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The Law of Unintended Negative Consequences


Rabbits were firsts introduced to Australia for food.  What nobody foresaw was that the rapid, explosive growth of the small furry animals quickly turned rabbits into a major pest that destroyed the open grassland and other grazing areas.  This in turn impacted the natural fauna whose food supply was greatly reduced.  The sheep industry was also negatively impacted.

In 1990 the Australian state of Victoria made the wearing of safety helmets mandatory for cyclists.  The objective was to reduce the number of head injuries, which of course was good.  What no one foresaw was that the youth finding the wearing of an ugly helmet unfashionable simply chose to ride less.  This then reduced the physical activity level of that age group, which in terms of overall health was counterproductive.

What is the point? Individuals as well as institutions plan and implement actions designed to produce positive results.  But as often as not the consequences are sometimes positive, and sometimes negative as the above shows; sometimes both positive and negative.  The concept was popularized by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton in the early part of the 20th century.

Religious institutions are not immune to the problem.  In my opinion, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is presently hurting from four cases of unintended negative consequence. 

A. Terminology

The general spiritual apathy that is so prevalent in our ranks is possibly the negative consequence of the use of a terminology that is unspecific but creates a sense of spiritual smugness and complacency:  “A member in good and regular standing.”  Less used lately, the terminology was used worldwide to determine the spiritual standing of individual members when it came to the transferring of membership.  It was believed to mean that the person was a bona fide Seventh day Adventist.  This individual attended church regularly, abstained from alcohol and tobacco and unclean foods, returned tithe, and participated in church sponsored activities if only sporadically.  A few decades ago the  expression also meant that the member did not go to the movies, use make up, and did not dance – but things have lately changed.  That a member was a gossip, was always critical, or was abusive at home was usually not considered in assessing good standing.  Perhaps the Laodicean indictment is an apt description of the complacency created by the terminology and displayed by the collective membership.

B. Community service programs

The Dorcas Society and The Good Samaritans are two of the community service oriented departments of the local church.  Here again what began as good programs has had over the years an unintended negative consequence.  Jesus said that on judgment day access to the kingdom would be given to those who went out of their way to meet the specific needs of the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  Jesus did not say that it would suffice to donate some funds or some clothes to the church, which would then pass these items to the needy.

Was that what Christ had in mind?  Christ intended each disciple to keep and eye open for the needy and then personally do what is required to alleviate the suffering.  Doing so opens the door to people’s hearts and creates bonding which is the primary condition for personal evangelism.  The secret of making friends with the poor is to target one or two needy families, provide the help that they need and keep the contact going over time.  Statistics collated by the church shows that over 80% of conversions results from friendship relationships.  Meeting the needs of the underprivileged and the oppressed is the number one item in God’s agenda for the church (some two thousand verses in the OT have helping the poor as their main focus).  The Dorcas Society and The Good Samaritans have unwittingly taken away from the individual members the privilege and the joy of one on one helping.  Just imagine each Christian family, parents and children, adopting a poor family and providing on going assistance.  Friendship would be fostered and the ground prepared for sharing the good news.  If every church family engaged in such an action there would be far more baptism than all the combined evangelistic campaigns put together. 

C. Evangelism

Mention the word evangelism and the collective Adventist psyche spells it “guest evangelists, a public venue, prophetic charts, archeological videos, twenty-some presentations followed by baptism.”  Almost no member upon hearing the word evangelism thinks: “This is my mandate given to me by Christ when he said ‘You shall be my witnesses’ .”  Indeed Christ was not addressing the church (institution), which was not in existence at the time.  When did the deviation occur?  Most probably back some thousand plus years when the membership was separated into clergy and laity. 

The non-Biblical clergy dichotomy is still alive today and nowhere more so than in the area of evangelism.  Evangelism is the ongoing sacred mission entrusted to individual members, using their Spirit-given gifts and engaging daily in the home, the neighborhood, the workplace, and for a few in the market place.  It is doubtful that God ever intended that evangelism should be so expensive that unless the institution provides the funds for a full-fledged campaign little or no evangelism takes place, at least in the West.  It is no secret that all the administrators know that the return on the money invested in public evangelism is very meager.  The information that is not readily published is the number of individuals baptized after any campaign who leave shortly after.  A paradigm shift must occur that turns evangelism over to the laity where it belonged in the first place.

D. Tithing

The way the issue of tithing is taught and promoted has also produced an unintended negative consequence.  It is no secret that compared to tithe the freewill offering is very low indeed.  The emphasis laid on the importance of returning tithe has produced an unconscious sense of having fully met God’s demands.  Add to that the many articles published over the years continuously repeating that the Seventh-day Adventists are the most generous Christians because they turn 10% of their income to the church and that they are the envy of other denominations.  Yet, all is not that good when one considers that only about 40% of the membership return tithe.

What the membership does not remember or may not know is that returning tithe never proves generosity and gratefulness.  At best, tithing only shows honesty (sometimes self interest, sometimes fear of judgment) because it is simply returning to God what belongs to him in the first place.  On the other hand, gratefulness to the Lord can only be demonstrated by the generous offerings that come from a heart touched by grace.  Because offerings are so low many congregations have had had to resort to fundraising, often using worldly methods to coax money from otherwise reluctant donors.  Of late the church agencies have been looking for special government grants accepting all the imposed restrictions/obligations that are conditional to receiving the funds. 

The very serious overall unintended negative consequence in the four areas identified is that of well-camouflaged spiritual complacency.  We can sing “It is well with my soul” all we want but “lukewarm” is the assessment of the True and Faithful Witness about the present condition of His church.  Is it time to wake up, accept the rebuke and discipline and earnestly pray for for the refined gold of genuine love, the white clothes of Christ’s righteousness and the salve to heal us from spiritual blindness that is linked to spiritual self satisfaction (Revelation 3, 18, 19)?

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

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