In and Out of the World

Scriptures: II Cor.6:14-7:1; Matt.5:13-16

Our two scripture passages are often interpreted in conflicting ways when they are applied to the question of how the Christian is to relate to society: how can a people be separate from unbelievers while also being the salt of the earth? How can we salt the earth while remaining in the salt shaker? I wish to consider with you today how Adventists have responded to society and politics. We will find that there have been changes over time, and that attitudes also vary in different cultures. Let us begin by looking at Adventists socially.

Presentation to a group of Adventists in Redlands, California, after returning from eight months of research interviews in Latin America and the Caribbean, Southern Africa, and the South Pacific in 1985-86.
Click here for a PDF version of this paper: In and Out Of The World


Adventists’ peculiar norms set them apart: what they could not eat and drink, the entertainment that was proscribed, the observance of Saturday as the Sabbath, and even what they wore made it difficult to mix with others. Moreover, Adventists were frequently warned against “mixing with the world”, by which was meant non-Adventists. They were also warned most severely against belonging to labor unions or marrying “unbelievers”, which meant anyone who was not an Adventist. In other words, Adventists were uneasy with the prevailing culture. The heavy demands of a multitude of church activities on their time reinforced this situation. Consequently, the social life of Adventists was to a large extent confined to church activities and other mixing with Adventists.

Adventist interpretations of Daniel and Revelation, which asserted that Adventists alone “kept the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus”, and were thus the “Remnant”, while all other religious groups were described in the most negative terms, also separated them. The tactless way in which the evangelists preached these beliefs publicly and issued challenges to ministers of other denominations to produce the text giving the command to observe Sunday and sought openly to “steal their sheep” added to tensions with members of other churches.

Moreover, Adventists expected to become the object of persecution, which was in itself separating.

Expecting and longing for the end of the world any day also separated them from those more interested in society.

As the Adventist system of education evolved, this created further separation, for Adventist schools cut the children off from others and protected them from ideas and books that had not been approved by church leaders. Moreover, efforts to secure such education for their children and to protect themselves from the snares of mixing with the world led many Adventist families to move to the communities where the Adventist schools were established, thus creating “Adventist ghettos.”

Meanwhile, economic ties among members were also strengthened as the various church institutions provided employment and others worked for members or at least helped each other to find employment by telling friends about jobs that were available.

That is, Adventists became a people, a subculture, like unto an American ethnic group.

Given these negative attitudes towards the world, it is not surprising that Adventists also separated themselves from politics. Non-involvement in politics also flowed from the expectation that “the kingdoms of this world” were about to “become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.” The kingdoms of this world were all, by definition, evil – even the United States was destined to persecute the saints. It was little wonder that many Adventists felt that they should even refrain from voting.

Now, socially, in the First World:

Slackening standards have made SDAs less different.

The coming of the 5-day week has made the Sabbath far less of an economic problem (though it is still socially separating, especially for children and the young).

Vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol are not perceived as so peculiar by others.

Upward mobility has given many Adventists a stake in society – with the blessing of the church hierarchy.

With the passage of time, SDAs are less focused on the end of the world, and even their “representative” buildings proclaim their involvement in it.

SDA preachers are more tactful in preaching Daniel and Revelation, and many pastors and members believe such interpretations less.

Adventists showed in the 1950s that they want to be regarded as part of the Christian mainstream. They want to be respected – consider, for example, the public relations campaigns, ranging from reporting church events to ads in the READERS DIGEST. Using high quality printing was also part of image-making. Adventists agreed to have observer status in the World Council of Churches, and began edging towards involvement – indeed, it is my impression that it is only fear that the right wing would flare up that prevents faster change on this front.

There is little sense of looming persecution of Adventists, even though some members love to pass on rumors that Congress is considering a Sunday law.

Adventists give less time to church, leaving more to the paid staff, and therefore have more time for participation elsewhere.

The proportion of Adventist kids in church schools has been dropping, so that they mix more. Meanwhile, a GC-sponsored survey of church members has found far greater concern for raising the academic standards of Adventist schools, so that students are prepared to compete for secular careers, than for raising the spiritual tone of the schools. Graduates of Adventist academies are least likely to study theology – instead, they are entering secular careers such as business.

The proportion of graduates of Adventist colleges going into church employment has dropped dramatically, reducing economic ties among Adventists.

Adventist ghettos have become the cutting edge of change rather than simply bastions of separatism.

In spite of a great deal of time spent on the labor union issue by the Religious Liberty Department, it has become largely a non-issue.

Perhaps the most striking example of change is the transformation of the Adventist hospitals. Adventists initially founded sanitariums as a ministry of healing, an opportunity to heal the soul as well as the body, to practice and publicize natural treatments (hydrotherapy rather than drugs), and to introduce patients to the Adventist lifestyle. This led the church to found a medical school, which then sought accreditation and subsequently forced the Adventist colleges to follow suit; consequently, Adventist professors were exposed to graduate programs at famous universities – which turned out to be a very broadening experience not only for them but also for many of their students. Medicine also became the chief avenue of upward mobility for Adventists – so that the venture into medicine not only resulted in exposing Adventists to the world, but helped give them a stake in it.

Meanwhile, shaped in part by the economic implications of health insurance, Adventist sanitariums were transformed into hospitals, providing treatment that was identical to that given elsewhere and making meat a diet option for patients, and when the insurance companies insisted that patient days in hospital be cut further, they did so even though this made it improbable that patients would receive meaningful spiritual nurture. Eventually the need to compete with other hospitals led Adventists to centralize management by forming Adventist Health Systems, and to expand dramatically the number of Adventist health institutions, even though this meant diluting Adventist employees with large numbers of non-Adventists. One result of the formation and burgeoning of Adventist Health Systems has been a great increase in church involvement with society. Many hospitals have considerable local medical and employment importance, while the scale of the system makes it something to be reckoned with nationally. It employs thousands and treats hundreds of thousands of non-SDAs.

Its scale is forcing it into high finance, labor relations, lobbying, community relations, etc. It has confronted the church with new ethical questions (for example, when Dr Leonard Bailey of Loma Linda University attempted to save the life of a doomed infant, “Baby Fae”, who had been born with an incomplete heart, by transplanting a baboon’s heart into her), and with the need to free itself of the traditional Adventist anti-urban bias.

That is, there is less tension between Adventists and society and more room for involvement with it, both for members and the denomination.

I have found a growing urge among Adventists to do good in the world because it is worth doing rather than, as of old, as a hook to lure converts. For example, ADRA found that a large number of Adventists have been giving money to World Vision.

Adventists are also edging their way towards involvement in social issues. For example, while President Neal Wilson said at the General Conference Session in New Orleans in 1985 that Adventists, unlike others, know that the world will not be destroyed by a Third World War, some of the major Adventist churches publicized the nuclear freeze campaign, and key Adventist academics such as Chuck Scriven, Charles Teel, and Barry Casey began to speak out with a prophetic voice on social issues.

Nevertheless, the majority of Adventists are still socially rather isolationist, as incongruent as this may be with the new position of the Adventist Health System. They are still, generally, more comfortable with Adventists. And this is true even of ex- Adventists, for whom the ties of school days can still be strong (though Adventists and exes are often uncomfortable together). But even here boundaries are shifting, reflecting the growing diversity, and respondents report that they are comfortable with some rather than all Adventists.

Now, in the Developing World:

The social separation of Adventists there seems more similar to early American Adventists than current ones. Doctrine and standards there are quite traditional, creating separation and tensions, especially as Adventist evangelists there denounce others publicly and expect persecution and a soon second coming – the more so in societies where Sabbath observance still creates employment problems. Many members still spend a great deal of time on church, which leaves them with less time for other involvement. The curricula of colleges there are still very limited and oriented towards church employment.

The Adventist medical presence is relatively small in most countries in the Developing World – perhaps one hospital that is well known locally is in Argentina. Brazil is the one country with a considerable Adventist medical presence, but there they withdrew from an opportunity to expand parallel to the US situation by combining with the Golden Cross system headed by an Adventist layman – they were afraid of a merger with a system that employed many non-SDAs.

I found no sign of Adventists speaking out on social issues in the Developing World, and little involvement in society at all.

Politically, the official stance of non-involvement has basically continued, being reinforced by several factors: (1) in America, which has continued to dominate the world church, Adventist numbers have never been large enough to become a meaningful electoral block; (2) non-involvement has also been seen as the most practical stance for a universal church that cannot afford to antagonize governments because it is relatively small and weak, and so could easily be victimized; and (3) Adventism’s prime purpose – evangelizing people – must be pursued, and therefore distracts from other things.

Pleading non-involvement has, on occasion, allowed the Adventist church to survive/escape problems in countries with different ideologies—for example, in Nicaragua recently, when for a while it, along with other American-based sects who were suspected of being the tools of the Reagan administration, lost most of its churches and its administrative headquarters. The stance has also been successful in keeping tensions with governments, in general, at a minimum.

The only major modification there in the official policy of political non-involvement is when Adventists’ own interests are affected, such as winning and upholding Sabbath privileges for members, gaining non-combatant status for conscripts, supporting and expanding religious liberty (in order to stave off the expected persecution), winning and maintaining freedom to evangelize, and freedom to establish, operate and protect Adventist institutions. Another modification there has been support for temperance issues by opposing the lowering of the drinking age, broadening saloon hours, and increasing liquor outlets – partly because temperance was connected to an Adventist doctrine and partly because of the tradition of being involved with what was once a large movement.

However, both political non-involvement and the pursuit of self-interest, even when that self is a church, can result in moral problems. To be neutral on issues is to have the effect of supporting an evil status quo, while both neutrality and self-interest can allow those in power to manipulate the situation to their advantage. The latter result can be the result of naivete. The Adventist concern for a favorable public image and their willingness to accept favors that are seen as helping the mission of the church, together with a natural political conservatism among leaders which is consistent with their theological conservatism, allow the rulers of Third World and Communist countries, where politics is even more foreign to church leaders than it is in America, to manipulate the political position of the church to their advantage.


  1. When asked about how they felt about the closeness of some of their number to the governing generals in Argentina under the previous regime now that the role of the latter in the “disappearances” of thousands of people is known, church leaders regularly responded only that “we were doing well; no Adventists were being killed.” That is, in the midst of widespread torture and murder, Adventist leaders were concerned only with the interests of the church.
  2. Similar self-interest has often led church leaders to toady to authoritarian rulers who are seen as being favorable to the church in such countries as Guatemala, Nicaragua under Samoza, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, the Philippines under Marcos, Poland and other Eastern European countries, Ethiopia under Haile Selassie, and Germany under Hitler. In so doing they have allowed such rulers to portray Adventists as supporting these regimes, a public relations benefit to the government, in return for example, for favors with imports for their hospital under Samoza, accreditation of their college in Chile, the wide dissemination of THE GREAT CONTROVERSY in Poland (because it attacks the Catholic Church, the main rival of the government), the gift of a hospital in Ethiopia. But such histories have brought problems following revolutions in Nicaragua and Ethiopia, and the fall of Marcos brought great fears of the same; certainly the fall of Pinochet could find Adventists in a very compromised position in Chile. There is also some evidence that the general church membership in such countries, which is so often poor and which tends to suffer under such regimes, is confused to see church leaders associating so positively with disliked government officials.
  3. Although many Adventists have risen to high positions in many Third World countries, the church has done almost nothing to raise the consciousness of such participants re the stands and involvements that Christians could take. Consequently, their faith does not inform their votes or influence. When asked, such politicians misunderstand the question and reply merely that it means that they do not campaign on the Sabbath or drink alcohol.
  4. The natural conservatism of the leaders was shown in Argentina, where several who were close to the governing generals said nothing about the disappearances of “communists” but later, when democracy was restored, complained that the restoration of freedom to labor unions brought strikes and the end of press censorship resulted in the reappearance of pornography. It is also shown in an almost knee-jerk opposition to labor unions, so that, under the guidance of General Conference officials, the church lost its hospital in Addis Ababa rather than work with them.
  5. It seems that the Adventist church will do almost anything to avoid conflict with the state. One example is the issue of conscription, where Adventists have long taken a stand against bearing arms. However, the South American Division, which had to deal with many military governments, shifted its position to one of taking no stand on the issue, and thus avoided the label and penalties that accrued to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Korea, where Adventists went to prison for as long as 7 years rather than bear arms during the 1960s, the Adventist college began to train its students with weapons in 1974 when the church was told that it had to do this or the college would lose its accreditation. A second example is the subservience of the church to the state in Eastern Europe, even in the matter of choice of church leaders and also with the questions of military service and school attendance on Sabbath. The official church has disassociated itself from groups of Adventists who have reacted negatively to such situations even when this has landed some of the latter in prison.
  6. Adventists have even been compromised by unquestioning reliance on a US government agency. ADRA, which under its previous name of SAWS had been preoccupied with disaster relief, recently expanded to engage in “development.” Its projects have included building sewers in Haiti and Papua-New Guinea, involvement in food programs that require participants to undergo “training” in crafts that could become a means of low earnings for them in Lima, and teaching subsistence farmers in the Peruvian Highlands to grow a greater variety of crops, including some cash crops, on their tiny plots. Such programs can be useful, but are never radical, in part because ADRA’s extensive reliance on US-AID funds shapes what is possible, both in particular programs, which are able to do something towards alleviating distress but cannot challenge the status quo, and where they are established (so that ADRA has a considerable presence in Honduras but nothing in Nicaragua).

That is, the Adventist church has become less separate politically in many countries, but seems to have changed its position without much thought of principle.

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