The Slow Death of Adventist Sectarianism

I cannot write a column about bioethics, Adventism, and Adventist healthcare this week without referring to the massacre in Orlando, Florida. I have often said I can find an ethics issue behind every bush. It is not hard to find one here. Fear and hatred appear to have taken hold in my United States in ways that I do not recall as a youngster. The demonization of Others is so prevalent and acceptable that national leaders gain followers by appealing to it. The embrace of violence in American culture combines with a supposed liberty to own any gun we wish, to deadly effect. In the wake of such murderous events as the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub, we tiptoe around the issues as if we are powerless to make changes. What happened to the America that made decisive, pragmatic advancements to our society? And what happened to the Christians within this mixed-up, pluralistic experiment who functioned, as Jesus said, as the salt of the earth.

How are we Adventists the "salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth," as The Message paraphrase puts it? What has our posturing, and preaching done for the Others who were attacked in Orlando? Unless your head is stuck in the sand, you know that our Church has formally rejected persons of same sex orientation. We say, of course, that we love them because we love all people, but the official position statement makes it clear that we reject their presence among us as members. Our General Conference, just over two years ago, approved a statement at Spring Council entitled, "Responding to Changing Cultural Attitudes Regarding Homosexual and Other Alternative Sexual Practices." Within this statement we read: "It is inconsistent with the Church's understanding of scriptural teaching to admit into or maintain in membership persons practicing sexual behaviors incompatible with biblical teachings. Neither is it acceptable for Adventist pastors or churches to provide wedding services or facilities for same sex couples.” Yet I have held membership in Adventist Churches who openly accept and love gay and lesbian persons as Church members. So, there is a mess of inconsistency between local practice and public statement. What charade is the Church attempting when it officially rejects one type of person (read: sinner) while accepting other persons (read: sinners)?

The only way I can make sense of the Church's presence in America today is through the three-part sub-culture I have identified in previous columns and in other publications. Reaching back to Battle Creek, MI and the emerging forces within the Church, I see a ministerial branch emerging alongside a medical/healthcare branch. A significant portion of the tension between these developing sub-cultures revolved around whether or not our offering of healthcare was to be an evangelizing tool in the hands of ministers. Healthcare professionals did not see their work this way, instead offering their care primarily for the simple purpose of health improvement. The medical branch lost the fight in Battle Creek, most dramatically noted by the disfellowshiping of Dr. Kellogg.

Our ministerial sub-culture is dedicated to a sectarianism that divides humans into Us and Them categories. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sect” as: “A group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong.” For Adventists, being sectarian means we often cloister ourselves as protection against the Other. The OED goes on to say the term is “often derogatory.” Sectarian groups, it says, have “separated from an established church” and are, as such “a nonconformist church.” The Us and Them thinking goes like this: We may be among Them, but we cannot be like Them. We are the saints, they are the sinners. We are God's chosen remnant, they are the rabble.

Of course, there cannot be a definable entity such as a church without distinctions, but when those distinctions serve primarily to identify God’s condemnation of others over and against his offer of love and grace, then we have strayed. When efforts to clarify our Fundamental Beliefs turn into a tool to divide people, we fail ourselves and God. I submit that it is time we purposely reject sectarian Adventism. We may be as different, distinct, and obtuse as we wish but we cannot and must not use God's word to divide and condemn others, something that seems all too common among us these days.

With specific regard to the context of violence and our American response to it, Pastor Alex Bryan (of the Walla Walla University Church) put it well when he posted on Facebook, “What part of violence must we own? Every dirty joke about women creates a climate where it’s okay to do violence against them. Every disparaging remark about Muslims, every nasty word for people of another color, every crack about Catholics or Jews, every despicable word with reference to another’s sexual self-identification, cheap shots at liberals or conservatives, mocking those who are other-abled, cursing the previous or coming generation, employing a venomous vocabulary to destroy those who differ from us….Hateful speech is the mother of violent acts. We must not be in the business of giving birth to such monstrosity.”

Of course, there is no straight line from our Church’s sectarian and formal rejection of gay and lesbian persons to a psychotic killer in a nightclub. I believe in our Church’s effort to make clear statements about ethical issues that matter. The problem is our sectarian Us and Them attitude. When we formally espouse God and his word as divisive and condemning we exacerbate an already contentious human spirit and culture. Grace is supposed to draw out and enhance the best in humankind, not serve to heighten partisan discord. The embrace of sectarianism seems instead to have compelled us to tell others just how different and special we are. From too many of my fellow Church members I see and hear the spirit of division and discord rather than the gospel of grace and peace. I am no more innocent than the rest of us at failing to remain focused on the beauty of God’s grace, but if I am going to make an error in living a life of faith I would rather err on the side of inclusion and non-sectarianism than exclusion and sectarianism.

The distinction between the sectarianism of the ministerial sub-culture and the non-sectarian healthcare sub-culture is both functional and authentic. Yes, anyone offering a public healthcare service to citizens of the U.S. must comply with Federal and State regulations. Healthcare professionals must functionally orient their service toward others because of these regulations. But altruism, purposefully placing the interests of the Other above your own, is authentic and essential to the healthcare professions. So, when a hospital opens their doors to the public they must prioritize the patient’s health. But when our sectarian Church opens its doors to the public our primary goal is self-centered. Rather than attentive effort to offer the gospel to our communities, we allow ourselves to be distracted by measures of growth and success. Rather than craft a basic, uplifting gospel message of grace, we primarily seek an opportunity to introduce Them to Us.

I understand the complexities of motivations, intentions, and goals. They are inextricably intertwined. But the fact of our sectarian and non-sectarian experience is that these two sub-cultures embrace different motivations, intentions, and goals. Adventist healthcare systems practice an openness toward Them that our Churches do not. As I said above, this difference is not just regulatory and functional, it is authentic to our identity as healthcare providers. While our Churches become havens of division in a society that is polarized, our healthcare services have embraced diversity, inclusion, and a lived experience of God’s grace.

One way this difference is maintained is the sectarian Church practice of membership. It is one thing to be welcoming to potential worshipers, but quite another if and when that person seeks membership. Hospitals, conversely, offer a full range of care without discriminatory guidelines based upon personal identities. As one healthcare administrator put it to me regarding reproductive services offered to same sex couples, “We follow the Mission Statement and do not discriminate when it comes to patient care.” What I wonder is if our need to build membership can be secondary to our effort to provide a community of faith for those who wish to worship God with us. It may be that membership is more important to Us than it is to Them. Is it possible for us to provide a full congregational experience to people in our communities without pushing them toward membership?

I see pockets of rejection of sectarian Adventism in America, moving instead toward an altruistic focus on Others. Places like Kettering, Loma Linda, and Orlando. The Churches associated with our healthcare institutions are dramatically different than other SDA Churches I am familiar with in North America. Many of these Churches have embraced a non-sectarian approach to sharing our unique Adventist message. But there are too many Churches still dependent upon obsessive attention to winning converts and building numbers. If our Adventist healthcare systems are to have a good relationship with the denomination these old, underlying tensions surrounding motives, intentions, and goals will need to be resolved.

[1] Available at:

Mark F. Carr is an ordained minister and theological ethicist with experience as a pastor, pilot, commercial fisherman, professor, and now clinical ethicist. He writes from his home town of Anchorage, Alaska.

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As usual, the facts are distorted by defenders of homosexuality to make it appear that the church is intolerant.

The church rejects homosexual behavior as unbiblical, but so-called “orientation” (funny that this term isn’t used for any other propensities to evil) is in the same category as any other temptation. Some are born with proclivities toward alcoholism or other drug dependencies. But they are not “rejected,” or condemned because of their temptations. They are only subject to church discipline when they act on those temptations. If we used the term “orientation” instead of temptation, proclivity, or propensity, for all other forms of temptation, it would be seen how silly this accusation really is.

I read the church policy which was quoted, and it sounded reasonable to me. That some local churches ignore it, is not the fault of the church at large, and is merely a symptom of worldliness creeping into the church–which has always been a problem, but which seems to be much more common than it was in the past.

The implications of this statement are clear (and uncalled for), and if one of us posters had made this kind of claim against someone, I suspect we would have been reprimanded and our post would have been flagged. It reminds me a bit of when Katie Couric tried to make a connection between the murder of Matthew Shepard and Focus on the Family. Her statement was outrageous (especially given the way Focus has addressed homosexuality over the years), but was never retracted and no apology was given, even though the murderers were under the influence of drugs and killed him during a robbery, not because he was a homosexual.

Incidentally, I was surprised and disappointed to see that they had deleted Clifford Goldstein’s first post. It was spot on. Tolerance has become rare commodity here.



there are three texts that speak to the core of Christainity that make us one In Christ

Phil 2:5-11
Romans 3-5
Eph. 2

Denominationalism is a curse. If Christ made us one who is to divide us? Tom Z


One of Jesus’ last prayers for his followers was for us to experience the unity that He experiences with his father. I have to wonder just exactly how this unity will express itself.


But altruism, purposefully placing the interests of the Other above your own, is authentic and essential to the healthcare professions. So, when a hospital opens their doors to the public they must prioritize the patient’s health. But when our sectarian Church opens its doors to the public our primary goal is self-centered.

Healthcare is 17.5% of the American economy or $3 trillion dollars a year, or $9,500 per American person. If I were part of an industry that so grossly overcharges that it is strangling the economy of one of the richest nations in the entire world, I’m not so I’d sure I be so smug about my “altruism” or condemnatory of the selfishness of churches.

On the other hand, perhaps if churches could charge every man woman and child who enters their doors $9,500 per year, they would quickly become less “sectarian” and more “altruistic.”

And Pauluc, you won’t see me arguing that lawyers are motivated by altruism. Not sure I could manage that with a straight face.


Coming from a family with many in the medical professions it is accepted and even mandatory that all patients will be treated the same regardless of the circumstances. Some have worked with inmates of prisons for years and never had a problem, because each patient was treated with the same respect as a millionaire.

Is it impossible to foster this same kind of respect for all church members? Only if the onus of color, sexual orientation and discrimination is removed. Until those become official positions from the top down will this never be possible. Currently, the statements are discriminatory on the face, as well as in actual practice. The church has been taught how to reject even its own but has not learned to love–the children who have grown up in the church until they realize they are different. How can God bless such a church?


An interesting perspective … us- the ministerial sub-culture vs. them - the medical subculture (or is it the other way round, who is us and who is them?). Not sure whether that divide actually is valid - or even intended by the author. But speaking for German pastors … I know that a number of conferences bravely tackled the issue of homosexuality, from a theological, psychological, ethical perspective and probably have turned pastors far more “medical”, certainly more reflective and thoughtful than many medical professionals would dare to be. But then, I wouldn’t want to build an apologetic for the ministerial perspective - the author is a pastor himself … and I believe to understand his point of his analysis - or should I say analogy. And yet I am not sure whether the non-sectarian stance of the medical world really should be called altruistic (other centered). Self-centeredness might be an issue in both subcultures portrayed. And other-centeredness may not necessarily be achieved by moving to Loma Linda or Orlando. And perhaps it is THAT realization that could heal the rift between them and us.


I appreciate this article very much…thank-you, Mark.

You have done an excellent portrayal of the “Them vs. Us” mentality that exist within Adventism. I have heard it spoken about throughout my lifetime.

One of the major differences between the Adventist “Professional Religious” class and the “Medical” class IS the fact health care must follow State and Federal guidelines and has much more accountability than the “Religious” class. This has created a more “open” and “accepting” subculture among the “Medical” class.

One could venture to say that it is precisely the lack of this “enforcement” of outside forces that keeps the “Religious” class more insular and less open which impacts the culture of the churches themselves.

In fact, if one looks at some of the comments made already to this article most of them are tangents of side issues such as homosexuality and the “price of healthcare” analogy! Some comments are actually addressing the issues or points of the article illustrating the “Them” vs. “Us” divide.


While Pastor Bryan’s quote is very true, the difficulty is how one defines “disparaging”. I fear the left in the West are taking us farther and farther to the point where a public discussion of Islam for instance can’t be had because it promotes violence. Some Christians seem OK with this loss of freedom of speech as they would like to see their own religion immune from criticism or satire as well.


If we believe what happened in Orlando was evil, and that those seeking reconciliation, mutual understanding, and peace in human society represent what is good, then we have effectively embraced an “Us vs. Them” paradigm. Not only is this paradigm endemic to the great controversy theme of Biblical and classic Adventist thought; it is a basic, irrefutable reality in the human experience.

How does the author of this piece harmonize his worldview with the following words of Jesus?

"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword.
"For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
“And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matt. 10:34-36).

Regarding the unity Jesus prayed for among His followers (John 17:21), Jesus left no mystery as to the “how” of its accomplishment. Before He prays that His followers be one (verse 21), He prays that they be sanctified through His Father’s Word of truth (verses 17,19). Without this truth and the sanctification it brings, the unity Christ prayed for is impossible.

This generalized condemnation of “hate speech” we keep hearing just now is simply absurd. Arguments against racism, economic inequality, materialism, oppression of the poor, and other social evils most of us here would condemn, all constitute hatred. All who hold strong convictions harbor hatred, regardless of the issue. Indeed, hatred is ubiquitous in the interplay of human ideas. And the attempt to forbid or marginalize the airing of one or more forms of hatred invariably means embracing another form of the same—whatever hatred is held by those making the rules of acceptable social dialogue.

What the author of this article and others of like mind are pleased to call “sectarianism,” whether in the Adventist Church or elsewhere, doesn’t have a snowflake’s chance of dying so long as the controversy between good and evil continues. The dividing of opinion and the taking of sides has been the norm in God’s universe ever since the original seeds of rebellion sprang up in the heart of the “light bearer” (Isa. 14:12-14). The Seventh-day Adventist Church will have nothing of importance to say to the world if it seeks to abandon this paradigm.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have a chance of happening.


this may not be an apt analogy, given that a patient presenting at a hospital presumably has a reason for doing so, whether he wants to be there or not…but no-one can have any reason for being in a church who doesn’t want to be there…

in addition, the actual requirements for hospital treatment and church memberships are converse: hospitals generally require payment, but don’t require any set of beliefs, while churches, at least adventist churches, have generally required agreement to a set of beliefs without requiring payment…the way a for-profit hospital runs, and justifies its existence, probably holds little pattern potential for a church, especially an adventist church…

i don’t think any of this has to be viewed as a problem…

it appears to be the case that this castigation of all things Other is endemic to bible religion, e.g.,

“And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.” 1 John 5:19.

“But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:8-9.

this would seem to mean that if the church doesn’t castigate everyone outside of its membership as an Other, it wouldn’t be an example of bible religion…sectarianism, for all its faults, does have the advantage of resembling the approach of paul, who consigned to satan everyone who disagreed with him, e.g., 1 Tim 1:19-20…

it is probably the case that within each subset of adventism, the prayer of John 17 finds truer fulfillment than within the church as a whole…

allen, is this your own version of the flood story…if so, it’s quite imaginative…maybe you should consider being a playwright…:wink:

The Message of Matthew 10:34-36 is that putting the words, the actions, the life, and the call of Jesus is Divisive. It can even instigate one group who want the status-quo to anger and even hatred toward those who see a need to change the Culture and Traditions and Belief Systems if one is to put into practice the Red Letter Words of Jesus.
It is also a Warning that the Red Letter Words of Jesus, when attempted to be put into practice will cause critical divisions between The Generations. The Older Men and Women vs The Younger Men and Women.

We are witnessing a lot of Division in grass roots thinking in The Church over What To Do With Women. We saw the Anger and Disgust exhibited at SA2015 instead of love and embracing Equality and the recognition of the Gifts the Holy Spirit gives to ALL persons.
We assumed the Role of God in telling God and the Holy Spirit what Women can do and be.

SLOWLY we are seeing Division in the Church regarding the loving and embracing of ALL Humans that God has created. To allow them to “come to me” and to find “rest for their souls”. It is small pockets of members to be sure, but more and more of the YOUNGER GENERATION are recognizing that it is OK to invite ALL persons to sit around the Table with Christ. To Fellowship with Christ in full inclusion in the Christ activities of the group. To allow ALL persons to express their talents and gifts in the service of Christ both in the Church activities and in Secular activities.
This has made the Older Generation angry, and threatening to the Younger Generation. Yes, a Sword of words and actions toward the Newer Generation who read the Red Letter Words of Christ with an enlightened view, a more embracing view, to bring the Joy of knowing God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit to those formerly outcasts of society. To allow the Younger Generation to TOUCH the “unclean” and to say to them, You are Clean, You are Whole. Come!! Join us in praising God!!
Yes, The Younger Generation is being like the Father welcoming the Prodigal Son, and offering a welcoming banquet.
Yes, The Older Generation is being like the Older Brother having to decide if he will join the party with the Father, or will stay outside. Refuse to join the festivities. Refuse to give up his anger and disgust toward his brother.

EDIT-- Professor Jeff noted the vitriol sectarianims displayed on various “Personal Adventist” web sites toward certain segments of society. Very vehemently crying loudly that they are Unworthy to be Seventh day Adventists, and that they should NOT be encouraged to even think about becoming a Seventh day Adventist.
They are NOT ALONE. As has been identified there are these same sentiments in MOST SDA congregations here in North America. My OWN congregation and the past and present pastor is of the same mind, and has declared himself so in front of me and the rest of the congregation during services.
This means to me that my God Loving GL friends still have to find God on Sundays in Christian Community if they are to Worship God, take Communion, participate in Prayers With The People of God to God. I CANNOT invite them to become a Seventh day Adventist and join me on Sabbaths. And they are not allowed to let me enjoy the display of their various talents at church for me on Sabbaths.
They have to prepare to be one of the 144,000 in their Sunday Church.
Because MY CHURCH doesnt want any of them to be among the 144,000.

EDIT-- Recently we have been comparing church with hospital, pastors with doctors, nurses, health professionals.
A number of years ago we used to tell SDA members that the Church IS A Hospital for Sinners. But then we treat the Church as a Hospital for Self-Pay Patients ONLY.
Charity cases CANNOT come in. So THOSE Sinners have to find treatment elsewhere.
We TRIAGE at the Door. We post rules as to WHO should NOT apply. We post DRESS CODES for admittance, and many greeters follow those Religiously.
I wont say any more.


Thanks, Mark, for your perspective. I agree with you about hearing a lot more fear these days. I would love to hear a politician say, “You are going to die someday, and I’m not going to be able to keep you safe. If you’re afraid of dying, don’t look at presidential candidates to help you with that.”

One verse I’ve been carrying in my mind since last Sabbath, and especially since the shooting, is Matthew 24:12: “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” (Last Sabbath I attended a church in North Carolina whose Sabbath School teacher favored the KJV.) Or, as the International Children’s Bible has it, “There will be more and more evil in the world. So most people will stop showing their love for each other.”

The presenter spoke of the iniquity and the chilled love as characteristic of the same group (and made reference to the so-called “bathroom law”),and I seem to recall hearing this verse interpreted as describing just one group (iniquitous and unloving) before. Interestingly, the commentary in the 1560 Geneva Bible posits two separate groups (Us vs. Them?): “Many will keep back their [our] charity, because they are unthankful and evil upon whom they [we] should bestow it.” I think the cooling of love might come from fear.

I’m not going anywhere with this, except to remind all of us that there is no fear in love, and that the one who fears has not been made perfect in love. And that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. No matter how much iniquity abounds, I am certain that God’s love is not cooling.


Birder!!! Really??


We don’t seem to be as concerned with “propensities” to covetousness.


Excellent, great essay. It’s not often that I have seen someone describe Adventism so realistically and so accurately!

Now we have to wait for the reaction of those who support and enjoy sectarianism. They probably won’t like the proposition of upgrading our Church to a higher level in which sectarianism has no place. As many times before, their rhetoric will certainly surface again against Mr. Carr’s healthy views.


Absolutely! Especially since there is no salvific instance of that so-called church.

Which of course indicates that the so-called church is not really a church, but an amalgamation of ‘believers’ who desire exoneration of their ‘belief’.

Lord, have mercy!

This as an assumption which is not supported in Scripture.


Lord, have mercy!


I see where you are coming from, due to the money involved, which is totally out of hand. But, I would say that the several MD’s in my family do what the author indicates, and will treat anyone who shows up, even if they suspect they cannot pay, or they will pay very little (e.g. Medicare or no insurance.)

The individual RN’s and MD’s and many other roles should be seen as distinct from ‘the machine’ of the institution or the larger health system in any region. Even so, the institution, while it seeks to survive long term (and needs money for that) often states they will in fact help everyone that needs it.

If I remember correctly, for example, Loma Linda’s emergency and trauma center is the last high level center its region, and it loses the hospital money every year, and it is both required to and wants to help anyone who arrives with the same high level of care. I doubt they are particularly unique.



You are correct in asserting that two or three Adventist sub-cultures have long been growing in our midst for many years! Many times the ‘medical/healthcare branch’ has sought to dominate the so-called ‘ministerial branch.’ It has done so in such things as the beginning of life debate. The medicos have wagged the tail of the ecclesiastical dog often and extremely effectively.

The original Adventist vision of healthcare was not for Adventism to pervade our healthcare institutions through ministerial proselytism. Rather, it was for the health-care workers themselves to be medical evangelists. For around 60 years many of these health-care workers were trained at The College of Medical Evangelists. Kellogg and others sought to walk away from this vision and well-nigh succeeded in taking the whole Adventist ‘medical/ healthcare branch’ with them.

These days the threat to the original Adventist vision of whole person ministry by the whole team of health-care workers is sustained to a great degree by the process of secularization and specialization. Secularization is in turn promoted to a great degree by mega-bucks in terms of astronomical wages and being part of a billion dollar industry. Whole person ministry can survive in an environment of specialization. But in such an environment, there needs to be a real and intention promotion of a spiritual, whole person ministry culture.

I have been privileged to observe Adventist ministerial culture within Adventist institutional life in four vastly different world regions. The Adventist ministerial culture has also suffered from a process of secularization. Here, this process is driven by a newly developing spiritual vision that seeks to divorce lifestyle and salvation. In saying this I am following the thinking of Fernando Canale and his two recent books, Secular Adventism: Exploring the Link Between Lifestyle and Salvation and Vision and Mission: How a theological vision drives the mission of the emerging remnant. I find Canale’s concept of the emerging remnant a really dynamic one that could help us avoid sectarianism if fully embraced, and yet remain true to the original vision and mission.

Concerning the attitudes of Adventists toward people seeking to live a Christian life while dealing with same sex attraction, I feel we have a long way to go to maturity in this area. We must not anticipate or demand that all Adventist people from every region on earth mature in their thinking at the same rate as we have. This is folly in the extreme. I welcome the advocacy of people such as Rosaria Butterfield, a former athesist, feminist and gay professor of English and queer theory at Syracuse University, who was converted under the ministry of a Reformed Presbyterian ministerial couple, and now is a Reformed Presbyterian pastors wife. Rosaria now gives a powerful testimony of how God has worked in her life. I find that her theology of the Christian life, as it has been fashioned in the crucible of her unique experience, particularly resonates with me. And so does her her rejection of talk of sexual orientation as a category error. And she might know about a category error having been a tenured prof of English specializing in C19th philosophy!! You may find her testimony on YouTube.

Further, I personally feel that Ryan Anderson satisfying deals with the misnomer of same sex marriage and he does so from a natural law perspective. Again, much of his material is on YouTube!

You may note, Kevin that I did admit to the position that a Church cannot be a defined entity without some sort of beliefs to which its members are inclined. And thus, your point about an Us and Them reality being essential to our very existence is granted. What I tried to argue is that our sectarian efforts to define exactly who Us is and who belongs in hell is not a task we ought to be bent upon achieving. My hope is that we leave that work to our good Lord. Our task, those of Us who love and enjoy our Adventist community of faith, is to create a thoroughly open place where the Us fades away in our obsession with an effort to make our worship and faith community so open and attractive that all those Others actually look forward to spending time with Us and we with Them.