Sabbath Rest(oration): Reframing the Purpose and Witness of an Eschatological Sabbath-keeping Community

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2023

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This thesis touches on several massive themes within Christian theology, including questions of ecclesiology, eschatology, soteriology, and missiology. Yet it is grounded in a very real and practical question. What definition of the church should guide me, as the senior pastor of an incredibly diverse Sabbath-keeping local church in the Seventh-day Adventism denomination,as we develop the strategic vision for this next season of ministry, and decide how we want to fund those goals. What should the “markers” of the church be?

In order to help narrow my focus, I will explore this question in four parts. In Chapter 1, I provide a brief history of Seventh-day Adventism, with a specific focus on the development of the doctrine of the Sabbath and the doctrine of the church, such as it is. In Chapter 2, I turn more directly to various models of the church. Using Avery Dulles as a conversation partner in hiswork Models of the Church, I examine Adventism in the light of some of the most prominent models and note which of these Adventism seems to lean towards. I then recommend a new eschatological understanding of the church that I believe could be uniquely well-suited for Adventism.

In Chapter 3 I turn to the question of the Sabbath. Given that Sabbath-keeping is considered a marker of faithfulness for most Seventh-day Adventists, I propose that the biblical Sabbath has always been about more than humanity’s faithfulness, and that the Sabbath should be seen instead primarily as a pointer to the purpose and faithfulness of God. Drawing from Sigve Tonstad’s book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, I suggest a reframed understanding of the Sabbath that includes seeing the Sabbath as an indicator of God’s future purpose promised from the very beginning of creation. I suggest that the Sabbath can best be seen as a promise, grounded in the past, pointing to the future, that shapes and directs the present.

Finally, in Chapter 4, I consider how the idea of the “church as foretaste” and “Sabbath as promise” could shape the lived reality of a local community, and recommend some practices that we as a local church could explore that would help us better embody the coming kingdom of God.

Questions about the nature, purpose, and mission of the church have been asked and answered and asked again for generations. Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic has caused the longest disruption to the regular rhythms and practices of the church in recent memory. Clergy and laity alike are wondering, as we imagine what a post-pandemic life will look like, justwhat impact this new reality will have on the church, which practices will stay the same, and which will shift. A season of new beginnings is an excellent time to reconsider old assumptions, and to recalibrate where needed.

It is my hope that this thesis will be helpful in three ways. First, I hope for it to be helpful on the local church level, especially for Sabbath-keeping churches interested in a reframed perspective on the Sabbath that moves it beyond a question of obedience, to a question of meaning, liberation, and purpose. Secondly, I hope to contribute to the much needed and growing conversation within Seventh-day Adventism regarding Adventist ecclesiology. Over the past two decades, Adventist scholars have become increasingly convinced of the need to further develop our ecclesiology, but it is still a relatively recent field of study within the denomination. This thesis will offer a reframed understanding of Sabbath-keeping that is linked to an eschatologically-shaped ecclesiology.

Finally, I hope this thesis will have something to offer to the broader Christian community. The biblical concept of the Sabbath has experienced something of a renaissance in the wider Christian conversations over the past half-century. The Sabbath has been linked to creation and as a potential response to the environmental crisis; to economics, debt relief and jubilee; and to emancipation, messianic ethics, and spiritual formation. Yet while many of these Christian authors draw on themes inherent in the biblical Sabbath, very few of them have lived in communities already profoundly shaped by its counter-cultural power. We as Adventists are deeply indebted to the gift of the Sabbath; it is my hope that our lived reality can provide inspiration to others.

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Webster, Rochelle Cathryne (2023). Sabbath Rest(oration): Reframing the Purpose and Witness of an Eschatological Sabbath-keeping Community. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/27558.

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