Dennis Banner Top
Dennis Priebe

Does Diversity Produce Unity?

It’s been 200 years since William Miller quietly became convicted from Scripture that Jesus Christ would soon return to earth.  It would be understandable for some Adventists to struggle with apathy today, as these figures from North America seem to reflect:

  • 30 percent attend Sabbath School
  • 50 percent attend church
  • 16 to 26 percent return tithe or give offerings
  • 50 percent of Adventist schools have closed in the past 20 years

Could this be because we have lost our identity, our purpose, and the mission of the remnant church?  Instead, we have become one more gray church in a sea of gray evangelical churches.  We have some major disconnects and contradictions, as seen in a recent Adventist Review.  (Oct. 2019 articles)

There’s a real danger that pursuing sanctification itself as a goal may get off track and become individualistic, even narcissistic….The New Testament never defines spirituality or sanctification in individualistic terms….It is defined in terms of community….The goal of sanctification is to be more loving, gracious, caring, and generous….Jesus must remain in heaven “until the time comes for God to restore everything.”  At His coming He will complete the restoration of relationships: my personal relationship with God and our relationships with one another.

But let us take a quick look at I Thess. 4:3,4: “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour.”  How can sanctification possibly refer to the church as a whole?  If justification is personal forgiveness, how can sanctification not be personal holiness?  We are told that Jesus remains in heaven until the time He chooses to restore everything, which means that we are irrelevant to that time.  We are told that only then will He complete our relationship with God.  Apparently this will not be completed during the latter rain and the sealing process.  This means that sanctification will always be incomplete during our lives.

After this negation of personal sanctification, the very next article describes one specific aspect of personal sanctification.

An unhealthy lifestyle can prevent us from enjoying the most meaningful relationships, especially our partnership with Christ.  Sleep deprivation, unmanaged stress, and the use of unhealthy substances can affect our memory and depreciate the quality of both our service to God and our relationships with others….In the same way, unhealthy food choices may impact our physical and mental health and limit our useful service to God….So as we prepare for the coming of Jesus, diet does matter.  Whatever promotes physical health…promotes the development of a strong mind and a well-balanced character…

For example, scientific data shows an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, some cancers, obesity, and diabetes from the consumption of meat.  Hundreds of research papers show the value of a regular use of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, to significantly lower the incidence of those chronic diseases.  No wonder that among those who are waiting for Jesus’ return meat eating will cease to form a part of the diet.

In this article we are told that diet and lifestyle—which are clearly parts of sanctification—affect our relationship with God and others.  So the previous article denigrated individual sanctification, and this article promoted individual sanctification.  This is where the disconnect and contradiction confuses Adventists honestly seeking to prepare for Christ’s return.

Then the very next article dealt with perfection:

In my late teens I tried to convince other people of the possibility, and need, to live a perfect, sinless life.  Since Jesus calls us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, the case seemed obvious to me.  Scripture describes holiness as a prerequisite to see the Lord….When I was younger, the word “perfect” in Matthew 5:48 immediately seemed to indicate “sinlessness.”  It took me years to comprehend the context of Jesus’ statement.  His call to be “perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect,” comes at the conclusion of His discourse about love for one’s enemies….Luke renders that injunction…as follows, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36).  Jesus therefore defines perfection as unselfish, other-centered love.

This reasoning has been used for 50 years to destroy any motivation to achieve holiness.  We can all agree that Jesus was the most loving, merciful Person this world has ever seen.  Can we also agree that He was the most obedient, holy Person who ever lived?  Perhaps true love and genuine holiness are part of the same package.

Then came this amazing statement:

This insight has led me to a shocking realization.  My keeping of God’s law and striving to overcome sin is sinful if I am concerned primarily with my right and wrong doing.

Really?  Overcoming sin is sinful.  This may be the ultimate oxymoron.  It is simply another desperate attempt to discourage any attempt on our part to become holy.

A behavior-oriented Christianity suggests that the fight against sin is the primary battle of a Christian.  Ellen White noted, nevertheless, that “the greatest battle” we have to fight is to surrender our will to God.

But surrendering our will means giving up sin and selfishness in specific areas.  Surrender of the will and giving up sins are just different descriptions of the same thing.

True assurance therefore cannot come from placing our trust in the growth of our character.  Justification by the merits of Christ is the only essential and objective ground for our assurance, something that we accept through faith.

This is purely the evangelical form of the gospel, in which justification is the only thing necessary for our salvation.  This has been taught for 50 years by Desmond Ford, Jack Sequeira, George Knight, Morris Venden, and recently 12 Seminary professors in a 2018 book.

Ellen White…said Christ will come “when the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people.”  The statement concludes a chapter that portrays Christ as helping those in need and sharing the gospel with everyone, activities she viewed as manifestations of Christ’s character of unselfish love.  Thus, understanding that oft-quoted statement as a reference to mere sinless perfection hardly does justice to the true breadth of its implications.

What an amazing denigration of MERE SINLESS PERFECTION, reducing it to helping those in need.  We are witnessing a constant attempt to twist and destroy her clear teaching of living without sinning.  We are critical of scholars twisting the words of Scripture to turn Sabbath observance into Sunday observance, and we are doing exactly the same thing to clear statements about holy living and overcoming all temptations to sin.

Yet a few pages later we find these thoughts:

Consider Jesus’ words: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”…Jesus is not speaking of giving up certain selfish benefits, but of rejecting all links with our selfish nature.  This total repudiation is how we begin to follow Jesus….John C. Fenton writes: “The condition of discipleship is therefore the breaking of every link which ties a [person] to self….Evidently, denying oneself as Jesus requires means living without a self-centered thought, with the mind devoted to Jesus and His work exclusively.

Isn’t living without a self-centered thought just another way of saying “living without sinning”?  Is there any wonder that faithful people are confused when they read contradictory articles in the same issue of our primary church paper?

One Body, Many Members

Notice Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20, 21: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one is us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”  A very interesting Interpretation of this prayer was expressed in Adventist Journey (May, 2019):

God has made many members in the body of Christ.  And in those members, He said there is diversity….God has put conservatives in the church.  God has put liberals in the church.  God has set the members of the body as it has pleased Him….We need the diversity in the church to carry on and fulfill the mission of the church.

In a time when we are so divided that we can’t agree on women’s ordination, or appropriate music in church, or what teachings are necessary for baptism, or whether we will live without sinning after the  close of probation, or the importance of justification vs. sanctification, we are being told that God wants it this way, that God wants theological diversity, that God has put conservatives and liberals in the church, and that we need to be debating and arguing constantly.  Is this being one as Christ and the Father are one?

Following is an example of how this can work out practically in one divisive issue in the church:

A friend of mine challenged me to write about how the church can minister to persons with same-sex attraction in a healthy way….The ideas expressed in this article would apply to heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals….

Can a person who has sexual urges and attractions that differ from the biblical model be a member of the church?...For those who are sexually active outside of biblical marriage…the answer is no….So, if we do not allow such persons to hold formal membership in the church organization, how do we minister to them?...

An illustration of how this might look is the Little Flowers Community…in Winnipeg, Canada….  According to this paradigm, Jesus accepts persons the moment the seed of faith is planted in their heart, even though that seed has not yet borne the fruit of correct behavior.

This whole plan is based on the false idea of who is accepted by Christ and saved.

So for this church community, people become part of the group by accepting Jesus and a willingness to grow in the living out of the principles of Jesus’ sermon….It may be fruitful to explore whether there is light in creating a space for certain people groups that do not seem to currently have a place in the organizational structure.  In these situations a home might be created for them (without official membership in the denomination) where they could belong to a community that seeks Jesus.  The hope would be that…the day would come when their growth in Christian lifestyle would allow official membership in the organization….We must find ways to include those whose sexual lifestyle is outside the teaching of Scripture.  (Ministry, March 2019, pp. 13-14)

This proposal suggests that for people who are not willing to surrender their life practices to God’s will as clearly expressed in Scripture, we create a special section of the church where they can belong, because they are already saved, with the hope that eventually they will change their life practices.  But if they are already saved, what real incentive do they have to change their behavior?  This is the real outcome of unity in diversity teaching.  It means that all viewpoints can feel comfortable in the church.

A month later, a letter in response was printed in Ministry:

It seems appropriate that the LBG+ person should be related to as the church relates to a smoker, drug addict, or alcoholic.  They should be loved, accepted, and given all the support we can give them while at the same time encouraging them to take advantage of a support group, so they can be helped to understand the true nature of their habit, and its sinful reality, and the fact the Holy Spirit cannot dwell in a temple that is willfully contaminated by sin or sinful practices.  Certainly, any LBG+ person who desires help deserves our earnest prayers and friendly and loving support as they battle with their inclinations and practices as we do with any person who is struggling with any practice that heaven will not condone or admit.  But in the end, we must call sin by its right name, or we will be found guilty ourselves.

A lead article in Ministry (May 2019, pp. 6-9) was titled “Celebration of Diversity.”

We vary greatly in the way we worship.  There are contemporary services, traditional services, and blended services.  But all the churches are striving to provide space for worshipers to have an authentic experience with God….We also differ from one another with regard to our individual practices….Practices vary all the way from enjoying sugars and fats to eliminating both, from exercising daily to not exercising at all, and from eating meat to raw veganism….  Some oppose what they consider the lavish purchasing of houses and cars while having a preference for jewelry and ornaments….

I have seen many differences in practice when it comes to baptism: the age of the baptismal candidate, what the candidate needs to believe prior to baptism, how much pre-instruction the candidate needs to receive, and how long the candidate needs to attend church before getting baptized.  These are all dealt with differently throughout the global church….

There are several different views about the nature of Christ….The majority of believers hold that God is the Creator….But the church has allowed for diversity in thought concerning…the length of time that life has been on the earth….In spite of all of these differences in lifestyle, practice, and theology, the church still believes in unity and may have even become more effective in its mission because of this diversity….Nothing is gained and no one grows when there is no diversity….

The last church I…pastored…had many different kinds of people….Despite our differences we were united into one community.  We worshiped diversely: one week our service would be very traditional, the next it would be quite contemporary….Even theologically we were diverse. We differed in how we viewed the nature of Christ, the sanctuary, and even simplicity.  Through this unity in diversity, we were not only able to become closer as a church family but also to reach out effectively to a greater number of people….As a result of tapping into our diversity, the church approached the completeness Paul wrote about in Galatians 3:28, we “are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Strangely, even this letter by Ellen White was quoted:

“As there are divisions everywhere in society, the Lord Jesus would have the unity of His workers appear in marked contrast to the divisions.  In unity there is strength; in division there is weakness.”  (Letter 31, 1892)

The article concluded by saying “Diversity is worth celebrating.”

So, is diversity of theology and lifestyle healthy for the church?  John 17:17 states, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”  True unity must always be based on truth, and truth is not many shades of gray, and certainly not opposite poles of what is right.  A hallmark of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been unity based on Scripture, not on preferences or culture.  It is this Bible-based unity that makes this church the only truly worldwide Protestant church.

Diversity in belief about what the Scriptures teach does not bring about unity but fragmentation, and this is exactly what is happening in the church today.  Jesus warned, “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”  (Mark 3:25)  Ellen White agreed, “Men would effect a union through conformity to popular opinions, through a compromise with the world.  But truth is God’s basis for the unity of His people.”  (GW 391)

Can we really purchase unity at the cost of truth?  The issue is whether Scripture or culture will guide the church.  It is Scriptural truth that holds us together as a world church, not diversity.  Varieties of interpreting Scripture can only lead to splintering over many issues.

Maybe we need to read again Ephesians 4:13-16:

Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.