Adventist leaders might benefit from a study of Dutch church history. The Netherlands have become a very secular country, but its spiritual roots continue to shape at least part of its national identity. Through the centuries religion and church were crucial pillars of Dutch society, and its theologians were respected far beyond its borders. Moreover, Dutch ecclesial life was diverse, to say the least. A striking maxim underscored this: One Dutchman, and you have a theologian; two Dutchmen makes a church; three Dutchmen and there is a schism.
The two southernmost provinces of the Netherlands remained largely untouched by the sixteenth century Reformation and stayed predominantly Roman Catholic until a few decades ago. Most of the country, however, converted to Calvinism. Why the Dutch preferred Calvinism over Lutheranism is a fascinating story, but I am happy they did, for by so doing they provided me with inspiration for this blog.
A parting of the way
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, until some recent reconfiguration, Dutch Calvinism consisted of two major blocs: (a) the Dutch Reformed Church and (b) a wide array of Christian Reformed denominations. The Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde Kerk) aspired to be a spiritual home for the entire population. It aimed at providing a religious habitat for a broad range of theological persuasions—all rooted in Calvinism but extending from quite conservative to exceedingly liberal, and everything in between. The Christian Reformed branch (the Gereformeerden), which separated from the main Dutch Reformed Church in 1834, soon suffered numerous further splits, as theology professors and church pastors convinced groups of believers that they happened to be the sole custodians of unadulterated Bible truth. For example: In 1926 a bitter controversy erupted about the question whether the story of the speaking serpent in paradise had to be taken literally! Opinions collided and, once again, a new denomination was born.
Two types of denominational bodies
The Dutch ecclesiastical scene mirrors a general phenomenon in the Christian world. We see two different categories of church bodies: (a) global religious movements that emphasize unity, but allow for a considerable diversity within their ranks, rather than pushing for strict uniformity; and (b) denominations that define themselves very narrowly, both theologically and ethically. Prominent examples among global religious movements that want to keep all theological streams and traditions under one large umbrella are the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans. Compare these with such movements as the Baptists and the Lutherans. The Baptist World Alliance has 253 member bodies—independent entities that call themselves Baptist, spread over 130 countries—all with their own theological distinctiveness. In addition, there are other Baptist groups that have not joined this world alliance. Or take the Lutherans. The Lutheran World Federation is the umbrella for 149 Lutheran denominations. They share their Lutheran roots, but manifest a broad gamut of theological convictions, from quite “liberal” to defiantly “fundamentalist.”
Admittedly, we, Adventists, have also experienced some splits, but they were comparatively few and relatively minor. The most significant was the emergence of the Reform Adventist Movement, which still survives as an independent international denomination with about 40.000 members. Adventists have stayed together to a much larger degree than most other denominational families. But for how long will the Adventist Church succeed in preserving this organizational unity?
I believe the Seventh-day Adventist Church faces a painful dilemma. Thus far the church has been unwilling to choose between the two patterns mentioned above. It has tended to define its theological boundaries ever more narrowly, while at the same time hanging on to the ambition of being and remaining a unified global movement. The leaders demand that all believers, worldwide, share in the same approach to the Scriptures, and expect the full adherence of every Adventist to a comprehensive doctrinal package. They insist on the importance of remaining a global movement, with the General Conference leaders (backed by the quinquennial sessions which they dominate), as the ultimate arbiters of what is truth, and of the policies by which the denomination must be administered. However, church history shows that, in the long run, you cannot have it both ways! You cannot expect that 22-plus million Adventists will interpret the Bible, and will define the church’s teachings, in exactly the same way!
An inevitable choice
I hope my church will—sooner rather than later—realize that staying together as one body (and not being fragmented into numerous denominations, each with its own brand of the “truth”) demands that there be space for different brands of Adventism. Based on a number of key convictions, each of these brands must be developed and expressed in a particular geographical environment, in a contextualized way that is informed by history, culture, and spiritual milieu. The church must encourage a honing of the Adventist version of Christianity to the cultures of the various regions (divisions) of the world, just as unions and conferences must accommodate cultural, ethnic and theological diversity. And local congregations must be intentional about nurturing an openness to differences among their members that will make a local church a real spiritual (and inclusive) community, where people can come, and feel safe, as they are.
Does that mean that anything goes and that anyone can call himself/herself a Seventh-day Adventist? No. Unfortunately, there are extremes on the ‘right’ and on the ‘left’ that have made a caricature of the Adventist rendering of the Christian faith. This unpleasant reality will be with us as long as Adventism stays alive and attracts all sorts of people. It is something we will have to live with, while we help those around us not to be drawn towards the edges.
Increasingly, Adventism is pulled in two directions. A strong, traditional segment insists that we must all believe in the same way and must all obediently submit to the directives of our denominational hierarchy. On the other hand there is an, often anonymous, part of the Adventist community that pleads for breathing space and for freedom to live his/her Adventist faith in an authentic way, in tune with one’s own conscience.
I see just one option if we want to have a church that is, and will remain, a living (and growing) faith community rather than a museum, where the dust gathers until the last visitor turns off the light. It requires staying together around a common theological core, rooted in our Christian past and in our specific tradition. At the same time it demands that we value diversity, also in our theology, and most certainly in the way we practice our faith in the specific corner of the world in which we happen to live.
And, when it comes to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs . . . Let us always remember that we are not saved by agreeing on a mass of doctrinal fine print, but by gratefully embracing God’s grace. After all, we have the certainty of salvation not because we are locked into a solid ecclesial system, but because we belong, now and in the future, to our Lord Jesus Christ.