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Understanding Interfaith and Interchurch Relations
November 16, 2016
Dialogue + Religious liberty = Unique witness
Seventh-day Adventists shower me with questions when they learn that I represent the Adventist Church at meetings of Christian ecumenical organizations. “How exactly do Adventists view Christian unity, interfaith relations, and ecumenism?” they ask. “Why do Adventists choose to accept and maintain only observer status and not membership among Christian ecumenical organizations?”
My answer is simple: It is legitimate for all people of goodwill to unite to save lives, protect lives, and affirm the importance and sacredness of life. It is even urgent for all people to partner to make this world a better place for all human beings, contributing to better health, education, and humanitarian work in all dignity, freedom, justice, peace, and fraternity.
All the services and activities of the Seventh-day Adventist Church seek to promote life, and life in abundance. In the fulfillment of the church’s mission, Adventists mingle with other Christian organizations. About its position in global Christian organizations, the Adventist Church has held observer status at meetings and has been open to cooperation with other churches in areas that do not compromise its identity, mission, and message. The rule of thumb is not to hold membership in any ecumenical body that eradicates or erases the distinctive Adventist voice about the sovereignty of God the Creator, the Sabbath, and the Second Coming.
In principle, Adventists choose not to be involved in doctrinal alliances with other churches because of the Adventist adherence to a wholistic and integrated approach to biblical doctrines and because of that, seek to uphold doctrines that Adventists consider to have been sidelined, changed, or forgotten in the course of church history.
That said, “unity” is not a bad word. Adventists value unity just as God does. Unity is grounded in the existence of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Adventists promote unity for the sake of mission, to make Christ known to all people groups, languages, tribes, and nations. Christians can also unite to make the world a better place through the promotion of health, education, humanitarian work, and the promotion and protection of human rights.
But Christians must keep in mind that they will miss their primary calling if they do not unite to uphold and model spiritual values grounded on the everlasting gospel. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are paramount in the Christian mandate and gift to the world. These virtues can best flourish when religious liberty is a reality.
Religious liberty for Adventists is the antidote to syncretistic ecumenism. It is a call to embrace the truth with the inalienable freedom of conscience, freedom of religion or belief, freedom to express publicly one’s beliefs, and freedom to invite others to share one’s convictions or to join one’s community of faith.
Ecumenism Up Close
A subtle cluster of interrelated topics in the arena of interchurch and interfaith relations that needs much clarity is the issue of unity, visible unity, and ecumenism. Other words are sometimes brought into the conversation as if they mean the same thing. They are “collaboration,” “partnership,” and “interchurch (or interfaith) dialogue.”
The word “ecumenism” is used differently in various contexts. The word can refer to unity among the world’s Christian churches, but people usually use it to describe a general sense of cordial relations, dialogue, or partnership for a project.
Historically, the first church councils were called ecumenical in the sense that many churches interacted to define orthodoxy. This is not the sense it is given today. Some denominations, such as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, use it in this sense because they believe they are the guarantors of orthodoxy. But to label, any partnership among Christians as doctrinal ecumenism may be uninformed, uneducated, and far-fetched. Spiritual honesty is also needed in identifying and evaluating the real content of interchurch relations.
The concept of unity has a solid biblical and theological foundation. The blessing God intended to spread through Abraham and his descendants was destined for all the families of the earth. God wants all His people to experience doctrinal unity.
This never materialized among His covenant people, Israel. The belief in the resurrection of the dead, for example, was not shared by all Israelites. The New Testament mentions that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.
Today unity is understood differently among various Christian churches. For Roman Catholics, for example, unity includes the concept of the communion of saints, meaning both those who are alive and those who are dead.
In the Catholic Encyclopedia, the communion of saints is described as “the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head. . . . The participants in that solidarity are called saints by reason of their destination [heaven] and of their partaking of the fruits of the Redemption.”
With this example in mind, global church unity could be a reality only if all Christians adopted the Roman Catholic worldview or understanding of reality or if all Catholics gave up their deeply held beliefs.
Nevertheless, there is much that unites Christians, beginning with the foundation of unity itself.
Unity is dear to the heart of God. The whole plan of salvation demonstrates God’s determination to unite His divided and dispersed family, which He created in His image. Unity is grounded in the being of God who is Trinity: unity in Trinity.
Jesus’ death was purposed to gather people into one. In John 17 Jesus prayed for unity for the sake of mission so that the world might believe. The Holy Spirit was given to seal the unity in mission.
Adventists and Unity
Adventists join God in all that God is doing in the world for its salvation. God evangelizes (Gal. 3:8); so do we. God is committed to uniting the whole world under the lordship of the Savior, Jesus Christ. We join God to fulfill His purposes to lift God the Son so that the world might be saved.
Adventists are committed to calling all people to fix their eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:1, 2). They remind all Christians of what constitutes a core belief since apostolic times and is also present in the earliest Christian statement of faith: the second coming of Jesus.
The principle that informs Adventists’ relations to other Christians has two inseparable aspects: truth and religious freedom. Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White underscored this in The Acts of the Apostles, writing: “The banner of truth and religious liberty held aloft by the founders of the gospel church and by God’s witnesses during the centuries that have passed since then, has, in this last conflict, been committed to our hands.
The responsibility for this great gift rests with those whom God has blessed with a knowledge of His Word. We are to receive this Word as a supreme authority. We are to recognize human government as an ordinance of divine appointment and teach obedience to it as a sacred duty, within its legitimate sphere. But when its claims conflict with the claims of God, we must obey God rather than men.”1
More fundamentally, Adventists understand their mission as their name intimates—highlighting the truth of the Second Coming as the hope of the world to finally embrace freedom from death and evil, bringing with it justice and peace. These convictions are the reasons that Adventists emphasize the Second Coming and a message of healing. Adventists understand that the words of Jesus calling His disciples “salt” and “light” (Matt. 5:13-17) apply also to them.
Every aspect of Adventist engagement with any institution, agency, or organization, whether ecclesiastical or political, is built primarily upon the reason for the existence of the church: bringing hope to humankind entangled in all kinds of evil. To fulfill this mission, Adventists participate in Jesus’ method as articulated by Ellen White: “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’?”2
Jesus served people, healed them, and fed them with no strings attached. He made them know and feel they were free to choose their future with or without Him. Freedom of conscience matters to Him. Without this freedom, no covenant is genuine. This is because love cannot be forced.
Adventists recognize other sincere Christians who confess the truth of Jesus as members of the body of Christ. But Adventists do not hold formal structural membership in ecumenical organizations primarily for freedom of religious purposes. Membership in an ecumenical body would limit the freedom to share one’s convictions with everyone else and thereby jeopardize a universal end-time mission as Adventists understand it.
Adventists are not part of the ecumenical organizations that require membership, but they do enjoy guest or observer status at meetings. Cooperation with other Christian denominations is in accordance with the Adventist Church’s view of other Christians. Ellen White, writing about temperance, said this about leaders in other denominations: “In other churches, there are Christians who are standing in defense of the principles of temperance. We should seek to come near to these workers and make a way for them to stand shoulder to shoulder with us. We should call upon great and good men to second our efforts to save that which is lost.”3
About prayer, White said: “Our ministers should seek to come near to the ministers of other denominations. Pray for and with these men, for whom Christ is interceding. A solemn responsibility is theirs. As Christ’s messengers, we should manifest a deep, earnest interest in these shepherds of the flock.”4
Following the above counsel, the General Conference, the administrative body of the Adventist world church, has inscribed in the General Conference’s Working Policy that church leaders “recognize every agency that lifts Christ before men as a part of the divine plan for the evangelization of the world, and . . . hold in high esteem the Christian men and women in other communions who are engaged in winning souls to Christ.”
Unity, though willed by God, is not the supreme value. Loyalty to God’s truth takes precedence.
The Adventist Church and several other denominations that have not joined organized ecumenical bodies object to ecumenism as doctrine or as an objective to fuse Christian churches into one world church, leading to a loss of distinctive denominational identity. Also, Adventists and other believers do not adhere to syncretistic alliances that would diminish the importance and weight of truth, especially when beliefs in some churches may not be in harmony with revealed biblical truth.
The main concern of Adventists is that they will be restricted from sharing their convictions with every person regardless of religious or philosophical persuasion. This is fundamentally an issue of religious freedom. How could Christians question the right to freedom of religion or belief while even the secular world has accepted this fundamental human right and value?
The Bottom Line
While considering other Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ, the principle that prevents the Adventist world church from being a member of an organized union of churches such as the World Council of Churches is that of religious freedom. Religious freedom implies the unrestricted right to share one’s religious convictions and the right to invite others to join one’s Christian tradition without being accused or labeled as a proselytizer.
Seventh-day Adventists support Christian unity as they join the triune God, who is determined to gather people He created in His image. The purpose of the whole plan of salvation is the restoration of God’s image and the gathering of those He saves. Unity is grounded in God. It was for this purpose Jesus Christ came to earth to unite all the families of the earth.
Doctrinal unity among Christian churches is elusive and unreachable unless churches lose their distinctive beliefs and join one of the church traditions, be it Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc.
Freedom of religion or belief is a nonnegotiable gift of God that should characterize the freedom of every Christian person or community to share his or her convictions with others and to invite others to join his or her Christian tradition. Obviously, for the sake of mission Christians can join to witness to Christ to a world that needs Him most urgently.
1 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), pp. 68, 69.
2 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 143.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 110.
4 Ibid., p. 78.