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The Closing of the Adventist Mind: Three Reasons and Two Solutions


Freedom Restricted
I have given a lot of time trying to understand the possible reasons why the majority of Seventh-day Adventists so readily accepts being told what to believe and what to do by the higher authority. My concern is not about Fundamental Beliefs and lifestyle but more about those issues that are specifically relevant to one cultural environment or another, but are considered to be hugely divisive because they are given wider significance than they effectively have. The church has spent an inordinate amount of time, money and energy dealing with one such issue as if its very survival depended on every single believer having the same views on everything. San Antonio has left a sad legacy of how the church deals with such issues.

Unless one has a clear understanding of the reasons behind a situation one can hardly come up with ways to address it. I postulate that there are at least three reasons that explain the intellectual inertia of the Adventist membership at large. The first two are cultural whereas the third is, I believe, psychological. What follows is my personal analysis resulting from many years of working for the church in four different Divisions on different sides of the North/South and East West divide. 

1.  The Catholic Element
The Adventist Church has a worldwide membership of about 19 million. This figure is spread over thirteen Divisions that represent the major cultural and political areas of the world. The membership in the territories of Inter America and South America numbers some 7 million. If we add to that number the 1 million or so members in the Philippines, and the smaller numbers of Adventists that live in predominantly Catholic countries the total members coming from strongly Roman Catholic (including Orthodox) background and culture is probably close to 9 million.

Culture being something that is deeply attached to the human psyche, it follows that converting to a new faith does not necessarily remove all the trace of the culture into which one is born. Indeed one may be willing and able to adopt some or even much of the Adventist subculture without giving up one’s more traditional customs and habits that define one’s particular society. I remember pastoring a Haitian church in Montreal and was fascinated by the fact that most of the members still had a healthy respect, not to say fear, of zombies.

I will therefore postulate that the Adventists coming from a Catholic background will tend to see the leadership in terms similar to that of the Catholic hierarchical structure. A case in point: In 1972 Elder Robert Pierson, then President of the General Conference visited the mission fields of the Indian Ocean. The news agencies in both the islands of Mauritius and Reunion, splashed across page one of their newspapers something to the effect that Pastor Robert Pierson’s position in the Adventist hierarchy was similar to that of the Pope… “The Adventist Pope is visiting Mauritius” wrote a local newspaper. I am personally aware of many church members who referred to the event as the visit of “our Pope.”

The point is that the Catholic mind will readily submit to and unquestioningly follow whatever word comes from Rome. I submit that the majority of our brothers and sisters who live in the above identified territories unconsciously see the General Conference as some sort of College of Cardinals and the President as the Adventist Pope. Therefore it is culturally very difficult to take a position of belief and praxis that is not approved by the highest church authority. Of course the local leadership in those territories will not agree with this assessment but I would maintain that there was lot of that attitude in, for example, the vote taken to limit the freedom of the Divisions in the matter of women’s ordination.

2.  The Tribal Mindset
A similar overall attitude exists in some of the other territories but as the result of a different cultural value. It is no secret that tribalism is still a factor that must be taken into account to understand much of what Africa does locally and to some extent on the international stage.  Many of the early African political figures when their respective countries became independent were tribal leaders or highly placed individuals within the tribes.  The key to a long and successful political career, something very difficult to achieve, was their ability to get the different tribes to unite. This was mostly achieved by getting, often bribing the local tribal chiefs to join. When such did not happen the door was wide open to intertribal warfare and much killing.

It turns out that the church membership in Africa is over 7 million. If the number of members who come from non-African countries (Pacific Islands, India, South East Asia etc.) but still operate within the “follow the chief” paradigm were added to that figure, one would have over 8 million that would find it very difficult to refuse directives that were prescribed by the President and the President’s men.

And what about the members that live in former communist countries and who over the communist years were forced to submit to the Kremlin or Beijing  Have these members completely lost their powerful sense of allegiance to the powers that be? If not, I believe that they would easily transfer to the Adventist Church hierarchy the same kind of submission that they experienced in their lives under that regime. I witnessed some of that in Paris when a significant number of Adventists from Romania came over after the fall of Communism and began to worship in French congregations.

Of course, it is most probable that the younger generations of these territories have an attitude altogether different to that of the parents. But then, the Adventist leadership is not known to listen to its younger members unless they belong to GYC or some similar conservative body.

3.  The Human Condition
The third reason undoubtedly has to do with the human condition?  Human freedom is a value/reality that most human beings find very difficult to handle. In fact, the research in sociology shows that when called to choose between guaranteed security and personal freedom most people choose security.  Imperial Rome manipulated its citizens by offering bread and games.

In the great novel The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian writer Fedor Dostoyevski describes a conversation between the Grand Inquisitor of Seville and Jesus Christ who is visiting the city. It is not so much a conversation as it is monologue because the inquisitor asks the questions then answers them. Jesus does not utter a single word. The old man’s man accuses Jesus of having spurned the possibility of winning the whole world because he would not deprive people of their freedom by performing miracles like turning stones into bread and jumping from the temple tower. 

The Grand Inquisitor contends that: “Man prefers peace, even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil”.  The old man adds that the church had therefore corrected Christ’s mistake by taking away the people’s freedom and giving them bread, religious/spiritual security and miracles, in return.  People are weak and afraid to take the responsibility of freedom, therefore he and his church had had to work hard to fix what Christ had left undone. People, Dostoyevski writes, would rather have others decide for them than do their own thinking.

The Grand Inquisitor blames Jesus for his unwillingness to accept and use power and authority to impress and subdue the people, forcing their allegiance. Again, the Grand Inquisitor unapologetically states that the church has acted in ways to correct Christ’s lack of insight into the people’s psyche.

Granted that Dostoyevski was pointing an accusing finger at the Catholic Church Orthodox or Roman and maybe in an uncanny way predicting Communism. The point is that the temptation to use one’s position in the hierarchy to dictate conscience, thus curtailing freedom, always plagues the individuals who hold power.

My point is that what I have written so far is the actual reality in nine of the world’s Division, which account for 90% of the Adventist population, mostly conservative. Of the four other Divisions two, NAD and SPD are a mix of the traditional and non-traditional attitudes, whereas the two Divisions of Western Europe, the IED and the TED are mostly liberal. The demographics actually make it easy for the leadership to define policies with little or no opposition because the majority of the delegates chosen to attend the GC administrative sessions come from the huge conservative segment of the church.

I feel as though I am walking on eggshells when I write that the reality is unquestionably the source of much unhappiness in the four Divisions whose members wish for more freedom in matters that are specifically relevant to their culture. Nevertheless, the question is what can be done to give back to the believers the freedom of deciding how to live out one’s faith. 

Two Solutions, Difficult yet Achievable

1.  Redefining “Unity in Diversity”
It seems to me that the first issue that must be addressed is that of “Unity” because “Unity” in the deeper things of faith has alas morphed  into “Uniformity” in everything. 

The church has long prided itself in the slogan “Unity in Diversity.” But diversity is mostly understood only to mean people of different ethnic origins. At no point in its history has the church given a broader meaning to the concept of diversity. The traditional “Parade of Nations” on the last evening of a General Conference session illustrates what Adventist diversity looks like. People of all colours and languages, dressed in multi-coloured national garb, take a 30-second walk across the stage to the wild applause of the thousands gathered on the tiers of the sport stadium. Adventist diversity on centre stage and lauded.  These days, the “Parade of Nations” has lost its appeal, accustomed that we are to watch National Geographic documentaries that take us to all the corners of the world on TV.

But the church has never shown any desire and even less intention to expand diversity to include ideas, concepts and practices that might be culturally relevant and meaningful. Missionaries from the United States and Europe made sure that the Pacific islanders wore three piece black suits on Sabbath not withstanding the 100-degree (40 degree C) tropical heat. Telling the youth that it is not acceptable to go for a swim but OK to take a walk in the woods is another of those uniformity ideas that is the practice worldwide. Traditionally, every Adventist congregation the world over follows the same worship format as outlined in the Church Manual. That may help visitors from foreign lands feel at home on a Sabbath morning but in many cases the format does not reflect the local culture or emotional needs. None of the above practices has any biblical foundation but is expected all the same because it is the Adventist way.

I suggest that the Divisions be given the permission to address the non-fundamental matters in terms of how they relate to the local cultures and environments of the respective countries of their territories.  Divisions should establish independent research groups composed of theologians, sociologists, ethicists and knowledgeable members to research how beliefs and policies relate to the local situations. Such groups will meet when necessary and their recommendations passed on to the concerned fields. May I add that the presence of representatives of the GC is not required for such matters.

People are more and more culture conscious and culture impacts most aspects if not all of everyday life. I postulate that to decide how matters of faith relate to matters of culture should be the prerogative of the respective Divisions and Unions only.  Here again the General Conference should have no mandate to intervene in such issues and most certainly should not have the right to veto the recommendations and decisions.  To a large extent this would limit the type of letter recently sent out to the Unions reminding them that the General Conference ultimately retained the right to decide in all matters of governance.

The time has come for some form of regionalisation that gives autonomy to the Divisions to be put in place. This will reduce the constant travel at every level of the hierarchy savings much money. Another huge advantage is that it will save the church the multi-million Dollars that go into organising the quinquennal sessions which actually leave the majority of the world membership indifferent. The question is whether the Division and Union leaders are ready to take such a stand for the sake of better responding to the realities of their territories.

2.  Misusing Ellen White and Anti-intellectualism
A second suggestion is about how to fight against the anti-intellectualism that is quite prevalent in the church and threatens to take away the freedom of thought. Again, what I am about to write may be very controversial.

The church has a non-written belief that the final word in every situation and about every issue belongs to Ellen White. Many times this has put a stop to intelligent conversations because few believers dare to challenge the long held position.  How often one hears the statement, “I apply the Spirit of Prophecy as it reads,” not realising that in doing so Ellen White is placed above the Bible because large sections of the Bible are not taken as they read. Who today follows the prescriptions of Leviticus 20: 18; 15: 16, 19-35 as they read? 

The writing of Ellen White should/must be subjected to close exegesis and hermeneutics as is the case for Scripture. The cultural, religious, political and sociological contexts of her writings need to be taken into consideration before many things that she says are applied today. We readily do so for the Bible, why not for her writings? Is it wrong to believe that the church did Ellen White a disservice when it compiled her many one time statements and personal letters into books with titles, strongly suggesting that they were authored by her under inspiration? The danger of such use of Ellen White was demonstrated in the many times Ellen White quotations were used in an attempt to close the debate in San Antonio.

Ellen White wrote that holding a belief for a long time did not necessarily prove that it was correct. May I slightly alter the statement to also mean that it is not necessarily wrong to evaluate Ellen White’s statements themselves in terms of their relevance to present cultural and social realities?  I am of the opinion that cultural relevance is no threat to questions of morality and ethics when it is properly and intelligently addressed. 

Indeed, unless the gospel is relevant to the people that it wants to touch its impact will be insignificant. It is a cop out to sit back and smugly suggest that postmodern people have closed their hearts to the truth when in reality it is the church that has lost the art of talking to them in ways that they can understand, appreciate, and respond to.

To address the unease caused by the three actual realities described in this article requires bold and innovative ideas. Concerned believers who hunger for change need to be willing to go where no one has been before and be willing to accept the risks that are inherent to any new venture. There will be accusations of betrayal and breaking the ranks.  Pressure will be exerted not to overturn the apple cart.  But then, was Christ not accused of the same?  Luke records that the crowd accused Paul of teaching things against “our people, our law and the temple” (Acts 21: 28).  Paul did not back off from doing what he knew the gospel required him to do if he was to win the non-Jews to Christ. He summarised his approach thus in Romans 1:14: “I am owe myself both to the Greeks and non-Greeks…” Paul pushed the boundaries to reach that goal. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the Gospel…” 

Are our leaders as willing to do what it takes in order to reach out to every cultural group by facilitating the conversation and being relevant?


Pastor Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown and pastors two churches in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia.


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