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(Please note that by “conservatives” here I’m addressing those who are more conservative than I am in the religious sense, not the political sense. I could write a whole other letter to the political conservatives I know, but this is not that letter).
A couple of controversies during the last few months – some personal and some public -- have led me to reflect on the divide between those who get labelled as “conservatives” and those who get labelled as “liberals”. Some people disdain labels altogether and I respect that, but within the context of the Adventist church I have no problem being labelled a “liberal Adventist” as I think that best describes my views.
Here’s something I do have a problem with, hence this open letter every fellow Christian whose views on some issues may be more conservative than mine:
It’s OK that your views differ from mine. It makes me crazy sometimes, but deep down I do believe we need a diversity of viewpoints as we collectively grope our way towards Truth. We need disagreement and lively debate.
What I’m not fine with is the assumption — very common in Adventist circles, and I think within Christianity generally — that liberals are liberal because we care less about following God and believing the Bible. We do not choose our viewpoints and practices because they’re an easier path, because we want to please ourselves or the world around us. There’s often an assumption that we lack your tough-minded commitment to obeying God no matter the cost. That being liberal equates to being “lukewarm,” and that the truly committed are always the truly conservative.
Here’s what I want you to understand. I am a “liberal,” by your terms, because I am every bit as passionate about following Jesus as you are — I have just drawn some different conclusions about what it means to follow Him.
If you are having trouble accepting this, I’ll start with what seems to me like a trivial example.
Let’s say it’s a Sabbath afternoon in summer – as, indeed, it was when I first had the idea to write this column. Church is over, Sabbath lunch is over, and by happy coincidence we are both sitting beside a beautiful clear sparkling lake with our families. You tell your children not to jump in the water because “we don’t go swimming on Sabbath.” Or, if you’re in a position of authority, you might just close down the waterfront at church camp for Sabbath afternoon. I, meanwhile, will do what I do every Sabbath in summer at our cabin: jump into the water along with the kids and spend the Sabbath hours splashing, paddling and floating. (Needless to say, I wouldn’t do this at church camp when you’ve closed down the waterfront; I’m not talking about defying authority or being confrontational. I’m talking about what I do in the privacy of my own cabin, or on a public beach).
Now, it’s perfectly OK with me that we have these diverse practices. You are free to do what you believe is right; I have no problem with that.
It does bother me when you imply that I spend my Sabbath afternoon in the water because I am less concerned about Sabbath keeping, as if the Sabbath is less special or holy or precious to me than it is to you.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. I go swimming on Sabbath (when weather and location permit) because I love the Sabbath and the Lord of the Sabbath, and I genuinely believe that there is no better way to praise Him than to be out enjoying His Creation.
It’s a small issue and one that I don’t want to get hung up on – I know most Adventists could wrangle for days about what is and isn’t appropriate to do during Sabbath hours. The point I’m making is not about the activity itself, but about the gap between my actual motives, and your assumption about what my motives are.
The same principles apply when we get to what might be the weightier matters of the law. I take stands you disagree with on controversial issues — I believe we should ordain people to the ministry equally without regard to gender; I believe same-sex marriage ought to be legal and that gay people have the same civil rights that straight people do. You might think — in fact, I’ve heard some of you say — that I hold these views because I don’t respect the Bible, or don’t take what it says seriously, or that I’d rather follow my own wisdom or the wisdom of “the world” than follow the Bible.
In fact, I hold these views because I believe in the Bible. I certainly interpret it different than you do, but I take the Bible very seriously. I’ve adopted those beliefs not because they’re popular or easy but because, after careful and prayerful Bible study, I believe they more truly reflect the spirit of the Bible and of the way Jesus treated people in the Gospels. You can disagree with how I read Scripture and we can debate it, but please don’t do me the disservice of thinking I don’t care about what the Bible says or about shaping my life according to its principles.
I could think of more examples. So could you. But the central point is the same in each one: whatever our differences, I am not lacking in love for God, passion for my faith, or the desire to follow His path.
I’m not arguing about which of us is “a better Christian” or “a better Adventist.” That’s up to God to decide, if He’s interested in those kind of measuring sticks (which I doubt).
I often fail as a Christian. I don’t always live out the love that I believe is central to our faith. I lose my temper; I snap at my kids. I don’t read my Bible or pray as much as I think I should. I may not live my faith as fully and as effectively as you do.
But I don’t care about it less, just because my faith is different from yours.
I disagree with you on so many points. I think the way you read the Bible is short-sighted and often inconsistent. I think you observe the letter of the law at the cost of its spirit. I could debate with you for hours about some of these controversial issues on which we disagree.
But I always recognize that your conservatism, your beliefs and your practices, come from a place of great faith. Whatever our differences, I know that you really care about our mutual faith, that you are dedicated to God and His Word, and that you do not make faith-related decisions lightly.
All I ask is that you do the same for me.
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