Fulfilled in Jesus

Our pilgrimage with our Beloved in Japan -- Yoko & Ramone on the journey with Jesus!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Getting Rid of the Family Altar in Adventism

by Ramone Romero
Osaka, Japan
[Revised March 13, 2007]

Progressing to Simplicity

Recently I read some comments posted by friends and by well-meaning progressive Adventists. They cover a lot of territory, and the issues seem too many to be counted. I confess it's becoming difficult for me to read these exchanges, and I must force myself through. You see, the Gospel is a very simple thing, very simple yet possessing all the beauty of the universe, the beauty of God's heart. It is simply this: Christ, not us. What He has done is the Good News. He has saved us. So recently in revisiting progressive Adventist conversations, I've found that my heart desperately wants to cut straight to the meat — to lovingly go for the jugular.

I suppose in my mind the "Adventist" issue is fairly simple, centering in mostly on historic Adventism — the root where things began. When reading progressive Adventist comments, I find it difficult to not view what they write as basically "Invent your own definition of Adventism". That vein may give some peace to progressives, but what's the greater reality of "Adventism"? Progressives may leave the "old" things untaught and they may even completely disagree with them, but in order to remain an "Adventist" church, these "old things" must be carried along and given some assent at some point.

The Japanese Family Altar

The other day I wrote about this to a friend and told him that I've found it eerily similar to the Japanese butsudan. The butsudan is a large highly-decorated family altar to one's ancestors (with a Buddha in the center). If you are the eldest in the family here, it gets passed down to you and you have to take it. If you don't, the rest of the family will get upset. You just don't dishonor your ancestors that way! Of course this has been an issue in church families in Japan... once you become Christian, what do you do with the butsudan? Some have kept it quietly, and others have thrown theirs away (often we hear testimonies of spiritual lightness and/or healing which comes right after throwing away a family butsudan). Biblically, having a giant physical altar to Buddha and one's ancestors is a rather clear issue. Incredibly clear, actually! (Let me add that there's nothing to bring the Old Testament to life like stepping into a dark temple of towering Buddhas and incense!) Yet the nature of the territorial spirit in Japan obscures and confuses such otherwise obvious things, but the characteristics of that spirit are another relevant story which will have to be written about later. For now, though, we understand that keeping a butsudan is obviously a problem.

What does this have to do with Adventism?

I found it eerie that no matter how "progressive" one gets in Adventism, in order to stay Adventist, you have to keep the early Adventist things somewhere "in the house", just like a Japanese family needs to keep the family butsudan to avoid offending the family or being cut off. The "old things" in Adventism have to be brought along and given a place. And just like a real butsudan, you can somewhat neglect them. Japanese families can worship other gods or even the real God. They can even say they don't believe in everything the butsudan represents. But they must keep it. The Adventist foundational beliefs demand the same reverenced position. You have to keep them; they must have a place in the "house of God". You can disagree with them and neglect them, just as progressives do. But to directly call them into question and suggest throwing them out produces the same effect in the Adventist "family" that it does in the Japanese family when you get rid of a butsudan: the family gets highly upset. You could find yourself basically "kicked out".

Doing the Unthinkable

However, by the time a butsudan is passed down to the eldest in a family, often there aren't so many elder family members left to get upset. Yet still it is nearly unthinkable to throw it away. The reason for this is because the notion that one's ancestors continue on is deeply embedded in Japanese culture, and the butsudan is the place to honor them. Understood at this deeper level, a butsudan becomes much more than an idol, altar or a family heirloom; after the family is gone, in a way it the representation of your family. To throw out the butsudan is to throw out your family. To discard the butsudan is to insult and disown your family. It is a complete and tragic confusion of identity.

In the same way, the Adventist "identity" cannot seem to exist without its historical foundation — the historical beliefs, writings, and the claims of the early Adventists to a unique calling, a special message, a special truth, etc. The Adventist identity is tied to these things like a Japanese family to a butsudan. The "unique messages" of Adventism (what we have that everyone else doesn't) become what defines us. We can't let them go completely. If we do, then who are we? Our identity seems to be inseparably tied to our forefathers' claims. The Adventist heritage "altar" is passed down from one generation to the next.

And just as Japanese take it theologically for granted that their ancestors continue to exist as spirits, in Adventism we seemed to have taken it theologically for granted that our history was divine. We never questioned whether or not the Spirit was in our foundation. To suggest such a thing is like telling traditional Japanese that their ancestors are actually not still existing as disembodied spirits — they just wouldn't be able to believe it or comprehend anything other than what they've always believed.

Keeping it Quietly

For a Japanese family to become Christian and completely sever ties with demonic powers and strongholds, it means throwing out the butsudan, risking the anger of your family, and letting go of a comforting belief you've always had. I can't completely imagine how that must feel. They likely had never before realized how their identity previously was tied up in their family's ancestors. They grew up believing that their ancestors continued on as disembodied spirits, and that the butsudan was the place to show them your respect and love for them. They might have felt that keeping the butsudan brought them good fortune, blessing and protection. It's a big shock to let go of all of these things. That is why many Japanese Christians quietly keep their butsudan. They may want to continue honoring their family, or they may think it is merely "cultural" and not "religious". They don't notice that for one reason or another, they are unable to throw away the altar — it has a power over them.

Many Christian pastors in Japan shy away from addressing the butsudan problem, perhaps figuring that it's better not to offend or disturb. After all, "church" looks the same, members give support, and maybe it's just not that important. Better not to risk offending members; after all, if you harp on it too much, they might leave. Many pastors and members simply see no problem with keeping a butsudan, and perhaps can cite theological reasons why there is no problem. But these reasons are rooted in the desire to harmonize with the culture and avoid offending people by taking the Bible too literally. (Interestingly, my wife informed me that the "no problem" view of keeping a butsudan is very common among members in Japanese Seventh-day Adventism, even among "conservative" Adventists.)

Similarly, don't most liberal and progressive Adventist churches "quietly keep the altar"? Aren't many pastors afraid of saying what they believe about it for fear of losing their jobs or losing their members? If we disagree with the early Adventist beliefs, aren't we still afraid of letting them go because then we won't have any more special claim about who we are? Isn't our identity tied to them?

As I talked about these things with my wife, she considered what her parents might do if they had to take a butsudan into their house (my wife's parents are not the eldest in their families, so they don't have to keep a butsudan). Although my in-laws are less religious than the least religious of Japanese people, my wife believed that they would certainly take the butsudan into their home. They might put it aside somewhere and leave it there with its doors closed. They might open it and clean it if relatives were to come over or if special occasions arose. Later they would put it back in its place of neglect, but they would still keep it. Even if my wife protested that she felt uncomfortable with it, they would not be able to even consider getting rid of it, even though they don't really believe in it. "We just don't have that idea of getting rid of it," my wife said. "Leaving it closed, putting it away somewhere, or even replacing it is okay, but not getting rid of it."

As she spoke, my wife suddenly remembered how when she took SDA baptismal classes, the pastor pulled out a large blue file book. He explained a lot of things from it about the "sanctuary" — few of which my wife understood, thank God. Before this she had never heard of these things (and afterward seldom heard them again, except from foreign missionaries). These beliefs can be neglected like a butsudan, but on special occasions they get brought out. Or perhaps when more zealous Adventists or conference officials stop by to visit?

I also thought it was interesting that she said that it is okay to replace the altar. It is fine to throw out the old altar provided that you get a new one to replace it. Immediately I remembered how many reform-minded and progressive Adventist friends are very comfortable talking about updating the old beliefs. The problem, they believe, is that the old beliefs are outdated, old, and no longer relevant. It is completely permissable to re-interpret them, update them, or even alter them to an extent, but like a butsudan, it is unthinkable to throw the old things away.

A New Identity

Throwing out the altar means truly starting over. For Adventism, it is basically the same deal. Throwing out the old things means starting over from ground zero. It means letting go of your old identity, even if your family becomes upset.

But you find a new identity — you are in the family of God. Your new identity is not defined by your ancestors or forefathers anymore, by who they were, nor even is your identity defined by who you are. Rather, your identity is defined by who Christ is. He switched identities with you! Through the cross, He received your sins and punishment, and you receive His name and inheritance. Through the cross, His inheritance and position before Father becomes your inheritance and position before Father. And His perfect life becomes your heritage. You find Him to be the "unique" and "special" One.

Progression or Regression?

One progressive Adventist friend (a friend whom I love as a brother in Christ) once took issue with me about how I continually addressed of the old things of Adventism. Because he had re-defined "Adventism" to himself, he felt like my statements implied that progressives were "marginal Adventists", and he felt that such sentiments were more at home in the expressions of "regressive Adventists". It should be noted that "regress" is indeed the opposite of "progress". Where the old things are not taught, the Gospel is given more room to breathe. Where the old things are taught more, the Gospel of God's grace is given less room to breathe (if I could write in Greek, I would say "pneuma" for "breathe", also meaning spirit or Spirit... i.e., the Spirit is given less room when the Gospel is given less room). The inversion is proportional. The further we move away from the family altar, the better. Why not let it completely go? Is such a thought truly "regressive"? Why do we hold onto it—if not for the same reasons that a Japanese family holds onto a butsudan? Aren't we afraid of the backlash we might receive from our spiritual family if we throw out the family altar? Aren't we unable to imagine our own identity in Christ without the family altar? The writings & beliefs of early Adventism are kept on the altar, so to speak, in a sacred place, and our identity is tied to them.

I do understand and sympathize with how progressive Adventists feel when they discover the things that formed Adventism in the beginning — "This is not my Adventism!" When they go outside of the Southern California area, for example, into other areas (or in particular, when they go to less industrialized countries and see Adventist "evangelism" — mind you, I'm not talking about ADRA). Adventism holds a different meaning to them.

It reminds me of what I learned from reading a book by Kang Chol-Hwan. He used to live with his family in Pyongyang in relative luxury, completely unaware of the harsh conditions & famine across the country, unaware of the thousands of political prisoners kept in concentration camps across North Korea. If an escapee had somehow met him in Pyongyang, Kang & his family might have understandably felt that the escapee was just a bitter person who hated the nation for no reason. However, the first exposure to life outside of Pyongyang that Kang knew was when his family was imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp. Sadly, after being released and escaping the country to South Korea, Kang encountered people at university who did not believe what he told them about the North. Most people there have not grown up with anything near that kind of difficulty, so some did not believe that Kang was telling the truth. They thought he was just bitter and that his was a rare experience. They told him to keep his comments to himself and stop making trouble.

I understand that progressives may have grown up with or adopted a nicer Adventism, a healthier theology, less extremism, etc. They may have settled in more Gospel-friendly areas. For them, that is what "Adventism" has come to represent. Yet for others, it's been North Korea (figuratively speaking). Is this chance? Or is there something to be learned by noticing the directly inverse proportion of the teaching of the Gospel and the foundational Adventist things? When you look at the historical literature and events of the founding of Adventism, was it Gospel-friendly or not? It was clearly Gospel-hostile.

How Dare I Make This Comparison in the First Place?

Where do I get off saying this? How dare I compare the early Adventist beliefs to a Buddhist ancestral altar? I do so by simply comparing the Gospel—even as progressive Adventists know it—with the early beliefs of Adventism. The central truth of the Gospel of God's grace (justification by faith) was missing for the first forty years of Adventism—the time in which all of Adventism's "unique truths" were completely formed. The "good news" of the early Adventists was knowing the scripturally unsound Shut Door & Sanctuary teachings, and later keeping the law correctly (particularly the correct "Sabbath day"). If you disagreed with these things (in other words, if you were non-Adventist Christian), you were in "Babylon", "apostate" and "fallen churches", and were worshiping "Satan impersonating Christ." Such beliefs and teachings as these were given divine credentials because they were supported by Ellen White's visions. Let's look at this soberly and reflect on it:

#1 - The Gospel was missing from the first 40+ years of Adventism

#2 - Anti-Gospel beliefs were confirmed by a "prophet" who had visions and received instruction from "angel guides"

#3 - The "angel", "prophet" and teachings condemned those who clung to the Gospel instead of to their new teachings

This simply adds up to the working of a different spirit than the Holy Spirit. An anti-Christ spirit that actively opposed the Gospel of Jesus Christ's righteousness and salvation by faith in His finished work. If any of you had a friend today who exhibited such traits — if they taught a different gospel based on visions and condemned people who stuck to Scripture — wouldn't you pray for your friend's deliverance? Wouldn't you pray for spiritual warfare so that your friend could be free of the confusion? When Marian Catholics pray to Mary and get answers back from her, wouldn't you pray for their deliverance, too, and desire to help them lovingly learn discernment? When Japanese children and adults are choked at night by spirits, don't they need deliverance? Yes, of course.

Keeping a butsudan—a Buddhist ancestral altar—in the house cannot fail to have an effect on a Japanese family. In the same way, would keeping the 40+ years of teachings from an anti-Gospel spirit (that deceived our forefathers) in the Adventist "house" be without effect? Think about it: Is it any wonder that Adventists have such trouble letting these old things go? Is it any wonder that there is such confusion about the Gospel when people read the old literature? Is it any wonder that Gospel understanding is proportionally higher the less that foundational Adventist things are taught? Is it any wonder that progressives who disagree with the old things still have difficultly clearly saying the early things were simply wrong? Is it any wonder that Adventists have trouble envisioning their identity in Christ apart from the "unique" heritage of Adventist beliefs? It is not enough to simply embrace a partial teaching of Christ's righteousness while keeping a different altar in the house — because the altar isn't empty. It still holds a power over the household, and the family cannot throw it away.

What Kind of "Reform" is Needed?

What shall we do? Yes, we can "reform" our modern churches and teach people how to read the "Spirit of prophecy" with one eye closed, how to re-interpret it, take the good, leave the bad, etc. We can try to grow Southern California & other liberal spots to encapsulate all of the Adventist world! But the problems that we know of in extreme Adventism (or rather, historical Adventism) continue popping up like a many-headed snake. Even though you cut off one head, and another pops up elsewhere. This happens because the root is left untouched. The ministry of early Adventism (a Gospel-hostile spirit) is able to re-emerge simply because the family has kept an altar for it in the house and staked their identity on it, like a butsudan in a sacred place.

This is why I say that for myself, the issue has become very simple. Just as some Japanese families attempt to hold onto a butsudan and Christianity, trying to keep both identities, so many progressives may be trying to do the same thing (and perhaps calling it "diversity"). But by letting go of the butsudan, you can discover your heritage solely in the family of God. Yes, you can keep your name. The Suzuki family as Buddhist/Shinto can still be named the Suzuki family when they become Christian and toss out the old family altar. Adventism can still be called Adventist, but the family altar needs to be thrown out, or many lives will still be kept in confusion, and snake heads will continue appearing even though progressives themselves may not want them to.

The family's testimony can become a Gospel story of transformation: "I once was lost, but now am found; I was blind, but now I see." Progressive Adventism can become even more truly "progressive" by continuing to "progress" away from the Gospel-hostile spirit that shaped the beliefs of the denomination for 40+ years. Yes, many can easily disagree with the old things, but few are able to even think of throwing out the altar. The old writings do not want to be removed from the sacred place they occupy. Though we may disagree with early Adventism privately, few of us dare to say openly, "We were once blind, but now we see." Early Adventism couldn't be called "blind" because saying that would damage our identity, and deep inside we know that the institution as a whole is still deeply attached to these things; they're written in the charter and in our manuals. The butsudan demands a place and must be given it, even in progressive churches.

Yet for those who have dared to let it go, they have indeed found awesome rest in a new identity, found in the unique specialness of the Lord rather than in their name or their church history. And not a few have experienced greater spiritual joy and lightness. Here in Japan, families who've thrown out the butsudan for Christ can tell you that it is difficult at first. But finding their identity in Christ alone has been worth it all. They learned the truth of His words, that "whoever loses himself for My sake will find himself."

Cross-posted with discussion at Forthegospel.org
Published (abridged) in Proclamation! magazine, May-June 2007 issue


  • At March 11, 2007 11:29 PM, Anonymous Ramone said…

    Yeah, I can't quite make a 'law' of it, but objects such as Buddhas that were created for religious worship are suspect.

    Granted, they are nothing... wood, stone, plastic or metal. At the same time, it's good to honestly look into our hearts and ask ourselves why we would want to have such an object around.

    Of course, there is also the witness it gives to others to see such a thing in our houses, but mainly I'd be worried about what kind of spiritual doors it might open.

    In the Bible, it says that idols cannot see, cannot feel and cannot hear, and that those who make & worship them \i{become like them}. You become like what you worship. When you worship Christ, you become like Him -- loving, full of light. Your eye is the lamp of your body, and when you stare at the Light, you become full of light. But when you stare at darkness, you become full of darkness. When you worship that which can't see, feel or hear, you also lose your ability to spiritually "see", "feel" and "hear". You become less sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit and seeing through God's sight.

    I suppose the big test is asking ourselves, "Could I throw these things away?" Then watch my reaction. Am I upset at the thought? Am I hesitant, reluctant or afraid to in some way? Am I defensive about someone suggesting that to me? That will show if there are strongholds. I might have my own rationale, my own great theological reasons or excuses, but underneath there may be something else. In the final end, it is between me & God.

    All the same, I think at the very least if I had such a thing around, I would probably pray over the thing in Jesus' name, anoint it and bind the enemy! It was created in faith, devoted to a spirit that is not of God, so it is an open door. If not throwing it away, I would at the very least bind the power of the enemy to work through it. Articles of false worship are serious. Perhaps some of our casual attitude towards them is a result of being spiritually "blind", "numb" and "deaf"?

    About Ellen White books... the same question applies: "Could I throw them away?" If there is some sentimental or emotional attachment, it's good to ask God about it and have it checked by the Holy Spirit to make sure there is no other stronghold underneath. But there are Formers who keep the books for research purposes. It's not a stronghold for everyone. All the same, testing the desire to keep them may be important.

    For myself, I still have some packed away (with other books I don't really need), but I haven't gotten rid of them yet. I might keep one or two for research purposes, but actually the White Estate has everything online, and I'm not such a big researcher anyway! (^_^) When I have glanced back into them for research, I've found them rather complicated and lacking in Light... i.e., they felt heavy and dark. They made issues complex and obscure. A lot of questions came to mind... if this means this, then that means that... a lot of hair-splitting and rabbit-trails in many directions. They have a certain kind of logic to them, and when you get inside that, it can be kind of depressing. I was so relieved once after doing this when I closed the EGW book and just read the Bible! The Bible was so simple in contrast! So light, so refreshing! I praise God for His love letter to us, which needs no explaining filters or lesser lights to understand! No flashlight necessary to see the sun--the Son!

  • At March 14, 2007 9:14 PM, Anonymous haroldo said…

    What a wonderful manifestation of God's Spirit giving discernment, Ramone. I praise God and thank you for sharing it. There is a growing phenomenon in SDAism that more and more congregations and lay people are re-defining Adventism according to their own "interpretation" of the "verities" of original Adventism. Some of this redefining may include strong gospel elements. Yet the new is still cast in old wine skins and the taste is still like vinegar. The deception continues even in new and improved versions of Adventism. People continue to support the old institutions with their pocketbook and tacit acquiescense of the validity of the institution and its original teachings. They refuse to be identified entirely by Christ, His cross, His life, His mertis, His uniqueness. These are the only things that matter. Thanks again for your piercing and perceptive post.


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