Driven Away from the Presence of the Lord: The Longing for Community

Alden Thompson Distinguished Faculty Lecture

November 16, 2003

About the Author 



After Samuel had anointed David as king over Israel, Scripture says that “the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon” him “from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13, NRSV). For Saul, David’s royal predecessor, the news was more somber. The next verse declares, “Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.”
My title comes from a poignant moment in the story of the Spirit-filled David as he scrambled to stay one valley and one mountaintop ahead of the man who was still his king, but who was driven by a demonic passion to take David’s life. The son of Jesse had crept into Saul’s camp after dark and had slipped away with Saul’s spear and water jug. No one stirred in the camp, for, as Scripture says, “a deep sleep from the LORD had fallen upon them” (1 Sam. 26:12, NRSV). After moving safely out of bowshot range, David called out across the valley, informing Abner, the king’s bodyguard, that he deserved to die for not protecting his master, the LORD’s anointed.
Here is the biblical account of what happened next:
(17) Saul recognized David’s voice, and said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” David said, “It is my voice, my lord, O king.” (18) And he added, “Why does my lord pursue his servant? For what have I done? What guilt is on my hands? (19) Now therefore let my lord the king hear the words of his servant. If it is the LORD who has stirred you up against me, may he accept an offering; but if it is mortals, may they be cursed before the LORD, for they have driven me out today from my share in the heritage of the LORD, saying, ‘Go, serve other gods.’ (20) Now therefore, do not let my blood fall to the ground, away from the presence of the LORD; for the king of Israel has come out to seek a single flea, like one who hunts a partridge in the mountains.” (1 Sam. 26:17-19, NRSV)
In a more confident mood, David, the psalmist, could exclaim:
Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Ps.139:7-9, NRSV)
But in the stark loneliness of the night as he was fleeing from Saul, David felt no such confidence. Like Elijah, feeling so very godforsaken as he fled from Jezebel, David felt cut off from his God and was haunted by the popular belief that Yahweh’s presence could only be guaranteed in Yahweh’s own land. To be driven away from Yahweh’s land was the same as being driven away from the actual presence of Yahweh.
Admittedly, my title moves just slightly from the original intent of the passage. It was separation from Yahweh’s land that led David to cry out that he was being driven away from the presence of the Lord. I have linked that cry with the longing for community. Now for some people, a particular place – Yahweh’s land, so to speak – may be crucial for their sense of community and thus, perhaps, for their ability to sense God’s presence. For me, place isn’t as crucial as the people who belong to the place.
In recent days we have watched the wrecking ball splinter our beloved Ad Building into rubble. Indeed, my office was one of the first to go. And, for the record, especially for those of you who were watching when my office was smashed and saw that cloud of papers cascade into public view, one of the documents that came floating down to earth was a Vanderbilt University decal, not a University of Edinburgh decal, suggesting that it was Doug Clark, not Alden Thompson, who had stashed those mysterious papers into some secret Ad Building alcove.
No, it wasn’t the loss of the building that troubled me; it was the disappearing people that nibbled away at my soul. First, they emptied out fourth flour, then the third-floor classrooms. Terry Gottschall from history disappeared, so I couldn’t check up on the progress of the Mariners. Student Financial Services, Mail Room, Records Office, Betty Duncan in Advisement and Donna Fisher in Graduate Studies – you know, all the places with candy on offer. But it wasn’t the candy – checking out the candy was just an excuse to see the people. And now they have all disappeared, moved to China or some other distant place on planet earth. Theology was last to go. We have nice new offices now. But I can’t poke my head out the door with a “Hey, Clark!” and listen for the reassuring “Yo!” – telling me that intemperate Clark is still in his office and that the world will probably survive at least one more day. He’s clear around the corner now and a shout won’t reach him anymore.
But subtle changes in community have been underway for some time. When and where do we come together as a thinking, believing community to sing, to pray, to share, to listen to great ideas, to hear great music, to watch riveting drama – and then talk about what all that means for us as a community of believers? Lacking that, David’s cry becomes mine: “You’ve driven me away from the presence of the LORD.”
And the implications are more sobering than we have realized. If, as the sociologists of knowledge tell us, much of what we consider reasonable is largely the consensus of the people around us, then we had better pick our friends with care. Sociologist Peter Berger addresses a believer’s context when he discusses the challenges presented by secularization. Speaking of so-called neo-orthodoxy, a mid-century theological movement which was seeking to recover a sense of God’s grandeur and majesty, Berger says: “Put crudely, if one is to believe what neo-orthodoxy wants one to believe, in the contemporary situation, then one must be rather careful to huddle together closely and continuously with one’s fellow believers.” [1]
One can hear the same truth from C. S. Lewis, a Christian academic, speaking as a believer in his essay “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” Here is his candid personal admission:
I don’t know how it is with others, but I find that mere change of scene always has a tendency to decrease my faith at first – God is less credible when I pray in a hotel bedroom than when I am in College. The society of unbelievers makes Faith harder even when they are people whose opinions, on any other subject, are known to be worthless. [2]
He closes his essay with this passionate appeal:
When we exhort people to faith as a virtue, to the settled intention of continuing to believe certain things, we are not exhorting them to fight against reason. The intention of continuing to believe is required because, though Reason is divine, human reasoners are not. When once passion takes part in the game, the human reason, unassisted by Grace, has about as much chance of retaining its hold on truths already gained as a snowflake has of retaining its consistency in the mouth of a blast furnace. The sort of arguments against Christianity which our reason can be persuaded to accept at the moment of yielding to temptation are often preposterous. Reason may win truths; without Faith she will retain them just so long as Satan pleases. There is nothing we cannot be made to believe or disbelieve. If we wish to be rational, not now and then, but constantly, we must pray for the gift of Faith, for the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth. And the answer to that prayer will, perhaps, surprise us when it comes. For I am not sure, after all, whether one of the causes of our weak faith is not a secret wish that our faith should not be very strong. Is there some reservation in our minds? Some fear of what it might be like if our religion became quite real? I hope not. God help us all, and forgive us. [3]
Now if Berger and Lewis are not persuasive enough in urging the importance of community for the life of faith, we can turn to Scripture. The author of Hebrews, guided by the Spirit, sensed that truth intuitively – he certainly was no sociologist – when he admonished believers “to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25, NRSV).
So if David was longing for a place when he cried out that he was being driven away from the presence of the Lord, I want to add the people who are part of that place. When you’ve been away, it’s a marvelous treat to come home again, to be in a familiar place, a safe place. But it’s the people who matter most. And when I am surrounded by people I know and trust, people who share my convictions and hopes, that’s when I sense that I am really in the presence of the Lord. And I believe that most of us hardly get enough of that kind of reassurance. As I listen carefully, often between the lines, to my colleagues and my students, I have decided that loneliness may be the most persistent malady of our day. Indeed, we can become so accustomed to being lonely that we miss it when we’re not. As the American author E. B. White said after he moved from Manhattan to rural Maine, he became “homesick for loneliness.” [4]
Tonight I want to address our common loneliness, our yearning for a place we can call home and the people who make it home. And I want to suggest ways of shaping a community which can begin to satisfy our deeply rooted social, intellectual, and religious need not to be alone, but to live in community.
I will set the stage for the vision I want to articulate by looking at our situation from three more-or-less concentric perspectives: First, from a more global perspective of what’s happening in the larger world, then from a more focused perspective of what’s happening in academia, and finally, from the more intimate perspective of church, a local worshiping community, but one with ties to a worldwide network of like-minded worshiping communities.
The Global Scene
In 2002 Oxford published church historian Philip Jenkins’ book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. [5] The Atlantic Monthly heightened interest in Jenkins’ book with an on-line interview in September [6] and a cover article by Jenkins in its October 2002 issue. [7] Coming at a time when the West is terrified at the threat posed by violent forms of Islam, it may be startling to hear a thoughtful academic announce with confidence that Christianity will be the world’s dominant religious force in coming years.
Jenkins does cite another view, one argued by Samuel P. Huntington in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, a book which Jenkins describes as “one of the most widely read analyses of current global trends.” Jenkins says that Huntington claims “that the relative Christian share of global population will fall steeply in the new century.” And Jenkins quotes him as saying: “In the long run...Muhammad wins out.” While Huntington suggests that Islam will be the world’s largest religion by 2020 or so, Jenkins counterclaims that Christianity will still have a “massive lead” well into the foreseeable future: “By 2050, there should still be about three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide. Some 34 percent of the world’s people will then be Christian, roughly what the figure was at the height of European world hegemony in 1900.” [8]
North American Adventists have been keenly aware for some time of the globalization of Adventism. Less than 10 percent of all Adventists now live in North America. But in some ways what is happening to global Christianity is even more startling. Jenkins projects that by the year 2025, Africa and Latin America will both have more Christians than Europe, and taken together will account for half the Christians on the planet. “By 2050,” Jenkins notes, “only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites.” And he adds this curious commentary: “Soon, the phrase ‘a White Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’ Such people can exist, but a slight eccentricity is implied.” [9]
But if the loss of status for the “White Christian” is surprising, I find three other characteristics of the “Next Christendom” to be at least as noteworthy:
1. Supernaturalism. For those who are weary of a cold rationalism which excludes any possibility of the miraculous, it is refreshing to know that at least in third world countries, God’s power is alive and well. Jenkins opens his second chapter with this Philip Yancey quote from Christianity Today: “As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God ‘moving’ geographically from the Middle East, to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.” [10]
Jenkins argues that the stark poverty which haunts so much of the developing world is a major factor in fueling the surge of interest in an overt supernaturalism. Now many people in developing countries can survive on very little money – until they are threatened by disease, an ever-present threat. Huge chunks of the population simply cannot afford modern medicines. Their only option is to trust in the Jesus who healed the sick, not by scientific medicine, but through miracles. They read the story of Jesus as it is; they believe it and live in hope.
2. Violence and the demonic. Related at least loosely to the belief in an overt supernaturalism is the conviction that the demonic realm is alive and well. That, in turn, easily turns into a call to spiritual warfare, often a spiritual warfare fought with very physical weapons. In Africa, for example, witchcraft is seen as a major demonic threat. Jenkins notes that as recently as 2001, “at least 1,000 alleged witches were hacked to death in a single ‘purge’ in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” [11]
According to the Gospel accounts which have come down to us, Jesus did not use his power directly against any human being. He never killed anyone. Even when he angrily cleansed the temple, he attacked the furniture, not the people. [12] That is an ideal treasured by gentle Western Christians. Here is God incarnate, a God we can worship and adore, a God who turns the other cheek, goes the second mile, loves his enemies, and does good to those who hate him.
Yet violence lurks close at hand in the story of Jesus, and Jesus told some violent stories, stories which included judgment and death for God’s enemies. But let’s raise the stakes even higher: Jesus’ Bible is what we call the Old Testament; furthermore, Jesus not only claimed the God of the Old Testament as his God, he made the audacious claim to be the God of the Old Testament. And Christians accept all three claims: Jesus’ Bible as the first part of our Bible, the God of the Old Testament as Jesus’ God, and Jesus as the incarnation of the Old Testament God.
And if you want to hold the line against change you have very good passages in both testaments: “I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6, NRSV) and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8, NRSV).
But this is the same God who repents more often in the Old Testament than anyone else – if one simply does a word study on the word “repent” in the King James Version. Modern translations are even more shocking, for they have God “changing his mind.” Now you may not be entirely happy with Clifford Goldstein & Co. of the General Conference Sabbath School Department for giving us the book of Jonah as our Sabbath School diet for 13 straight weeks. But, if nothing else, it should help convince us of a God who adapts to time and place and who will eagerly repent when people change their ways. It makes little difference which translation of Jonah 3:10 you are reading – KJV: “God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not”; NRSV: “God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
With apologies to Mordecai’s KJV speech to Queen Esther, I could paraphrase: “Who knoweth whether these Sabbath School lessons are come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (cf. Esther 4:14). Now it might help if we actually studied our Sabbath School lessons, but that cultural comment aside, what I want us to recognize is that the God we serve is incredibly adaptable to human beings. It was from this God, our God, that Paul learned to be all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22). And that can be true because the gracious character of the God we serve does not change. Ever. 
Now one of the best passages to teach that point is Malachi 3:6: “I am the Lord, I do not change.” Our trouble is, this verse has usually been hijacked by devout believers who are inclined to resist change of any kind. Let me illustrate with an incident that happened at the Idaho campmeeting in 1991, the year in which my book Inspiration was published.
I was teaching a morning class on practical issues in Bible study and repeating the same class in the afternoon. A little lady from College Place, who had actually been our next-door neighbor some 20 years before when we first arrived here, was eagerly attending both of my sessions, even though they were essentially the same. She was old and shriveled, but wide awake and alert. In one session, when I was showing how God actually adapted and changed laws within the Old Testament itself, she blurted out: “What does that verse mean, ‘I am the Lord, I change not’?”
“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “Let’s look at it. I will stop right in the middle of the verse and ask you to imagine the rest of the sentence. OK?”
She nodded. I turned to Malachi 3:5-6 (NRSV):
(5) Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (6) For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob...
That’s where I paused. Then I said, “If you were going to finish that verse, what would you expect? The prophet has ticked off a list of brutal sins and declared that the Lord does not change. Therefore...”
“What you might expect,” I continued, “would be for the Lord to lower the boom, something like ‘Therefore, you will be punished for all your sins.’ After all, just a few verses later comes one of the more vivid judgment passages in Scripture: ‘See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch’” (Mal. 4:1, NRSV).
“That’s what you might expect,’ I said. “But now listen to what Malachi 3:6 really says: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.”
“Is that what your Bible says?” she exclaimed. “I’ll betcha mine doesn’t say that.”
“That’s really what it says. Check it out in yours.”
“I don’t have my Bible with me.”
“What do you suppose that verse means?”
She paused only briefly and then with no further prompting from me, she said: “Could it mean that God’s gracious character never changes?”
Now the challenge facing Adventism is that we are a world church. How much flexibility can the church allow for culture? That is an urgent question we must face and one that we must face together as a community.
If we return to Jesus’ Bible (and ours), the Old Testament itself makes some important distinctions which can help us address very practical questions wherever Christians may be tempted to appeal to the Old Testament to sanction their violent pursuit of evildoers. Let us make no mistake: in Jesus’ Bible, our Old Testament, violence and death come directly from the hand of God and through human instruments at God’s command. Yet neither edition of the Decalogue, Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, mandates any penalties for breaking any of the commandments. That is a major reason for their enduring quality. God spoke the TEN directly to the people, wrote them in stone with his own finger, and commanded that they be placed within the ark. And in spelling this all out in Deuteronomy 4:13-14, Moses refers to the Decalogue as “covenant.” The additional commands he calls “statutes and ordinances” – as translated by the NRSV. These laws were addressed to Moses, not to the people, and went into a book beside the ark (Deut. 31:24-26). These additional laws mandate the death penalty for every one of the Ten Commandments except the last one, “Do not covet.” But the Decalogue itself specifies no penalties at all.
As we move through the Old Testament toward that moment in time when God would take human flesh, even the violent punishments seem to recede. Through Samuel, God had commanded Saul to go up against the Amalekites, in the vivid words of the Contemporary English Version: “Destroy them and all their possessions. Don’t have any pity. Kill their men, women, children, and even their babies. Slaughter their cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Sam. 15:3, CEV).
That’s sobering stuff. And so is the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, some 600 years later, when these two stalwart leaders commanded God’s people to send away all foreign wives with their children. After listing those who had transgressed the law by marrying foreign women, the book of Ezra closes with this statement: “All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children” (Ezra 10:44, NRSV).
The book of Nehemiah closes on an even more vivid note, but still far from the violence mandated against the Amalekites. Describing Nehemiah’s reaction to the discovery of mixed marriages, Scripture quotes him as saying: “I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God” (Neh. 13:25, NRSV). But note that he did not kill anyone. That’s a step in the right direction, a step toward the ideal lived out by Jesus: praying for one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and going the second mile.
And let us not forget that it is in the Old Testament itself that one finds that most marvelous promise of all – at least it is marvelous to a rebel soul like me who hates to be told what to do – the promise that one day there will not only be no punishments, but no commands. It is the new covenant promise, but it is not linked at all with the coming of the Messiah; it is simply the promise to God’s Old Testament people that he will renew the covenant. It will not be a brand new covenant, but the glorious renewal of the old. This is God’s promise:
(33) I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:33-34, NRSV)
That is the ideal which we must somehow share with all our brothers and sisters throughout the world church. We hear it in Jeremiah and then we see it lived out in Jesus, the incarnate God who lived and died so that we could live in hope of a future world where that ideal will reign throughout all eternity.
Jesus also told us that he will give us strength to help us transform this troubled world into one which mirrors that new world as much as possible. And we must bend every effort to make this ideal believable and possible, even for our brothers and sisters who live in a culture steeped in violence, a culture which all too easily slips back into the violent mode of the Old Testament.
And the matter comes closer to home than we are often ready to admit. This last summer a team of Walla Walla College students traveled to Zambia with Dave Thomas, dean of our School of Theology, to hold evangelistic meetings there. The Africans were surprised when women showed up as members of our evangelistic team, planning to preach; our team was surprised when our women were told that they could not preach, for women are not “to teach or have authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12, NRSV). Finally, it was decided that the women could preach as long as they did not preach from the pulpit on Sabbath morning. And so it happened. I understand that by their stellar performance, our Walla Walla College women won a host of African converts to the cause of women in ministry.
But while this whole issue was being processed, our team heard rumblings about the possibility of a stoning at church if a conference-sponsored woman attempted to take the pulpit. These are Adventists in Africa, seriously considering the possibility of stoning a woman who does not comply with the people’s understanding of the Word of God. And it wasn’t until the theology retreat in October this year that one of our college women, Nadia Neil, admitted with a rather sheepish grin that some stones had actually been thrown at her. “I didn’t tell you about this before,” she said, turning to Dean Thomas. “I didn’t want you to be concerned.”
That trip to Zambia was a transforming experience for our students. But it has highlighted in a very sobering way some of the issues which Jenkins addresses in his book.
3. Separation of Church and State. A third crucial issue raised by Jenkins is one that touches Adventists very close to home. Given tribal impulses, especially in Africa, political life is often bound up with religious belief. Zambia declared itself a Christian nation in 1991 and similar rumblings have been heard in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Liberia. [13] The implications are sobering. In the words of Jenkins, “a worst-case scenario would include a wave of religious conflicts reminiscent of the Middle Ages, a new age of Christian crusades and Muslim jihads. Imagine the world of the thirteenth century armed with nuclear warheads and anthrax.” [14] 
Adventists have long argued that there can be no real freedom unless church and state remain separate. At root, that is a liberal and secular idea, but one which Adventists have defended with religious fervor because freedom of choice plays such a key role in our theology. The coercive power of the beast in Revelation 13 continues to loom large in Adventist thinking.
But in that respect the American landscape has changed, for at one point Southern Baptists were key allies in the battle to maintain the separation of church and state in the United States. They have now jumped ship, so to speak, and have fully aligned themselves with the Christian right, whose stated goal it is to make America a righteous Christian nation.
Because of our convictions about the separation of church and state, Adventists have sometimes found themselves defending “the liberties of people very different from themselves,” to borrow Doug Morgan’s polite phrase. [15] Morgan, an Adventist history professor at Columbia Union College, has argued in his book Adventism and the American Republic, published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2001, that Adventism has played a small but significant role in the secularization of American culture. Anyone familiar with the ethos of Adventism would have to be at least a little amused by some of his examples, especially those involving Alonzo T. Jones, the famous righteousness by faith advocate at the 1888 General Conference, a powerful defender of the separation of church and state, and – not just incidentally – also one of Adventism’s most vigorous Catholic-bashers.
When Senator H. W. Blair proposed a constitutional amendment in 1889 which would reform the public school system so that “the principles of the Christian religion” would be taught in public schools, Jones weighed in against the measure. He argued that the amendment would “turn public schools into seminaries for the dissemination of Protestant ideas, and thus violate the equal rights of Catholics, Jews, and infidels.” [16] This is Adventist Jones defending the rights of Catholics, Jews, and infidels.
Perhaps an even more striking illustration is provided by an 1892 incident in the Chicago suburb of Englewood. A coalition of church and YMCA forces demanded that the Marlowe Theater, located next door to a Baptist church, be closed on Sunday. On August 21, a protesting crowd actually prevented the actors from taking the stage. Then the theater sponsored and advertised a meeting at which the Adventists would speak against Sunday closing. So it was that on Sunday, August 28, in the theater next door to a church, A. T. Jones delivered what Morgan describes as “a fiery two-hour speech denouncing the religious bigotry of the ‘Englewood fanatics.’” The Chicago Times reported that “Mr. Jones speaks as emphatically as a piledriver, and every time he came down the audience applauded.” Jones argued that the Englewood religionists had violated the separation of church and state and had gone against the spirit of Christ, “the author of free thought and religious liberty.” [17] This is Adventist Jones in defense of Sunday theater performances, next to a Baptist church.
In short, the specter of southern Christianity moving in ways which would deny human beings their freedom is something that should be a significant concern for Adventists.
The Academic Scene
One of the key comparisons suggested by Jenkins involves what he calls three demographic trends: an increasingly secular Europe, “de-Christianizing at an amazing rate”; Africa and Latin America, where Christianity is flourishing; and the United States, where Christianity is holding on quite well as the “default” faith of the “great majority of Americans.” But Jenkins talks about the “odd split” between what he calls the “religion of the mainstream and the non-religion of the elite.” Jenkins quotes enviously (“I wish I had invented it...– it’s very accurate”) sociologist Peter Berger on the difference between Indians and Swedes: “Indians are the most religious people in the world, Swedes are the least religious, and Americans are a nation of Indians governed by Swedes.” [18]
That “non-religion of the elite,” with its condescension or even scorn of those who believe, has haunted conservative Christians ever since the Fundamentalist movement emerged in the 1920s. A nonbelieving seatmate of mine on a transatlantic flight captured the picture quite neatly. A retired Boeing engineer, he told me that the turning point for him had come one day when he was about 15 as he was listening to the preaching of his father, a minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. All of a sudden faith didn’t make sense anymore and he no longer believed. What intrigued me was a quote which he attributed to Carl Sagan: “If your IQ is lower than 80 you can’t believe because you’re not bright enough to believe; and if you have an IQ over 120 you can’t believe because you’re too bright and know too much.”
That tension between those who “believe” and those who “think” has permeated our culture and has had a deadly effect on the study of the Bible. The situation at the academic level is pointedly described by biblical scholar James G. Williams in his 1991 Harper-Collins book, The Bible, Violence and the Sacred:
As for biblical interpretation, there are not many institutions, outside fundamentalist and evangelical circles, where it continues to hold a preeminent place. And where biblical scholarship is still pursued, much of it is so permeated with overspecialization or intellectual faddishness that it communicates very little to lay people or even to scholars in other fields. Indeed, much of that very little that it does communicate to the laity is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as destructive, because it appears to negate the value and significance of traditional texts, stories, symbols, and doctrines. One of the primary reasons for this perception is that in the university setting one often finds the point of view that the theologian or the teacher in religious studies is not responsible to any community or circle of people except the academy and its discourse. [19] 
Recently I was discussing this academic scene with a prominent evangelical whose religious experience resonates with mine in a number of important ways. His informed comment was that he knows of only two major seminaries in North America which have been able to maintain the balance between thinking and believing: Fuller Seminary in California, and Regent College in Vancouver, BC.
I believe there are some exciting possibilities for believers emerging in academia. But there will be significant pressures to keep thinking and believing separate. Even Jenkins, in his on-line interview, took a separatist position with reference to the question of whether American religion would move more toward the Swedes or the Indians. “As far as I can see, I think it will continue very much as it is – ideally with Indians and Swedes blissfully unaware of each other’s existence. We leave them alone, they leave us alone.” [20]
Let me say bluntly that Adventists cannot afford to go that route. God calls us to reach out to Swedes and Indians. The challenges are enormous. But we must not flinch. We must touch the secular Europeans and the religious Africans. And our own children will keep us alert, for Adventists are much more open to mainstream culture than we once were. I could cite you chapter and verse of children coming from the same Adventist family, with one leaving Adventism for the secular left, another leaving Adventism for the fundamentalist right. I believe both siblings could and should be within Adventism. By God’s grace, if we do the job right, it can happen.
And I cannot resist saying right here that at the Glacier View Faith and Science Conference this past summer, it was our church that brought us together and insisted that all sides be presented. It was our church that declared that we were coming not to change anything, but to listen. It was our church that devised the marvelous method of anonymous email dialogue before the conference. That forced us to clean up our language so that by the time we got to Glacier View we actually treated each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. It was really incredible, but an experience that made me very proud of my church.
The Local Church Scene
To address the local church scene, I want to develop three illustrations: One is a negative example: the fragmentation of community; the other two are positive: the building of community and the restoration of community.
Fragmentation of a community. About 2,000 people live in Fearn, Scotland, on the Easter Ross Peninsula. About 500 of the 2,000 are active churchgoers, divided among two Church of Scotland parishes where 180 of them attend. The rest belong to one of four splinter groups, all of them claiming to be Presbyterians.
About 30 to 40 attend the Free Church, which broke away in1843 because the members wanted to be free to call their own ministers. They sing no hymns, only chanted psalms, and they use no instrumental accompaniment in worship.
About 60 to 70 attend the United Free Church. They sing chanted psalms in the morning and some hymns. Singing is unaccompanied in the morning; they use instruments in the evening.
About 40 attend the Associated Presbyterian Church, which broke with the Free Church in 1989 because Lord Mackay, a member of Parliament and Scotland’s Lord Advocate, attended the Roman Catholic funeral services for two of his colleagues. While many in the Free Church were shocked by Lord Mackay’s actions, about 30 percent of the members supported him and went with Mackay to establish the new church. These folks are the liberals, singing all hymns with accompaniment.
Finally, another 30 to 40 attend the Free Church Continuing, a conservative breakaway precipitated by the lax handling of a morals charge against a Free Church member, Professor John McLeod. Like the Free Church, they too sing only chanted psalms without accompaniment.
The parish minister, John McGregor, who told me these details, said that the only time all five pastors have been together under the same roof was at his ordination in 2001.
The divisions are “ludicrous,” says McGregor sadly. “The spirit of division simply seems to have become a habit. Every 30 years or so, a group just has to break away for some reason.”
Building a community. This past summer when we were visiting WWC alumnus Keith Corbett in Quesnel, BC, his secretary, Bev Haluschak, just happened to mention going to a church reunion in Sarnia, Ontario. The story intrigued me so much that I called her back for details. This is what I learned.
The reunion was to honor Alfred Wood, now deceased. He was a convert to Adventism, a father of four, a chemical engineer. But most important of all, he was their Pathfinder leader. When he joined the Adventist church in Sarnia, which had a typical Sabbath attendance of about 70, he noticed that nothing much was being done for the young people. Since he had been a Scout leader in his previous church, he took charge of Pathfinders. And things began to happen. I won’t take the time to tick off all the things he did to show those Pathfinders that they were important to the church and to God. Bev summarized it this way, “He simply modeled unconditional love.” Typically there were about 30 Adventist young people in Pathfinders, and by bringing their friends they would nudge attendance up to about 40.
But here is the rest of the story: A few years ago, about a year after Mr. Wood’s death, some of his former Pathfinders decided they wanted to recognize him by putting up a plaque in his honor in the Sarnia church. Then they decided to contact the rest of the group and see if more could come. They got letters from 4 or 5 who could not attend. But 27 others did come back for the reunion, and catch this: 25 of the 27 are still active Adventists. Furthermore, of the two who were not, one said: “This is what I have been missing. I’m coming back.” Think of it: 27 came back and 25 are still faithful in the church.
When I asked Bev where they had come from, she said: 1 from BC, 3 from Alberta, 2 from Quebec, 1 from Newfoundland, 2 from Michigan, 1 from Florida, 2 from Washington, DC. “And one young man didn’t have to travel at all, probably the one we would have voted ‘least likely to be in the church’ – most likely to be in jail! He was an elder and the youth leader in the Sarnia church.”
In her last email Bev commented: “Somehow Mr. Wood communicated to us what a privilege it was to serve in our church. I think he cultivated such an enduring connection to the church for me, that when the time came as a young adult that I questioned my need for the church, it was the belief that I was important to my church that kept me there until I could learn how important I was to God.”
Restoration of community. This is a local story and one I cannot explain. It simply illustrates the amazing things God does to bring someone back to the community. It’s a story about Steve Parker, who has given me permission to use his name.
About five years ago, Steve walked into my office, sat down, and said, “I want to finish my degree from Walla Walla College.”
He had been here once before, in the mid-1970s, working his way through college, quite literally “earning” his degree. In the spring quarter of his senior year, he got a letter from the records office telling him that he was short two hours of upper division credit and would not be able to graduate.
He was so devastated, so angry, that he simply dropped out of school. He had been a theology major but had already decided not to go into ministry. Indeed he was planning to go on and take nursing at a community college. Admittedly, he had been struggling with God’s way of doing things: His father had been the most honest man on earth, but had never joined the church; his wife had had a very difficult pregnancy, and his firstborn son, indeed his only son, lived just one day. And then the last blow came from the college.
When I asked Steve what happened next, his emotions showed vividly on his face. “I dumped it all,” he said. “I did everything.” Recently he told me that it all happened fairly quickly. Within a matter of months, if not weeks, he was an agnostic.
He was away from the church for many years. But then the Lord began to work, through independent ministries, even. His wife and daughters began going back to church. Then, after finishing the Bloomsday marathon one year, someone thrust into his hand a copy of a book and said, “Here, read this.” It was Jan Marcussen’s Sunday Closing Law, not a book I would normally recommend. It looked like it could be an Adventist book; he checked quickly to see if it was from Review and Herald or Pacific Press. If it had been, he told me he wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But none of that official stuff was there.
So he sat down with his bottle of whisky in one hand and Jan Marcussen in the other and read himself back into the church. He thought he had worked through his anger at the church and the college until one day someone suggested that he ought to finish his degree. That’s when he discovered he was still angry: “What? Give more money to that college? Never.”
He ended up writing a sermon on forgiveness and that was what brought healing. And that also brought him to my office.
Now if you start a WWC degree in the ’70s and come back to finish it in the ’90s, you will discover that the world has changed. Steve had a few credits that would transfer from his nursing program; but after working through the new bulletin with him, I determined that it would probably take about a year and a half for him to finish.
It seemed to me, however, that the college should bear some responsibility for what had happened to him in the spring term of his senior year. We now have safeguards in place that should prevent such catastrophes. But no one could tell for sure what had happened 20 years before.
To make a longer story short and very sweet, we decided to petition the academic standards committee to allow Steve to graduate under this 1970s bulletin. Would you believe it? The committee said yes. All he needed was one upper division course. He elected to take a directed reading course in Islamic studies from Roland Blaich because his main reason for wanting a degree was to be able to serve Islamic people.
How did all that happen? I simply don’t know. But what I do know is this: If we put people first, God will do amazing things for us, through us, to us, to his glory and for the strengthening of his community.
My Vision
Here now is my vision for our community, briefly stated under four major headings.
1. Our Role in the World: A Buoyant Sectarianism. Adventists have always been sectarian in our roots. From a sociological point of view, a sectarian body is one that is countercultural, always in search of purity. The Presbyterians in Fearn, Scotland, vividly illustrate sectarian divisiveness. Typically, sectarian movements tend to be confrontational and belligerent, eager to call sin by its right name.
Given key changes in our culture, however, I believe Adventists should remain sectarian, but in a new and positive way. American culture has become so individualistic that we easily leave the group to do our own thing. As Rolf Poehler, president of the North German Union put it, “In America, everyone is a sect unto himself.”
So if we want to be truly countercultural, we would model how a diverse community comes together in love and learns to live with differences. That would be countercultural in a new and startling way.
Now to make this happen we would simply focus on Jesus’ two great commands: First, love God with all your heart; and, second, love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:35-40). Is this a problem for Adventist identity? I suspect that if we would treat every person – and I mean every person – the way we would want to be treated if we were in his or her place, we would be the most unique church on the face of the earth.
What about Ellen White? Frankly, she is the one who has given me the courage to make this suggestion. I will not give the evidence here for the transformation in her own experience, but let me share a key quotation representing this “new,” positive sectarianism. It is counsel to a brother, headed to South Africa, who had revealed tendencies toward the “old” confrontational sectarianism:
In laboring in a new field, do not think it your duty to say at once to the people, We are Seventh-day Adventists; we believe that the seventh day is the Sabbath; we believe in the non-immortality of the soul. This would often erect a formidable barrier between you and those you wish to reach. Speak to them, as you have opportunity, upon points of doctrine on which you can agree. Dwell on the necessity of practical godliness. Give them evidence that you are a Christian, desiring peace, and that you love their souls. Let them see that you are conscientious. Thus you will gain their confidence; and there will be time enough for doctrines. Let the heart be won, the soil prepared, and then sow the seed, presenting in love the truth as it is in Jesus. [21]
2. Our Beliefs: Simplicity with Room for Diversity. I would love for our church to adopt the original covenant which was used by our forebears when they first began to organize churches and conferences in 1861. This could then go at the head of our Statement of Beliefs. I’d even be willing to sign it:
We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ [Rev. 14:12]. [22]
The diversity part of this equation is best illustrated by the first two paragraphs in the Ministry of Healing chapter entitled “In Contact with Others.” No fewer than three people in this community have pointed out this quotation to me as having made a significant difference in their lives: Arnold Kurtz, former seminary professor and my supervising pastor when I was an intern in Redlands, California; Rick Bowes, pastor of the Walla Walla City Church; and Jack Hoehn, a physician who learned to appreciate this quotation when he was in mission service in Africa:
Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.
So frail, so ignorant, so liable to misconception is human nature, that each should be careful in the estimate he places upon another. We little know the bearing of our acts upon the experience of others. What we do or say may seem to us of little moment, when, could our eyes be opened, we should see that upon it depended the most important results for good or for evil. [23]
3. Worship: Meeting Communal and Personal Needs. Here my vision is simple: We must find ways to bring the whole community together – and we will all have to wince at least part of the time. And then we must find ways to meet our own personal needs. A few years ago Philip Yancey wrote a column for Christianity Today with the heading: “Why I Don’t Go to a Megachurch.” He supports his position with this quote from G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics: “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world.... The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.” [24]
4. Academic Pursuits: An Incarnational Model. A conservative church which stresses education is a real anomaly in our modern world. I think we ought to exploit our advantage by using the “incarnational” model, one that Ellen White suggests in connection with Scripture. [25] Instead of fleeing the contradictions, this model brings them together. Here’s a tantalizing quotation to that effect from Ellen White:
Great contradictions presented themselves in Jesus. He was the divine Son of God, and yet a helpless child. The Creator of the worlds, the earth was his possession and yet poverty marked his life experience at every step. [26]
Sociologist Robin Gill, a professor at the University of Edinburgh during my doctoral studies there, put this model into words and into practice. In words, he suggested an “as if” approach, one which allows us to look at every phenomenon from two perspectives: once “as if” it were strictly human, and once “as if” it were strictly divine. Put them together and you have the full picture.
In practice, Professor Gill lived out this model in Edinburgh by serving as the pastor of a small Anglican church at the same time that he was teaching in the university. This was the way he put it to me: “When my church drives me up the wall, I have the university. And when the university drives me up the wall, I have my church.”
Our world is terribly complex, but we have a marvelous opportunity to work together, to help each other, to challenge each other, to encourage each other. We will always fall short of the ideal. But we are a community that lives by hope and that can keep us buoyant and on target until the Lord comes to take us home.




About the Author

Thompson graduated from Walla Walla College in 1965 with majors in theology and biblical languages. He earned a Master's degree in biblical and systematic theology from Andrews University in 1966 and a Bachelor of Divinity, also from Andrews University, in 1967. He received a doctoral degree in biblical and Judaic studies from the University of Edinburgh in 1975.

Employed by WWC since 1970, Thompson has served as a teacher, as well as vice president for academic administration for four years. He has also served as associate pastor and pastor of churches in Redlands, Calif. and Fontana, Calif. Thompson is also the author of two books: "Who's Afraid of the Old Testament God?," Exeter: Paternoster, 1988, reprinted by Pacesetters Bible School, 2000, 2003; and "Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers," Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1991. 





[1] . Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 164.

[2] . C. S. Lewis, “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” in Walter Hooper, ed., Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), 42. 

[3] . Ibid., 43.

[4] . Cited by Alfred Kazin, in William Zinsser, ed., Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Revised and expanded 2nd edition (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1995 [1st ed., 1987]), 72.

[5] .  Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[6] . Katie Bacon with Philip Jenkins, “Christianity’s New Center,” The Atlantic Online, “Atlantic Unbound,” Sept.12, 2002:

[7] . Philip Jenkins, “The Next Christianity,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 2002, 53-68.

[8] . Jenkins, The Next Christendom, 5.

[9] . Ibid, 3.

[10] . Ibid, 15, citing Philip Yancey, Christianity Today, February 5, 2001.

[11] . Jenkins, “The Next Christianity,” 60.

[12] . An observation triggered by Reynolds Price in Three Gospels (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 42-43.

[13] . Jenkins, “The Next Christianity,” 68.

[14] . Jenkins, The Next Christendom, 13.

[15] . Douglas Morgan, Adventism and the American Republic (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2001), 64.

[16] . Ibid.

[17] . Ibid.

[18] . Jenkins, “Christianity’s New Center.” 

[19] . James Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), 2-3.

[20] . Jenkins, “Christianity’s New Center.”

[21] . Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1915), 119-120. Cf. “Letter to a Minister and His Wife Bound for Africa” [June 25, 1887 = Letter 12, to Elder Boyd; almost verbatim “original” of the Gospel Worker quote] in Testimonies to Southern Africa, pp. 14-20.

[22] . Adopted in 1861 at the organizing session of the first SDA conference (Michigan); recommended for use in the organization of local churches; published in the Review and Herald, October 8, 1861 (“Covenant, Church,” in Don Neufeld, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, second revised edition [Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1996], 416).

[23] . Ellen G. White, Ministry of Healing (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1905), 483.

[24] . Philip Yancey, “Why I Don’t Go to a Megachurch,” Christianity Today, May 20, 1996, 80.

[25] . See Ellen G. White, “Introduction,” The Great Controversy (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1911), vi: “The Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’ John 1:14.”

[26] . Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1898), 87.