No doubt, you’ve read the headlines:
“The ordained minister who’s giving up God for a year…”
“Ex-Calif. pastor tries atheism for a year…”
“Pastor tries atheism, loses jobs…”
Ryan Bell pastored in the Seventh-day Adventist church for almost 20 years until last March when he was asked to resign. Ryan Bell says his views, mainly about the LGBT community, remnant theology and women’s ordination, were incompatible with his employer and he “outgrew” Adventism. After losing his pastoral position and two teaching positions, he announced that he would live for the next year as if there is no God.
The story, published here and in various other media outlets, stirred a good deal of debate. Yet, in social media conversations and national news coverage, most commenters and commentators have assumed one thing: that what Ryan Bell experienced in his lifetime in Adventism was Christianity. It’s worth noting that Bell has not publicly cited such fundamental Christian beliefs as the Gospel, biblical integrity, or the person and work of Jesus as factors in his decision to experiment with atheism. So, what is it, exactly, that Bell is laying aside in order to try on atheism? Quoting from the CNN article linked above, “He will not pray, go to church, read the bible for inspiration, trust in divine providence or hope in things unseen.”
In response, my fellow Proclamation! blogger, Rick Barker, commented: “What someone believes will make them an atheist tells you a great deal about what they believe makes a person a Christian…Those [activities and behaviors to be eschewed by Bell] may all be things that Christians do, but that isn’t what makes one a Christian. Because these aren’t what make a person a Christian, stopping them doesn’t make someone an atheist. But if you believe that Christianity is what you do, then no longer doing those things would mean that you are no longer a Christian.”
Christianity is defined in the Person of Christ. Who He is. What He did. Christians are those who have been born again into a relationship with this Christ. Intellectual assent to a set of beliefs and adherence to certain practices cannot define a true Christian. Our identity as Christians is in who we are in Christ. However, many of us who were once Adventists very much saw our “christian” identity as being wrapped up in certain Adventist beliefs and practices. As the saying goes, “growing up in a garage does not make one a car”. Likewise, embracing Adventist beliefs and practices didn’t make us Christians. Many of us lived as exemplary Adventists, but didn’t truly know Jesus.
The news coverage, blogs and even Ryan Bell himself, paint the picture of Christian leader journeying away from faith. However, Adventism differs from biblical Christianity in fundamental ways. Though I don’t expect the mainstream media to understand and explain how Adventism falls outside the parameters of Christianity (they often make the same mistake when they lump Mormonism together with Christianity), I do think thoughtful Christians should raise this issue.
Bell admits to always feeling that something wasn’t quite right in Adventism (we’ve all been there!), but to assume that because something isn’t quite right in Adventism means that something isn’t quite right with having faith in the one true God, in general, or the Gospel in particular, is illogical. However, as many of us can attest, because our identity was once rooted in Adventism rather than in the person of Jesus, any challenge to Adventist doctrine was a challenge to our entire belief structure. In this context, it is not at all surprising to hear that Bell is trying atheism after leaving Adventism. In fact, this appears to be a somewhat common response to discovering errors within Adventism. It seems Ryan Bell is trading one form of unbelief for another. The story is really less sensational than it appears.
I do not worry about Bell or the thousands that may be influenced by his journey. God is bigger than doubt and detours. What I do want to encourage every truth seeker to do is to deal in facts. Challenge your own assumptions, define terms, and deal accurately with the claims of Christianity. Explore the depths of Christianity, with an open mind and open heart, honestly, sincerely, before claiming to reject it. By all means, question your faith with integrity. Perhaps, this will be Bell’s next experiment in 2015.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://blog.lifeassuranceministries.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/IMG_0918.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Delina Pryce McPhaull is a Christ-follower, wife, mother of 3 young children and a writer. Delina and her husband Ben, a licensed minister, co-founded Quarterlife Ministries to encourage, equip and inspire young adults (quarterlifers) to get grounded in the Word. She writes regularly on her blog, www.deliniation.com and hosts webinars for Former Adventists at www.after7.tv.[/author_info] [/author]