The following is an adaptation of a recent response I made to a brother who’d shared a post on the above subject above. The brother is called Brother Kwame in this write-up, not his real name.
Dear Brother Kwame, I trust you are doing well. Brother, a few friends who read a post you shared recently contacted me. The post is entitled WHO IS AN UNBELIEVER. They wanted my view on your exposition, because they were rather worried about the position you had taken.
I thought it prudent to engage with you on the subject. First let me say that I appreciate your recent efforts at engaging the youth on social platforms. We need more of this. Second, for what it’s worth let me also say that I appreciate your mission-oriented tone and approach to answering that specific question. Indeed, I agree with your definition of an unbeliever in terms of the basic gospel; an unbeliever is one who does not accept the life, death and resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1 – 4) to be true, personally relevant or salvific/ ‘salvational’.
THE PLACE OF PRESENT TRUTH
However, I also believe that the specific articulation of the gospel changes over time, and expands to encompass increasing revelation of truth. This is, of course, where we draw the idea of present truth. It is on the basis of my assessment of the nature and implications of present truth that I disagree with your answer on a more general level. I believe present truth is the context within which we should deal with such questions, because as you know, Pastor, they often entail issues such as marriage, divorce, family relations, career decisions, and other critical life choices.
If we are to be clear in answering the question “does a person believe or not,” our answer, I think, must be based on the retort: “believe in what?” If in the gospel as it was known and proclaimed to the first-century audience, then yes, most mainstream Christian denominations constitute believing communities. But if in the gospel as expanded and amplified in our day (present truth), then not even all Adventists – like you rightly point out – believe.
I am not suddenly saying that non-Adventists will go to hell. I am saying however that they are unbelievers in present truth. Of course there will be many non-Adventists in heaven. The comprehensiveness of the investigative judgment assures us that anyone who makes it to heaven would have done so because of Christ, wherever they may have been on the truth ladder. I believe some of them will be Buddhists, others Muslims, etc. But are they believers in present truth?
A word from the Spirit of prophecy on present truth may help to clarify my point. Ellen White writes in answer to a question on inter-denominational marriage:
“Though the companion of your choice were in all other respects worthy (which he is not), yet he has not accepted THE TRUTH FOR THIS TIME; he is an UNBELIEVER, and you are forbidden of heaven to unite yourself with him” (5T.364).
Her context was 2 Corinthians 6:14. She takes judges the “unbelievers” in that text to be those who do not accept present truth, even though Paul directly referred to those who controverted the basic gospel as he had taught it to the Corinthians in the first century.
The view of the expanded gospel we call present truth is not one that consists of mere doctrinal additions as you seem to assert, but rather of a substantial and substantive amplification to the basic elements of the gospel. For example, or view of the immutability of the law has a bearing on the meaning and significance of Christ’s death. Our view of the Sabbath teaches us about the very meaning – and not just style – of worship. Our view of the nature of man has a bearing on the meaning of the eternity, mercy and compassion of God. Our view of the remnant has a bearing on the meaning of human society (if we remind the world of judgment) and indeed Christian community (if we call people back to the God of Sabbath, and away from papal Babylon). Our view of the Sanctuary has is normative for understanding the meaning of the life, death, resurrection and heavenly intercession of Christ. Our view on the second coming, different as it is from much of mainstream Christian theology, has a bearing on the implications of rejecting Christ; implications that are dangerously hidden by popular eschatology.
These are not trivial or peripheral issues in my view; they are definitive, and they serve to amplify the gospel as articulated in 1 Corinthians 15:1 – 4. Indeed, you will notice that the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ forms only one of our twenty-eight fundamental beliefs. Admittedly, some of them pertain more directly than others to the gospel. I would name among them the Sabbath, the Church, the Remnant and its Mission, Creation, Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary, and the Millennium and the End of Sin. These, you will notice, are the core elements of the Three Angels’ Messages, which are called the everlasting gospel. You will also notice that the Three Angels’ Messages are of wider scope than the gospel articulated in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. I believe they are called the everlasting gospel because they bear current relevance for the rest of Earth’s history.
WHAT ABOUT OPEN COMMUNION?
Some have cited our church’s policy on open communion as a sort of recognition that all Christians are to be regarded as believers. Like I earlier stated, I am not arguing against this general designation; I am only suggesting that present truth gives us a better context for addressing the contemporary issues that are often entailed in the question of who a believer is.
For example, while we wholeheartedly welcome all Christians to share in the communion without need for converting to Adventism, we do not permit them to participate in our pastoral ministry on such terms. And while we warmly speak of Muslims as our brothers and sisters in faith (a discussion for another day), we do not permit them to participate in the communion.
Clearly, there are common sense degrees of separation at play. One definition of religious brotherhood is not conducive to all situations and purposes. The rule of faith contained in 1 Corinthians 15:1 – 4 may be enough for fellowship in communion, but I’m arguing that it is not sufficient for union in marriage. Worshiping obstensibly the same God as Christians may make the Muslim a brother (again, another subject, another day), but it does not fit him for the Lord’s supper table.
Some have complained that to be so categorical about who an unbeliever is or is not is divisive. I concede that it is easy to become high-minded and assume that we are better than other Christians because of our privileged position as the remnant. This is to be regretted.
Let me make clear then that at least for me, the designation of ‘believer/unbeliever’, is strictly operational, and meaningful in only the context of separating between the complex claims and positions of denominations, as relates to relationships that involve necessary spiritual influence. Marriage is such a relationship for me, and pastoral ministry, as stated before, is another.
On the vast majority of issues, however, I find it wholly irrelevant to make this distinction. It just so happens that the minority issues tend to be rather critical ones.
ON UNFOUNDED LABELS AND ACTUAL DIVISIVENESS
Lastly, I’m not sure that your categorization of church communities is either correct or helpful. The labels liberal, ultra-conservative and conservative are all vague and imprecise terms that people use subjectively to describe others relative to themselves. This is exactly what you yourself do with your explanation of the terms, perhaps unconsciously. There is no absolute standard for measuring conservatism or liberalism. Labels have only created bitter division in the church, and closed people off from any form of meaningful dialogue on issues of disagreement.
By asserting that liberals and ultra-conservatives are not true Christians and will not go to heaven unless they repent, you appear to demonstrate the same lack of compassion and grace for the (apparently) erring, which you decry. This has to be true considering that the basis of your classification can only be subjective, and is certainly not biblical or forceful in any other way; you essentially create your own sin, accuse them of it, and find them guilty and in need of expiation. If there were a biblical or Spirit of Prophecy basis, it would be a different matter.
To conclude, I do not pretend to have settled the matter comprehensively or conclusively. Any attempt I make at it will include this humble admission that the question is more complex than meets the eye. I have only shared with you the current state of my thinking on the matter. I continue to contemplate and study it, for I can see that it has implications far beyond the temporal issues of life; it may hold the key to a holistic, compassionate and purposeful approach to mission in these last days.
Thank you for the opportunity to engage on this.