Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time with Seventh-day Adventist theologians and students. Most of the stereotypes I was given about them have been blown away. That process really began years ago as I followed Walter Martin’s journey from calling them a cult to saying (much to the chagrin of many of his followers) they are not. I agreed with him then–almost 40 years ago. In the meantime I have gotten to know some Adventists and interviewed some of their pastors and visited some of their churches and now, rubbing shoulders and elbows with them, am increasingly certain that, in spite of some doctrinal differences from “mainstream” Christianity (which may be a faulty concept in our postmodern age) they are, for the most part, at least, evangelical Christians. And many, if not most, of them consider themselves Arminians.
Here is a case study in how reading ABOUT and actually meeting and talking WITH people can be very different modes of acquaintance with beliefs. Over the years I have gone out of my way to have face-to-face encounters with adherents of many different Christian traditions. Occasionally those encounters have only served to confirm my worst fears. Usually, however, they have shed light on those “others” that I could not get from merely reading. There is something about sitting in a church or chapel and listening to people pray and about sitting around a table and listening directly to people explain their beliefs that transcends what reading about them can offer.
I do not agree with some Adventist beliefs, but I am discovering there is real diversity among them about how to interpret some of those beliefs evangelicals cringe at. And I am discovering that some of what I thought Adventists believed (through reading books about them) is not what they believe at all. Then, of course, there is the difference between what the untutored Adventist believes and what the scholars believe. That’s true in every tradition and denomination. I’m a Baptist. I certainly hope non-Baptists don’t judge Baptist belief and practice by what some possibly ignorant Baptist neighbor says about Baptist belief!
I urge critics of people who claim to be Christians to sit down with them and find out in face-to-face encounters using a hermeneutic of charity and not one of suspicion. I grew up pentecostal/full gospel and knew for sure, without any doubt, that many of our evangelical critics knew little to nothing about us and yet spoke as if they were experts on us. I remember reading a book on “cults” that included my tradition and made statements about us that were totally false or that took some heresy from one corner of our tradition and blamed us all for it. (For example, many Baptists I know think all Pentecostals deny the Trinity just because some do. What they don’t know and usually don’t care to find out is that the vast majority of Pentecostals do believe in the Trinity and do not consider non-trinitarian Pentecostals their brothers and sisters in Christ!)
Right now I’m reading a fascinating little book about Adventist history and doctrine entitled A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs by Adventist scholar George R. Knight. I challenge everyone to go beyond reading books about “cults” and “sects” and beyond stereotypes and engage in real conversation with people who say they are Christians and find out that way. It may take some time. But if they are your neighbors, friends, relatives, colleagues or just building a church down the road, it’s incumbent on you, for the sake of intellectual honesty, to make sure you know what their tradition really is and believes before jumping on some bandwagon of criticism.