Do We Know Why Educated Adventists Leave the Church?

Seventh-day Adventism is probably the most upwardly mobile church in Christendom, thanks in large part to its policy of starting schools wherever new churches are “planted.” Adventists in the United States are illustrative of this trajectory. The data in its current form, though more anecdotal than robust, suggest that when new members join the church their socio-economic statuses increase over a much shorter time than the norm. The catalyst for this upward movement, it seems, is the church’s philosophy of emphasis on education. This is not a Western-world-only Adventist phenomenon. The pattern is replicated even more strikingly in developing countries where new church membership, education and upward mobility all seem to track. Countries like Ghana, Kenya and Jamaica confirm the trend.

Inherent in the notion of social ascent is the fact that beginners or initiates start from a lower point in society. Because we are a proselytizing church, so much of our growth comes from evangelizing other Christian denominations.  This, in the overall scheme of the gospel commission, is akin to cannibalizing from within. But that’s our main focus in increasing membership and we use public campaigns – tent meetings (popular in developing countries) or Daniel/Revelation seminars (preferred in the West) – to draw new followers. These two mediums, though they attract the curious, do not generally bring highly educated people. Consequently, when converts from these campaigns commit to the church and embrace its educational philosophy, they begin climbing the social rungs.

The moral of this story is that, though the Adventist message and its appeal are primarily spiritual and otherworldly, adherents enjoy significant socio-economic benefits of membership in this world. So it might seem counterintuitive that highly educated Adventists, the key demographic beneficiaries of these advantages, would leave the church at all. But they do. And I suspect in much higher proportion than Adventists with comparably lower education. I can only speculate, because to my knowledge the church has not attempted any longitudinal studies dedicated to capturing why educated Adventists, who gain the most from church affiliation, later leave the church. The closest attempt of a snapshot/longitudinal pre-college research of its members, outside of healthcare, is the Valuegenesis studies, whose attention is mainly on faith and doctrine. Since our movement days are long behind us, and we are now in an establishment-church phase, we should begin to pay attention to attrition. That is, why members leave.

The Adventist church as a whole has an attrition problem and this has been known by administrators for some 55 years, ever since we began collecting formalized data. At the October 2020 Annual Council meetings, David Trim of the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics and Research, drew attention to this looming crisis. He reported that the worldwide church loses 40% of all new memberships each year. This translates into an erosion of 16.4 million of the 40 million members gained over the past 55 years. The problem is compounded, he warned, by a leveling off of membership gain (accessions) over the same time period, foreshadowing an inevitable decline in church growth unless we take timely measures to mitigate these twin adverse conditions.

Of the two, I would conjecture that attrition should be easier to correct. In an increasingly connected world, where information is easily accessible on one’s phone, it’s becoming more challenging to add new members through formal campaigns or weeks-long Bible studies. Which is a completely different problem from attempting to understand why those who used to be members opt to leave. If we can start gathering the stories of these disaffected members it is conceivable that the church could learn from their “unhappy” experiences and hopefully address them in a way that provides better community and stops the hemorrhage.

How do we begin to do this in the absence of quantitative Valuegenesis-type data to start the conversation? I suggest we devote significant resources to designing just such studies, using the Valuegenesis template and tweaking it for different needs. But there are other, equally information-rich qualitative designs that could be utilized to mine dormant data. Many of our tertiary universities teach these and other design methodologies and I have no doubt that, rightly incentivized, whole departments and many graduate students could be “commissioned” to facilitate this. For a long time our church has tied its eschatological projections to how well we do in evangelizing the world – a useful euphemism for church growth. Our leaders know that they can connect evangelism and the Advent only if we show church growth. So David Trim’s statistics, though sobering and at first blush alarming, are also a wakeup call to act, since doing nothing in the face of a declining accession and increasing attrition rate, makes the work ahead increasingly daunting.

But my more narrow concern here is attrition in the ranks of highly-educated Adventists. Members of this group, especially if they are products, in part or whole, of the Adventist education system, bear the brunt of ambivalence. On one hand there is gratitude for unforgettable, shared experiences and friendship associations they would not trade for anything. And for many educated Adventists it is this camaraderie, often developed over a lifetime, more than any sense of the church’s specialness or prophetic calling, that still keep them connected. But on the other hand they also share a profound sense that the education they received, though well-intended and meant to shelter, was skewed in ways that left lasting harm. And this damage has, in no small way, contributed to the reasons why many have “fallen away” from the church.

Ironically, the beginnings of this alienation could be traced to our broad commitment to liberal arts education in elementary and high school curriculums. By the time students entered our colleges the internal war – of ideas and belief sets – had already been intense. The liberal arts – intellectual underpinning of Western humanistic inquiry – are the exploratory bedrock of ideas and methods spanning the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities and arts. Any educational framework based on these ideals tends to value critical thinking, open mindedness and independent expression. In fact, the “liberal,” in “liberal arts” has its roots in “liberty,” as in freedom, and not “more” or “generous,” which it now more typically connotes. In this sense, a liberal arts culture attempts to free a person via education. And my anecdotal observation is that the students most likely to carry seeds of their own future discombobulation about what to believe, are those that pursue further studies in the humanities – literature, philosophy, history etc. and the natural/social sciences – biology, ecology/psychology, sociology etc. Thus we should immediately start understanding why they become disaffected and leave.

I think it begins in middle school. The anti-evolutionary biases in our junior-high classrooms face a sharp reckoning in high school. Then, by necessity, the same students who a year before were told by their teachers and church-issued textbooks that the earth is roughly six thousand years old, now read for themselves, in their non-church produced texts, that the earth is verifiably much older than they were previously told. And it isn’t because their teachers suddenly went rogue against church teaching. Many “heroically” act as live editors of the texts they teach from, deprecating perceived misinformation in the new textbooks. They go out of their way to dutifully insert our creationist theological dogma in the science classroom even as fossilized nature silently sabotages their efforts. But as these students take advanced science courses, they notice the steadiness with which their teachers’ arrows miss the mark. And at which point they start accepting and finally frequently adopt the data verified via the scientific method.

The situation is not qualitatively different in the humanities. I offer examples from the literary arts where my training provides a perspective. For many Adventists the subject of literature conjures unresolved antipathies to something they might enjoy but have been warned against. Then throw in “fiction,” – a word too often considered extremely dangerous, with hardly any redeeming qualities when used in Adventist elementary classrooms (and some conservative pulpits), and thus the stage is set for uneasiness. Dr John Waller, the late eminent Professor of English at Andrews University used to tell stories of growing up in a predominantly Adventist community and having to shoulder the heavy burden of his secret love affair with a genre his church community portrayed as the devil’s ruinous instrument.

His stories recalled incidents in junior high and high school when he was repeatedly caught reading Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, a Bronte sister, Joseph Conrad or even Charles Dickens, and being “shewed” to the front to face his classmates. Then going through what devolved into a pointless routine of penance for the sin of reading Shelley or Keats. Even Shakespeare was a dirty word. Once a traveling Shakespeare troupe came to his town for a week’s performance and their presence was deemed sufficiently threatening by his school authorities to devote an assembly for the sole purpose of warning students of the peril in their midst. But young Waller appeared beyond salvation in such situations. The next week he took a bus to the adjacent town where the same troupe was now performing, in hopes of observing Hamlet’s love affair with indecision, away from the prying eyes of his school’s literature police. Only to spot a badly disguised co-conspirator in an over-sized baseball cap – a much-loved high school English teacher – in the audience too. Instead of enjoying Hamlet, Waller spent the evening vacillating between the apprehension of being “caught” and the exhilaration of knowing he was not alone.

I listened to these stories in grad school from this revered professor as he described an era in Adventist school experience two generations removed from mine. And I was saddened that this happened at all but also relieved and grateful that we’ve moved on. Or so I thought.

In 1997, the children’s reading world was set on fire with the publication of J. K. Rowling's first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. My oldest son was in second grade, not old enough to handle that level of reading by himself, but the buzz about the book had penetrated his circle and there was nothing he wanted more. I read the reviews and bought one, having decided to read along in hopes of discovering why the book was such a hit with grade schoolers. It turned out to be an incredible experience reading all seven books in the series, the first two with my son and the subsequent ones independently. It is easy to understand why adolescents and even children were enthralled. The characters are exquisite and devoid of gratuitous, exploitative displays of inappropriate affection, a wholesomeness that warmed my heart. The heroes and the world they inhabit are relatable, with plot lines detailed and nuanced. But most importantly, the themes: good vs. bad, light vs. darkness, honor, commitment and the ultimate triumph of goodness, bear much resemblance to our own church’s Great Controversy construct. I couldn’t think of what not to like about the books.

But I was wrong. And my error was assertively explained during a Parent/Teacher meeting when my Harry Potter-loving son was in junior high. Unbeknownst to me, he had reviewed one of the Potter novels for a book report. An act his teacher considered unpardonable. The offending paper, with a neatly scribbled 0/20 in red ink on top and no other notation, was placed in front of me.  And after allowing an appropriate interval of suffocating silence to cloak my awkwardness, his teacher cleared her throat and declared her disappointment. That I allowed my son to read “such books” in a Christian home. When I momentarily overcame my confusion and understood what was going on, I asked if she had read any of the Harry Potter books? “No,” she retorted. “I don’t have to. I have read enough reviews by competent Christians to know that a book that advocates sorcery has no place on a Christian bookshelf, let alone read for a book review in a Christian school.”

I opened my mouth to contradict her then realized it would do no good, so I mechanically clammed up.  But as I recollected my son’s face – what was I seeing? The warring ferocity of shame? Disappointment? Confusion? Or a yearning for understanding? And his soft, muffled, non-directed statement as we left the office: “She didn’t even read my report but gave me a zero?” I wonder whether I should not have pushed back a little. And offered Coleridge on the “willing suspension of disbelief” as a buffer to “believe” fictitious stories for the sake of enjoyment. For children my son’s age, it seems that such experiences can easily precipitate a divorce from Adventism when they come of age and can act for themselves.

 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10931
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Research design determines findings. Skillfully crafted questions are more likely to elicit helpful information. Might I suggest that asking participants regarding their thoughts about how accurately the doctrinal beliefs of the SDA denomination match what they’ve interpreted from scripture might be enlightening.
While it might be painful or embarrassing, adventist leaders who admit that what they’ve mightily proclaimed as “the truth” is not always perceived as such by more highly educated scholars could learn much.
Taking as a given that the doctrines are obviously not a concern (so we can exclude that topic from our research) continues to leave big holes in former member findings. Many of us disagree with what the church teaches and so have just walked away. No hard feelings or bad experiences–just perceived doctrinal error.

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I’ve been leaving the church for many years now. It’s a long walk to the door that bangs shut behind you. I still haven’t reached that door after 50 years. Along the way I’ve taught Sabbath School and have taught and been principal at an SDA school, always hoping to make a difference. While in college I was sure my generation would make the changes; but on went the suits and the pastoral smiles at the door and nothing changed.

That should be a clue - they learned to read; and they finally read the Bible.

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What your son’s teacher did to his book report is inexcusable. Perhaps, she would have gained a new perspective about Harry Potter if she had read his paper—one can always hope.

Unfortunately, ignorance based on dogmatic constructs seems to be prevalent in conservative religious educational systems. Molding a child’s natural curiosity to a set of artificial norms is psychologically damaging, especially if guilt is tossed into the mixture with a heaping helping of disapproval.

I just wonder how many sons and daughters have been emotionally abused by their teachers because the children did not “toe the party line” of what a “good” Adventist should not do—dressing, eating, reading, watching, etc. How many pastoral visits have occurred because the teacher, principal or school board wanted the “violations” addressed and for the parents to be put in their place of what was proper for their child?

When there are myriad don’ts but very few dos, life becomes sterile. A child’s mind should never be confined to a limited array of postulates set in granite.

If creation teaches anything, it is that the magnificence of imagination is constantly on display around us by Nature’s Artist. Without imagination there can be no growth.

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Great article, Matthew! It’s ironic that our church’s success in educating so many of its children is contributing to its demise. We invite our kids to develop a love of learning and to pursue knowledge. We shouldn’t be surprised that this pursuit of knowledge in an internet era, providing fast access to anything they want to know, leads quickly to the realisation that the Adventist church has its head in the sand on many issues.
You mentioned the age of the Earth. Why an educated church would cling to Ussher’s chronology so tenaciously is astounding, and why the church would give so much tacit support to YEC is equally astounding. There are multiple indications that Earth has been here far longer and that there has been life on Earth for a very long time.
Young people don’t like being misled and lied to. Once they discover, for example, that Scripture says nothing about LGBTQ, that these people are not perverts, that the variations are entirely natural, confidence in the teachings of the church declines.
Young people know nothing and care nothing for the IJ, and the church appears to be going quiet on it. Are any serious scholars addressing the issue? If not, why not? Is it because the doctrine doesn’t have a firm biblical base and therefore has no merit?
If we want to retain more of our young people, we have a work of reform to do. We’ve got to have the courage to be honest and admit that some of what we’ve been teaching for decades is NOT present truth.

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IMO, it’s because EGW subscribed to Ussher’s chronology. If Ellen said it, it’s generally not going to be disputed.

Nobody does…

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This article points toward a paradox I have never been able to reconcile–and that is, Adventism seems to be both pro-education AND anti-intellectual. We tend to want to instill our “proprietary” knowledge while discouraging actual knowledge production (and the inconvenient questions that come along with critical thinking and evaluation). I think part of it is inherent in our denominational history. We emphasize that Ellen White only had a third grade education, and yet she was taught by the Holy Spirit and became an incredibly insightful and prolific writer. I have observed many people taking that to mean that the Holy Spirit can only truly work with those who are uneducated, and not so much those who have been “defiled” by education. Education is viewed with suspicion, as though God resides in ignorance and the devil lurks at the university, which means the church is not necessarily a friendly place for people who have learned to ask questions that can’t be resolved with a bullet list of proof texts. Sabbath school is usually a stifling purgatory where people play “pin the EGW quote” on the donkey and praise the absurd theological meanderings of various Adventist TV preachers. Anyone who attempts to point out flagrant hermeneutical and exegetical problems, or ask questions outside the “programmatic,” is liable to leave with sheep bite marks. I think a lot of educated people are getting tired of being in a setting where ignorance and superstition are exalted and the ability to think critically is treated with wariness and reservation.

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Anti-intellectualism in SDAism runs deep, especially in the USA where the fundamentalist branch of SDAism really really really wish that they were Southern Baptists and could be preaching the Gospel of GOP, Trump, anti-immigration, and anti-masque as they worship the three Fs, the flag, the foetus and firearms. To them the international and multi-cultural nature of the church is an embarrassment, except when those 3rd-world votes help keep women out of the professional clergy.
Yes, most educated SDAs cannot square logic and common sense with fundamentalism, and even less with a literal reading of EGW. And the fundamentalist wing of the SDA church, instead of seeing this as a wakeup call, it merely confirms them in their mistaken beliefs that intellectualism is the enemy and they retreat even further into the nonsense of fundamentalism.
For me the last straw was the GC’s doubling down in 2015 on a literal 6-day young earth creationist teaching, contrary to all logic, common sense and reason. The dishonesty required to maintain such a doctrine is astounding.

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EGW was wrong on volcanoes, wrong on the number of deaths at the St. Bartholomew massacre, wrong on the history of the papacy, wrong on “amalgamation of beast and man”, and wrong on the Investigative Judgement. But that shouldn’t be a problem. The Old Testament is clear that God set the earth on “pillars” (1 Sam 2:8) and that the earth doesn’t move (Ps 104:5).

Now after fighting the Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo for centuries, Christianity “discovered” that these texts were figurative and not incompatible with heliocentrism. Maybe in a couple hundred years, young earth creation can be relegated to the dustbin of false teachings that it so richly deserves.

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Adventists have the most unique doctrinal posits in all Christendom, briefly explained by the 5 pillars of faith; Sabbath, Sanctuary, Second Coming, Sanctification, and State of the Dead. Under these headings springs forth an understanding of the applications to the beasts of Revelation, their marks, the christian apostacy in the Old World, the mirror apostacy of christianity in the New World, spiritualism, Babylon, the last (climate) plagues, merchants of the earth, etc, etc, etc. Critical thinkers discover that there are deeper meanings here not discussed by the current leadership, the clergy, hence, the messages appear irrelevant. Science is shunned by those with tainted ideologies, and even though the front door of the churches are filled with smiling greetings and warm like welcomes, the back door is left unguarded, and those who exit are written off as chaff from ‘the shaking’. No one cares, because we all know the ‘chaff’ will be burnt up. Yet, these churches ‘know not the time of their visitation’. In other words, if they were more open minded and willing to learn ‘whether these things be so’, they might discover that they don’t yet know it all!
Adventists never seem to discuss whether America is a christian or secular nation, for example. How one believes affects their attitude toward christian nationalism. Why doesn’t Daniel mention America or the millennium and Revelation does? Why is Babylon explained as a city that splits into 3 parts, if important enough to be mentioned? Who are the merchants of the earth who market even the ‘souls of men’ that we are told to come out from? Frankly, if people would delve more deeply into such questions after accepting the ABC’s of their faith, it may transform their perspective, even their political understanding, and shed the blindness and conspiricy theories affecting a ‘large class’ of remnant believers. Judas believed a conspiricy theory, convincing himself that he would be rewarded for outing the Redeemer of Israel with a kiss, but his theory was fatal, his legacy was treason against his Master.
Truth is progressive, shining more and more unto the perfect day. Now more than ever, we must study like our lives depend upon it.

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While I agree that the world according to carbon dating is way more than 6000 years old…another way of looking at this issue is that when Adam was on his day one living in this world … he was created as a a fully grown man . Should scientist have managed to do a test on his biological age…probably would have found him to be of a ridiculously old age because of the material used to create him. In the same vein… because God can… the material used to create the world does not have to align with zero years as per carbon dating at creation. Thus the world as it was created for the purposes of being a home for the human race will be 6000 years or so but whatever material which was spoken into existence or used to create the world can be as many years as God wants it be.

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By my junior year at what was then Southern Missionary College (how many of us cringed at the “Missionary” every time someone asked what college we attended!) I no longer believed in what I had been all my life told was truth beyond questioning. If anyone is interested here’s the story of a fourth generation SDA’s journey away from Adventism: https://www.jimmoyers.com/spirituality/leavinggarden-.html

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You’re reading all kinds of scientific speculation into the Genesis story that’s not there, in order to save a supposedly literal reading of it. The problem is that trying to read Genesis 1-2 as a scientific account of creation as we understand science is not what the text is about. At all.

Setting and trying to understand the text within its own cultural matrix, and in the way an ancient Hebrew audience would have, can help clear away the debris caused by trying to read the creation account as a science textbook. A reading that actually obscures it’s intended meaning and message.

Frank

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You’re right ,it only took about 1500 yrs to acknowledge that Gallileo and the others, that our solar system is helio-centric There aren’t many geo-centric christians left It’s now only about 100 yrs since Einstein established that the universe has a finite beginning. -as Genesis states For many christians 13.7 billion yrs is too large to comprehend because they have a limited understanding of God Even more troublesome is an earth about 4.5 billion yrs old. These numbers only serve to wake you up to the knowledge that God is in some ways more incomprehensible than we can handle. For SDA’s it kinda messes up the sabbath

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Join the church.
Get a good education.
And prepare for job security?
The means to the wrong end?

Psalm 78:2 2I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old-

David was telling us that it wasn’t just Jesus using parables but that the Old Testament was also written in parables. When you come to understand that. Genesis 1 & 2 and many other stories are just that…stories which convey a spiritual sense, but not a literal or scientific sense. This is where our church has missed the mark badly. We have denied the above text, which is not hidden but in plane site.

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It wouldn’t have to. SDAs make the error of tying the sabbath to a literal 7-day creation. We’re OK with other symbolism in the bible and our practices (we don’t think that the wafer and wine actually are body and blood; we don’t think that a person actually dies and is reborn when baptised), so there need not be a problem seeing the sabbath an a symbol.

I have no issue with the earth being created to look old, as long as not too much is read into the mythology. Remember that not only does the earth have the appearance of being very old, but there is strong evidence of life and death having occurred well before the creation of man.

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OK, there is the influence of non - SDA grandparents as models,very dear, kind,friendly, loving honest peolple. There are the - not always positive - models in my Five -generations- SDA family. .Maybe too “great personalities you never can successfully follow.” But my elder son went to the same college as I myself - summa cum laude - did his part in intervening so that his final exams were not on Sabbath by in case requiring a special extra day in fall not with the other fellow students in June, but - in case - - spoilig his summer vacation and having his exam in Septemberl. This with maybe loosing at least one semester on University.

In the age of four ( ! ) he had asked me sponatneously on a Sabbath aftrenoon : “Say, how can be what did not exist before .” (“wie kann sein, was nicht geworden ist ?”). Then, with eighteen he chose Technical Physics (the doctorate summa cumlaude.) Inbetween he was invited by our ordained elder, also holding this doctorate and being the head of the research department in a worldwide known telecommunication enterprise .- to join him in them both displaying their field of study and work on the “Sabbath Affternoon in My Garden:” at his home. Commentary of a not so bright young man : "This is EVOLUTION !! "- OK you simply did not get it. Then the local church authorities decided : Well, it is time for Bible Studies and then baptism. Let’s spread this gossip !! That will help !!! We have a witty (but not wise) new junior Minister - Well, this man after many hours of “giving Bible studies” decided : "So you will not believe in volcanoes eruption because of fossiles getting afire down under the earths surface ? - - -That was it.

Inbetween he had successfully approached another doctorate - in Microbiology. - summa cum laude also. At the banquet on occasion of the first doctorate I asked : "Well, can you now by yourself answer the question you asked me two decades ago ?

See, you must be able to cope with Our Special Insights that alcohol - if you extract the water - gets ether and then they are really drunk ! - Taught at our academy Bogenhofen. in supporting teetotalers.(Source : Health Department of the GC). Or Professor Jo Ann Davidson / “Andrews” quoting a Professor Phillip. having been and teaching/researching Nutrition at Purdue University for 30 years that vinegar, is made of (NOT “containing” !) acetic acid and distilled water - a dangerous poison, also when highly diluted in your salad dressing - another proof of Mrs. Whites guidance ! (Two pages in “Adventist World” 3/2019) - - - -

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This would have been a great opportunity to ask her how many sorcery events she has ever witnessed in her sheltered Adventist life in the educational system. Or maybe ask her if the story of Samuel consulting the witch of Endor the as Saul consulted to summon the spirit of prophet Samuel in the 28th chapter of the First Book of Samuel in order to receive advice against the Philistines in battle after his prior attempts to consult God through sacred lots and prophets had failed. That sounds like a Harry Potter moment in the Bible. It never ceases to amaze me the ignorance and hypocrisy associated with the sanctimonious attitude of not just Adventist educators but also the clergy.