Tag Archives: religion

Thanks, Twitter (2013 ed.)—Part 1

The people I’ve met on Twitter have been offering up 140-character jolts of wisdom, insight, and provocation all year long. I don’t follow all of them but they’ve intersected with my network and contributed to my thinking regardless.

I’ve broken down the compilation into 3 categories:

  1. Seeing the Real: on religion, spirituality, morality, and the big picture;
  2. Evolving Deliberately: on growing up, self-evaluating, improving, and moving beyond one’s personal status quo;
  3. Changing the World: on social development, justice, activism, politics, and progress.

Check out Part 2 and Part 3 as well, and bookmark them to review in your quiet time and affirm or argue with them then. I’ll be filing each compilation post on my Resources page.

Thanks, Twitter! And happy new year to you all.
—@mackenzian


1. Seeing The Real

Her church dean read the parable of the vineyard. And the children at Vacation Bible School protested the rules of the game.

“Grace is not attractive,” she thought. “It’s not fair!” [Watch the video.]

Once upon a time, I shared Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability and shame with some relatives. The blowback I got in return was epic.

I may never know whether they were reacting to the content. Or to her casual self-effacement. Or to her language (the Work of the People site flags this clip with a “language warning”).

Some respondents thought her talk profane, as if there is anything in the universe more sacred than the vulnerable, intentional connection of two made in the image of God.

And dismissing her could even have been a proxy for dismissing me, the niece who refused shame and preferred integrity. I don’t know.

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz's Painting "The Outsider"

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz’s Painting “The Outsider”

But listening to “Grace isn’t attractive” today made me wonder if the blowback wasn’t about any of these things; if instead it was a kind of resistance to what Brown points to here: what’s “fair” and what’s “just,” who earns rights to be “in the circle” or defined “out,” and who gets to “own” the group and keep others from messing it up…

Fundamentalist religion has very strong ideas about this—about fairness, justice, and the boundaries of good and deviant. It also resists and shuts down challenges to those ideas, regardless of their source. It can’t stand the idea that maybe it isn’t the gatekeeper and maybe its understanding isn’t the measure.

If you’ve ever read one of the parables attributed to Jesus and completely disagreed with the punchline of the story, you’ll understand what Brown is talking about when she says: “It’s not fair! I still don’t get it; I still don’t like it! I like stuff you can earn.”

Grace is polarizing. It’s horrific. And it’s exactly what we need in a culture that’s been stripped of it.

The Progressive Adventist and the Surveilled Mind

“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”—Walter Cronkite cited by former U.S. Ambassador Charles A. Ray, 2010

“What is to save our schools from control of this kind [religious control]? Will constitutional provisions do it? They are at the mercy of the people. Nothing will do it but the belief in the minds of the American people that the State has no concern with things spiritual, and when they do believe that, there is no danger. There is no safety except in an enlightened public opinion, based on individual intelligence. When we have that, we have all we ever can get.” —George Hoadly in Minor et al. vs Board of Education of Cincinnati et al. (1870), cited by Alonzo T. Jones,1889

This year’s news has included several stories on political surveillance including two United States surveillance programs (the National Security Agency’s PRISM and X-Keyscore) and the US’ sponsorship of the United Kingdom’s signal intelligence agency, Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). Inspired by these stories and the recurring conundrum of academic freedom in faith-based institutions, I’ve been thinking a lot about privacy, secrecy, censorship, contemporary or retrospective surveillance, and how each of these operate in interpersonal relationships, religious and professional organizations, and the national security conversation.

One of my current reads is Janna Malamud Smith’s Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (2003). First released in 1997, five years before the US’ domestic terrorism watershed, Private Matters explores the evolution of the personal realm and Western concepts of privacy; the still-shifting impacts of talk, tabloid, and reality television on our expectations of privacy, and how privacy violations affect people psychologically and relationally in the moment and over time.

Four States of Privacy

Citing Alan Westin’s Privacy and Freedom, Malamud Smith describes privacy’s four constituent states: solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy (pp. 37-55). Solitude, she says, permits complete relaxation and self-exploration apart from others. It’s a state in which one can engage one’s own body and psyche without translating either into forms that others can apprehend or evaluate.

Anonymity creates a bubble of free expression in the context of a group—such as “a walker in a city, a member in a crowd.” Thanks to internet comments and the modern phenomenon of trolling, we have come to associate anonymity with “expression without consequence” or sociopathic efforts to goad or control others in a given space. However, as Westin and Malamud Smith describe it, anonymity allows people to temporarily retreat from conventional norms and the restrictions and/or shame that may be linked to them. Anonymity can thus shelter the abused as well as their abusers: while an anonymous abuser may be free to cause others pain, an anonymous survivor may use their invisibility to vent anger or grief that their community would otherwise discourage.

Reserve is a state of restraint that a person exercises when around others who know him or her. It creates some distance between who people are, what they perceive of each other, and what they mutually consent to discuss: “Our state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience. We set aside our immediate perceptions, sometimes our frankest opinions—preserving them (and often us) for the future. Reserve is a house with glass walls, but no one mentions it” (p. 47, emphasis supplied). Examples of reserve include retiring to one’s den or using headphones or reading materials to block out other passengers on public transportation. What counts as “reserve” varies by culture and era, and in excess it can lead to isolation and uncertainty. Malamud Smith describes reserve as a necessary field for the ground of intimacy, the fourth privacy state.

Photo: Two male lions lie next to each other. Their foreheads touch.Intimacy provides for relaxation and mutual knowing with others. It is a state of engagement, interaction, and explicit revelation: “The heart of intimacy, its essence, is that in it one comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person… [This] expression is inevitably limited and incomplete” (p. 53). Malamud Smith argues that this “chosen closeness” is also lessened by publicity.

Writing Beyond the Private

The productive acts of teaching, presenting, and writing all push communicators out from private spaces, through an intimate zone in which peers speak only to peers, and into the public arena. Public communication and less private communication thus expand the reach and potential influence of new ideas and emerging conversations: they allow people who would otherwise be separated from each other to connect and access mutual conversation. Creating and participating in less private or public communication spaces is especially valuable for demographics that can’t easily find each other through pre-existing networks offline or face-to-face.

For example, I was once a member of a large public internet forum aimed at Black Seventh-day Adventists. (The site closed about 4 years ago.) Most active members were African-American or Latin@, some were Black and from the Caribbean or United Kingdom, and a few members were White and from North America or Europe. We ranged in age from early 20s through late 50s, and spanned the full family life spectrum during our time together. Most of us were also still active in local Adventist congregations but had found them cool or hostile to questions and stifling of curiosity. Even though the majority of members only knew each other through the forum, we co-created a space of respectful free association and bonded over conversations about our families, faith, beliefs, church life, current affairs, and experiences with the denomination. Eventually, some members also met up offline, during vacations, at regional conferences, or at General Conference sessions.

The forum I shared with my friends was an indeterminate, semi-public space beyond Westin and Malamud Smith’s intimate zone. Such a space might take shape around people who know each other enough to reveal and invite conversation about their inner thoughts—more conversation, certainly, than they would invite in an average Sabbath School class. So a less private space has features of intimacy’s “chosen closeness.” But it is also public in that it takes place in physical or virtual territory that anyone could access, monitor, bookmark, or lurk in. In that kind of space, the four states of privacy may be intermingled or absent. In addition, content consumers often assume a public-sphere level of entitlement to respond whether they’ve established a relationship with the writer or demonstrated understanding of what’s been shared. It’s an odd admixture of norms and expectations.

I wouldn’t have found or entered that Adventist forum at all had it not been publicly accessible. Other members have since said that they wouldn’t have shared so freely had the site required them to use their legal names rather than pseudonyms. By insisting on a censure-free space and allowing for the reserve of a pseudonym, we built a zone in which members could thoroughly dialogue about beliefs and religio-socio-political concerns, building trust through conversation and debate until their pseudonyms became nicknames or were no longer needed. By contrast, on other sites where people are required to use their legal names and mix their social and professional circles in artificially flat ways, I’ve heard users cite two feelings as reasons for speaking a certain way or not speaking at all: surveillance and inhibition.

Surveillance Culture Explored

The internet and our information/revelation culture combine to make more content more public, and once-private-now-publicized content exposes creators to personal or professional consequences that private content never would have. I’ve wondered how these shifts impact how people know themselves, how they evaluate their relationships with others, and how they determine how they’ll participate in public conversation, and how they cope with the fact that increasing visibility means increasing the possibility of others watching and taking action against them.

That possibility has significant effects. Neuroscientists and psychologists note that mass surveillance heightens stress and anxiety; reduces mental well-being, productivity/performance, and creativity; promotes distrust between an “us” that’s distinguished from “them”; and undermines authority influence. If these impacts scale from individual monitoring up through institutional and social surveillance, what does a climate that surveils members and punishes non-conformity cost our religious community?

As an Adventist, I reflected on some of the major church community stories I’ve seen unfold in just the last four years: Science teachers coming under conference observation and armchair review because constituency members complain about their curriculum… University professors and administrators being fired after a recording of their off-duty socializing is distributed to supervisors without their knowledge or consent… A minister losing his church membership and credentials when named as a sexual abuser on another continent, his local congregation and conference struggle to manage the spotlight and expectations about new information for a year afterwards… Another pastor asked to resign because of his interfaith community work and service to sexual minorities… School and college teachers being told not to patronize a documentary screening after hours while at a national conference… Church administrators discouraged from attending a different screening near denominational headquarters—and the palpable repression among those who did quietly attend generated the weirdest “question, answer, awkward silence” post-screening session I’ve ever participated in.

As I recalled these recent stories, I was reluctant to characterize surveillance and threatened punishment as native to or consistent with Adventism. Yet there they are in our recent community record. Some of Ellen White’s “I was shown” material from the late 19th and early 20th Century features references to “Brother ____,” “Sister ____,” and “Elder ______”; comments on individuals’ thoughts, lifestyle habits, relationships, and conversations publicized in White’s letters are now part of the 9-volume Testimonies to the Church series and other compiled White books. Tales told about dominant leaders and doctrinal dissenters during the church messenger’s lifetime were folded into her council and presented as evidence for or against the perspectives under discussion.

At the same time, Ellen White grasped how surveillance could harm the Adventist movement and wrote about that too. In 1888, for instance, a US Senator tried and failed to pass a federal Sunday sacredness law; Adventists, of course, were concerned and sent a conference president to testify against the bill. A few years later, White advised then-GC president O.A. Olsen to tell Adventists in the Southern states not to work on Sundays. White hoped to minimize social opposition to Adventism: were Adventists to be seen working on Sundays, she wrote, “the colored people [sic] everywhere would be placed in a position of surveillance and under cruel treatment to the white people that would be no less than slavery… If the colored people are in any way educated to work on Sunday, there will be unsparing, merciless oppression brought upon them.”

White and the church leaders she wrote to could see how societal surveillance and suspicion of Adventists would degrade relationships between local believers and their neighbors: it would focus an intense disapproval and disproportionate harm on those deemed “outsiders.” Well, at least church leaders had this sensitivity when the church’s external reputation was at stake: their record of relating to individuals within the church was not so clean.

Surveillance Culture and Intellectual Freedom

Xkcd cartoon of 6 views of privacy: philosopher, crypto nut, conspiracist, nihilist, exhibitionist, sage.

“Privacy Opinions” (c) xkcd.com

Where does this leave a progressive Adventist today? What kind of spiritual, political, and intellectual context does she have to work in? How can a progressive think, write, and explore freely in an culture that accommodates top-down monitoring, suspicion, restriction, informants, and backlash for unpopular or contrarian material, all in the name of preserving church unity?

The Adventist statement on Theological and Academic Freedom and Accountability (1987) governs staff at denominational schools and influences the academic freedom statements that institutions develop for themselves.1 The statement defines academic freedom as “freedom to pursue knowledge and truth in the area of the individuals [sic] specialty” and states that “the right to private opinion is a part of the human heritage as creatures of God” (emphasis supplied). It further establishes “certain limits” on public expression, and makes clear that freedom of conscience is (a) to be subjected to denominational loyalty and “the harmony of the church community,” and (b) to be judged by denominational consensus. According to the statement, those who vary from “the historic doctrinal position of the Church [defined by the General Conference in session]” are expected to “exercise discretion in presenting concepts which might threaten church unity and the effectiveness of church action.” Researchers are required to conduct their work with reference to their “faith” and “Christian ethics,” and teachers must advance “the worldview described in the opening paragraph of this document.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church isn’t the only religious group to operate a private educational system. Nor is it the only academic system that has to negotiate responsibilities to enrolled students, professional staff, denominational sponsors, private donors, and occasionally disgruntled petition-signing stakeholders. Like its peer religions, Adventism holds the right to organize its system exactly as it pleases, and United States religious liberty law recognizes that right.

Stipulating these institutional rights, I question whether the church’s Theological and Academic Freedom statement provides a context that supports the range of information-developing and knowledge-making that progressive members are motivated to do. How can a progressive Adventist expend energy on pushing beyond the known if his environment is designed to bottleneck new ideas, judge them by their potential to be controversial, and accept them (only?) if consonant with the administrative “unity” of an international faith group?

In such a climate, progressives may feel compelled to withdraw from the public spaces of writing, teaching, and speaking, and to exercise a great deal of prudence, reserve, and caution when they venture out at all. As noted earlier, prudence, reserve, and caution are traits native to the third state of privacy that Malamud Smith described in Private Matters. But they aren’t traits naturally paired with progressive energy: they don’t advance a spirit of curiosity or discovery. Again, I’m not arguing that progressive individuals can’t work or teach in a conservative context; of course they can and do and have. I’m only wondering if that context is ideal for them or allows them to fully exercise the progressive gift.

I’d love to hear more from self-identified progressives about the contexts they feel would elicit their best work. I expect some disagreement within this community on how to move ahead, but I don’t believe that freedom to agree with what has already been decided is worth setting off the firecrackers for: as Cronkite said, “There is no such thing as a little freedom.”

Increasing Support for Progressive Minds

A Harvard Business Review column recently argued that it’s the context around an individual that catalyzes or represses his or her baseline abilities: plucking successful people out of environments that helped them thrive doesn’t mean transplanting the successes they were able to create there.

In this article I’ve suggested that Adventism’s knowledge-making culture isn’t a supportive environment for progressives. Given the denomination’s belief structure and history, we might say this is a reasonable conclusion, but the big question for young progressives deciding how to serve their church or if they’ll stay with their church is whether the current context of surveillance and inhibition is inevitable. After all, what’s especially Adventist about introducing private conversations as evidence against members in church or university board meetings? What’s Adventist about reading and evaluating writers in terms of their apparent orthodoxy or supposed satanic deception? Such responses to conversation or scholarship may be authentic expressions of who we are, but I don’t think they’re essential to who we are.

In the last decade, I’ve gone beyond Adventism to learn how to approach progressive thought and scholarship because I didn’t find strong models at work within the borders of the denomination. I found models among Friends (Quakers) so committed to “the light that enlightens every man” and “that of God in everyone” that their bible studies invite participants to assess our personal experience of the bible’s stories and the insights they inspire in us. I also found other models among post-Adventists and never-been-Adventists who were practiced in listening, not merely hearing to formulate rebuttal, and who could therefore create powerfully supportive growth and innovation spaces for me and others like me. These approaches may not be Adventist, but I am still Adventist because of them.

Riffing on the now-clichéd “Be the change you want to see,” director Vikram Gandhi (in character as Sri Kumaré) has said, “Be the strange you want to see.” Progressive Adventism’s strange is not only in the structural or interpretive changes that progressives suggest to the mainstream church. 2 The strange of Progressive Adventism also lies in the fact that progressivism really is foreign to the reactive fundamentalism that has dominated Adventism in 30-year cycles since the 1920s (1920s-1950s, 1980s-present). 3 Many of us like to say “I don’t worship the book; I worship the God of the book!” In practice, however, we are slow to explore territory that the book has not mapped and did not anticipate. An inhibited progressivism cannot teach us how to explore well, and perhaps exploring is something that we progressives need to relearn before we can teach it or share it with others. I don’t know for sure that it’s possible for us to expand the Adventist status quo meaningfully across those boundaries where it’s now constricted. But I am willing to experiment with other progressive minds so we can find out.


1. The statement does not apply to lay members or non-employees as such, but because much Adventist scholarship is tied to denominations paid ministers, teachers, ministry departments, colleges, and universities, this statement and its companion “affirmation” at the Adventist Theological Society both influence the denomination’s scholarship culture.

2. Progressive initiatives may include substantively reviewing all of the contemporary church’s spiritual gifts, how we recognize them through ordination, and how we deploy them in congregations and other local contexts; developing a fact-based and humane approach to sex, gender, sexuality, marriage, and family; generating new epistemologies, modes of inquiry, and wisdom-building tools; resuming and extending Richard Rice’s 1980s work on open theism; evaluating how our bias toward literacy and linear argument influence both how we read the ancients’ oral narratives and render our own; and exploring what Adventism might learn from integral or holist philosophy as we re-associate science and faith and restore coherence to our emphasis on individual health and piety, our contributions to the societies we’re members of, and our stewardship of Earth.

3. I broadly agree with Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart’s reading of this timeline; see their 2006 study of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Seeking a Sanctuary.

We are against violence in all forms, and we envision a world of communities that together embrace the diversity of the human family and live justly and peaceably with all creation. —Sarah Thompson, Christian Peacemaker Teams

Alternatives to religious force exist: Christian Peacemaker Teams is one of them and could stand a whole lot more attention and engagement. Read more about this group and their nonviolence work worldwide: Embodying Peace, Transforming Violence: An Interview with Sarah Thompson.

(via Ryan J. Bell)

Faith and Freedom II: Beyond Force

Big Idea: Force and anarchy aren’t the only two cookies our communities can bake. Given all the theories of freedom that religious institutions have produced over the centuries, they should be skilled at cultivating and honoring free choice, not the least skilled of all and not merely average.

At the end of my last post on this topic, I wrote:

I was once taught that the end-game of this human experiment was that right-being and right-doing would be intuitive and internally driven. If that’s more than a pipe dream, shouldn’t religious institutions be the most skilled at honoring and nurturing free conscience and persuasion and teaching all of us to do the same? Shouldn’t they be leading freedom, not limiting it?

The balance of faith and free conscience in religious communities and educational institutions is a recurring debate. Perhaps the biggest mental block isn’t that our definitions of academic freedom vary or that various groups hold mutually exclusive visions of how much denominations should influence schools. Maybe the biggest mental block is that we have unchallenged assumptions about human nature and capacity, and we rarely expose these assumptions to daylight.

Hugo van der Goes's Fall of Man and the Lamentation (1470-1475)

Hugo van der Goes, “The Fall of Man and the Lamentation” (1470-1475) | Google Art Project

Seventh-day Adventist policy about the church’s influence on its colleges and universities through accreditors and conference-level constituents seems to be based on these premises:

We don’t seem to allow for presenting good with sound reasons and without emotional or authority manipulation, though even this allowance assumes that the good we propose has a solid basis to start with.

A system based on the three assumptions listed above has no reason to wait for amazing grace to draw untrustworthy people into a higher moral order, or to leave compliance to the chance and vagary of the Spirit that blows as it will.

So, from universities to international organizations, the religious institutions I’ve observed rarely rely on cooperative rhetoric or community design principles to inspire people to good. [1] Both are used, but neither is indispensable to these institutions’ work or use of authority. Students, staff, or members cannot look in every direction and see trust-based relationships that enliven them. Specific rules emerging from that low-trust context help to keep the system functional, but not flourishing. And alternative modes break through on a small scale from time to time.

I don’t see alternatives to force-and-sanction at work consistently in mainstream society. I see more on the edges, and organizations like the Fetzer Institute, Ode, and Bread for the Journey support and signal-boost examples in their areas. By contrast, the mainstream offers increasing monitoring and multi-system limitation and control, and whether by active lobbying or tepid objections, religion is complicit. We teach that we are “the light of the world” and promote a gospel of grace and mutual submission rather than empire and power-over, yet operate our institutions using “the master’s tools.” So if grace and mutual submission do resonate for students and members now, it has to be in spite of us and not because of us.

A minister recently argued that there are so many things “the world” can do better than “the Church,” so many things from institutional management to community outreach, but modeling the value of grace is the only thing the Church can do better. I don’t know whether that’s true. But if it is true that “the Church” (i.e. us) is supposed to be the planet’s functioning illustration of Christ at work, then my consternation is only heightened. If we are that illustration, then all of our movable parts need restructuring to support our Christ-ing. We can’t get results we don’t build for. And if youth don’t learn alternatives to force and authority-sanctioning from their time in our religious educations, where should we send them to learn? If organized religion drops a ball it claims was made for its hands, who will pick it up?

Three columns and a round tin of M&M and chocolate chip cookies.

Credit: Jennifer Jacobson

I believe in and fully support a healthy, diverse civil society, and I contend that religious organizations are part of civil society but not its master. We have much to contribute to civil society’s common-wealth and will first have to release the urge to dominate it and its people. I think much anti-religious rhetoric is rooted in our peers looking for proof that we-the-religious have released the urge to dominate. Perhaps they’re not yet seeing much.

The burden’s on us to prove our intentions in word, act, and relationship: we all have a lot of cookies to make and eat together.


[1] My current congregation is an exception to this pattern, and that is why I became a member.

From Vows to Action Part II: A New Commitment

This series was originally published on the Journey Fellowship website. In Part 1 of the series, we explored the vows that Seventh-day Adventists assent to as part of their baptismal ceremony. The vows shape members’ sense of place within the denomination and the wider Christian Church; they also serve valid institutional functions. What definitions lie beneath these vows? What lies beyond them?

Defining the Church and Building the Gate

How a tradition defines itself and situates itself on the religious landscape matters: ecclesiology hammered out in seminaries has real, relational implications off-campus. Perhaps the Adventist covenant focus on the denomination’s distinctive beliefs is rooted in the fact that unlike the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopal, and mainline denominations, Seventh-day Adventism doesn’t represent itself as a facet of the universal church. Instead it represents itself as “the remnant church of bible prophecy”—the part of the whole that emerged after multi-millennial apostasy.

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz's Painting "The Outsider"

From Susan Morgan Ostapkowicz’s Painting “The Outsider”

The “remnant” model surfaces explicitly in 3 of the 13 Adventist vows (8, 9a, and 13), suggesting that within the Adventist doctrinal context, one of the most important things new believers could adopt is an identity distinct from their peers beyond the walls. The individual lifestyle vows (6, 7, 9b, and 10) further highlight the differences between people inside the church and those outside it: the remnant church is a micro-community and has its own norms.

Whereas the 11th vow is a catch-all for any belief or lifestyle practice that the remnant church may teach, the 12th points to the baptism ritual itself. The final vow references “people of every nation, race, and language,” but only indicates that many kinds of people may be represented in the remnant. It doesn’t assume that the entire world is part of the Garden of God. [2] So it makes sense that the church’s vows are inward-focused. It also makes sense that as church members glimpse a world beyond these limits, this 13-vow covenant won’t adequately support them.

Eric Moon participates in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), a tradition that distrusts creedal religion in the same way that the first few generations of Seventh-day Adventists did. In a June-July article for the Friends Journal, he and other Quakers explore their community’s collected experiential wisdom and how it varies from fixed formulations.

“Human beings need words to communicate. But when we codify, make creeds, and canonize a few words, we limit our vision, as well as the possibility of God’s work through us. Walking away from such deified virtues, where might we go instead? What if we were to start with fresh, personal experiences and then shared them in a manner that was as mediated as little as possible by advance expectations?” —Eric Moon

Living Life in the Garden of God

Close-up photo of pine tree conesI talked with 12 people recently about their baptismal vow experiences. I’m still drawn to the concept of developing covenants in community that help move individuals and groups towards action and not just towards static opinions. (I’ll admit: in the last 17 years, I’ve developed some fixed beliefs and would not join in covenant with a congregation that did not share them. Fortunately, said beliefs are few!)

Several of the people I spoke with did not find their once-vowed covenants relevant to their spirituality today. So I reflected on which commitments I could agree to that would support my active journey now:

  1. I’m grateful for this body. As an expression of gratitude, I will learn what supports my whole-soul health, and I will choose each day with respect for my life.
  2. I accept that I have an irrevocable connection to the rest of the human family regardless of sex or gender, ethnicity, social class, nationality, politics, or religion. Because of this common bond, I won’t be silent in the face of dehumanization or participate in the dehumanization of others. I will uphold relationships and ethics that advance peace, justice, and grace.
  3. I share the planet with my neighbors and will not escape our common ecological fate. For our sake and our descendants’ sake, I’ll consider the sustainability of my lifestyle and shape my daily actions with respect for our collective well-being.
  4. I expect to grow in grace and knowledge—just as the early believers did. I take responsibility for my spiritual development and agree to continue to study, learn, and grow as long as I have the opportunity and the means.
  5. Accepting the principle of the Vine and the branches, I understand that I’ll grow in relationship with others and not in isolation. I will guard and honor the relationships I develop in this congregation, and, if called to a different community in the future, I’ll offer this one ample notice to adjust and fill in the gaps where I served. I value the work we do together and the joy we share together, and will not casually abandon them.
  6. I’ve studied this community’s intentions for relationship and service, and I support them. I will work with my peers and volunteer leaders to identify and use my unique gifts to advance this community’s work and improve our contributions to this world.
  7. I make this agreement freely, in faith, and without compulsion or fear.

I also drafted some more explicitly theistic comments, but began to wonder what it could mean for a faith community to be able to thrive with members who are no longer engaged in a religious life. The Unitarian Universalist tradition is one that has come to include both religious and non-religious people; Quaker meetings also sometimes include non-religious people, and I’m learning from adherents how that works in practice.

John Spong writes in his latest book on the gospel of John that “While God may not be subject to change, the human perception of God is… God cannot be possessed, nor can the ‘word’ of God ever be reduced to propositional statements.” As I read accounts of the life of Christ and the early believers in Acts and the epistles, I notice how much a living faith can vary from official religious channels, at times extending their teachings and at others overruling them to support the healing of the people. I see that when believers practice not “quenching the Spirit,” wisdom draws us beyond the walls of the familiarly systematic and helps us to grow. Perhaps we need new commitments for such a life.

Tell me in the comments: If you were to write “vows” for where you are in your journey today, what would they include? And what would they inspire in you?

“To learn from our testimonies, to make them our own, we perhaps can meet them again, not quickly via a short list but as John Woolman did: in human faces, on foot, walking.” —Eric Moon


[1] I asked my network about their baptismal covenants and whether these covenants had shaped their faith journeys. Read what they told me.
[2] Seventh-day Adventist General Conference sessions are held every five years. At the end of the session, church members from every nation-state that has an Adventist presence march into the stadium in national garb and holding their country’s flag. The Parade of Nations is an incredibly powerful visual that highlights the 13th vow’s reference to people of every nation, race, and language participating in the church. It also generates some friendly national pride among church members and builds a sense of community for those within the denominational fold.

From Vows to Action Part I: The Agreements We Make

This series was originally published on the Journey Fellowship website. Thanks, Kymone Hinds, for the opportunity to write!

Is it possible to geek out over church liturgy? It is, and I did it a few weeks ago. Early in June, I came across this vow from the baptismal covenant reading in the Book of Common Prayer:

"Will you strive for justice & peace among all people, & respect the dignity of every human being?" —Book of Common Prayer #baptism

I loved it, and not just because of what it said but also because it was so unlike any of the vows I was invited to assent to when I was baptized.

Vowing Adherence the Seventh-day Adventist Way

Although I was raised participating in a Seventh-day Adventist congregation, I joined the denomination officially when I was 13 years old, after 9 months of weekly home study with my church’s senior minister. During this study process, I incrementally read and reported to the minister on a thin white book that outlined the church’s then-27 fundamental beliefs. The outlines included biblical references and paragraph explanations, and paired the explanations with quotes from church founder Ellen G. White and from the SDA Bible commentary. At the back of the book, and read back to us in an “examination” on baptism day, was the following list of 13 vows:

  1. Do you believe in God the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit?
  2. Do you accept the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of men, and believe that through faith in His shed blood men are saved from sin and its penalty?
  3. Renouncing the world and its sinful ways, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour, and do you believe that God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven your sins and given you a new heart?
  4. Do you accept by faith the righteousness of Christ, recognizing Him as your Intercessor in the heavenly sanctuary, and do you claim His promise to strengthen you by His indwelling Spirit, so that you may receive power to do His will?
  5. Do you believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, and that it constitutes the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian?
  6. Do you accept the Ten Commandments as still binding upon Christians; and is it your purpose, by the power of the indwelling Christ, to keep this law, including the fourth commandment, which requires the observance of the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath of the Lord?
  7. Is the soon coming of Jesus the blessed hope in your heart, and are you determined to be personally ready to meet the Lord, and to do all in your power to witness to His loving salvation, and by life and word to help others to be ready for His glorious appearing?
  8. Do you accept the Biblical teaching of spiritual gifts, and do you believe that the gift of prophecy in the remnant church is one of the identifying marks of that church?
  9. Do you believe in God’s Remnant Church, and is it your purpose to support the church by your tithes and offerings, your personal effort, and influence?
  10. Do you believe that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that you are to honor God by caring for your body, avoiding the use of that which is harmful, abstaining from all unclean foods, from the use, manufacture, or sale of alcoholic beverages, the use, manufacture, or sale of tobacco in any of its forms for human consumption, and from the misuse of, or trafficking in, narcotics or other drugs?
  11. Knowing and understanding the fundamental Bible principles as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is it your purpose, by the grace of God, to order your life in harmony with these principles?
  12. Do you accept the New Testament teaching of baptism by immersion, and do you desire to be so baptized as a public expression of your faith in Christ and in the forgiveness of your sins?
  13. Do you believe that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church of Bible prophecy, Rev. 12:17, and that people of every nation, race, and language are invited and accepted into its fellowship? Do you desire membership into this church?

Understand that the only “institutionally correct” answer to these thirteen questions is “yes”! But I haven’t heard the full list used at baptisms for several years now. The congregations I’ve worshiped with seem to prefer a shorter version that focuses less on consensus dogma and more on individuals’ belief in Jesus and intent to support the church.

Glimpsing a World Beyond the Walls

Line drawing of 8 human figures of varying ages: communityWhen I looked up the other covenantal vows in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), I found that they include consensus dogma about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, evangelism, and church life like the dogma in the Adventist list. The BCP vow on striving for justice and peace is one of two that shifts the focus of the celebrant beyond the walls of the church or frames other people as more than potential church members: the other vow invites the celebrant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” Not one of the Adventist church’s 13 vows challenges baptismal candidates to do this.

“In my opinion the church is far more enamored with knowing doctrines than with knowing Jesus. The church therefore uses this approach in its ‘evangelism’—if it can get people to assent to 28 creedal statements, they’re ready for baptism and membership.” —Ken McFarland

These new-member covenants are ubiquitous across Christendom, so they clearly serve a purpose; McFarland describes them as a creed-support tool; I’ve described them above as a gate-keeping device. For me, this is not a slur: organizations legitimately use entry initiations to monitor their membership. I only wonder if the vows could become more than that.

What if the Seventh-day Adventist church’s baptismal vows weren’t designed to secure belief compliance or encourage members’ avoidance of certain behaviors? What if they were about more than doctrinal boundary-setting, if they went beyond intellectual constructs by offering candidates a new frame for life? What if they inspired new ways for us to act and live in the world? Could they be more relevant to believers 10, 20, 30, and 40 years post-baptism if they did?

Tell me in the comments: If you experienced adult baptism, did your ceremony include vows? If so, did those vows shape your spirituality? How?