One of the things the Catholic Church is often criticized for is their belief in the Pope as Vicar of God, rendering him infallible. Clearly, history is replete with examples of the Pope making questionable and downright erroneous decisions. From the Middle Ages to the modern day, we see examples that demonstrate the Pope’s lack of Divinity. This doesn’t merely pertain to the theological issues we can name, but rather to moral problems that the Catholic Church perpetuated under the guidance of various papal leaders. For those of us who are not Catholic it’s easy to point out the flaws of the RCC: from the politization of theology shown by the feuds with European leaders, to the indulgences the church sold in exchange for salvation, to the sexual abuse scandals that traumatized thousands of young people worldwide for generations. The fallibility of the RCC isn’t new news: Martin Luther famously took the RCC to task with the 95 Theses and sparked the Protestant Reformation. It’s easy for Protestants — especially Adventists — to harp on what the Catholic Church gets wrong.
Adventists build entire evangelistic series around what other faiths get wrong! It’s a pretty typical practice among Bible workers and evangelists. Many of those we proselytize come from other denominations whose flaws we highlight. But Adventists often fall into the same trap. We often ignore our own problematic history of poor decisions of commission and sins of omission through inaction. While we may not have a Pope per se, some are quick to paper over the errors of the Church in an attempt to create a facade of infallibility.
We are quick to dismiss times when the church has actively engaged in supporting regimes of injustice. Students of history know that the Adventist Church was enamored with Hitler. His lifestyle of vegetarianism and his propaganda of an “ideal” individual garnered many supporters among Adventists. This wasn’t merely among the congregants but the official church in Germany embraced and endorsed him.
To the Church’s shame, we were again on the wrong side of history as Adventist clergy participated in crimes against humanity during the Rwandan genocide. Although we claim Remnant status, the SDA Church was culpable in human rights violations not only because of Pastor Ntakirtima’s actions, but because of the World Church’s inactions to intervene.
The Adventist Church in America is not at all blameless. The Church perpetuated segregation in an official capacity in local churches as well as our educational and medical institutions. The rejection of a Black woman at Washington Sanitarium resulted in her death. This tragedy of Lucy Byard was the impetus for the creation of parallel conference structures divided along racial lines. These dual systems of State and Regional Conferences persist today and will likely continue to remain, seeing as how racism within the Church still remains.
Worldwide, we see the continued discrimination against women, which insidiously infiltrated the denomination through “headship theology,” and was introduced in the mid-20th century after Ellen White’s death. Institutionalized sexism perpetrated by a church that boasts a woman as one of its more prolific figures is a baffling affront to both theology and logic.
These are only a few instances that demonstrate Adventists’ inability to claim infallibility. Yet many laity and clergy alike continue to squelch dissent by parroting the idea that the General Conference is God’s voice on earth. It’s maddening in light of the long list of examples to disprove that concept. Some defend this sentiment by stating that it is indeed true, but only applies to General Conference sessions. Which conveniently ignores the many instances of strife that have occurred during GC sessions. Schisms that happened throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s are infamous within our own Church history. Despite the obvious — that ours is a fallible church led by fallible people — there are those who are reticent to entertain critique, reform or change. In addition to resisting progress, they encourage “unity” through conformity. That’s a cultish mindset.
We should indeed question our church and hold leadership accountable for the things we do (such as our continued institutional discrimination towards women) and the things we should do but haven’t done (where is the voice of the church in the midst of atrocities around the world?). We ought to encourage continued progress: the Pacific Union, Columbia Union and North German Union have stepped up for equality. And we should applaud those who admit to mistakes: the Church in Germany has been public about their part in past wrongs during Hitler’s time. We are grateful for voices calling out injustice: pastors and administrators in the North American Division have cried out against the bigoted mistreatment of Black and Asian peoples within the United States. Yet we still need to push for more. When will our church fully rid itself of its own discriminatory practices? Where is the voice of the Church in the continued abuse of Palestinians? When will the Church give a clear, unambiguous, full condemnation of persecution of LGBTQIA individuals around the world?
The Adventist Church is not without error. After all, to err is human. And despite serving an infallible God, we are a part of a human organization. The question is, when can we admit our faults and change for the better?
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
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