Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals have engaged in ongoing talks with a Christian group that many mainstream believers consider a cult. One major denomination, however, says that's a mistaken "stereotype."
Recently coming out of conversations with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Dr. Sheldon Sorge of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) noted, "We have mutual misunderstandings.
"I think one of the misunderstandings and stereotypes is [that] this group (Adventists) is a 'cult' because of their unique practice of Sabbath," said Sorge, who is associate director of The Louisville Institute.
The PC(USA), the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination, had initiated talks last November with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, seeking better understanding of a group that has a membership of more than 14 million worldwide. Last month, representatives of the PC(USA) and the Adventist Church met in Louisville, Ky., for a second round of talks to remove stereotypes and explore areas of possible cooperation.
Sorge indicated that the meeting helped clear up some misunderstandings that many Protestants had about the group.
"We certainly did view them as more of a separatist group than what we have discovered," he said. "We found them to be ecumenically engaged, consistent with major Christianity on major points of faith. Writings of E.G. White (one of the Adventist Church's founders) are not Scripture for them."
Protestants argue that White's writings contradicts the sola scriptura (biblical authority) of Protestantism. The Adventist Church, however, views her writings as helpful pastoral writings and not as the final authority, according to Sorge.
"And it was also our misunderstanding that they want to be a separatist group and not be involved with the wider church," added Sorge, who said he and fellow Presbyterians discovered that the Adventist Church has been deeply involved in conversations with other Christian bodies.
Such bodies include Lutherans, The Salvation Army, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), according to Hal Thomsen, assistant to the president for the North American Division of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
"This is not the first we have engaged in overtures of many different groups," said Thomsen.
The Adventists met with representatives of the WEA last month for a theological discussion, the first of which was held in 2006, that would help determine whether the Adventist Church could become a member of the global evangelical body.
"As I understand it, the move on the Adventist side was prompted by their feeling that they wanted to be considered as more a part of mainstream evangelicalism than they had in the past and so they wanted to have a top level theological discussion to clarify the current situation," said the Rev. Dr. David Parker, executive director of the WEA Theological Commission.
The WEA leadership is currently deciding whether the outcome of the theological talks would "give sufficient warrant" for further steps and if interested Adventists groups around the world should be allowed to join the WEA as members based on theological compatibility.
Some of the differences between Adventists and other Protestants include holding the Sabbath on Saturday rather than on Sunday; believing that death is a time of "sleep" until the second coming of Jesus Christ, rather than the soul going to heaven or hell; and believing that judgment of Christian believers has been in progress, even before the second coming. Protestants believe the last judgment will occur at or after the second coming.
Generally, Protestants do not view the Adventist Church as part of the mainstream church, but rather a "separate sect," said PC(USA)'s Sorge, opting to strike the label "cult."
Apologist and evangelical minister Dr. Walter Ralston Martin had initially listed Seventh-Day Adventism as a dangerous cult along with Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science in his book The Rise of the Cults, published in 1955. He later removed the Adventists from the list – a stance that divided Evangelical opinions.
Viewing the Adventist Church as a Restorationist group, Sorge and fellow Presbyterians expect the attitude of Adventists toward old historic groups such as the PC(USA) to be one of "guardedness because they started out as a movement that essentially denied the adequacy of existing churches" trying to restore that which has been lost.
"I think the average Presbyterian thinks they're some small sect," noted Sorge. "I discovered they're probably not too far behind us in worldwide population. They're much larger than we realize [yet] they're not on our radar for whatever reason."
While areas of cooperation have not been specified yet, dialogue between the Presbyterians and Adventists are expected to continue.
Sorge hasn't heard any criticism, at least none that causes concern, from the Presbyterian denomination regarding the talks with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. And official church leadership in the Adventist Church have so far been supportive of the dialogue, according to Thomsen.
Thomsen clarified that the purpose of the ecumenical dialogues with other Christian groups is "for understanding" and listed no other motivations.
Sorge similarly believes the Adventist Church is not engaging in conversations with mainstream Christian groups to achieve legitimacy.
"But who knows," Sorge added.
"We simply want to understand them better," he said.