Persecution in the Adventist church?

Read how a commitment to freedom of conscience will lead us to respect the opinions and choices of those with whom we disagree.

Stephen N. Allred, JD, MDiv, is lead pastor at the Yuba City Seventh-day Adventist Church, Yuba City, California, United States.

I recall a conversation with a church member who expressed frustration with the Adventist denomination. The church, he felt, was limiting people’s freedom of conscience. He wished that the Adventist Church would stop meddling in personal lives by making beliefs and lifestyle issues tests of fellowship (even though I am not sure how many Adventist churches in the Western world actually do that anymore). Instead, he said, the church should allow members to choose what they
believe and how to live. 

The freedom-loving church member obviously understood freedom of conscience differently than I did, and he also misunderstood the nature and role of the church and of biblical church discipline. But he also had a point. Some things are so explicit in the Word of God that the Adventist Church has chosen to make those issues tests of membership. Other issues, however, are not so clear and should be left up to each individual’s conscience.

What is freedom of conscience and persecution?

For starters, there is the question of freedom of conscience, which involves the premise that all human beings have the right to believe or not believe as
their conscience dictates. No one ever has the right to force another individual to violate his or her conscience.

God gives His creatures the freedom to choose in matters of faith. Lucifer and millions of his angel followers were allowed the freedom to choose to rebel against God. Adam and Eve, and their offspring, were created with a free conscience. Unfortunately, most of us misuse our freedom of conscience, but even so, God does not take away our freedom.

During the Dark Ages, when the church and state in many parts of the world were united, the church routinely persecuted dissenters either directly or through the arm of the state. Much evil resulted from this unholy alliance of the secular power (the state) with the religious power (the church). The church leadership decided what people should believe and how they should live and then made sure that all within their jurisdiction complied. Those who did not were harassed, hunted down, arrested, fined, imprisoned, tortured, or executed.

In the United States, where church and state are supposed to be separate, it is much more difficult for a church to persecute dissent. In the American context, you can choose to be a member of any church that you like; and you can choose to leave any church at any time that you desire. Of course, there are still incidents of church organizations using intimidation and harassment. But any church that goes too far will run afoul of the law.

The church and discipline

So, is it persecution for a church to engage in biblical church discipline? Is a church’s effort to remain doctrinally pure guaranteed to violate someone’s freedom of conscience?

This needs to be looked at carefully. Churches usually come into existence because a group of people who believe a certain way or have a similar goal organize themselves into a church. Hence, we have the United Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, for example. New members can become a part of their church denomination if they accept the church’s doctrines and subscribe to a certain creed or lifestyle, depending on what the particular
church denomination decides. Some churches have a policy that those who do not ultimately adhere to the beliefs or practices of the church are to be
disciplined or disfellowshiped.

Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, for example, requires that members sign a covenant that requires, among other things, faithful attendance, service, living a godly lifestyle, and regular giving.1 In the Adventist Church, becoming a member currently requires agreeing to, at a minimum, the 13 baptismal vows2 and, some would argue, the 28 fundamental beliefs.3

In the Adventist Church context, discipline usually refers to admonishing an erring member that his or her life­style or belief is out of line with church teachings or standards and, perhaps, disqualifying the erring member from holding church office. All this, of course, is with the goal of helping the erring member to change his or her mind. Discipline can also involve removing the member from church fellowship if they choose not to repent.

The idea of the church meting out correction to those who voluntarily join its ranks has scriptural support. For example, Jesus noted that if two members have a conflict between them, the one wishing to redeem the other can ultimately “ ‘tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector’ ” (Matt. 18:17, NIV). While it is not clear what Jesus meant by treating them like a pagan, what is clear is that the church, as a corporate body, does have a redemptive and cor­rective role to play in the interpersonal and personal issues of its members.

Another even more explicit com­mand in Scripture regarding engaging in church discipline is given in Paul’s let­ter to the church at Corinth. Paul noted that it had been reported to him that a member of the Corinthian church was involved in sexually immoral behavior, a very personal issue. And yet, Paul did not hesitate to tell the Corinthian church to get involved. “Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?” (1 Cor. 5:2, NIV).

What gave the church and its leader­ship the right to address such personal issues? Perhaps it was that the church of biblical times viewed the church as a family where love and accountability were all a part of the mix. And maybe the church of Bible times saw people within the body of believers as being disciples rather than mere members. The concept of becoming a disciple and experiencing loving discipline go hand in hand. Perhaps those of us who live in highly individualistic societies, where we often resent communal input, have something to learn about how today’s church ought to function more as a community and family and how discipline is a part of discipleship.

Church discipline and your conscience

Is it, then, a violation of freedom of conscience for a church to lovingly hold a member accountable to live according to the church’s beliefs and admonish the erring member to change their sinful lifestyle? What about when a church removes from its fellowship a member who stubbornly refuses to repent? In the Bible, the church has authority over spiritual matters within its borders and is tasked with lovingly holding its members accountable. Of course, inflicting criminal or civil penal­ties in order to harass or coerce does not fall within the church’s jurisdiction.4

Keep in mind that to violate some­one’s conscience, coercion needs to be involved. Where that is absent, a violation of conscience is not at issue. And while it may seem coercive for the church to tell one of its members that they are being removed from fellowship (perhaps against their will), no one should force them with threat of civil, criminal, or physical punishment to change their beliefs but merely ask them to resign their membership. Just as they joined the church freely, they are able to leave freely (or choose to change the offending behavior).

But what about a church employee who lives in violation of church teach­ings? In that case, there are legal repercussions, such as loss of employ­ment and resulting financial hardship. Some might think that losing a job for failure to live in accordance with a church employer’s teachings equates with persecution, but is that really the case, especially if the member employee knew at the outset of employment that adherence to church beliefs was imperative to maintain employment?

Tests of fellowship versus debatable matters

In the Adventist Church, the chal­lenge, it seems, is determining which beliefs, standards, or lifestyle issues ought to rise to the level of tests of fellowship. As mentioned at the out­set, there are certain doctrines and beliefs that each church lays out in its fundamental teachings or creed that it views as non-negotiable. The Adventist Church has decided that adherence to 28 such fundamental teachings, or at least 13 baptismal vows, is a baseline for membership in the denomination. Logically, a church either ought to be faithful to its acknowledged fundamen­tal beliefs or change them. The same goes for members. To do otherwise is disingenuous and leads to a confused sense of identity and mission in both the organization and the individual.

On the other hand, most Adventists in the Western world would also agree that if the Adventist Church desires to follow Scripture, certain issues that the Bible has left unclear should be left to individual conscience. In Romans 14, Paul referred to these as “disputable matters” (NIV), and they are what we would refer to today as theological gray areas. In Paul’s day, these disputable matters included food sacrificed to idols and observances of Old Testament feast days exclusively connected with the Jewish temple (see Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8; and Colossians 2:14–17). Paul’s advice to the church in these areas was that “each [member] should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5, NIV).

For Adventists today, deciding what constitutes a disputable matter can be a contentious process. It seems that for now, at least, the 28 funda­mental beliefs (or maybe only the 13 baptismal vows) are theoretically not debatable. Consequently, if Adventist members feel judged when they are asked to live in harmony with these baseline teachings, it does not make a lot of sense to cry that they are being persecuted. No one forced them to become a part of the church that embraces and upholds these teachings.

Conclusion

Ultimately, a commitment to freedom of conscience will lead us to respect the opinions and choices of those with whom we disagree. Disagreement, however, is not the same as persecution. And when a church organization makes clear what the church stands for and what it expects of its members, that is not persecution, either. If individuals find themselves in a church that does not fit their beliefs, they ought to consider either (a) that they have some growing to do, or (b) that it is time to find another church. But they should not complain that their freedom of conscience is being violated. No one is taking away their right to choose what they believe for themselves.

References:

1 Rick Warren, “One Way to Increase the Commitment Level of Your Members,”Pastors.com, pastors.com/one-way-to-increase-the­commitment-level-of-your-members/.

2 See the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 18th ed. (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2010), 46, 47 at www.adventist.org/ChurchManual_2010.pdf.

3 “Beliefs,” Seventh-day Adventist Church, www.adventist.org/ beliefs/fundamental/.

4 If you are wondering how the church discipline that the ancient Israelites inflicted upon dissenters fits into this discussion, see the article by Ellen, G. White, “If a Theocracy Was Good for Ancient Israel, Why Not for America?” sacredconscience.com/2012/11/07/ if-a-theocracy-was-good-for-ancient-israel-why-not-for­america/.


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Stephen N. Allred, JD, MDiv, is lead pastor at the Yuba City Seventh-day Adventist Church, Yuba City, California, United States.

June 2014

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