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Brazilian Adventist Leaders Fight to Shed “Sect” Label

Recently, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brazil engaged in a public argument with a popular Brazilian pastor over the Adventist Church’s status as an evangelical Christian denomination. The online exchange revealed leaders’ eagerness to maintain the church’s social and political standing in a country that provides valuable benefits to mainstream Christian organizations. It also shed light on an attitudinal divide between Brazilian Adventism’s middle-class leadership and predominantly lower-class membership.

In early January, while answering questions from his 6-million member Instagram audience, Brazilian Baptist pastor, musician, and television presenter André Valadão labeled Seventh-day Adventism “uma seita,” “a sect.” It was a designation with a decidedly pejorative connotation and with social and political implications. Valadão asserted that Ellen White’s role as prophetess and the Adventist Church’s distinct doctrines like the Investigative Judgment and salvation by works through seventh-day sabbath keeping put Adventists outside the Christian mainstream and justified calling Adventism a sect.

The Adventist Church’s swift pushback demonstrated leaders’ preoccupation with how Adventism is perceived, as they quickly worked to reassert their status in Brazil as evangelicals. 

Carlos Magalhães, director of digital strategies for the South American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, suggested that institutional outlets avoid discussing the issue, but saw it as an opportunity to reintroduce the Seventh-day Adventist Church to evangelicals and to mitigate anti-Adventist prejudice. 

Adventist Biblical Research Institute associate editor Alberto Timm appeared with two online influencers in a livestream titled “The Truth About Adventism”. Timm rejected Valadão’s assertions, which likely wouldn’t have generated much discussion if not for a strident, public reaction from pastor-archaeologist Rodrigo Silva, who had engaged Valadão in a cycle of response, reply and rebuttal. Silva, who runs the Adventist Museum of Biblical Archaeology in São Paulo, inadvertently created more attention for the issue among evangelicals through his interactions with Valadão.

The “sect” label is nothing new for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the issue would hardly be worth reporting except that the church’s forceful response revealed sensitivities that to many rank-and-file members seem trivial and misguided. 

Seventh-day Adventist leaders have consistently made efforts to position Adventism within the Protestant mainstream, often by adopting ideas and language from popular Christian movements.

The Adventist Church absorbed Fundamentalist ideas in the 1920s when Fundamentalism overwhelmed North American Christianity (See Michael Campbell’s 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism). 

Adventists embraced Evangelicalism, and further cemented their place in mainstream Christianity when the famous Questions on Doctrine was released in the 1950s. 

What some might call Adventism’s capitulation to Christian populism during those years marked several attempts to shed the persistent view that Adventism was the Cult of Ellen White. Adventist historians Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart in Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream (republished in 2006) referred to this period as “one of the few times in the denomination’s history when the Bible was given unambiguous precedence over Ellen White.” Writer Ronald Lawson throughout his academic career also discussed Adventism’s movement from sect to denomination. 

While Seventh-day Adventists pride themselves in being “true heirs” to the Protestant Reformation, denominational leaders—particularly those in Brazil—stand to reap benefits that the state provides to mainstream Christian denominations.

As has been the case globally, Adventist leaders in Brazil have long been plagued by the Protestant-denomination-or-heretical-sect debate, contributing to the rise of apologists and influencers like Rodrigo Silva and Adventist television show host Leandro Quadros. But for Adventist laity, the debate can feel irrelevant, even counterproductive. 

Most Adventist laypersons come from lower societal strata than the church’s administrators. [A helpful look at the Brazilian Adventist Church’s social composition is found in André Kanasiro’s “The Land of Theology Against the Theology of the Land: How the US Adventist Culture Shaped the South American Church” in Spectrum volume 51.3-4 (2023), pages 95-103].

Adventism’s alliance with evangelicalism in Brazil has fueled lay resentment over a perceived identity loss. Lay-led offshoots have attempted to reclaim what some see as Adventism’s true expression. [That story may be all too familiar for older Spectrum readers. For instance, Adventist historian Jonathan Butler recounts the North American corollary on pages in pages 189-208 of “The Making of a New Order: Millerism and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventism” (1986), and with co-editor Ronald L. Numbers, Butler explored that history further in The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century (1993).]

In the 2000s, the Adventist Church faced lay-driven movements that espoused anti-trinitarian and perfectionist beliefs and accused the church of apostasy. In 2015, E. C. Neves composed a master’s thesis for the Latin-American Adventist Theological Seminary on the rise of the “Nazarenes” and “Historical Adventists” who enjoyed popularity in São Paulo at the time. 

To staunch potential outflow from such populist movements, the Brazilian Adventist Church appointed two pastors, Amin A. Rodor and Alberto R. Timm, as apologists to act in local churches and to generate theological material for scholarly articles and publication in the Revista Adventista, Brazil’s Adventist Review

Lay-driven theological movements still emerge in Brazilian Adventism, especially among those who advocate country living (see for instance Wendel T. Lima’s 2020 master’s thesis for Universidade Metodista de São Paulo, A tensão campo-cidade no adventismo brasileiro: mudança no discurso institucional e reinterpretação de uma tradição religiosa, pages 84-91). While some are dismissed as “dissident sects,” others receive endorsement as “independent ministries,” while still being equally disregarded in the Church’s official reports and discourse. 

Brazilian Publishing House editor Michelson Borges has implicitly acknowledged that the fear of straying from mainstream Christianity matters primarily to middle-class Brazilian laity and Church administrators. Borges has attempted to appeal to lower class churchgoers to pay greater heed to Adventism’s status as a mainstream Christian denomination. While asserting that the political right finds “sects” among religious groups in order to persecute them, Borges also compared Valadão’s accusations to the ones leveled against the apostles and called Adventists the “sect of Christ” (drawing on Acts 28:22-23). 

The Adventist institution’s embrace of evangelical Christianity not only reveals administrators’ need for cultural and political approval, but also contradicts the religious elites’ self-appointment as heirs of the Reformation. It belies a desire to wield power, however symbolic, to determine who may represent “true Christianity”—just as they have done regarding “true Adventists”—and those who don’t mind being considered a sect are usually the first to go.

Image: André Valadão on Instagram

About the author

André Kanasiro is editor-in-chief and creator of Zelota magazine, where he writes on the Bible, Politics and Adventism. He is a biologist and is studying for a master’s degree in Jewish Studies at the University of São Paulo. More from André Kanasiro.
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