in what way? If not, then why bother?
- Is it possible that perhaps Adventism is alter-protestant (Protestant in its heritage but alternate in some other way, thus separating it from historic protestants like Presbyterians and Methodists, but also separating it from historic sectarians like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons)?
That final question is what has given birth to this four-part series that I will be writing over the next few weeks: The Alter-Protestants: Exploring Adventism’s Radical Identity. In this series, I will share the journey I have taken through each of the above questions, and offer a conclusion that both embraces Adventism’s unique narrative while rejecting the way in which we have historically misgoverned this reality.
In other words, through my study, I have come to a place that continues to embrace my disdain for our historic self-aggrandizing and condescending approach to this question, while simultaneously adopting the unavoidable conclusion that there’s just something eccentric about what we have to say.