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On the La Sierra Resignations: Church Standards—v


Granted that a violation of church standards provided the premise on which three employees and a board member of La Sierra University were recently pressured to resign from their respective positions, it seems appropriate to briefly discuss Seventh-day Adventist standards. But before going there, allow me to share four disclaimers/explanations.

Disclaimers and Explanations

First, I personally know none of the parties involved in the LSU debacle. Not the employees. Not the board members. Not the chairman of the board. So neither allegiances nor animosities toward the major players have influenced my comments and perspectives in this series.

Second, I'm quite traditional in my beliefs about origins. Since I’m not a scientist, I face the issue at a relatively superficial level. Some twenty-five years ago I was privileged to participate in a Geoscience Research Institute field trip in the South Pacific Division. It drove home to me in an impressive way the wonders of God’s creation—and helped me realize how little we know with absolute certainty about how it all happened. Huge questions remain, requiring considerable faith. I sympathize greatly with those who have an array of (what certainly appear to be) facts at their disposal that don’t even appear on my radar screen. I would hope that as both laypeople and scientific professionals wrestle with these challenging questions, we could have open dialogue in a context of respect. (Of course, we've been informed officially that the creation-evolution debate played no role whatsoever in the forced resignations.)    

Third, I'm an advocate of total abstinence from alcohol. I've had to deal with too many people (and their families) who started out as moderate drinkers but didn't end up there. Nearly thirty years ago I was invited to write for a special issue of the Adventist Review that focused on Adventists and alcohol. In it, I opposed even moderate drinking. I still do. But my objections aren't based on a biblical "Thus saith the Lord, 'Thou shalt not drink.'" Such a direct prohibition doesn't exist. The Bible's statements about intoxicants are mixed. (For example, we don't often quote Proverbs 31:6, 7: "Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish! Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.") So my scriptural reasons for opposing alcohol derive primarily from "secondary considerations," which are enumerated in my three-decades-old (and slightly more preachy than I am these days!) article "Does the Bible Condemn Moderate Drinking?"

Fourth, what has most motivated me to write this series is that I've invested more than thirty-five years of my life in denominational service, during which I've not only observed far too many employees getting short shrift by those in power but have also experienced it personally. Repeatedly. From my perspective, the Seventh-day Adventist Church doesn't have a stellar track record in how the power structure treats employees and/or members. I've spent hundreds of hours seeking just a modicum of fairness and due process for those who were being deprived of it. I believe the problem is systemic and pervasive. So from that perspective, I acknowledge having a "bias"—though I would argue that it's a justified bias.

Having laid these four cards on the table to acknowledge where I am and am not coming from, let's take a few moments to analyze some of our church's standards.

Adventists Emphasize Behaving

Membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church includes adherence to a list of both prescribed and proscribed behaviors. The expectations are most formally and definitively found in three documents, all of which can be altered only by the majority vote of the duly authorized delegates at a General Conference Session. These documents are: the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, the Baptismal Vow and the Church Manual. Three additional sources also inform Adventist behavior (but in a less definitive fashion): the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White and Adventist tradition (be it local, regional or worldwide).

As Adventists, we place varying degrees of importance on a array of behavioral expectations. Some expectations rise to the level of "doctrine." At this level, violation could preclude or jeopardize church membership. Abstinence from alcohol is both a doctrine and a "standard."

At the standards level, conformity is expected, and violation could influence standing within the Adventist community. Although failure to live up to a standard might jeopardize church employment, it probably wouldn't jeopardize membership for someone who's already a member.

In addition to standards, we have a plethora of "admonitions" (usually from Ellen G. White) that a relatively small number of Adventists pay serious attention to, and the majority ignore in great measure. Because granting and rescinding church membership is solely the prerogative of the local congregation, and because some congregations are extremely hard-nosed while others are extremely lax, it's difficult to say just which infractions will elicit disciplinary actions and which won't.

Many Changes Over Many Years

Despite being such a rules-rich denomination, over the years our church has on several occasions approved changes to statements of belief and/or baptismal vows (my focus will be on the latter). With relatively few exceptions, these statements have moved from greater specificity to greater generality, in effect lightening the behavioral burden on the member. But the trend hasn't always gone just one way.

In the Baptismal Vow of 1874, the baptismal candidate promised to abstain from all intoxicating liquors, tobacco in all its forms, swine's flesh, narcotics, tea, coffee and other harmful things. By contrast, those assenting to the Baptismal Vow of 1932 didn't have to promise abstinence from tea and coffee—just all the other things.

By the time of the 1946 version of the vow, tea and coffee were back in, probably reflecting the conservative backlash triggered by the apocalyptic fears caused by World War II. (By the way, the 1946 version of the vow is the one under which I was baptized at age 10 in 1961. And the three LSU employees who were terminated were probably baptized under the same vow, since they're more or less my contemporaries.) Tea and coffee aren't mentioned in the current Baptismal Vow, although unclean foods, alcoholic beverages, tobacco in any of its forms and the misuse of narcotics or other drugs are still there.

The on-again-off-again nature of our Baptismal Vow's prohibition against tea and coffee (and several other things we’ll note in a moment) invites some interesting questions. Are members who were baptized when a different vow was in effect morally obligated to honor the latest version? Or must they honor the one they consented to at the time of their baptism? Are people freed from their vow if the current wording no longer calls for what they committed themselves to at baptism? Or does a vow remain in perpetuity, irrespective of duly voted changes?

Are some of us morally bound to levels of performance that don't apply to others, simply because we happened to join the church when the pendulum had swung in a more restrictive direction? Is it possible to “renegotiate” one's baptismal vows to the less-demanding current version or a less-demanding past version? Would one have to be rebaptized to qualify for new vows? What about "pioneers" who anticipate changes and begin behaving in the manner they think should be allowed and will be allowed after a hoped-for change? The questions are virtually limitless!

The tea-and-coffee inclusions and exclusions are of particular interest since, according to Ellen White, drinking tea and coffee constitutes such a sinister evil. Or, as she describes it in her own words: "Tea and coffee drinking is a sin, an injurious indulgence, which like other evils, injures the soul" (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 425, written in 1896). In fact, several times she notes that drinking tea, coffee and alcohol are but varying degrees of the same debauchery.

Despite the fact that abstinence from tea and coffee has at various times been called for as part of the Baptismal Vow, and despite such strong denunciations from Ellen White (more than five hundred and fifty references to tea and coffee) in her writings, many a church leader enjoys his (or her) "Morning Joe"—and I'm not talking about a TV program on MSNBC! I've interacted with church leaders for whom a morning "cuppa" wasn't optional. It was essential if they didn't want to contend with a withdrawal headache throughout the day. In fact, some of the most passionate defenses of Ellen White and traditional Adventism have been written under the influence of prodigious amounts of early-morning or late-night coffee–or, should we say, “sin”! Members who work in major Adventist centers are typically aware of the wholesale disregard not only concerning rules about tea and coffee but about the disregard of many other rules and admonitions as well.

A Few More Points of Interest

A baptismal candidate in 1874 "vowed" to avoid "the sinful practices of the world, such as dancing, card-playing, theatre-going, novel reading, etc. and by shunning all questionable worldly amusements." For those joining in 1932, the expectations were similar, with a vow to avoid such "soul-destroying amusements as card playing, theater going, dancing, and all other entertainments and amusements which tend to deaden and destroy the spiritual life and perceptions." But note that novel reading had gone by the board by 1932.

The current Baptismal Vow, by contrast, includes only: "Renouncing the world and its sinful ways, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour, and do you believe that God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven your sins and given you a new heart?" And: "Knowing and understanding the fundamental Bible principles as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is it your purpose, by the grace of God, to order your life in harmony with these principles?" There's no longer any mention of card playing, theater going, dancing, novel reading and other amusements that are suspect.

In the area of personal attire, the 1874 Baptismal Vow prohibited the wearing of "earrings, necklaces, bracelets, beads, rings, etc." By 1932, the principle remained, but the wording had softened: "In matters of dress will you follow the Bible rule of plainness and simplicity, abstaining from the wearing of gold as ornaments and costly array, observing the principles of modesty and Christian dignity?" The current Baptismal Vow says nothing about attire and jewelry.

I could go on. The fact is, the duly voted Baptismal Vow has softened considerably over the years. Many things that were once categorically forbidden no longer merit mention, let alone call the prospective member to take a vow of conformity. An even greater collection of prohibitions and warnings contained only in the writings of Ellen White are ignored by all but the most committed—chess, checkers, tennis, eating cheese, eating between meals, mixing fruit and vegetables at meals, drinking water with our meals, drinking ice water, eating meat, riding bicycles (her denunciations were never rescinded or modified that I’m aware of) and a long list of other taboos.

Long-time Adventists know that things have changed—creating consternation for some and jubilation for others. When members know that A, B, C and D once were the official norm but no longer are officially mandated, it's not a ridiculous jump to assume that E, F, G and H will soon cease to be officially promoted, as well. So even those rules that are still “on the books” are taken less seriously than in yesteryear.

Practice Precedes Paper Statements

In 1976, my first year in ministry, I attended a "young workers" meeting to receive instruction in the do's and don'ts of my new trade. Although wedding rings for women had always been the norm for Adventists in Australia (though outlawed in North American Adventism until 1967), wedding rings for men were a relatively recent phenomenon. To a great degree this was brought about by the large number of Adventist Europeans who immigrated to Australia in the first three decades following World War II. Many European Adventist men wore rings. It was their norm. And it was quickly becoming the norm in Australia's secular society when I started my ministry there.

At the meeting of young ministers, we were told not to perform double-ring ceremonies, as it was contrary to Adventist belief (at least, Australian Adventist belief at that time) for men to wear wedding rings. In fact, the Ministerial director of the South Pacific Division urged us not to perform a wedding ceremony if we knew the groom was planning to wear a ring after the ceremony—even if it wasn't part of the ceremony itself! He clearly opposed the idea of men wearing rings!

Needless to say, it was a losing battle. A lost cause. The prohibition didn't make sense to the rank and file. The members ignored it. Maverick pastors ignored it. Soon even don't-rock-the-boat pastors were ignoring it. And within 10 years the policy in the South Pacific Division had changed—not because church leaders sat down and—after much prayer, study and deep reflection—decided that the prohibition was theologically wrong. Rather, the policy had changed because the membership at large didn't buy the arguments behind it. (The same thing has happened with wedding rings in North America.)

What happened with men's wedding rings in Australia typifies the pattern by which a change in standards has come about in many other areas as well—including the fact that moderate drinking is no longer viewed as the taboo it once was—much as I still oppose it for what I consider are highly valid reasons. Overall, our arguments against moderate drinking haven't been persuasive—because (a) we don't have a clear biblical prohibition (but have acted as if we do), and (b) we haven't adequately marshaled and inculcated compelling alternative arguments.

Two More Considerations—Yea, Three

First, in administering either church discipline or employee discipline, wisdom calls for some consideration of local values, norms and practices and not just a detached reading of a book of rules. Granted that changes in member practice precede changes in the church's paper statements, it seems reasonable to take into account what the norm—or trend—is in a given group or a given geographic region before applying the church's rules in their most literal, most demanding, most ironclad fashion.

It would be one thing to have a serious talk with a non-conforming employee to win him or her over to our paper-stated orthodoxy. It's quite another to force a resignation on the basis of a behavior that may be quite widespread. In some regions of the world, and among some age groups, Adventist wine drinking is viewed in an altogether different light from what it is in some other situations—despite our official statements. And my guess is that in Southern California, partaking of an alcoholic beverage in the privacy of a home wouldn't universally be considered the taboo that it would have been in Battle Creek when the 1874 Baptismal Vow was written.

Quick story: About ten years ago I was meeting with a General Conference-sponsored committee overseas. A group of us heard about an excellent, off-the-beaten-track restaurant that was a couple of miles from our hotel. So about ten of us walked through the back alleys to get there. (The group included people who occupied significant positions either at the General Conference headquarters or at leading institutions.) Who should have arrived at the restaurant independent of us but a relatively high-level church leader from outside North America who was attending another set of meetings. He was dining with a non-Adventist friend.

The church leader obviously hadn't expected us to come to this back-alley restaurant—as he was having a glass of wine with his meal! Not for a minute do I think he felt he was sinning by having the wine. For him, I'm sure, it was a totally acceptable activity and, I’m sure he felt, biblically defensible.

But he knew the official rules. And he knew that many of us came from parts of the world that weren't on his page. So when he rose to greet us, he picked up his wine glass and surreptitiously—at least he attempted to be surreptitious!—held it behind his back. As the small talk droned on, I felt more and more sorry for him! Holding an almost-full glass of red wine behind your back while dressed in a suit you don't want to stain gets increasingly difficult as the minutes tick by! Tense muscles have been known to cramp in such situations! The man didn’t lose his job (or even receive a reprimand, as far as I know) because there was no one with an agenda/vendetta against him, nor was there a website calling for his blood.

I don't wish to make light of bad behavior. But when bad behavior has become widespread, or when the behavior isn't perceived as bad behavior, it needs to be dealt with in context. (Especially when it’s been done in the privacy of a home and when use of the information would be viewed by many as an unethical invasion of privacy.) You can "throw the book" at behavior that's universally recognized as off-the-charts-evil, and onlookers will see it as justice. But throw the book at someone for doing something that onlookers may in quite large numbers see as acceptable, and they'll see the disciplinary action as unwarranted and inappropriate. 

Let me make it clear that I'm not suggesting that the LSU faculty are into drinking. (I know nothing about LSU. I’ve never set foot on the campus except to attend church there once.) I'm simply saying that I encounter drinking with a frequency that amazes me—and I minister in a far more conservative area, I would think, than Southern California. As I go to restaurants and attend weddings and other social events in Orlando’s large Adventist community, it’s clear that for many (especially, though not exclusively, the young), social drinking is a non-issue.

Second, if justice is not only going to be done but is going to be seen to be done, we need to ensure that similar infractions receive a similar response. Fairness isn't the obsession of just little children. Adults want to see fairness as well. We demand it. Consistently harsh is at least consistency, as is consistently gentle. But an uneven meting out of punishments doesn't look good to anyone. It never seems like justice.

Third, have you noticed how we've shed quite a few official taboos from our early days, but we haven't really picked up any major new ones in the past hundred years?

In Ellen White's day we condemned novels. We condemned dancing. Card playing. Pool halls. Bowling. Jewelry. The theater. And these were blanket condemnations, not mere encouragement to participate judiciously. We even codified our condemnations in our official statements. We expected people to publicly promise obedience. And we were told that the angels would stay outside the door if we indulged.

But when radio appeared, there was no blanket condemnation from our denomination of the medium itself—even though a lot of bar-room songs were played on it, and radio was rife with “audio theater.” Nor did we take a denominational stance against television, even though, to a great degree, it was “theater”—a bunch of novels being acted out! Nor did we condemn records. Nor CDs. Nor computers. Nor the internet—where lots of junk is available. Nor games like Monopoly. Or Sorry. Or Rook (sometimes called "Christiancards" or "missionary poker"). And the list goes on. Why are we reducing our officially stated taboos rather than adding to them as new potential evils emerge?

Could it be because, deep down inside we recognize that we've legislated too much? Could it be that by over-legislating we’ve actually weakened our impact in areas that may legitimately need to be prescribed or proscribed? Could it be that, for the most part, we should be clearly articulating broad principles but letting individual members draw the specific lines of demarcation—granted that they're the ones who have to give account on the day of judgment? Could it be that we need to help everyone—not just students—become thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men's thoughts?

—James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Longwood, Florida.

Photograph at top: Adventist Church Undersecretary Homer Trecartin, at the podium, reads from the Church Manual on the third day of business meetings addressing the Manual's 95 proposed revisions, Tuesday, June 29. [photo: ANN/Robert East]

This is the fifth essay in Pastor Coffin's six-part series on the La Sierra University resignations.

Spiritual Considerations (v)

Spiritual Considerations (iv.1)

Church Policies and Practices (iii)

The Lawyer Factor (ii)

The Privacy Issue (i)

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