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Such a Petty God

Over a year ago I wrote in these pages about Ernie Knoll, a California Adventist who’d had a short run as a prophet to the remnant before he was unmasked. The surprise to me was how many intelligent, successful people believed in Ernie and gave him money. These weren’t just folks who signed their name with an “x”; among Ernie’s advocates were physicians and seminary-trained pastors. Why?

One of the attractions — the one I am sympathetic to — was that Ernie represented the voice of God speaking again to the Adventist church, nearly 100 years after Ellen White’s death.

Another, which I find more puzzling, was the content of Ernie’s messages. Ernie’s God was obsessed with what we wear, what we eat, and the music we listen to; and that many of Ernie’s messages were on those topics appeared to be a big selling point. (When Ernie told one woman that she could ask God through him any question she wanted an answer to, she imagined asking “how God felt about women wearing pants, and coloring their hair, and even plucking their eyebrows.”)

But this isn’t about Ernie. It is about the appeal these kinds of things still have to some Seventh-day Adventists. Ernie or no, there’s a segment of the church that places its emphasis here, and apparently believes these are God’s hang-ups, too. The book Creeping Compromise speaks for them. In it Joe Crews condemned pantsuits (sorry, Hillary), lipstick, short hair on women, all varieties of jewelry, meat-eating and more. (By the way, is it accidental that so many of these “sins” apply primarily to women?)

Let’s attempt to establish some perspective.

Estimates are that about 800 million people have insufficient food on any given day. 31 million adults and 2 million children have HIV/AIDS — the vast majority of them not homosexuals. AIDS has left 15 million orphans. The number of dead from wars and military actions is hard to pin down, but one study from the British Medical Journal estimates 378,000 each year since 1955.

OK, you say, but Christ is the answer. Agreed. So what’s the situation there?

Of the 7 billion on earth right now, only about 2 billion are Christians of any variety. Christianity is growing, but not at a pace that will overtake that other 5 billion any time soon.

Ah, but those aren’t Seventh-day Adventists. It all depends on the world receiving our message…

Well, OK: at a very generous estimate of 20 million Seventh-day Adventists, we’re less than 0.3% of the earth’s population.

All of these otherwise smart people who listen to Ernie Knoll and read Creeping Compromise: has it never occurred to them how odd it is that the Almighty God of the Universe is fretting about lipstick to less than 1/3 of one percent of the population (and in reality, not all of them) while millions are dying of HIV/AIDS? That he’s upset about pantsuits while wars are blowing babies to bits? That he is frowning down at meat-eaters, while hundreds of millions don’t have enough of anything to eat? That he’s about to come again to rescue this world, and rather than sending us out to tell people, he’s irked because Adventist women cover their gray?

Really? What kind of God is that? Surely not the God who was the father of Jesus — who, incidentally, said nothing about pantsuits, lipstick, jewelry, hair dye, or meat (this last which he himself not only ate, but prepared and served to others) but said a good deal about pouring out your life in love and mercy for the world.

An organization can set whatever standards on its members that it wants to, of course. It is of consequence here because this is a church, and what a church chooses to emphasize tells us what kind of God they serve. The God this segment of the church displays is a rather petty and myopic being, someone who gets more exercised about beefsteak and wedding rings than violence, death, war and disease.

It’s fine if you don’t want to wear a wedding ring. But that that and the other Creeping Compromise flummery should use up even 1/100th of your spiritual energy (and in those circles, it’s always a lot more than that) and the great needs of the world are hardly mentioned — there’s something very wrong.

I know the argument that this is the end time, and we are no ordinary church but a special people. Granted. But do you really believe that the proportion of time given to issues like “colorful cosmetics and jewelry” is in proportion to God’s eschatological concern about it? Assuming the Biblical proofs against jewelry are defensible, is this issue represented in Scripture to the same degree that it is scolded about by the traditionalists of this denomination?

Hardly. And the narrower our focus, the less special we become. Already our evangelism is mostly talking to ourselves. Meanwhile the world is going to hell.

Of course, the others of us aren’t necessarily a lot better. While the shallowest are filled with passionate intensity, the best lack all conviction [1]. When progressive Adventists lost our fear of colorful cosmetics and jewelry, most of us didn’t replace it with anything of larger spiritual significance. And so the average congregation, if it is not so torn between the traditionalists and the progressives that it can hardly function is doing business as usual: playing church.

Someone will undoubtedly say, “Ah ha, see? Adventists are no longer appreciating our distinctive message. This is a sign of the end.” Yes, it is. A sign of the end of this message if we don’t set priorities again. God will not preserve for his own a people who are obsessed with personal trifles while the world perishes.

  1. William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
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