Ask a Seventh-day Adventist...(Response)

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Can you believe it’s been almost a year since we started our interview series? Over the past 11 months, we’ve featured anatheist, a pagan, a nun, a Mormon, a Mennonite, a Calvinist, anevolutionary creationist, a humanitarian, an environmentalist, a gay Christian, a Unitarian Universalist, an  Orthodox Christian, aPentecostal, and many more

Well today, we’re speaking with a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist church. 

David Newman describes himself as an evangelical Adventist. He has pastored New Hope  Adventist Church for the past ten years, and is retiring at the end of June 2012,  after which he will enter a PhD program in London, England. He is the editor of Adventist Today, a progressive, lay-owned journal, and has served in various administrative posts for the Adventist denomination as well as an adjunct professor at  Andrews University. For many years, he was the editor of Ministry Magazine, an international Adventist journal for pastors.

You asked some great questions. See how David responds...

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From Paula: Seventh-day Adventists have a strong practice of Sabbath keeping.  Why, in your view, is Sabbath keeping so important to Christian life and practice?  What gifts from this practice would you want to share with the rest of the church?

We believe that the Sabbath celebrates the birthday of the world, the new life God brought into the universe, and justification by faith.  When we rest by not doing our own work on the Sabbath, it is a powerful reminder that just as we trust God to supply our material needs, so we trust in his grace for salvation and that none of our works count toward that salvation. The great gift of the Sabbath is to legitimately forget for one day the pressures of this world, and to revel in God’s grace spending extra time with Him, with family, and with friends.

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Seventh-day Adventist are part of a long tradition of Sabbath-keeping on the seventh day.  Christians observed the seventh day from the first century to the present, so Adventists are not the first one to make an issue of this day. On the tombstone of Peter Chamberlain, physician to Queen Elizabeth 1, are these words: “As for his religion, he was a Christian, keeping the commandments of God and faith of Jesus. Being baptized about the year 1648 and keeping the seventh day Sabbath above thirty two years.”

The founders of the Adventist Church came from the Methodists and the Christian Connection and were all Sunday keepers.  Rachel Oakes Preston, a Seventh-day Baptist, was the first one to introduce this concept to the early Adventists in the middle of the 18th century.  

You can learn more about the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church here

From Geraldine: Do you see [Sunday worship] as a sin, and if so why? Are all other Christians sinners because their sacred day is Sunday and not Saturday?

This is a great question.  The challenge is to explain in a few words what sin is.  Sin exists on two levels: relational and behavioral. 

When Jesus was asked which was the greatest of the commandments (behavior), he replied to love God first and your neighbor as yourself (relational).  SIN spelled in capital letters is our break in our relationship with God.  It is rebellion against God; sin spelled in lower-case letters are all the behaviors that are not in harmony with God’s will.   Since no one will ever be sinless (1 John 1:9) sins do not keep us out of heaven.   If we have placed our trust in God, we are saved.  Now comes the growing part. The Bible says we are born again, and just like a baby is very immature and grows into maturing during its whole life, so we must grow.  

So “Sunday worship” is not a sin.  We are all sinners.  Some are lost sinners.  Some of us are saved sinners.  Whether we worship on Saturday or Sunday is never a condition of our salvation.  What counts is whether we have placed our trust in God.

From Aaron: What is the most common thing said about Seventh-day Adventists that simply isn’t true?

That is a difficult question to answer because I have never seen a survey that lists the most common things said about Adventists. Probably the most common one that comes to my mind is that we are a cult.  

In the 1950s, there was an extended discussion between Dr. Donald Barnhouse, editor of the conservative evangelical Eternity magazine , Walter Martin, author of Kingdom of the Cults, and leaders in the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.  

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After interviewing the leaders in the General  Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists, Dr. Barnhouse published an article concluding that Seventh-day Adventism is not a cult. He wrote that while Adventists had some distinctive doctrines, when it came to the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, they were in unity with the rest of the Church.  In protest, some one third of his readers cancelled their subscriptions.  

Later, Adventists, themselves, published Questions on Doctrines, which contained the answers given by Adventists to Barnhouse and Martin regarding Adventist doctrine.  This book caused huge divisions in the Adventist denomination, and for many marked the beginning of what they saw as a rejection of the basis for Adventism.  

Today, Adventism can be divided into four basic groups within the same denomination: Traditional, Historic, Liberal/Progressive, Evangelical.  This is one of the reasons it is hard to define Adventism.  It depends on who you talk to.

From Rachel: Do Adventists believe that the Catholic Church is (or will become) the anti-Christ? I've heard this, but never actually asked an Adventist about it. 

That is a most intriguing question.  It is hard to answer because our whole belief structure has been evolving (in the best sense) over the years.  

For example, when I was editor of Ministry magazine, the denominational magazine for pastors, I published an article by Dr. George Knight, our leading church historian, which began with these words:  “Most of the founders of Seventh-day Adventism would not be able to join the church today if they had to subscribe to the denomination’s  Fundamental Beliefs. More specifically, most would not be able to agree to belief number 2, which deals with the doctrine of the Trinity.  For Joseph Bates, the Trinity was an unscriptural doctrine;  for James White it was that ‘old Trinitarian absurdity’;  and for M.  E.  Cornell it was a fruit of the great apostasy, along with such false doctrines as Sunday keeping and the immortality of the soul...”  And Knight continues with several other examples of how Adventist beliefs have evolved through the years. 

Yes, some Adventists have considered the Pope the anti-Christ but this is nothing new.  Martin Luther also considered the Pope the anti-Christ.  However, we have no official doctrine on this point.  It does not appear in our statement of Fundamental Beliefs. We certainly do not believe that the pope is the anti-Christ now, and I personally have questions about what the pope’s role might be in the future.

In 1997, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, released a statement regarding Roman Catholicism, which says: 

“The beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists are rooted in the biblical apostolic teachings and thus share many essential tenets of Christianity in common with the followers of other Christian churches. However, we have a specific identity as a movement. Our compelling message for Christians and non-Christians alike is to communicate hope by focusing on the quality of life that is complete in Christ.
As Adventists relate to Roman Catholicism in particular, both the past and the future enter into our thinking. We cannot erase or ignore the historical record of serious intolerance and even persecution on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic system of church governance, based on extra-biblical teachings such as papal primacy, resulted in severe abuses of religious freedom as the church was allied with the state.
Seventh-day Adventists are convinced of the validity of our prophetic views, according to which humanity now lives close to the end of time. Adventists believe, on the basis of biblical predictions, that just prior to the second coming of Christ this earth will experience a period of unprecedented turmoil, with the seventh-day Sabbath as a focal point. In that context, we expect that world religions--including the major Christian bodies as key players--will align themselves with the forces in opposition to God and to the Sabbath. Once again the union of church and state will result in widespread religious oppression.
To blame past violations of Christian principles on one specific denomination is not an accurate representation of either history or the concerns of Bible prophecy. We recognize that at times Protestants, including Seventh-day Adventists, have manifested prejudice and even bigotry. If, in expounding on what the Bible teaches, Seventh-day Adventists fail to express love to those addressed, we do not exhibit authentic Christianity.
Adventists seek to be fair in dealing with others. Thus, while we remain aware of the historical record and continue to hold our views regarding end-time events, we recognize some positive changes in recent Catholicism, and stress the conviction that many Roman Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.”

From James:  I used to attend Adventist churches.  Because of this, a friend of mine, a medical student, asked me about Adventist beliefs because he was about to work at an Adventist hospital.  So I told him about the Adventist fear that there would be a National Sunday Law, its view that the pope is the Antichrist. I then wondered: To what extent do Adventists take their eschatology seriously?  I know a number who do take it seriously, but would, say, doctors and nurses at an SDA hospital do so? 

Here is where a growing number of Adventists are parting company with much of our traditional teaching in this area.  We grew out of the great awakening in the early 19th century and were certain that Jesus was going to come in the lifetime of the people proclaiming that message.  

Ellen White was key in formulating many of our interpretation of Bible prophecy.  Now some of us believe that her prophecies were conditional,  just as there are conditional prophecies in the Bible.  Our teaching was that at the end of time the US congress would pass a national Sunday law, then the United Nations would pass a world Sunday law.  Today some of us are wondering how the Muslims, the Hindus, atheistic China and so on could agree to such a law. There is much division within Christendom on the best way to interpret the books of Daniel and Revelation.  I prefer to spend my time teaching people about Jesus and growing in him rather than speculating what the future might bring.

Bradley asked: Most of the stuff I see put out by the Adventists (pamphlets, flyers, etc.) has to do with Revelation, the end times, etc.  It all has a strong futurist interpretation of Revelation.  Can you talk about SDA eschatology, and how important it is in the SDA church as a whole?

There are four ways to interpret the book of Revelation: 1) Allegorical, which is a  symbolic reading of the text,  2) Preterist, which holds that most of the book’s prophecy  was fulfilled in the first three centuries,  3) Futurist,  which holds that most of Revelation’s prophecies have yet to be fulfilled (the position of most Protestant evangelicals),  and 4)  Historical, which holds that Revelation’s prophecies unfold over the centuries  (the view of the Protestant Reformers, and in fact much of the Christian church  until the 16th century.)  

Adventists hold mainly to the historicist view.

Prophecy is very important to Adventists since we came out of the prophetic preaching of William Miller, a Baptist lay preacher who predicted that Jesus would return to this earth on October 22, 1844 based on his interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel.  Of course this did not happen, but a remnant of those who accepted Miller’s teaching still believed that Jesus was coming back very soon and it was their calling to continue preaching the imminent return of Jesus.

From Hillary: Why vegetarianism? 

We believe that the best diet is what Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden.  Before sin entered the world, there was no death.  Animals were all vegetarians as well.  Current research shows that a plant -based diet is more healthy than a meat -based diet,  and even non Christians are coming to this belief.

From Paula: When I was in seminary I did a research paper on Ellen White, the founder of the Seventh Day Adventists for a class.  I am fascinated by the fact that this important early leader was a woman.  Based on this history, are women in ministry common in the Seventh Day Adventist church?  If not, what roles are women permitted to occupy?

Currently there is a huge debate in our denomination about whether women can be ordained as pastors.  There are one hundred and seven women serving as pastors in our denomination in North America.  They have the same pay scale as male pastors and can function in almost every way the male pastor can.  The differences are only technical.   At the appropriate time, they are commissioned in the identical service to that of men.  We officially allow women to be ordained as local elders.   We now have our first women serving as a General Vice President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (the highest governing body).   A past president of Loma Linda University was a woman.

From Aubree: Can you explain "soul sleep," and the Seventh Day Adventist position on hell? 

When God created the first man, Adam, “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). We believe the breath of God and the body make a living being.  Without the life-giving breath of God, there is no life in the body.  The concept of an immortal soul came from Greek influence and not from the Bible.

Very briefly, we believe that when a person dies, they sleep in the grave until the resurrection.  Sleep for death is a common metaphor in the New Testament.  When Jesus comes back the second time,  he raises to eternal life all who died trusting in Him. The Bible says that God is the only one who is immortal (1 Timothy 1:17).  There is no text that says that the soul is immortal.  

We believe in a hell as described in the book of Revelation that burns up Satan and all the wicked and cleanses this earth.  The results of the burning are everlasting.  We do not believe that for all eternity there is a portion of God’s universe where people are suffering forever and ever.  To pronounce an infinite torture for finite crimes is out of all proportion to the crimes. While God is merciful, he is also just. And He is also love.  As Rob Bell has so graphically illustrated in his book on hell, the love of God does not fit with a retributive God for all eternity.

From Becky: I was raised SDA and left the church in college.  Many family, friends, etc. remain SDAs, and I really wish I could still feel "at home" in an SDA church.  However, I accept evolution, don't think the Bible is strictly "inerrant" (I'm in the "inspired but not literally word-for-word accurate" camp), and am not even remotely on board with the standard Adventist end-of-time beliefs.  I gather that in some parts of the country (California in particular), there's a bit of a "progressive" Adventist movement, but I live in a more conservative area.  Can you envision a future for the church in which people like me will ever be able to "come home?" without feeling impossibly like fish out of water?

Becky, you would love it in the church I pastor! You would be most welcome here.  We believe in a big tent.  Doctrine does not save you;  only Jesus.  The Bible is not primarily a book of doctrine.  It is a book of relationships.  It tells the story of God and his interaction with his creation down through the ages. We have to search all over the Bible for our doctrines.  If doctrine was so important, God would have given us specific books on doctrine.  In fact, the only doctrinal books are Romans and Galatians, and they are discussing the only doctrine that really matters—how we are saved.

I believe in doctrine, but only as it tells me about Jesus.  Paul, when describing the point of doctrines , wrote “and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21). Everything must be taught through the lens of Jesus.

Churches like New Hope Adventist Church are beginning to become more common across the United States.  They are what I call relational churches rather than doctrinal churches.  These are churches where being “Christian” is emphasized more than being “Adventist.”

What do I mean by being Christian first?  

Take a look at these two pictures from early Adventist history:  

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The first picture created by James White, one of the three co-founders of the Adventist Church, shows the plan of salvation from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem.  The picture is dominated by the law tree with ten branches, one for each of the ten commandments.  In this picture Jesus on the cross comes under the tree.  This represents early Adventism.  Its burden was to tell other Christians how important the law was, especially the fourth commandment.  Jesus was there but he was not central.  This was published in 1876.

After a while, Ellen White, James’ wife, and one of the other cofounders of the Adventist Church (Joseph Bates was the third), came to realize that our preaching of the law and the Sabbath was turning us into legalists.  She tried to get her husband to change the emphasis of the church.  He died in 188,  but in 1883 Ellen White published a revised picture.  

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You will notice a startling difference.  The commandments are gone.  The law tree is gone.  Now Jesus on the cross is the dominant motif.  The law is still present but way in the background where you see a symbol of Mt. Sinai.  In her later years Ellen White published her best works on grace.

Sadly, most Adventist churches reflect the first picture.  New Hope Adventist Church and many more beginning to spring up across America are in the second picture where Jesus and grace are the focus and emphasis.

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Check out the rest of the interviews in our series here.

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