Our Nutty Fringe

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On the day the Waco standoff came to a climax, I was on my way to a class with a dozen other pastors of various denominations for my doctoral program at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Naturally, everyone was talking about it when I arrived. I remember the teacher turning to me as I walked in and saying, “Loren can tell us about these Waco people. They’re Seventh-day Adventists.”

For over a year I’d been trying to let these people see that I was a solid Bible-believing Christian, every bit as legitimate as Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists. I stuttered a bit, then defaulted to the press release that the church had rushed out. No, I said, they weren’t Seventh-day Adventists. They weren’t part of the church. They had some distant connections, maybe, but they weren’t us.

I wasn’t telling the whole truth.

No matter that most had been disfellowshipped from their congregations, no matter that they didn’t call themselves Seventh-day Adventists, no matter what the denomination’s PR department had said, we knew where they came from. Most had been baptized as Seventh-day Adventists. They had attended our churches, and some our schools. They believed many of the same things we do about the Sabbath and diet and the time of the end. They studied the same prophetess.

Yes, they’d fallen into a weird psychological relationship with a strong, selfish leader who controlled these vulnerable souls through spiritual threats and isolation. Fear, sex and power had eclipsed the spiritual, as not infrequently happens in cults. Yet we knew people in that compound. They were our insane relatives, but still historically, culturally and theologically, relatives.

I thought of this when Angus T. Jones gave a much-publicized interview a few weeks ago with Christopher Hudson of ForeRunner Chronicles.

Let me be clear that I have nothing but admiration for Angus. It took tremendous courage for him to stand up for his beliefs. All of us pray for him as he takes these first steps into a new life in Christ. Yet when I heard about the Voice of Prophecy interviews, I was apprehensive. It was almost inevitable that the first thing we’d do is put him on screen and ask him to do something for us, at the very time when we should have been taking care of him.

Angus didn’t have a chance to get anchored. He started at our sensible center and ended up talking to our nutty fringe. From a nice suburban congregation and the highly-professional Voice of Prophecy, to Christopher Hudson and ForeRunner Chronicles.

Of course, Angus didn’t understand all that. How could he, when we’ve never been able to make out the boundary between our sensible center and our nutty fringe ourselves? As Angus’ critical interview[1] became public, church headquarters released a statement implying that ForeRunner Chronicles isn’t us.

But this time we got caught. It didn’t take anyone very long to discover that ForeRunner Chronicles is on one of 3ABN’s satellite channels, the network that our General Conference president uses to speak to the membership, whose twice-divorced founder he chose as his interviewer in a recent important policy discussion, an organization whose board is served by Seventh-day Adventist pastors and laypeople, whose gatherings church leaders attend. 3ABN came to Christopher Hudson’s defense: he was sound, relevant, Biblical.

It turns out ForeRunner Chronicles is us, after all.

It’s confusing, even to us. Our theological basics aren’t all that different from other Protestants: Triune God, Bible, Christian behavior, church, salvation through Jesus, eternal life—in central points, not unlike what you’d find in many denominations. So are we a legitimate Bible-based Protestant church, or something else? It all depends on how you look at us.

We have marvelous, world-recognized universities, but also officially-sanctioned self-supporting “colleges” where young people can’t date, wear styles from a century ago, work in gardens and subsist on whole grains, beans and vegetables. We place authority in the Bible alone, except when we say that Ellen White must interpret it for us. We despise a magisterial ecclesiology as we see it in the Papacy, but when there are internal church power struggles we get reminded that the General Conference is God’s highest authority on earth. We took enormous pride in a documentary that described us almost entirely in terms of our health and our excellent hospital system (anyone watching it could have been excused for believing all Seventh-day Adventists were doctors, nurses, or vibrant octogenarians), though it failed to mention that a foundational theme of our narrative is that everyone else in the world is about to get upset with us for going to church on Saturday and will torture us over it in the basements of Roman Catholic churches. We’re patriotic Americans, proud of having had an Adventist chaplain in the Senate, except that we believe the lamblike beast is soon to issue death decrees against us. We’re solidly scientific when we build proton cancer-treatment centers, but we’ll expel from our universities any professor who questions whether those ancient geological layers with fossils in them came from a worldwide flood several thousand years ago. Anti-Catholicism is “nothing more than a manifestation of widespread anti-popery among conservative Protestant denominations in the early part of this century and the latter part of the last, and which has now been consigned to the historical trash heap so far as the Seventh-day Adventist Church is concerned[2]—except during every evangelistic series we preach.

For how many years has Walter Veith been speaking in our churches? And yet the first thing that’s caught the leaders’ attention is his anti-Semitism? The surprise is not that one region finally banned him, but that he has been for years, and continues to be, invited to speak in Seventh-day Adventist churches around the world! Why is that? It’s because a lot of his conspiratorial nonsense isn’t unwelcome among us. Go where the self-supporting folks are gathered, and you’ll find groups who self-identify as Seventh-day Adventists, whose central beliefs intersect ours on the Venn diagram, but with an appended compliment of their own bizarre ideas, from survivalism to radical health extremism to invisible barcodes on our foreheads to the Adventist church itself being Babylon. It shouldn’t escape your notice that we have had far more patience with Walter Veith and his made-up conspiracies than we showed a respected Adventist scholar who questioned the Investigative Judgment by referring to the Bible alone.

Someone who didn’t know us well might think I’m describing a broad church that allows its members to hold a variety of beliefs. But that isn’t true, either. We’re more indulgent of the paranoid than the progressive. Through the years “real” Seventh-day Adventists have said—this but a sampling stuff I could mention that had little or nothing to do with Biblical Christianity—that there was Jesuit infiltration into the highest levels of denominational leadership, that the FCC was preparing to outlaw Christian broadcasting, that Harry Potter novels were spawning scores of child Satanists, that the number of earthquakes is increasing exponentially, that dinosaurs (and possibly black people) were the result of ancient genetic experiments gone wrong, that both tongues-speaking and meditation as practiced by our fellow Christians are Satanic, and that our people were being “programmed” from our pulpits using neurolinguistic psychology. We’ve let these things be spoken in churches and media and sometimes even printed in our magazines. But would a Seventh-day Adventist be allowed to express through official communication channels an opinion that, for example, homosexuality is inborn, not developed or chosen, and there’s no evidence a gay person can be turned straight? Unlikely. We’re more tolerant in one direction than the other, less likely to challenge the fearful than the rational. Contrast the foaming-at-the-mouth reaction (even from some church leaders) to Ohio Conference’s relatively benign and often pedestrian Innovation Conference, with the absence of any reaction at all to the dozens of convocations where Colin Standish, Bill Hughes or Walter Veith speak.

Even with David Koresh on our résumé we are not the American-born denomination with the nuttiest fringe. The palm for that goes to the Mormons. (Read Jon Krakaur’s Under the Banner of Heaven for a hair-raising narrative of Mormon extremism). But we’re straddling a widening gap, and our survival may depend on how we manage it.




[1] To his great credit Angus realized, after a day or two of thinking about it, that some of his words, even if true, were impolitic, that he didn’t show enough gratitude for the opportunities he’d had and the friends who’d helped him, and he apologized.

[2] Neal C. Wilson, Reply Brief for the Defendant, p. 4, case #C-74-2025 CBR. March 30, 1975