In 2018, the General Conference published the Meta-Analysis Report on the 2017-2018 Global Church Member Survey which, among other things, provides an overview of beliefs and practices of church members globally. While the report brings to the fore various issues, it presents two notable findings with far reaching implications. These relate to the role of the Health Message in salvation and whether perfect obedience is necessary for salvation. Specifically, findings on the two reveal that 1) Seventh-day Adventists believe that salvation is only through Christ, but many (47%) see the Health Message playing a role in salvation and 2) a large majority (65%) of Seventh-day Adventists believe they must perfectly obey the law to be saved.
These findings are revealing in many ways, and they offer a picture on how Adventists view God and understand salvation. While exposing the confusion that prevails on the most basic and important Christian doctrine, they provide an explanation on how Adventists have applied labels such as liberal, progressive, conservative, and traditionalist to each other. Without wading into the exegetical and theological debates around salvation, this article looks at the implications of these findings related to Adventism’s views on how we are saved.
Be Ye Perfect
While generally believing that salvation is by faith in the atonement and intercession of Christ, many Adventists go on to add that perfect obedience of the law is necessary for salvation. This is where the confusion reigns, in that while affirming that people are saved the moment they accept Jesus as their Savior, human effort is also presented as an essential contribution to salvation.
That we have been saved by grace alone (Eph 2:8-9) seems not enough for many who see the necessity of contributing something to their salvation. This unbiblical prerequisite reduces the Christian experience to a behavior-based relationship where focus is on doing or not doing things to earn God’s favor. Christianity ceases to be a relationship propelled by an appreciation of Christ but is reduced to a lifelong if not frustrating attempt to avoid hell and go to heaven through what one does or does not do.
Last Generation Theology, with its focus on perfectionism and a flawless keeping of the law meant to trigger Christ’s second coming, fits well into such a toxic belief. This belief not only misrepresents God by exaggerating man’s contribution to his own salvation but renders the cross less efficacious. Ellen White clearly explains,
“There are those who have known the pardoning love of Christ and who really desire to be children of God, yet they realize that their character is imperfect, their life faulty, and they are ready to doubt whether their hearts have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. To such I would say, Do not draw back in despair. We shall often have to bow down and weep at the feet of Jesus because of our shortcomings and mistakes, but we are not to be discouraged. Even if we are overcome by the enemy, we are not cast off, not forsaken and rejected of God. No; Christ is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” Steps to Christ, p.64
Thus, there is a difference between perfection and perfectionism. The former ties with Christ’s call for us to be perfect as our Father is perfect (Mat 5:48), given in the context of how we treat our enemies and do good to those who treat us unfairly. In Luke 6:36, instead of the word “perfect,” the use of the word mercy refers not to perfection in law keeping but perfection in love as we grow in loving God supremely and our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
This means it is this character of love (to God and to humanity) which is to be reproduced in us, not some flawless or pharisaic attempts to keep the law. However, for some in Adventism, the suggestion that salvation is by grace (alone), through faith (alone), in Christ (alone) sounds offensive and a cheapening of grace. This explains how among Adventists, a question on how we are saved is bound to generate conflicting and confusing responses most of which suggest that grace alone is not enough. Could this be a legacy from what Michael Campbell regards as Adventism’s flirtation with fundamentalism in the past?
The cherishing of the view that perfect obedience to the law is essential for salvation explains some of the intolerance, bigotry, and hypocrisy among Adventists. It breeds perfectionism, a self-centered and exhausting attempt to please God by flawless law keeping. By excessively focusing on regulating external behavior as a prerequisite to salvation rather than an outgrowth of our faith in what God has done for us, the Christian experience is reduced to a mere attempt to impress God.
While divergent views are normal in any community, the problem is when labels are thrown at each other, motives impugned. As perfect obedience is made an ambition, relationships become superficial and trivial issues are magnified to become salvific, leading to many individuals exerting efforts to create the impression that they have it under control. No wonder it is “suicidal” to be vulnerable in our churches as there is not space for honest conversation about one’s spiritual struggles. The intolerance that prevails means that the church, instead of being a refuge or hospital for sinners, becomes a museum of the “sinless.” In an environment where the bar is set so high, struggles are kept secret and acceptance becomes dependent on one’s ability to cover up their failures.
Perfectionism is toxic; it fuels separatism where with the fear of being contaminated some isolate themselves from those and that which they consider corrupting. Virtue is derived from how much less they participate in public events or ignorance of popular trends. By being suspicious of everything and everyone, theirs becomes a mission to look out for “apostasy” in others. It breeds an intolerant attitude, as church disciplinary processes become more punitive than redemptive. It is not surprising that as efforts are on regulating behavior, two out of every five members are reported to be leaving the church, not so much over doctrinal disagreements but toxic relationships and lack of community. People don’t feel loved, accepted, or supported in our churches which makes such views detrimental to mission and growth.
Health and Salvation
Added to this is confusion about the role of the Health Message in salvation where about 47% agree that keeping the Health Message guarantees salvation. While this is obviously a manifestation of a misreading of Ellen White’s writings, it exposes how much Adventism needs to urgently go back to the basics of salvation. While this shocking finding relates to the health message, it is highly likely that a similar trend could be observed if the same question is extended to other areas. By treating diet and health as a moral issue, it is natural to use the same as a sieve in matters of salvation. Instead of celebrating and echoing the blessedness of adherence to the health message on one’s emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being, emphasis is on how it assures one of a ticket to heaven.
By believing that perfect obedience to the law and health choices contribute to their salvation, Adventists are not far from paganism. Nothing is more pagan than a belief that one earns God’s favor by what they do or do not do. Interestingly, among those who held this belief on the health message, a majority of them were found in Africa and Asia, while in the North American Division (where vegan and vegetarianism is highest) 93% rejected this view. It appears in the Global South, the health message is largely being embraced, not necessarily for the benefits it promises, but rather for its perceived contribution to salvation. Could this be an explanation of the fanatical way in which conformity to the health message becomes nothing more than about trying to impress God?
One Church, Two Christs
The report further cites that about 76% of the respondents in the North American Division disagreed about the need to keep the law perfectly to be saved, while 64% of respondents from the East-Central Africa Division believed that the law must be obeyed perfectly. The divergence of views on how we are saved based on geographical location creates an “us versus them” environment that continues to manifest itself in various church platforms. This could explain the prevailing fear among some Adventists in the Global South that their brethren in the North are trying to steer the church into apostasy through compromise.
Conservative Adventism steeped in tradition is romanticized as the real deal while the brand of Adventism seen in the North is viewed not as progressive but as a perversion. Debates on topical issues such as women’s ordination, identity, and inclusion of sexual minorities become contaminated with suspicion and mistrust as political and administrative tools are used to settle differences in opinion. As long as divergent views about salvation prevail, it will be difficult to obtain consensus on some of the contemporary issues the church is facing. With one group believing that perfect obedience is what they must deliver to God as a contribution to their salvation, while the other sees perfect obedience not as attainable but as God’s gift delivered and accepted through faith, we have before us one church with two Christs. These two positions are irreconcilable, but for a movement that has self-defined as the remnant, the question on how we are saved becomes definitive.
While Adventism boasts of having a solid doctrinal foundation, clearly there is need to go back to the basics on the question of salvation and righteousness by faith. Of course, such erroneous views can be traced back during the early years of Adventism leading to the 1888 General Conference Session and Adventism’s connection with fundamentalism.
Theologians, pastors, and leaders cannot continue to be content with a misrepresentation of the very basic doctrine of the Christian faith among their members. A brand of Adventism that is always on overdrive to perfectly keep the law is exhausting and self-centered. It misrepresents God as a tyrant and reduces salvation to a transactional arrangement between man and God. A religion that exerts efforts on trying to impress God becomes judgmental and toxic in that it demands that which God alone can deliver. What one believes about how they are saved feeds into their picture of God and how they relate to others. Therefore, how are we saved is no longer an obvious and settled question in Adventism but an existential one.
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11101