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From April 29 to May 8, 2002, some 45 church leaders gathered to consider the topic  "Theological Unity in a Growing World Church." The group was comprised of General Conference personnel, most of the presidents of the world divisions, and several scholars. The conference was called by the General Conference and organized by the Biblical Research Institute. A series of papers on theological topics provided the structure for the deliberations.

In order to provide a biblical setting, the conference convened first in Greece and then in Turkey. The group interspersed theological discussions with visits to Athens, Corinth, Istanbul, some of the sites of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3, and finally Patmos. Retracing the footsteps of Paul and John proved deeply inspiring to the participants.

General Conference president Jan Paulsen gave the keynote address. After its presentation the assembled leaders requested that it be printed in the Adventist Review and also be made available for distribution as a stand-alone publication. We have therefore prepared Pastor Paulsen's  address,  "The Theological Landscape," as an insert in the Adventist Review and arranged for extra copies to be printed. Members desiring a copy of the address should contact the Biblical Research Institute, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, Maryland 20904-6600. -- Editors.

wish to reflect on the theological landscape as I see it, with primary reference to our church and our mission. I realize that this could be almost never-ending; therefore, you will understand my need to be selective. And also, while I will give some pointers that will indicate directions, as I see them, a number of my observations will simply be by way of identifying the issues, stating why I think they are important to us, and why they should be addressed.*

The scene on which we step out as Seventh-day Adventist believers every day is no different from that of society in general. There's  no "private" Adventist world, however much some may try to define small corners as such. The world we meet every day as we open the door to step out, or as we turn to the news media, is overwhelmingly secular and sometimes--particularly in the West--aggressively atheistic, and is being drawn regularly into tension with the values of religious systems. Whether this is more so today than at other times in history is difficult to say; communication has so radically shrunk the world that we not only have an awareness of what is happening everywhere else, but also feel a sense of involvement and ownership in the morality and ethics of what's happening in the remotest parts of the world. Above all, the world that surrounds us is very insecure and unstable, a reality that impacts the personal lives of our own people and speaks to the urgency of our mission as a church.

I focus on 10 areas:

1. The Second Coming--Do We Still Believe?
In my view, it's important for us consciously to recognize the transitory nature of our world, its history, and our place in it. It's something that should occupy our thinking, preaching, and planning as a church. This must be very deliberate. It is to me a troubling thing when a church member walks up to me and says: "Why don't we hear more about the end of time and the second coming of Christ? Don't we now believe these things as we used to?" And sadly, I suspect there are in our community those who in truth no longer believe these things as we used to. As other Christians have found their own ways of understanding the eschaton, so many Adventists are finding nonliteralistic interpretations of the end-time more acceptable, more respectable, and less intrusive into their personal lives. In my view, unless we very deliberately attend to our teaching, preaching, and what we write, we will drift and become what we were not when we first took the name Adventists.

The preaching and teaching of the eschaton is neither paranoia nor gloom--nor is it pessimistic. We believe that the world as we know it is not repairable and is not survivable. This is not the general Christian view of the world. But it is the Adventist view of it. Have we reviewed with our ministers, with the teachers in our schools, with the writers of our books and journals, how these realities of the future are to be projected, both in our public witness and in the nurture of our own people? Do we plan to do it? For if not attended to, they will disappear, with the passing of time, from our sight and thinking.

Is it possible that with an eye to mission we have underestimated the appeal that the preaching of these eschatological realities (that lie at the heart of our message of hope) may in fact bring to very secular people--people who have no defined faith in God as such, but who have also concluded for their own reasons that our world is unstable and insecure, and are hoping that maybe, just maybe, there is something more?

And when it comes to preaching and teaching eschatology, I believe it's not a prerequisite that all things be perfectly clearly understood in order for the reality of the last things to be declared and accepted by faith. And by  "last things" I'm referring primarily to the ongoing ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, to the second coming of Christ, and to judgment. It seems to me that at this time, post September 11, the preaching of things that testify to God's intervention in history can be a powerful witness. Is there not a hunger for a vision? Will September 11 continue to be the solitary end-time point of reference? I think not. But I would suggest that it will be a catalyst to keep us awake, sober, and sensitive without leading us to resort to what is highly speculative, overly imaginative, but ultimately disreputable.

But let me back up just a bit. I made the comment about much of the West being plagued by an aggressive atheism. I think it is there, accompanied by the depressive void that agnosticism creates. The two somehow live together, and neither of them knows God. One asserts that he is not there--that in fact we are on our own; the other, simply that we don't know.

Now, this is obviously a challenge to all Christians. But it's also a very real challenge to us as Seventh-day Adventists. The belief in the existence of God is the primary belief on which all other doctrines as well as life itself are placed, defined, and experienced. It's where faith begins; and it's the starting point from which faith asserts itself. Therefore, it's of utmost importance that as Adventists we recognize it and address it. Such is done only if it is addressed in a systematic, focused, and deliberate manner. It is not ours only to deal with. Other Christians have to deal with it also, but we must leave it to them to do what they must do. We must accept what we must do, and this is one we must address. Are you examining with your preachers, teachers, and writers how you are going to do that?

2. The Question of Identity
There are many things we have in common and can do in common with Christians of other churches, but we are Christians of a very specific identity. That identity is reflected in teachings, in what we value, and in our quality of life. I wonder: Have we become or are we becoming more recognizable as "Christians" than we are as Seventh-day Adventist Christians? And is it possible that this is something we'd like to see happen and, therefore, are being deliberate about projecting ourselves in this manner? To the extent that this is so, what is it that has brought us to this point? Is it a consequence of "theological mobbing"?  Is it a consequence of an inferiority complex? Is it a consequence of just wanting to blend in better?

While I am not suggesting that our pulpits should be closed and that a speaker from another spectrum of the Christian community should never be seen addressing one of our gatherings, there are times when I am genuinely perplexed and puzzled as to why such a person was invited and what he or she had to say that one of our own could not have done as well and with less confusion. Are we about to fall victim to something that we are not defining or would prefer not to spell out? I am speaking about our readiness to protect our identity.

In the second half of the 1950s there was a wind sweeping through our ranks that said we should become more "Christ-centered" in our preaching (more theologia crucis and less theologia gloria). And that has happened, and has to a considerable extent been undergirded by a better understanding of what Ellen White in her writings urged us to do. In and of itself this was good.

But as is often the case, nothing is quite as simple as it seems, and the skill of "doing one and not leaving the other undone" is compromised. For the fact is that within the larger Christian world and culture in which we as a church exist, we do have a very specific identity, which we lose to our own destruction. I am reminded of the words spoken by a lay woman member of one of our committees--spoken in rebuke to us as elected leaders: "You have to remember that being a Seventh-day Adventist is a voluntary thing!" And that is true. Even as Christians, the people who worship in our churches on a Sabbath morning could have been something else (Lutherans, Pentecostal, Anglican, Catholic), but they chose to be Seventh-day Adventists. We are a community of Christians with a very specific and defined identity. And our people have made a very deliberate choice for some very good reasons. It is important that these reasons not be made to look inconsequential or irrelevant.

So the question that every Seventh-day Adventist has the right to ask is: Do we continue to profile as we should the Adventist identity--from our pulpits, in particular, but also in the classroom and in our journals? Or is it possible that we don't even talk about it as leaders or in our professional ranks? When was this an item on the agenda of your executive committee or board? This is not a statement of doom and gloom. It's meant simply to say that if not specifically nurtured and projected, identity cannot be preserved.

3. Interchurch Relations
Maybe this is the point at which we should look at our relationship with other Christian communities. I've often asked the question Has our stand on ecumenism changed? Has it softened, and do we, consequently, need to change our basic prophetic scenario?

The answer, emphatically, is no. We've consistently held that we shall stand apart and be separate from the organized ecumenical movement. And we have stated openly our reasons. Since the early days of our movement we have stated that we foresee in Scripture two super, geopolitical powers gaining prominence in the latter days, and we have stated which two political and religious powers these would be. In this context we shall stand apart because that is the only way we can be faithful to our mission and identity. Faithfulness to who we are and why we are is critical. There is no change in our being separate, neither do we need to change our basic prophetic scenario.

On the other hand, as our church has grown and spread widely, we have felt that much is to be gained by fine-tuning our communication links and contacts with other churches. To share information and to be informed, to understand and to be understood, has great value. Total isolation, talking only to oneself, creates its own darkness. This is why we send and invite observers to various church meetings. This is why, on selected occasions, we have engaged in conversations with theologians and leaders of other churches. These are precious opportunities to witness to one's faith and belief. With such contacts we also discover that there are areas, in regard, for example, to the work of the Bible Societies, to religious liberty matters, to human rights issues, or to development and relief work, where some working together is not only possible but desirable and very effective.

Nevertheless, I underscore again that it is vital that we keep our separate identity. While we must always be ready to give a reason for our faith, we do this with humility, respect, and honesty. And we continue to see ourselves as the historical remnant gathering the faithful remnant from any and all corners to the purposes of God.

4. The Idea of "Remnant"
Among other issues that I believe must be specifically attended to in our development as a church is the very question "What is the church?" Is it identical to the question "What is the Seventh-day Adventist Church?" We have made some very generous statements about other Christian communions, some even written into our policy book. These are genuine and sincere statements. They surface particularly when we sit in conversation with other Christian groups. And I believe that we have been sincere in affirming that God is not ours and that we are not His exclusive family. We state that those who affirm the name of Christ and bring Him as a witness to peoples and nations are indeed instruments of God in his efforts to bring salvation to all.

And yet we hold that we are something special. The remnant language comes into use, although often with hesitancy--we are not sure just how we should say it. I suspect there are many in our church who are not at ease with this idea, and who have not reconciled it in their own minds. We shun the perception of being arrogant, and we don't want to come across as being overly exclusive, but at the same time we believe that being Seventh-day Adventists has direct bearing on our salvation; that while a believer can be saved as a Catholic, I would risk my whole spiritual life and salvation were I to leave what I am now and join any other community.

Also we hold that the Adventist community is an instrument for salvation in God's hands such as no other. We hold these things, but we stop short of saying that you have to be a Seventh-day Adventist in order to be saved. And if you don't have to be a Seventh-day Adventist, why bother? some will ask. Is there something cloudy about this? My point here is, Do we seriously talk about this--particularly with our workers?

Very little is written on the subject of ecclesiology in our church. The linkage between a member's growth in knowledge and understanding and the uncompromising responsibility of discipleship is not pursued as it should be. Under-standing requires response. The fact is that one cannot as a disciple step out of what one is today and go back into a state of less knowing and less understanding. One is constantly moving forward, constantly building on what was there yesterday. Anything other than that would be disobedience and would, in my view, jeopardize one's life with the Lord. Obedience to the Lord is always obedience where one is--in time, in culture, in experience, and in history. And salvation is contingent on that obedience. This should temper any inclination to be judgmental both toward other Christian communities and toward other experiences and cultures within our own church. One has to consider where they are in their knowledge of the Lord and His truth, and in their experience with Him.

Similarly, since understanding and discipleship are dynamics that are constantly growing and moving forward, I'm compelled to share with others what I find. Those with whom I share my discoveries must also respond to Christ and dynamically move forward as the Spirit convicts and opens hearts and eyes, or their own relationship with the Lord is compromised. It's a never-ending process, and it's why we must share our understanding with Christians of other identities. An ongoing discipleship cannot be sustained without this. So we conduct evangelism among and gladly receive converts from other Christian communions. Discovery and discipleship compel us to do so. And we do this without sitting in judgment on what they were before.

So, in a sense, the "remnant" church both is and is in a constant process of becoming.

5. The Diversity of the Church
It is important that it be widely and comprehensively understood in our church what it means to be a diverse world church, that we are a community that contains both diversity and unity in one body. I would ask all of us to attend to this as a matter of urgency.

The diversity of our church is seen in language, culture, race, and in the histories of the peoples among whom we live. It is not to be seen in value judgments of people based on any of the above. It requires understanding and tolerance on the part of all of us to recognize that people inevitably must be the children of their own soil--even when they become Seventh-day Adventists. This is neither pluralism nor syncretism--for which there is no place in our church. It just simply has to do with being natural--being alive and belonging.

I suppose it is good that 99 percent of our time we all live in our own parts of the world surrounded by our own culture. We don't have to be tested or irritated by that which seems a bit strange and foreign to us. But sometimes we are brought closer to one another (as we are at a General Conference session, for example), and we are tested. If you were to read some of the correspondence that comes to my office, you'd understand why I feel that we have a long way to go in this. Let's teach our people to be modest in their opinion about other cultures and tastes--in music and dress, and maybe also in diet. Diversity is a reality of life.

6. How About Unity?
With the rapid growth we are experiencing, the unity of the one church around the world is a live issue on the desk of our leadership every day of the week--and I mean at all stages or categories of leadership. What am I getting at?

It seems to me that we're all elected by a fairly narrow slice of our community, which we call a "constituency." We serve a defined constituency, but the moment we accept leadership office, we have a responsibility to the whole worldwide church. Anyone who does not see this or does not accept it should not accept a leadership role. This role is probably no more clearly illustrated than in the office of a union president. If you think of the Adventist world community of 20 million, they are chosen by such a thin slice of the "pie" that in some places it's barely visible. And yet with the election, they have accepted a responsibility that encompasses the whole circle. (And this is further illustrated by their membership on the GC executive committee.)

But the same principle applies in the election of a local church elder. He or she may serve the local congregation, but that congregation is the local expression of a life and identity that's much greater, spanning the whole world. Failure to see this, or the refusal to accept it, inevitably leads to what, in my view, is an unhealthy local thinking, whose identity is defined by narrow boundaries rather than open borders, and which will lead, eventually, to some kind of congregationalism. When we were "young" and small as a church we felt exposed and vulnerable, and we received strength from the knowledge that there were more of us out there.

Those were also different days in the mission involvement of our church across international borders. Our own lives were nurtured and made stronger by our involvement in foreign mission and our consciousness of the larger church "out there." Growing as we are today, particularly in the developing world (and with a changing mind-set in the Western world), we often find it easy, maybe even natural, to begin thinking: we can best take care of ourselves; we don't have to defer or refer to anyone else. And built into this is a resentment or suspicion of centralized power.

I see this as something we must attend to and be very open about. I believe it is healthy to talk about it; it is good that we should write about it. The more open we are about it, the less sinister it is perceived to be. It seems to me also that to the extent this is a problem it's mainly a leadership problem. It is, in my view, less of a problem to the local members worshiping in the pews, and more one of leadership--pastors at the local level, and those elected into administrative offices. I believe that it is God's plan that we should be one around the world; that if that oneness falters, we will risk disintegrating as one church.

7. Allowing for Local Difference
Accompanying this, there must be a recognition of what is critical to the one church and to our one identity around the world, and what can, on the other hand, be deferred to local judgment and defined locally, keeping in mind the concept of "obedience where you are in time, culture, and experience." Our doctrinal integrity is one around the world. We hold the same points of belief, and we formulate them similarly. We have one Church Manual. We have a common organizational structure. We are uniquely integrated in finances and policies around the world. We share around the world in the same weekly Bible study focus (Sabbath school studies). And we share the gift of God to our church in the writings of Ellen White.

But the church will always be looking at and testing "How do we do it in my church--or in my country?" Where the inspired Word does not give a clear yes or no, we need to legitimize the fact that there will be variances, and not make the occurrence of such variances apostasy.

As the church looks at itself the two realities which are constantly before it are unity and diversity: the former has to be sought and cultured in order to survive; the latter is there naturally and has its own life. When unity and diversity fight each other the loser is always the church. The church does best and is most effective as an instrument of mission when unity and diversity coexist in a nonhostile tension, learning to defer creatively to each other, but loving that which they share more than they love themselves.

8. The Importance of Nurture
I turn to another matter: the nurturing of our church, particularly with an eye to new members. We have given and are giving much support to mission, witness, and growth. Indeed, we have listed this as one of our strategic values. Entering into unentered areas is critical to finishing the work. Our 10/40 window initiative is a huge one. And in this growth-setting we have scores of large evangelistic reaping campaigns going on. In some places multiple thousands are being baptized at one time.

Much of this is very good, particularly when it happens as a result of the work of numerous small group witnessing units. It is then good primarily because there is already a network of personal relationships, and somebody has a personal interest in each individual who is brought into the church.

But that is not always the case. On a given day the "dragnet" principle will catch many who are gone the next day--or a year later. So I say to the church, particularly where the growth potentials seem almost unlimited: Be sure you have the arrangements in place to look after that which is being harvested. And by "arrangements" I mean primarily (1) a chapel in which the new members can worship and (2) the presence of individuals able to nurture the new believers. Our church in India, as an example (there are others), is handling this very well. A region of multiple towns have a dozen or more chapels (and a school) built, thousands are brought in to these churches through baptism, and Global Mission pioneers are posted for a three- to five-year period. I think of one such region where inside a 12-month period some 15,000 were baptized and given chapels/churches in which to worship. A year later they are all intact and have increased to nearly 20,000. This is good.

But there are other places where our churches are already full to capacity, and then we run a series with a major reaping campaign and add, say, 5,000. They have nowhere to go, and 12 months later 90 percent are not to be found. This is not good. Statistics deceive us. And sinister comments are being made about this kind of growth. This is my concern when I hear of multiple thousands of campaigns being planned over the next couple of years, with financial encouragement. And when I ask "How many new churches are you building?" I draw a blank. The imported evangelism and imported moneys in many places do not provide much-needed new places of worship--only numbers that, when reported back into the feedback system, generate more money for more numbers. Let's not be blind to the negative effects of this cycle.

Nurture means making sure that that which is born lives and becomes strong. Our success in mission for Christ is directly linked to nurture. It should also be clear that without it we will not develop the next generation of sound local leaders.

9. Involvement With Society
It has been noted that on occasion I have spoken publicly about the need for our members and our church as an organization to seek to make an impact on society in matters of social care, welfare, health, education--and yes, even government and politics. In some countries we are a community of such a size that public officials and leaders of government (as well as the media) are open and even eager to know what we as a church stand for on a spread of issues. Issues such as liberties, protection of personal rights and freedom, a nonviolent peaceful environment, law and order have high value to any society of human beings. I have made and continue to make it a point to affirm in public that as a church we have a responsibility to become engaged in the public agenda and to speak out on these matters that shape the life of the local community. And I have repeatedly asked of our people: "Is your village, your town, your country better because you are there?" I see it as a failure if the answer is that our presence makes no difference.

And so I am asked, and it is a fair question: "Are we detecting in you a shift in vision and focus away from the straight preaching of the Word to some kind of 'social gospel'?"

The answer is no. Our understanding of the Word and of our doctrines, particularly as formulated in our 27 fundamental beliefs (all of them!) is clear, and our obligation to preach them is equally clear. There is no shift away from anything in this respect, but it is an underscoring of an additional responsibility that we have as a community, the reality of which is in direct relationship to the increase in the size of our church: We have a responsibility to God and our fellow human beings to make a better town, a better city, a better country, a better world out of the one in which we are now living! This has to do with the environment. It has to do with peace and security. It has to do with education and health. It has to do with the future of our children. It has to do with ethics and morality. For this is also God's kingdom, and it is the arena in which all of our lives are currently being shaped. In my view, it is a failure of Christian citizenship for the church not to become involved as a factor for good in its local environment.

10. Living With Differences
There is some theological polarity in our church. Whether they be to the right or the left, reactionary or liberal, they are there. What should we do about it? Anything?

No one should be surprised at their existence, nor should we expect that there will ever come a time when they will be gone. Eschatology and apocalyptic preaching--which are part of the treasured heritage of our church--will produce strongly held and very focused convictions. And on the whole, individuals who join our community will do so for very specific reasons and firmly held convictions. An environment of polarity is sometimes the by-product of uncompromisingly held views--misguided or otherwise.

What do we do with all of that? In the main, I suspect that we just learn to live with it. Little is to be gained by chasing these polarities. Doing so has a way of usurping the church's agenda, and the environment created within the church becomes hostile and strained. I say we learn to live with it, with the proviso that the church, in its teachings, programs, and activities, must at all times be visibly loyal to our heritage and our identity, and never give just cause to the charge of having "gone astray". Even then caricatures of our loyalty will be made.

Of course, there are and will be moments when the church has to make a public statement of clarification addressing the polarity, but then the church has to get on with its business of mission. That is where the focus of the church  energy and activities must be. Let us not be drawn into battles that at their best are only distractions.

A further word needs to be said about our being "loyal to our heritage and to our identity." Some would have us believe that there have been significant shifts in recent times in regard to doctrines that historically have been at the heart of Seventh-day Adventism.

Take specifically our understanding of judgment and Christ's ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and the prophetic messages in which these teachings are contained. Some are suggesting that since the 1980 (Glacier View) meetings, the very teachings that the church affirmed that year at those meetings have been abandoned, and that the church has essentially moved to accept the very positions it rejected then. Such a claim is a distortion of reality, and nothing could be further from the truth. The historic sanctuary message, based on Scripture and supported by the writings of Ellen White, continues to be held to unequivocally. And the inspired authorities on which these and other doctrines are based, namely the Bible supported by the writings of Ellen White, continue to be the hermeneutical foundation on which we as a church place all matters of faith and conduct. Let no one think that there has been a change of position in regard to this.

The question to which the church should constantly be sensitive is: Have we been loyal to "who we are and why we are"? Preserving our identity has to do with the integrity of our church. Faithfulness to the Lord and to the reasons for which He caused this movement to arise cannot be compromised. If we drift, it is not the "brethren" (whether on the left or the right) who will hold us accountable, but the Lord Himself. And ultimately that is what really matters.

* You may find it extraordinary that this comes to you with no references or quotes--although many such, both inspired and less so, could have been provided. However, what I am seeking to do is a fairly humble task, namely that of selecting and identifying, with broad strokes, a few issues that, in my view, are important to the life and witness of our church.

Jan Paulsen is the president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, with offices in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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© 2002, Adventist Review.