For most of my adult life, I’ve heard older Adventists calling for a return to our roots, to “stand by the old landmarks,” and decrying the fall away from “standards.” To hear them tell it, the church was once pristine and faultless.
Whenever I hear this, I wonder why that exemplary bunch wasn’t translated long ago. They were too good for this Earth! And those tales don’t bear a lot of resemblance to the institution I studied in my church history classes.
If the church members were all so exemplary, who did Ellen White write all those testimonies to? Were they all members of some other denomination? When the saints met in Minneapolis in November of 1888, they seemed to have some serious disagreements. So much so that later Mrs. White said that a number of individuals needed to confess their wrong doing.
The church is, was, and will remain filled with imperfect human beings. People like you and me. It was never so perfect– as someone has said, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” C.S. Lewis wrote that “The past is as much a product of the imagination as is the future.”
Now, this can be discouraging to contemplate. The church is always going to be “weak and defective.” Satan will do some of his dirtiest deeds there. So why, if I were 25 years old, would I want to be part of such an organization?
Because the church isn’t only weak and defective. It is also the theater of grace, the avenue to hope for lost and hurting people. Yes, in the church I have met some of the most despicable human beings it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. Nauseating self-appointed saints full of pious posturing. . . .but enough. If you’ve spent much time in the church, you have your own disappointments.
But I have also met some of the dearest saints, some of the most treasured friends, and witnessed the power of grace in my life, and the lives of others. . . in the very same church.
One of my heroes in Ben Franklin (my only son is named Benjamin). And his remarks about the U.S. Constitution, of which he was a signatory, mirror my sentiments about the church:
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them . . . .Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. . . .
There are things that go on in the church of which I do not approve, but I remain within it because I see no better alternatives, and I am not sure that it is not the best. . . .
This may seem like faint praise, but no human institution can really merit much more. No one will be saved because their name is on the books, and no doubt more than a few will be lost because of things experienced in the church. But I also believe that the opportunity is available to build relationships with God and with others in the church that will enrich us for eternity. The opportunity. . . .no more. But that is more than enough for me.