In heaven, we the saints from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue will all stand together before the throne and before the Lamb, Jesus Christ (Rev 7:9; 5:9). We will be one kingdom of priests to our God.
Before that glorious day, however, we are still sojourners upon this earth, where borders and boundaries divide us into many different tongues, nations, and cultures. Perhaps the most difficult feature to understand that divides us, particularly as a family of common faith, is our so-called race, or ethnicity. Manifested through merely a part of our external features, our ethnic features are not in themselves a culture. In the United States and other places throughout history, one’s inherited phenotype has tragically been used to define the relative value of a person. The institution of slavery marks the cruelty with which one human can treat another.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was birthed amid one of the largest civil wars in our world’s history, in large part owing directly to the issue of slavery and its relationship to one’s phenotype. As history would have it, the United States would shortly thereafter become the most powerful nation on earth, as well as the center from which the Three Angels’ Messages would emanate throughout the world.
In the ensuing years, even though the institution of slavery was officially abolished, it pleased the adversary of the saints to continue inspiring new ways to justify a permanent division among humankind on the basis of phenotype, or color. The theory of evolution represents one of these myriad ways, telling us that we don’t even have a recent common origin in an historical Adam and Eve and that we are not inflicted with a fallen nature, inclined toward sin and animosity toward one another.
For another 100 years after the Civil War, full legal equality was not yet granted or recognized throughout our country. Unfortunately, our Adventist church structure, developed in the aftermath of the American Civil War, would reflect the ethnic tensions that helped lead to the war in the first place. Neither most whites nor many blacks felt fully comfortable worshiping with each other in some parts of our country. Furthermore, and most importantly, irrespective of any given individual’s feelings, worshiping together became problematic when we attempted to reach out publicly to people in communities that held the strongest feelings. It was deemed necessary at the time, for pragmatic reasons, to organize separate churches to better reach out to a population that still harbored strong prejudices. Thus the regional conferences were born, and, in the eyes of most, did aid the early Adventist cause.
This week’s article here on Compass is the first of a sample of contemporary perspectives on the role and utility of the regional conferences. They touch on the history of how they came to be, as well as the purpose of ecclesiastical church structures. They also point toward some of the pragmatic issues that are involved in the question: “Should we step forward and unite now?”
There are different perspectives on the regional conferences, and whether they remain or not. Some possible futures have been charted for the Adventist Church in the United States in response to this question. Most of these futures indicate that unifying would be wise for the non-regional conferences in the North American Division (NAD)! At present, it appears that the membership of the regional conferences will overtake the “white” conferences within the next 50 years.
A recent town hall hosted by the Allegheny East Conference brought together a variety of viewpoints on this topic. Without detailing the issues here, suffice it to say that not all African Americans wish to abandon the regional conferences, for a variety of pragmatic reasons. For example, whether or not American mainstream culture (or any given subculture) is more bigoted now than in past decades and centuries, the mere fact that the past 15 years have seen a rise in ethnic separation in our cities grants one pause. Whites and blacks were beginning to integrate, but that progress has slowed and even reversed itself. Thus, ethnic segregation is still a very real reality that evangelistic efforts must take into account.
Notwithstanding the pragmatic and structural elements standing in the way of unifying, it appears clear that the younger generation of Adventists and Americans (who are ever more diverse, both ethnically and culturally) see a problem with staying separate and have a strong desire to integrate. Some consider this a central issue demonstrating before the world the power of the gospel. Others do not. The question, then, is what of our future? It is the hope that these articles can spur forward conversation on this issue.