Melbourne’s Prahran neighbourhood may well be the world’s epicentre of hipsterism. Should Ned Kelly get his breath back* and wander over to Prahran from the Old Melbourne Gaol, he would fit in perfectly well—assuming he isn’t wearing the helmet. And not just Kelly. J N Andrews and James White would look very in vogue stopping by to have their beards trimmed at Greville Street’s “Brother Wolf Barber Shop and Shave Parlor”.
Unity requires us to focus on the essential and have the humility to accept diversity in everything else.
I was in Prahran on New Year’s Eve with my beautiful wife on a very enjoyable little wedding anniversary celebration. As we walked down Chapel Street I got a kick out of watching all the J N Andrews clones walk by—anyone for a mission trip to Switzerland? All the facial hair brought to mind a friend who recently proclaimed that no Adventist pastor should be allowed to sport a beard. It is, he said, unbecoming and unprofessional. Well then, we better not come recruiting for pastors in Prahran! It seemed an odd issue for my friend to take a stand on, so I ribbed him a little—reminding him of some rather prominent Christians with facial hair beginning with, well, you know who. But he wasn’t backing down. Shave off your beard or get off that pulpit. That was his message du jour.
And it’s not the only surprisingly strident message I’ve heard of late. Another friend recently posted on Facebook that if someone believes in full obedience to God’s law they should be kicked out of the Church. Seriously? Yet another friend, this one living overseas, told me he had just been banned from recruiting students at GYC because those kids are the “wrong type” of Adventists. All of these strike me as a great shame, as if we randomly chose 100 human beings from around the world, do you know how many would be Adventists? Zero. That’s right. It takes a random sample of 400 people to produce the likelihood that a single whole Adventist will be among them. We really are a tiny bunch—we don’t need to divide ourselves any further.
All this divisiveness comes out of our laudable desire for purity. However, the more points we believe others must share in order to achieve a level of acceptable purity, the lower the chance of achieving unity. But, ironically, unity is a sign of purity. Indeed, Jesus prayed, “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me” (John 17:23). Without unity there can be no purity.
So how can we achieve purity in unity without compromising our spiritual integrity? The trick is discerning between core beliefs on which we cannot compromise, and our opinions, prejudices and preferences, on which we can and should. The Lord originally gave 10 Commandments as the bedrock test of purity. Jesus simultaneously made the test more succinct and expansive: “love God with all your heart . . . and your neighbour as yourself.” Today we’ve unpacked those into 28 core beliefs.
I suggest that 28 is more than enough points on which to test purity. None of us need to add a 29th. Rather, we need to follow Paul’s advice in Colossians 2:16 and not judge each other on peripherals. Music styles, the role of women in church, what youth programs, which Adventist TV network—on all of it, and every other non-core matter, viva la difference. Unity requires us to focus on the essential and have the humility to accept diversity in everything else.
A few years ago I was speaking with an American academic about Roger Williams. “Remember,” she said, “Williams became so inflexible that he would only worship with his wife—and she probably wasn’t pure enough for his liking.” Williams’ conclusion that all churches are impure is, of course, right—they are after all, composed of fallible human beings like you and me. But as Christ established His church and prayed for its unity, disassociating from everyone else in order to get closer to Him seems, well, rather misguided doesn’t it?
Ellen White, reflecting on unity, noted: “Again and again the angel has said to me, ‘Press together, press together, be of one mind, of one judgement,’ Christ is the leader, and you are brethren; follow Him.”
Let’s be united on our core doctrines, accept our diversity on everything else and, more than anything, “press together” in 2016. Even if in so doing we risk coming in contact with some whiskers.
* For matters of life, death and resurrection refer to Fundamental 26.
James Standish is editor of Adventist Record.