by Loren Seibold
Lately I’ve been thinking about churches: the congregations I used to be a pastor of, as well as the whole denomination I identify with.
One notable thing about all churches, at all levels, is that there’s an inside and an outside. These organizations formalize the division between members and those who aren’t. Additionally, nearly all churches have buildings of a peculiar style where we meet, peculiar social mores within the group, and special rituals and behaviors that you have to learn.
We Adventists go farther. A Methodist friend was surprised to hear his Adventist wife refer to “non-Adventists.” “What kind of church,” he wondered, “has a designated word for everyone who isn’t one of you?”
Worse: some Adventists believe that anyone who isn’t one of us is ineligible for salvation! How arrogant! Who am I to say whom God will save? Just as I can love my family without looking down on yours, so with my church.
I’m weary of the whole inside-outside dichotomy. What would happen to Christianity—to all spiritual communities—if we weren’t exclusive? Maybe John Lennon was right when he said that we should imagine a world without religion. Religion divides people because it usually demands that you see things our way, and rejects you if you don’t. How many wars have been fought in the name of some god or religion? How many restrictions of freedom have been initiated to force people to conform to politicians’ or clergy’s picture of what their god wants?
And how many people have been alienated from God entirely by divisive words of ministers? All preachers should engrave this line from Ecclesiastes on their hearts: “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (5:2).
It’s taken me a while, but I’m glad I can say openly and confidently that God loves everyone, wants to include all of us, and that God’s kingdom will be filled with everyone who hasn’t consciously chosen to be excluded.
Executive Editor, Adventist Today
17 February 2024
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 15 February 2024 |
There appear to be several ancient civilizations that did not have the wheel. But I challenge you to show me a people who never had music and dancing. Dance is as natural to humanity as leaves are to a tree. It is the native tongue of the soul, a language that expresses that which words can not begin to articulate.
Infants seem to master this language of the soul earlier than the spoken word. My children were wiggling and expressing joy at music before they established a word bank.
Surely if we were never meant to dance, then why all this music? And why is moving to music such an integral part of our being?
The problematization of dance
The estrangement of dancing in Western civilization can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Theologians and other religious establishment insiders associated dance with paganism, and wanted to differentiate themselves from such non-believers. They taught that wherever people dance, Satan is present. Saint Augustine in his exposition of Psalm 92 said “It is better to plough than to dance.”
When the religious establishment seared the wrongness of dance into societal consciousness, they unintentionally made churches vulnerable to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon—aka the frequency illusion: we see more of that which our minds dwell upon. (One relatable example of the frequency illusion: should you buy a new car, you will immediately see cars just like it wherever you go, though you’d never noticed them before.)
What is certain is that some people began to see evil dancing everywhere. The dancing plague of 1518 in Strasbourg was an outbreak of nonstop dancing that could have been caused by stress induced mass hysteria, ergot poisoning, a few cases of mental illness, or maybe just people finding an excuse to have fun. Though there is little evidence that people actually danced themselves to death as some accounts claimed, anti-dancing religious leaders ascribed it all to evil causes.
Western civilizations—at least the secular parts of it—no longer see all dancing as problematic. Today waltz, tap dancing, ice dancing, tango, ballroom dancing—dancing generally—is accepted and celebrated. Some dances, like ballet, are regarded as societal markers of culture and sophistication. Native dances like the rain dance, sun dance, and war dance don’t yet enjoy big audiences, but they arouse more interest than they used to. Folk dancing is even allowed in performances at Adventist colleges.
Yet there remains among certain religious communities the belief that dance is an evil that needs to be regulated. To this day some Christian universities prohibit or strongly discourage dancing among students. Some churches prohibit any dance-like movement in worship, and discourage it even in the private lives of parishioners. In these institutions, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon remains at play: they still see all dance related to licentiousness, drunkenness, and all things unholy.
Missionaries to Africa, the continent where I was born, did precisely that. Our dances, in their view, were satanic, so they condemned all cultural dance. Biblical examples like the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6) were the platform upon which the anti-dancing cry was and continues to be sounded.
But this is a fallacy, lacking nuance and context.
The biblical reality
Biblical narratives have a lot of dancing:
Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted” (Exodus 15:20-21).
Dancing is not just approved, but prescribed for worship in Psalm 149:3
Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
Dancing was approved even in a parable of Jesus:
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing” Luke 15:25.
It is hermeneutical malpractice to read these instances as condemnatory. While Baal worshipers also danced as part of their religious routine (1 Kings 18:19,26) it was their religious worldview, not their dancing, that the Bible condemns.
How to dance
The words used to describe dance in the Old Testament don’t just say that people were dancing, but describe how they were dancing. “Raqad” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) means “to stomp” or “to spring about.” The same is true of “karar” in 2 Samuel 6:14, which translates “to whirl.” People weren’t just tapping a toe or swaying in place! They were moving!
Religious festivals like Passover and the Sabbath were punctuated with dancing. To the Jews of old, and still in contemporary Jewry, sacred processional dances were and remain an inseparable part of religious festivals.
Jesus the Messiah participated in sacred events in Palestine that were seasons of joy and dancing. His first miracle was at a wedding, where dancing was always part of the festivities. Though I admit it is hard to picture Jesus whirling, no doubt as a Jewish man he participated in dances in which one would leap like a lamb and stomp one’s feet.
These dance-filled festivals that all Jews participated in continued into the Talmudic period (70–640 CE). Feasts were incomplete without dancing. Rabbis especially were known for dancing their hearts out at weddings and other religious ceremonies.
Dancing was not only a Jewish or biblical practice; all ancient civilizations did it. It wasn’t a system for false worship nor the outcome of it, but a state of being to express joy. People danced because they were human. It was fun!
One argument against dancing is appropriateness: how can we dance in the presence of a powerful creator God? We do not behave like that in the presence of earthly kings, so why should we in the presence of the king of kings?
This line of reasoning fashions God’s kingship to the pattern of earthly kingship, which it is not. There is a temptation to make God in a human image. If dance is the native tongue of the soul, then it is a language God can understand. My inability to understand your preferred language should not be understood as God’s prohibition against that language.
Of course there are dances that are inappropriate for Christians; the kinds done in strip clubs are an extreme example. Many Christians got stuck on the dancing culture of the mid-century lounge style, where dancing could be flirtation or sexual conquest done under the influence of alcohol.
Yes, using an intimate dance to win over a partner who isn’t your wife is outside of the Christian worldview. But to see that as the only example of moving to music shows a lack of cultural awareness. It is a fallacy to start with an artistic expression that one dislikes and then argue that all examples of it are in opposition to God. You’ve seen this argument used by some to discriminate against certain kinds of worship music. Your preferences projected upon others is not a good definition of what is appropriate.
I would even argue that dancing that wouldn’t be appropriate for married people with someone else’s spouse, would be quite appropriate with your own spouse, or even for Christian single people who are courting.
Keep on dancing
For many of us there is a correlation between self-awareness and a reluctance to dance: society has defined dancing as a skill we must be good at to earn the right to do it. Add that professional religious practitioners have told us not to move our bodies rhythmically, that it is soul-corrupting and probably sinful.
Thus, we have ceased to dance. And I think we’re missing out if we don’t let ourselves express the depths of our souls.
Dance in church to express how God is transforming your soul. Dance while cooking or cleaning at home. Dance for exercise, and dance to celebrate with friends and family. Dance for no reason at all. Allow your body to move to commemorate the seasons of life. Dance like no one is watching!
And, believe it or not, some of us will have to loosen up and learn to dance to be ready for Jesus’ return!
For surely the day is coming, burning like a furnace…But for you who respect my name, the sun of vindication will rise with healing wings, and you will dance about like calves released from the stall (Malachi 4:1-2).
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is a pastor in British Columbia. Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.
I’m rather sick of love—of the word, at least. It’s been overused. Burned out. “Love” has come to mean whatever someone wants it to mean. That’s surely true in popular music, where the word appears in nearly every love song.
But it’s equally true, I would argue, among Christians.
I remember a church member who approached me and said, “Pastor, I love you but…” and then dumped a massive load of cruel criticisms of me. What, I wondered, does “I love you” mean in that setting? It seemed merely to be a way to get her up to speed so she could slam the emotional stuffing out of me.
(Of course, as the pastor, I was expected to take it, and surely not argue or defend myself. Because, after all, she said she was speaking to me with “love.”)
You probably know that “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 is the Greek word agapē, which is roughly defined as loving the way God loves us. It’s significant that the King James Version renders it as “charity.” Charity isn’t a sentiment or a feeling. It’s an act of sacrificial kindness.
Here’s a possibility: whenever we see the word “love,” we could replace it with some form of the word “kindness.” Kindness is an act of good will, rather than just a cheap sentiment to justify some other kind of response.
And what is real love but sacrificial kindness? I know a couple where the wife became severely handicapped by one of those degenerative diseases of aging, and whose husband took care of her until she died—which included cleaning her up after unpleasant accidents almost daily. I’m sure he had always loved her, but it was his kind, sacrificial actions that showed real love.
Perhaps if my angry critic had had to say, “Pastor, I want to do this kindness to you,” she might have had second thoughts.
But maybe not.
Adventist Today Executive Editor
3 February 2024
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
Several women in our congregation have recently begun wearing veils over their heads to church, citing 1 Corinthians 11. They say it is to show respect to God and to their husbands, but mostly because the Apostle Paul said they should.
They’re welcome to show reverence however they like, but they are becoming quite pushy, insisting the rest of us need to do the same—and that it is a matter of our salvation.
I should add that I don’t live in a culture like India or the Middle East, where head coverings for women are traditional.
What should I do, Aunty?
Signed, Only My Hair on My Head
Dear Only My Hair,
It never ceases to amaze Aunty how readily some Adventists adopt whatever custom from the past catches their fancy!
Yet to be fully “biblical” they would have to change more than their head covering. Are they wearing only homespun robes? Have they quit using shampoo and skin-care products? Have they shut off their electricity and internet and thrown out their phones? Do they live in homemade houses of mud and stone? Do they milk goats? Do they reject antibiotics in favor of prayer alone? Do they get rid of cars and walk wherever they go? Do they give up reading? (Most women back then couldn’t read, nor did they have books.)
Of course not. You’ll notice that those who advocate such ideas don’t take everything from the past; they choose things they can employ to be “holier than thou,” and try to force them on everyone else. They do the same thing with Ellen White’s counsels.
These people can’t (or won’t) distinguish customs of a particular culture from biblical principles. Being respectful toward God while worshiping is a good principle. How you do that depends on the culture you live in. In the world Paul lived in, women covered their heads. That was 2,000 years ago! The culture you live in shows respect to both God and your spouse in very different ways.
Aunty is sick of it. Please, Adventists: enough of this stupidity. Grow up. God doesn’t care what’s on your head. God cares how you treat others.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the tension between idealism and “the way things are.”
I’m a naturally sincere and optimistic person. I want to improve the world around me, and when I touch the lives of those around me I want that to be a net positive. I often make the mistake of believing that most people feel the same—that people are basically good, and if I live passionately, and authentically, with integrity and honesty, my efforts will be fruitful and appreciated.
But there’s a naivety to that worldview that sets me up for pain. We have all experienced being burned by someone we trusted, or realizing belatedly that someone doesn’t have good intentions.
How is one to balance between wanting to believe the best of people, but also being aware of humanity’s baser impulses?
I’m certainly not going to solve that age-old problem in this short editorial. But it reminds me that Jesus also wrestled with the paradox of light and darkness that exists in humans. He said in Matthew 10:16, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
While that doesn’t exactly clear it up, it’s comforting to imagine Jesus thinking about these same issues. He seems to have realized that:
People are basically doing the best they can, we should approach people with the radical empathy of Jesus.
and at the same time…
People who want power will gain power, in whatever way they can, in any environment they’re in. Commitment to good isn’t necessarily absent, but it is secondary to gaining and maintaining power.
Both those things are true.
So the longer I live, the more I will keep trying to figure out what “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” means. And try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus
Lindsey Abston Painter
Writer and Editor, Adventist Today
20 January 2024
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
I have heard that some consider cremation to be a pagan practice. Does our church have a particular position on cremating dead bodies?
Signed, Funeral Planning
Some Christians say that God disapproves of burning the bodies of the dead. Arguments Aunty has heard include:
Aunty doesn’t think much of these arguments. Saul was burned because his body had been mutilated by the enemy, and Achan’s body was burned in anger. Just because Bible people put bodies in caves doesn’t mean we need to today. And what Christians of Constantine’s day, or Jews, or Roman Catholics do, for whatever reasons, isn’t required of us.
What you (or your family) decide to do with a dead body is up to you; there is no definitive biblical statement on the matter, nor has the Seventh-day Adventist Church taken a stand. We know God doesn’t need original material to bring people to life in the resurrection: think of all the faithful Christian martyrs who were burned at the stake or eaten by animals, not to mention the many Christians whose bodies were lost at sea.
If you find the concept of cremation objectionable, then opt for the traditional embalming, coffin and marker stone. But be aware that the funerary industry loves for people to buy expensive furniture to hold the corpses of their loved ones, and then bury it all in the ground with a carved stone above it—it makes them a lot of money. Billions of dead bodies take up countless acres of land, for no scripturally defensible reason.
Aunty prefers her remains to disappear, and trusts that God has the power to resurrect her. What you choose to do is up to you, but there is no convincing argument against cremation.
I understand why ancient societies in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated the winter solstice. When life and livelihood depended on the sun, noting when daylight began to incrementally conquer darkness was something to be celebrated. Sure, the ancients knew they still had to endure months of cold and darkness before they could shed their heavy clothes and the warmth of their fireside hearths. But at least they had something for which to look forward.
Count me as one of those who look forward to shorter nights and longer daylight. For me, it’s not surprising that early Christians found it convenient to combine the wonder of Jesus’ birth with the inevitability of summer’s bounty and fall’s harvest. They knew that even in darkest winter (according to tradition), the Sun of righteousness had been born to chase away sin and ignorance.
I know that some are too offended by the pagan rituals traditionally attached to Jesus’ birth to truly enjoy the spirit of this season. Some would rather focus on the darkness that envelops the earth than on the light that lightens humanity. But it’s precisely when it’s dark and cold that we have to live this world’s light, as well as celebrate it.
Anyone can look at what’s happening in the world and feel outrage at the violence, brutality, ignorance, poverty, and degradation of the planet and its resources. The larger question is how we can “live as children of light” (Eph. 5:8). What light can we bring to this world’s darkness?
For too long we Christians have been content to light candles and sing about light. Perhaps it’s time to roll up our sleeves, open our wallets, and address the real problems of those who live in our communities. It’s service “to the least of these” that merits heaven’s approval and earns the invitation: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).
Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s cold (for most of us). But “for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays” (Mal. 4:2).
Thank you for your continued support of Adventist Today.
AT Adjunct Editor
ADVENTIST WORLD — For the first time in Adventist history, churches will feature official seating charts.
Each member will have an assigned seat, and visitors will be seated at the very front of the sanctuary where the entire congregation can keep an eye on them.
General Conference Director of Church Rigidity Mas Reglas pushed back on complaints that seating charts were an unnecessary intrusion into church life.
“Our churches have had unofficial seating charts from as long back as I can remember,” said Reglas. “Members can get super-territorial about where they sit. So we just decided to make things official.”
Reglas explained that all congregations will be required to print their seating charts on the back of their church bulletins.
He directed churches to select their biggest deacon to act as the “Sabbath Bouncer” in case anyone disobeyed the chart.
This article originally appeared on BarelyAdventist, a humor and satire site for Adventists who believe in laughter.
Dear Aunt Sevvy
Is it appropriate for Christians to display a menorah in their home, to light the candles as Jews do and say a prayer? Perhaps some Adventists would frown on this, but our family finds meaning in this ritual.
Signed, Holiday Seeker
Hanukkah, as you no doubt know, commemorates the rededication of the second temple in the 2nd century BCE as described in the apocryphal book 1 Maccabees. (Scholars have recently learned, to their immense surprise, that Ellen White read and approved of the apocrypha!)
The Talmud, a Jewish commentary, adds the story that at the dedication there was only enough holy oil left to burn the dedicatory lamp for one day, but it lasted for eight days! It’s sometimes called the “miracle of the lights,” and is commemorated by lighting a nine-branched candelabra called a menorah.
Aunty sees nothing wrong with appropriating rituals from this closely related religious culture into your own holiday celebrations, especially since Hanukkah has deep ties to Christianity.
Jesus was a Jew. His divine mission was predicted in the Hebrew scriptures. During his life he was closely associated with the second temple: according to the gospels he was dedicated there, affirmed his calling there as a child, and as an adult taught and did miracles in its vicinity. In some ways he respected the temple more than the Jewish leaders did. He also used the temple as an example of his own death and resurrection.
We needn’t question the veracity of the miracle of the lights because we know that God did miracles among the Jewish people. This particular miracle is a lesson about God’s faithfulness to his people in hard times. It is also a reminder that light triumphs over darkness, which was a frequent illustration in the gospel of John for Jesus’ ministry.
Your Christian family isn’t alone in celebrating Hanukkah: here is one of several websites that has ideas for a Christian Hanukkah.
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
The prophets said that the Messiah would be the son of David, from the tribe of Judah. The book of Matthew traces the genealogy from Abraham, and in Luke from Adam. But all of them lead to Joseph—and Joseph was not Jesus‘ father, he was Jesus‘ adoptive father!
Yet Mary was the important figure in this event, wasn‘t she? The only information about Mary is that her cousin Elisabeth was a descendant of Aaron, which is the tribe of Levi.
As a woman, I wonder why there is so little about Mary’s family?
Signed, Daughter of God
A great many lines have been penned, from the first century onward, trying to resolve Jesus’ ancestry—which is why Aunty cannot, she regrets, give you a definitive answer. Some reflections, for what they’re worth:
There is a ton of information about this in commentaries. Aunty doubts it matters, though, to those of us whose love for Jesus has to do with what he said and what he did, not who his ancestors were.
By Loren Seibold | 7 December 2023 |
The year was 1844; the date, October 22—a Tuesday. A group of Millerite believers had been having a prayer service in a barn in western New York. Their sincere expectation—that Jesus would return that night—had been thus far disappointed.
One member of the group, a farmer named Hiram Edson, left the barn and wandered out across an adjacent field of corn. As he stood there wondering why Jesus hadn’t returned, he suddenly saw an enormous, blindingly bright angel flying across the sky in front of him. The angel said, in a voice so loud that he could hear it—along with millions of others all over the world:
Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.
Hiram Edson immediately knew that this was the beginning of a judgment taking place in heaven. He, and all of those who heard the angel’s announcement, began to preach the commencement of the investigative judgment in heaven’s Most Holy Place.
Of course, billions of people heard the voice, and were converted instantly by the heavenly voice alone!
Wait a minute—that never happened!
In fact, no one—not one person across the face of the earth—reported seeing or hearing a flying, shouting angel that night!
But why didn’t they? Revelation 14:6-7 says it happened, and Adventists are convinced that the date was correct. Then why did no one report this visible, audible sign?
In fact, contrary to the popular story of Hiram Edson, the doctrine of the investigative judgment so beloved by traditional Adventists wasn’t arrived at in that cornfield; it took decades to develop.
Things we take literally
Adventists take a great many things from the Bible quite literally.
Creation, for example. In recent years creation was much discussed at a General Conference session. Not about God’s being the creator—concerning that, we agree—but advocating a rigidly literal reading of Genesis 1. The earth was declared, by a vote of a group made up mostly of Seventh-day Adventist clergymen, to have been created in seven actual 24-hour days. (Though it didn’t make it into the final draft, some had advocated for voting that it happened 6000 years ago—because they take the Ussher chronology literally, too.)
Another interesting literalism is the notion that the sanctuary on earth, the tent that the Hebrew wanderers carried across the desert with them, has a precise copy (animal skin curtains and all) in heaven. It isn’t clear which structure came first, but probably the one in heaven, since Moses was given his blueprints by God.
So if these words describe something real and actual, it isn’t at all unreasonable to ask: did a real angel fly through the sky announcing the investigative judgment one night in 1844, followed by another loud angel when the Millerite believers left their apostate churches the following year, and then another angelic announcement at the acceptance of the Sabbath around 1847?
Please don’t dismiss the question. We need to explore why we take some images in the Bible—in the prophecies in particular—as actual descriptions of real events, and others as symbols.
Revelation is a mishmash of pictures, some of which we say are real and others we insist are merely metaphors.
No Adventist has ever expressed doubt about Revelation 1:7: “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him.” But what of the description of Jesus that accompanies it? I can picture the white-robed white-haired Jesus until we get to
His eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword.
Literal or symbolic? I have seen this rendered by artists as though Jesus, when he is ministering in heaven, looks just like this, right down to the sword tongue—and who can say for sure that he doesn’t?
Revelation 2 and 3, the messages to the seven churches, sound historical and I assume they are. But starting in chapter 4, we again encounter bizarre heavenly creatures: 24 thrones with 24 undescribed “elders,” next to four “living creatures”—a lion, an ox, a man, a flying eagle—“covered with eyes, in front and in back” each with “six wings… covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.”
Is this really how the throne room in heaven looks? Because it is not entirely dissimilar to the vision Ezekiel saw centuries earlier, could it be an actual description?
The book proceeds in similar surrealism through seven “seals” and seven “trumpets” (this last set which Ellen White never addresses, and no Adventist eschatologist, for all they expound on other chapters in the book, has offered a satisfying explanation.)
Of the seals, we Adventists acknowledge the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which we say represent early evangelism, followed by periods of war, famine and death. We see them as symbols of historical eras. Yet why couldn’t there have been actual horsemen thundering across the sky—apart from that no one claimed to have seen them at the historical pivot points?
Of the sixth seal, there was agreement among our pioneers that the great earthquake, the sun turning dark, the moon turning to blood and the stars falling, were real events. But the same passage also speaks of the heavens “receding like a scroll being rolled up,” with “every mountain and island removed from its place.” Here, within a single sentence, we slip out of the historical, for no such catastrophe happened in conjunction with the preceding signs—which signs are by now two centuries past.
Uriah Smith, who to this day is rarely contradicted, declared the 144,000 of Revelation 7 to be precisely 144,000 actual people, “gathered from the last generation before Christ comes.” Though he danced rather daintily around precisely how they would show up, he did anticipate seeing
Elder James White, Elder J. N. Andrews, and Elder Joseph Bates, who led out in the beginning of this work, who identified themselves as fully as men could with this message, whose whole souls were absorbed in the grand thought of helping to call out a sufficient number to join them in the work to make up the privileged and happy company of 144,000…
As for Revelation 13, I don’t know anyone who thinks that God crafted a beast somewhere with seven leopard heads, a bear’s feet, and ten horns with ten crowns to represent the papacy. Of course, Adventist artists eagerly paint pictures of Daniel’s and Revelation’s beasts, and in some cases even make statues, because even if the beasts aren’t literal we find some satisfaction in thinking of them with dimensionality.
Interestingly, that second beast of Revelation 13, the one with a lamb’s horns but spoke like a lion, and represented the United States of America? Some Adventist interpreters pictured it as an American bison. Yes, it was a symbol, and a rather on-the-nose one; because while traveling across Wyoming by train at the time you could see the second beast of Revelation 13 out of your coach window!
Real or symbolic?
So we circle back to Revelation 14. What was the point of the loud voices if it wasn’t for people to hear? Certainly God isn’t hard of hearing. And why fly “in the midst of heaven” if it was not for the earth’s inhabitants to see?
I ask again: why did no one down here hear and see them?
Many are going to say that I’m inventing a problem. They will say that it’s obvious in apocalyptic literature which pictures are real and which are metaphorical: the wild and crazy ones that don’t need to be real or that we can’t quite imagine being real are, ergo, metaphorical or symbolic. The beasts, for example: there is no convincing reason for them to have ever actually existed, for all that we Adventists have rendered them in living color.
But is a mile-tall city with mile-high gates made of precious stones coming down out of heaven, with the wicked dead resurrected and gathered about trying to take down the holy city with Satan as their commanding general, any more realistic than an angel streaking across the night sky in 1844 proclaiming judgment in a loud voice?
Which leads to another very important distinction: whether the biblical descriptions are meant for the future, the past, or a historical present. The panorama of creation is far enough in the past that we find it easy to say it was called forth ex nihilo by the voice of God. The descent of the New Jerusalem is reserved for a far distant future.
But in the present, we have a hard time claiming anything so spectacular, because we can’t produce witnesses. The best argument for there not being three actual Adventist angels crying forth with loud voices (or, for that matter, four actual horsemen of the apocalypse) is that no one, to my knowledge, saw or heard any of them. The first angel’s announcement was a metaphor for something rather more mundane: a group of people with a fresh eschatological teaching.
A needed distinction
Take this lesson only as seriously as needed for the purpose of understanding how we interpret the prophecies—how we divide the literal and actual from the metaphorical and symbolic. It appears to me that we interpret the prophecies, literal or metaphorical, not on their own merits, but to confirm what our pioneers and Ellen White said.
I’m also suggesting that if the angels aren’t real—if they are metaphors for Adventists proclaiming an apocalyptic message—then perhaps other biblical descriptions, such as a literal six day creation 6000 years ago, needn’t be real, either. Perhaps even the return of Christ and the events leading up to it could be something other than the terrifying spectacle our evangelists have led us to fear. Perhaps a great many of the Bible’s pictures aren’t meant to be real, but should be studied for their spiritual import. In the words of the Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan,
My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
I recently heard an Adventist pastor say that the rise of the Adventist church is prophesied in the Bible. Is this true?
Signed, Curious Bible Student
The “proof” that the Seventh-day Adventist church is God’s only true church is based on two texts read together. The first is Revelation 14:12, which says,
Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.
Keeping the commandments of God is understood to mean keeping the fourth commandment, in particular. The second part, “the faith of Jesus,” is interpreted through Revelation 19:10:
For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
“The spirit of prophecy” is understood solely as the ministry of Ellen G. White.
Together, these two things unique to our church—the Sabbath and Ellen White—are used to say that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is not only specially chosen by God, but that other churches are inferior to ours in regard to God’s favor and receiving salvation.
While this is one interpretation, let Aunty suggest another. The testimony of Jesus is simply what it sounds like: the story and teachings of Jesus Christ. The word translated “testimony” is in Greek martyria. In 1 John 5:12, John describes martyria this way:
And this is the testimony (martyria), that God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that has the Son hath life; and he that has not the Son of God has not life.
This, to Aunty, makes more sense. Those who don’t put Jesus first in their lives (and Aunty knows Adventists who appear to idolize Ellen White even above Jesus) are missing the point. Ellen White can’t save us. Jesus can.
As for keeping the commandments of God, let’s remember that there are many more commandments than the fourth one. Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, should be even more important to Christians than those in Exodus 20.
The traditional interpretation has made the Seventh-day Adventist Church arrogant. Some act as if no matter what this church does, it is always right because it is chosen by God—even when it is unjust or unkind to people. Remember what happened to the group who thought themselves God’s chosen people in Old Testament times, and what Jesus said about them?
27 November 2023 |
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
Is God more likely to answer prayer if hundreds or thousands of people are praying for the same thing?
Signed, Needing answers
Dear Needing Answers,
There is a persistent view—probably because of passages such as John 14:13—that prayer is a way to get things done: that if we pray for a person’s cancer to go away, perhaps it will; or if we pray to be spared a hurricane, it might veer away and hit some other coastal city; or if we pray for travel mercies, our airplane won’t crash; or if we pray for guidance, we will make perfect choices that we’ll never regret.
What follows in the minds of some Christians is that the more prayers, the more pressure we put on God, the harder we beg, the more compelled God will feel to give us what we want. Aunty has been part of prayer events where many, many people are all praying for someone or something. Occasionally, the subject of the prayer recovers from illness, or the thing we’re praying for resolves as we want it to. Some desires, such as safety while traveling, are a good bet for positive answers, since extremely few airplanes crash. The success of other prayers, such as praying for the right job or the right spouse, can be hard to evaluate, because people tend to rationalize their responses to the situation—for example, God put me in this job to teach me something; or the failure of the marriage is my fault, not God’s.
But some prayers simply aren’t answered as we want them to be. Aunty has seen congregations lose faith when they invest heavily in praying for someone who doesn’t get healed. In fact, certain healing prayers, such as regrowing a lost limb, God appears never to answer in the affirmative.
Yet we keep asking for specific things from God because sometimes our prayers seem to be answered (and yes, there is more than a hint of behavioral conditioning here).
The Bible recommends prayer. But it also warns that more and louder words don’t mean more of God’s attention:
When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. After all, God, who is your Father, knows your needs before you ask him (Matthew 6:7-8).
Isaiah says that doing the right thing is more important than fasting and prayer:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? … Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Isaiah 58:4-5
And please note that when Jesus prayed, his key phrase was,
…yet not my will, but yours be done (Luke 22:42).
In Aunty’s study of prayer, she’s come to the conclusion that fixing things isn’t the highest purpose of prayer. Prayer is used correctly:
When there is a need for healing or safety or guidance, Aunty instead prays for acceptance of God’s will and the peace of God’s presence—whether she’s praying for herself, or for others.
by Joni Bell | 14 November 2023 |
It’s 11:00 AM on Sabbath morning. I’ve slept late. I’m comfortable in my “sweats” and carry a hot drink in my hands. I haven’t fussed with my hair or make-up. My husband is similarly clad in relaxing garb as he and I casually discuss where we might “go to church” today.
Our choices are endless. We can pick one of the large university churches in the denomination or even our small congregation in Maine. Feeling like some beautiful orchestral music? We know which church to choose. Some upbeat gospel music? Not a problem. The sky is the limit. How about one of our favorite speakers who never fails to inspire us but is not part of our denomination? It’s like a smorgasbord of worship delights and we can choose any one we want. Maybe we will join an online discussion group on the book of John.
We snuggle into our comfortable couch and pick up the remote. Oh, and let me add this: I have no responsibilities! Has the special music arrived? Is the teen-ager I asked to have scripture prepared? Are the visitors being greeted, given a bulletin and invited to the fellowship dinner, etc. . . No worries with my “Online Church.” I can just relax and enjoy the blessing of an excellent discussion group or sermon, and it can be the venue of my choosing.
With Covid closing many of our churches over the course of a year or so, I really got into my new Sabbath experience. In fact, I must confess to feeling mildly depressed when churches started gathering again. I was quite satisfied with our “pandemic routine” and frankly, not inclined to go back to attending in person. I started to run out of excuses to actually show up.
Now, before you judge me too harshly, I don’t think I’m alone in this attitude. Many, maybe most, congregations are not back to what they were pre-pandemic. Churches report that they have lost some of their core people as well as some of the marginal attendees. The reality? Virtual church has met the needs of many who have stopped attending church in person. Pew Research Center Survey shows about 25% of U.S adults regularly watch religious services online or on TV, and most of them are highly satisfied with the experience.
I am, however, personally troubled by a question—a personal question, not primarily a question of institutional strategy. If I participate online, am I going to be as committed or connected as if I were attending in person?
There are some pretty good reasons for staying home as opposed to attending in person. I can watch two or three sermons and participate in a discussion group over the Sabbath hours. The time spent getting ready and then traveling to church can be better spent. I feel so much more relaxed and “rested” when I stay home, and isn’t that the purpose of the Sabbath—to rest? Is there any value to the effort of doing spiritual life in person as opposed to online?
So let me try to apply reason to the question. To think this through. Clearly, podcasts, Christian TV, and online church are enriching our spiritual lives. Can they take the place of community in the local church? I recognize the contribution of connection with others and the community experienced in presence with others. I am blessed in doing life with others. That happens in the church community. The diversity within the church enriches the communal experience. Each person has something unique to offer. Other Christians teach me, encourage me, and pray for me. Yes, often they irritate me. Living with that challenge offers personal growth.
And I am vulnerable to attacks of loneliness, doubts, and unbelief when I am without a church community. When I ask myself who I would call at midnight for help, it is inevitably a fellow Christian who is part of my Christian fellowship.
My reflection? I am inspired by the online connection, but I miss the community.
My spiritual growth is enriched when being nurtured through deep connections with others. When we share struggles and triumphs, it helps us on our journey. Studying scripture with others helps me see the teachings of Jesus in fresh and deeper ways.
Loving one another
Let me be real. I struggle with truly loving some of the people with whom I am in relationship at church. Let me explain. That homeless person I serve breakfast to at our local shelter. No problem. I love them. I truly empathize with them and their circumstances. That person sitting next to me on the pew; the one who always takes the fundamentalists’ view of scripture or is quick to judge? Not so much!
Love one another? Maybe there is something here for me, for us, in the call Jesus extended. It’s not just loving people in general; it’s loving specifically the people that we are in relationship with, yes, those folk at church with all of our shared flaws. There are a thousand minor, trivial offenses we pass over when we love one another. We don’t bear grudges or get offended easily. We forgive quickly.
Ah. I find myself praying for the grace of God when trying to do life together with other believers. That is costly and calls me to spiritual growth.
Then there is another reason to personally engage in a local community of believers. I am thinking of God-given abilities that empower us to serve. And as a church body we can more effectively meet people’s needs together. Children’s church is a blessing to children. Social events meet the needs of some who are lonely. Some need to ask questions of faith to a group of other – in person. Some long for a visit in their homes. There are so many ways I can serve as a connected member in a church congregation.
Gathering in person is the biblical and historical pattern set for us by the first followers of Jesus. They shared a community together. The New Testament contains many letters sent to these church communities that gathered in various cities. These letters were read aloud together. Together.
Some who meet online as a Bible study group describe the fellowship and community they have found. Perhaps the question is more complex than “online” or “in person.” Is it possible that we could attend in person and not find community, service, or spiritual growth? Building a meaningful in-person worshiping community is a challenge! And I would think building a meaningful Christian community of believers and seekers engaging online is at least an equal challenge. Is it possible that online services have offered an escape from the challenge of building a serving spiritual community?
The Christian community
Then the essential nature of our call to Christian community remains. To worship together, grow in fellowship with one another, to serve together. Whether online or in person.
Long story short, I’ve gone back to in-person church attendance. However, I’m not quite the same as I was pre-Covid. There are some traditions and rituals I am less patient with. Stand up, sit down, kneel, stand back up, dress like this, etc. And I am even more committed to our gathering’s being centered in Jesus, in grace, and with less judgment. I am less patient with the pronouncements of anti-science, climate change deniers and LGBTQ haters. I don’t have the wisdom or energy to pronounce judgement on who is righteous and who is a sinner. I simply want to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And to serve “the least of these.” To address issues of justice in our community. I seek help from my church in answering that call.
Yes, there are valid reasons for going to church in person. But consider what we have learned from the years of the pandemic, and how it can make us stronger. How it impacts our mission.
People seeking answers to spiritual questions have multiple options, and different pathways are available to them today. A society that prefers streaming information presents challenge and opportunity. And in this age we do form connection with streamed sources differently than watching a TV episode or listening to a radio program. The desire to connect remains, although it is now often virtual and experienced via the internet.
If we foster a belief that a person cannot engage in community without physical presence, we create a barrier in forming connection with and sharing the Gospel with many in today’s world. My experience is that virtual worship experiences can play a part in our spiritual growth. It is also true that almost everyone who attends your church for the first time has already visited online. They’ve checked us out! They have visited our website and maybe even read our Google reviews.
No, I have not divorced online church. The love affair continues. However, I am also an active participant in my local church. What a blessing they both are to me, and our community at large.
Joni Bell is a contented wife and homemaker with a dodgy past as a psychiatric nurse. She divides her time between Maine and Tennessee.
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
A lot of Adventists seem to have forgotten that Sabbath is precisely sunset to sunset. God set the boundaries of the Sabbath, and that’s how we should be keeping it if we want to please God. What do you say, Aunty?
Signed, True Sabbath Keeper
The Sabbath is a blessing to Aunty. Yet some Adventists, Aunty thinks, diminish the blessing by being entirely too persnickety about it, in a way that is more like conservative Jews than Christians.
Let’s take your point of the Sabbath’s beginning and end. The usual proof text is Leviticus 23:32: “From evening… until the following evening, you are to observe your Sabbath.” That’s not as clear as you might think.
Given all these uncertainties, Aunty thinks we ought not to be so critical about such Sabbath details. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made as a blessing to humankind, not humankind to serve the Sabbath.”
by Patricia Johnston | 10 November 2023 |
A few days ago, as I was making my way through the Chronological Bible daily reading plan, I came to a story we’ve all heard many times: the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. As familiar as the story is, this time I saw something different, something I had not noticed before.
The story tells of Jesus’ taking Peter, James and John “up a high mountain.” To the astonishment of these three men, Jesus’ appearance changed right in front of them. His face “shone like the sun,” and his clothes were “far brighter than any earthly bleach could ever make them.
We’ve often heard of Peter’s being rather impulsive, speaking or acting perhaps before thinking. The Scripture here says, “Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, ‘Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’”
Even as he was giving expression to his misguided wishes, “a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them.” From that cloud came the voice of God plainly heard by those three disciples, saying “This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him.” And then these words: “Suddenly, when they looked around, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus with them.”
What we listen to
Note this line: “This is my son. Listen to him.” There is an awful lot of information and, yes, misinformation floating around us today. It certainly comes from the various news entities, in print, increasingly generated by AI, in digital formats, and via the air waves. It’s all too easy to get caught up watching the news one way or the other, one falsehood after another, one horrible story after another, on and on.
I just can’t believe that watching those reports hour after hour, day after day, true as some of them might be, is spiritually healthful for us. I’m not saying we should sneak away to a hidden spot and ignore completely what is surrounding us in the world, but it seems we might be better able to “listen to him” if we listened less to all that. In fact, if we listened more to Jesus, we would better understand what is going on around us, what is happening in this old world. We would better understand what he wants us to be doing while we wait for his return. “This is my son, listen to him.”
But note too, information—and yes, misinformation—also comes via purported religious papers, sources we’re supposed to be able to rely on for truth. It too, comes over the airwaves and on the screen and in print, one preachment after another. Telling us “listen to me, send me your money.” When they should be saying, “This is God’s son, whom he loves. Listen to him.”
We individually need to listen to Jesus. Really listen to Jesus. That means reading our Bibles for ourselves, reading in more than one version. Thinking about what we’re reading. Read the Gospels. Let Jesus speak to you, individually. Listen to him.
Another thing that struck me as I read the text were the words, “They saw no man, save Jesus only.” No man. “Only Jesus.” Our world seems filled with men vying for our attention, for our money, for our loyalty—seeking to take our attention from the only one who deserves it, Jesus.
It certainly happens in politics and entertainment, but just as certainly it happens in churches as well. A new program here, a different evangelistic approach there, but too often the focus is on the man and his showmanship. “The disciples saw no man.” What do we see?
Often I’ve heard it said that Moses represents those who die before Jesus comes again, but are resurrected at his return, while Elijah represents those who will be alive at his return. But I wonder if there might be another way of looking at them.
Perhaps we might let Moses represent the law, and Elijah the prophets/prophecy. Our church spent a good deal of time in the past on the law until Ellen White said, “We have been at work on the law until we got as dry as the hills of Gilboa without dew or rain,” [Letters & Manuscripts Vol 6 (1889-1890): MS 10, 1890] and the church still is, it seems, interpreting the “law” and applying it—or trying to apply it—in various church situations.
Sadly, those attempts have driven some away from what seems an overly legalistic and unloving focus. Our church has tried to expand the “law” through various ways not dissimilar from those of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They had 39 categories of work that were prohibited on the Sabbath, but each category had subdivisions that gave in great detail what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. All told, according to Jewish tradition there were 613 commandments contained in the Torah.
The Seventh-day Adventist church currently has 28 items that one is to attest to believing before baptism, with more suggested to be added. I wonder if we will reach the 613 commandments contained in the Torah? Now you may say that the 28 are not commandments, but I wonder. How are they used? Are we looking to “Moses” or to Jesus? To 28 Beliefs or to the two commandments Jesus gave?
Similarly, our church has spent a great deal of time and energy and resources on the prophets and prophecy. And it still does. It seems too often Jesus is quite forgotten in the programming. Some seem constantly to be looking for some new way to portray menacing and ugly beasts on billboards and advertising flyers, images that appeal to those who are attracted by sensationalism.
But that was not Jesus’ way. In Power Through Prayer, E.M. Bounds wrote,
The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. . . . What the church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer.
Of course, in every instance where Bounds used the term “men” we would today say “men and women” or just “people.” We might add, people who saw only Jesus, people who listened to him.
So, my question is, do we see “only Jesus”? Do we “listen to him” or are we still caught up in Moses and Elijah, the law and prophecy, and making memorials to them? I’m not suggesting that we forget the law or the prophets, but that we put them in their proper space: that we see Jesus first. That we share Jesus first. Of course, it is easy to ask others if they see only Jesus, but I must ask myself first, do I see only Jesus? Do I listen to him?
“They saw only Jesus.” How wonderful it would be if our church were known because people saw Jesus in it. They saw Jesus in our Sabbath School classes, in the sermons preached, at the potluck dinners, but more, in the lives of the people who attend week by week.
Patricia Johnston is professor emeritus and former dean of the school of Public Health at Loma Linda University. A retired nutritionist, she was intimately involved in developing the International Congresses on Vegetarian Nutrition and is passionate about sharing the potential benefits and/or problems associated with plant-based diets. She is married to Joe Humble, also a retired educator.
In the wake of Hurricane Otis’s destruction in Acapulco, Mexico, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) have swiftly organized aid efforts for the storm-ravaged community, according to a recent article on the Inter-American Division news website. The Category 5 hurricane, which made landfall on October 25, 2023, has been deemed the most severe storm to hit the region, claiming over two dozen lives, affecting upwards of half a million homes and businesses, and causing widespread power outages.
With Acapulco in dire need, the Church acted promptly, delivering a truck loaded with food and basic necessities only two days after the disaster, aiming to support the hundreds of church members impacted. Pastor Abraham Sandoval, the president of the Inter-Oceanic Mexican Union, has been actively coordinating relief operations with the South Pacific Conference administrators. These efforts are vital as the city grapples with depleted pharmacies and grocery stores, unable to meet the urgent demand for food and medicine.
Over 2,000 church members across 30 congregations in Acapulco have been affected, yet no casualties within the membership have been reported. The Central Adventist Church in Acapulco, which suffered minor damage, is serving as the distribution hub for the ongoing relief efforts. The nearby 16 de Septiembre Adventist School also was damaged and will remain closed pending detailed damage assessments.
Further assistance is on the way with two additional trucks of supplies en route to Acapulco. Church leaders have acknowledged that the road to recovery will be lengthy, with many families requiring basic necessities as well as home essentials such as mattresses and covers.
Simultaneously, ADRA Mexico’s Emergency Response Team is preparing for action, pending official clearance to enter Acapulco. Supported by ADRA International and Inter-America, the agency plans to provide targeted aid following thorough on-site assessments. Notably, ADRA Mexico has secured prepaid cards for 430 families and is collaborating with UNICEF to coordinate a health team.
The situation in Acapulco remains critical, with the airport shut down, the main hospital destroyed, and the transportation infrastructure severely compromised, isolating many communities. In response, ADRA Mexico has initiated a fundraising campaign on social media to support the affected areas. Updates on the humanitarian aid and ongoing projects can be accessed here.
(Stephen Chavez was associate pastor here in Fortuna 1974-75.)
It’s a familiar trope in action television and movie scripts. A group of intrepid survivors slogs through dark and threatening dangers. Suddenly one of them experiences a melt-down: “It’s no use,” they whine. “We’ll never survive!”
Then someone in the group yells, “Get a grip!” and slaps the cowardly team member. “We’re going to make it,” they shout. “We just have to work together.”
Those who have been following recent Adventist publications and pronouncements have doubtless heard some variation of the sentiment: “We’re not going to make it!” What follows is a catalogue of imagined threats to our survival as a movement: evolution, ecumenism, textual-historical criticism of the Bible, conversations about gender orientation, or the role of science in the life of faith. The implication is that our very existence is at risk.
Then is often quoted: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget how the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 196), as if Adventism’s best days are somehow preserved in the past, like amber.
The church’s most influential voices seemed determined to preserve a deluded version of the past; incapable of understanding that time does not stand still. Past prophetic interpretations regarding the pre-advent judgment, the mark of the beast, the characteristics of the everlasting gospel are inadequate to fix or explain social issues as basic as the widespread lack of justice, equality, compassion, integrity, and forgiveness.
To be true to our prophetic calling, Adventists have to be forward-thinking and forward-moving. We have to imagine a movement in which all are gifted and valued. We have to reject the lie that not all Adventists are worthy to be considered orthodox. Our diversity of thought and expression is as important as our differences in gender, race, and nationality. Everyone deserves a place inside the tent that is the Adventist Church—whether young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, male, female, or non-binary.
There’s no need to panic. We have to work together.
5 November 2023