I’ve been an Adventist all my life. While others adopted into it, I was born in it and molded by its culture (cue Batman-Bane meme reference). Because of this, I’ve seen all kinds of people literally come and go in our church.
One of the hardest parts about being a lifelong Adventist has certainly been the people. A little jingle said it like this:
“To dwell above with the Saints we love will be truly grace and glory; but to live below with the Saints we know, well, that’s a different story.”
People are difficult to get along with because we tend to be prone to extremism. Generally speaking, extremism is defined in (sigh) the Merriam-Websters dictionary, as “a belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable.”
With this broad definition, many of us could be accused of having extremist views at some point or another (actually, Adventism itself could be considered extreme when compared to the general population). In our church, you can have uncommon views on theological or lifestyle matters that may be different from most other Adventists. While this isn’t a problem per se, extremism combined with a keyword, militarism, really tends to make life rough. When you find people who are militant about a unique or extreme view, that’s where your patience is tested. So, be careful when you pray to the Lord for patience; apparently, he has a tendency to place you in situations where you are forced to exercise it.
I’ve found there to be at least five types of people prone to extremism in Adventism and abroad. Before I get to that list though, it’s important to mention a few caveats:
- Extremism comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not limited to one theological segment of the church (liberals/conservatives), one part of the country (the west coast/the south), or one particular race or culture (yes, someone shared with me in conversation a few years ago the idea that white Adventists tended to be more susceptible to heretical or extremist views than other cultures).
- These categories are not black and white (no pun intended) since you can be a combination of several categories at the same time.
- You usually can’t call an extremist an extremist because they probably won’t consider themselves one. Everyone, including myself, believes themselves to be centrists. Some, though, might embrace the title and wear it as a badge of honor as a way of confirming their already elitist worldview.
Full disclosure: I have found myself in multiple categories in the past. Therefore, I’m not standing on a pedestal and pointing fingers. In forming this list, I’ve also been able to come to terms with my own past, as well as understand people in church and why they do what they do. With that said, here are five types of Adventist extremists and how to avoid being one:
1. The Survivor
These individuals have walked along a difficult road. This past may include traumatic experiences or may be a disability they live with. Surviving could also be current in the form of a problem at home, in their finances, or with their health. While religion can certainly have extremely positive effects on people who have overcome trauma and other ordeals, militant extremists in this category tend to stress points of religion as a way to bring order and control in one area of their lives, whereas in other areas, they have little-to-no control of. This idea isn’t unique to me; several studies reveal a correlation between trauma and militant extremism. You can read these studies here, and here, and here, and here, and here.
2. The Zealot
Like the name implies, the zealot is someone who is on fire. Usually they’re a new believer or have embraced a new belief or idea that they are passionate about. Yet, although they are excited about new knowledge, they haven’t come to terms with the fact that everyone is on a different path of maturity and growth. Changes that others need to make will seem “obvious” to them, but will likely annoy those around them. People in this category may also have a strong devotion to the views of the person or ministry which led them to deeper truth. If you try to point out an inconsistency, they’ll likely take it as a personal attack and retaliate (and usually not in the best of ways).
3. The Prodigal
In the Bible, many people see the prodigal son in Jesus’ Luke 15 parable as the younger son who left home and lived a life of debauchery. However, in reality, both the younger as well as the older son (the one who had never left home) were prodigals. Both lived in various levels of alienation from their father. Practically speaking, prodigals may be people who lived an extremely “wild life” and come back to organized religion, or they may be people who lived their whole lives in church but “wild out” once they leave their home full of rules. In both of these cases, the pendulum swings to the opposite end, and they tend to fall into the other extreme because they lack balance.
4. The Doppelganger
A doppelganger is someone that looks exactly the same as another person, yet is not a twin. (I have lots of them, apparently.) In church, doppelgangers are super strict about certain matters, but outside of church, you could swear they’re entirely different people. I suppose a biblical way to describe this could be hypocrisy. Yet, beyond picking and choosing beliefs or practices, doppelgangers may be struggling with a hidden sin that no one knows about. So, they overcompensate in one area they are good at in order to offset another area of weakness in their life.
As a case in point, one of my professors shared an experience about a time when he was visiting a church member who was extremely militant about not drinking water with her meals. She invited my professor (who was her pastor at the time) and his wife over to her house for lunch. When he asked for water during the meal, she gave him a lecture about “not following the Spirit of Prophecy’s council on this matter as a spiritual leader.”
Some time passed and the next time my professor saw her, she was noticeably different; she seemed happier than ever. When he asked her what had changed in her life, she said that she’d recently quit smoking…
A new favorite saying of mine is this, “If something is a stumbling block to you, that’s fine. However, to suggest that your stumbling block must also be my stumbling block makes you the stumbling block.”
5. The Masterpiece
The masterpiece has found their theological sweet spot. In their minds, they’ve dotted every “i” and crossed every “t.” Depending on their theological slant, they’re either liberated from the constraints of sectarian belief or just about ready for translation with the rest of the 144,000. In either case, they don’t need you to come along and mess everything up. So their goal is not conversation, it’s confrontation and conversion to their view. Change is almost impossible here without Divine intervention because, after all, how can you improve on a masterpiece that took years (if not decades) to construct?
Yet, in some cases, the masterpiece may not actually be in the present. The masterpiece could have been in the past and people came in and desecrated a perfect work of art. The goal here is to get people to go back to the “good ol’ days” before the young people came in and messed everything up with their strange music and lukewarm faith.
What’s missing in all of these personalities?
Growth and grace. To say it biblically: growing in grace. Behind every extremist is a closed-minded, self-righteous spirit that believes it has arrived at truth with a capital “T.”
Ellen White talked about the importance of avoiding a rigid understanding of truth.
“As a people we are certainly in great danger, if we are not constantly guarded, of considering our ideas, because long cherished, to be Bible doctrines and on every point infallible, and measuring everyone by the rule of our interpretation of Bible truth. This is our danger, and this would be the greatest evil that could ever come to us as a people.” Ellen White 1888 Materials, p. 830, emphasis added.
She would also go on to emphasize the importance of building bridges across common points of faith. She understood that uniformity on all matters was actually counter-productive to faith, and undermined true unity among believers.
“If one should hold ideas differing in some respects from that which we have heretofore entertained – not on vital points of truth – there should not be a firm, rigid attitude assumed that all is right in every particular, all is Bible truth without a flaw, that every point we have held is without mistake or cannot be improved. This I know to be dangerous business and it proceeds from wisdom that is from beneath.” Ellen White 1888 Materials, p. 830, emphasis added.
C.S. Lewis had similar thoughts in his classic Mere Christianity:
“For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”
He’s right, though. In most cases, militant extremism can make us lose common sense when it comes to relating to others. Avoiding extremes begins by understanding that truth is not a concept, as much as it is the embodiment of a person.
Jesus was gracious and kindhearted enough to understand that people grow in different ways and in different paces. When this grace is manifested, you esteem others before yourself and admit the very real possibility that you could be wrong on some matters, a concept which is really quite liberating. This leaves room to grow in your understanding of life and faith. This really is grace in action: you’ll never be so perfect that you don’t need it, or so broken that you can’t find it. It is the great equalizer of fallen humanity.
As Monte Sahlin, a longtime Adventist thought leader, put it:
Representing the Divine Heart of compassion and love is the most essential witness. Unless we have that truth clear, all doctrine is “sounding brass,” a pointless noise. If you are tempted to think that defending the truth and combating error are more important than Christ’s focus in this passage (Matthew 25:31-46) on practical compassion, remember that at the end of the story those who miss the point end up in the lake of fire, despite the fact that they honestly ask, “When did we see you in need Jesus?” One can battle for truth and end up on the wrong side of the final judgment.
So don’t be #thatguy. Avoid being an extremist and stay in grace today.