Much of First World Adventism, in modern and postmodern times, has been obsessed with the fear of legalism. Admonitions and tirades against “legalists” and “Pharisees” in the church have long been the daily meat and drink of the denomination’s fashionable circles of thought and devotion. Contemporary trends and their impact on the church might offer glaring evidence of a contrary nature, but these realities have done little to temper the zeal of countless denominational authors, lecturers, and opinion molders against the classic Adventist “law-focus”
I still remember when this trend was relatively new in the church. As an Adventist teenager coming of age both spiritually and otherwise, I found myself puzzled as to why those ministering to the youth—and others also—seemed so obsessed with the dangers of legalism when the opposite problem appeared so obvious. At times I was tempted to wonder if I was the only one, especially among the church’s young people, who was bothered by what he kept hearing.
Then one day, as my tenth grade year drew to a close at a junior academy in central California, the latest issue of the Review and Herald arrived in our home, with a cover article that caught my eye. The article was titled, “Let’s Give the Pharisees a Rest” (1)
Giving the Pharisees a Rest
Written by a professor at what was then Southern Missionary College (now Southern Adventist University), the article began with a quote from a U.S. Congressman of a century ago, who had asked the question, “Why don’t the preachers give the Pharisees a rest and talk about the rum sellers for a change?” (2).
The article continued, declaring that “we constantly hear polemics, sermons, talks, snide allusions, and letters to the editor berating Pharisees and pharisaism” (3). “Yet,” the author noted, “as I have observed large city pastorates and college and university campuses, I do not fear a resurgence of rigid ultralegalism” (4). Proceeding to cite the more popular pitfalls of “intellectual elitism” and “an ever-burgeoning spirit of worldliness, which relegates the counsels of God to another era,” he further stated:
We tend to reject or explain away those revelations which call for hard, stern battles with self, Spartan discipline, and rejection of certain current or popular values. This selective acceptance seems especially prevalent in regard to God’s messages to His remnant church through Ellen G. White (5).
In conclusion, the article asked:
Honestly now, is pharisaism, an excessive care in keeping the law, really our problem? Or are we plagued with the curse of sadduceeism, selective acceptance of revelation, eager compliance with current trends, materialism? (6).
Reading this article, even as a comparatively uninformed sixteen-year-old, was like downing a tall cold drink after a long workout. Finally, I thought, someone prominent in the church was facing reality as to where the denomination’s present danger truly lay. I even wrote a letter to the editor—my first ever to be published in a denominational magazine—congratulating editors and author alike for this direly needful reflection on what gave every evidence of being a pervasive trend in the church (7).
Tragically, it seems few were listening. Certainly there seemed to be only a few with sufficient discernment to acknowledge this danger, and fewer still who actually did something about it. And as a result, like the builders of the ill-fated Maginot Line in the 1930s, whose certainty that France would be invaded from one direction led them to fortify one frontier while leaving another essentially unguarded, the legalism bashers and their facilitators in modern and postmodern Adventism have left thousands, perhaps millions of minds vulnerable to the far more ubiquitous peril of spiritual laxity and worldly indulgence.
Retrospection—that exercise of the mind so often, so woefully neglected in the human experience—is instructive to the point of fascination so far as this issue is concerned. Thinking across the decades and comparing the past with the present, one smiles at the comparatively minor strayings from doctrinal and moral faithfulness in those years so long—yet not so long—ago. If, in those days, you were what some were pleased to call a liberal Adventist, there were but a few areas where you were likely to push the proverbial envelope. You might eat flesh meat occasionally, you might wear a wedding ring (if you were really radical, you might wear an engagement ring or a simple necklace), you might find yourself dating or even marrying someone not of our faith, you might get divorced and remarried on other than strictly Biblical grounds, you might enjoy an occasional meal at a restaurant on Sabbath afternoon—and of course, there was that liberal Adventist staple: you weren’t terribly comfortable with the writings of the little lady who died in 1915.
That was about it, back then, so far as the earmarks of theologically and spiritually liberal Adventism were concerned. True, the more radical strains of this ideology were not unknown in those days, but most remained inconspicuous if not carefully hidden. I remember the aftermath of the Desmond Ford controversy at Pacific Union College during the early 1980s, as I was finishing my undergraduate theology degree. On one occasion the pro-gay group SDA Kinship International, then in its embryonic stages, send a mass mailing to the PUC student body. Almost universal revulsion punctuated with scorn was the response, even from those students whose thinking on numerous other theological, spiritual, and moral issues gravitated in the liberal direction.
That was then. Need we elaborate on the now?
It seems a recurrent trait of the human experience is to wait till evil becomes monstrous before confronting it. Such ill-starred notables as the French kings in the century prior to the Revolution, along with British prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, bear painful witness to this trait. If the accent placed on religious topics by denominational lecturers during my teen and young adult years was indicative of the tone imbibed and dispensed by the majority during those same years in Western Adventism, it would seem too many in leadership neither discerned nor sought to stem the tide of misguidance and relaxed vigilance that would build ever higher in the decades to follow.
Conclusion: From Gilboa to Louisiana
In his 1975 book Sail Your Own Seas, the late George Vandeman repeated a warning of C.S. Lewis which many modern and contemporary Adventists seem to have missed.
In a chapter titled “Fire Trucks and Floods,” Vandeman cited Lewis’s reference to a demon called Screwtape, whose scheme was to get people “’running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood. Get people to crowd to the side of the boat that is already nearly under. When people are lukewarm and apathetic, get them stirred up about the dangers of enthusiasm and emotion. If they are lazy, talk to them about the hypocrisy of the working community. If they are cruel, warn them against the evils of sentimentality. . . . In other words, let them hear loudly and repeatedly the warnings they don’t need” (8).
One would be foolish, of course, to assume that any warning about error—whatever the error may be—is needless. The adversary’s repertoire of delusions covers everyone. Writing of the papacy, Ellen White declares: “It is prepared for two classes of mankind, embracing nearly the whole world—those who would be saved by their merits, and those who would be saved in their sins” (9). But we would be equally foolish not to recognize that the former—at least in its pharisaic guise—has claimed far fewer victims across the centuries than the latter.
Ellen White’s statement that “the principle that man can save himself by his own works lay at the foundation of every heathen religion” (10) can hardly be understood as implying that the quest for pharisaic piety lies at the foundation of every heathen religion, as the Sacred Record hardly lends itself to such a conclusion. The orgiastic pagan rites to which Old Testament Israel was so often attracted would hardly qualify for such characterization. Merit-based though pagan religion surely is, in the vast majority of cases it is not expressed by moralistic rigidity. If the monkish abstemiousness which the medieval church borrowed from paganism ever found its way into the experience of pre-Exilic Israel, the exhortations of the Hebrew prophets from Moses to Ezekiel seem to have missed it altogether.
In his lyrically enticing yet Biblically inadequate treatise on divine grace, evangelical author Philip Yancey himself acknowledges: “I hesitate to write about the dangers of legalism at a time when both church and society seem to be careening in the opposite direction. At the same time, I know nothing that represents a greater threat to grace” (11). Like so much of his book, this observation represents the author’s own opinion, unsupported by either instructive or narrative portions of Holy Scripture. Not only is contemporary society—Christian and otherwise—very much careening toward laxity as opposed to piety, the same holds true for those whose spiritual journey is traced by the vastly greater proportion of the Bible story. The lure of pharisaism was but a brief “flash in the pan” so far as the overall sweep of Biblical history is concerned. Destructive and miserable it most certainly was, its moral bankruptcy all too evident in the mocking jests that greeted the dying Savior on Calvary. But if the Sacred Narrative means anything at all, the quest for spiritual ease has been the dominant one through the ages.
Without question, legalism in any form has always been ruinous to the soul—a devouring incubus that consumes happiness and erodes love in any who heed its siren call. But pharisaic devotion to the details of outward rectitude is a burden far heavier than most carnal hearts find convenient. To be sure, adherence—superficial or otherwise—to the more mainstream maxims of morality still promises a smoother ride through life; the politician who would dearly like to pursue an adulterous affair needs no Biblical conversion to recognize the superior wisdom of reaching one’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary as opposed to becoming vulnerable to breaking news on CNN! But the moral climate in today’s world being what it is, the necessity of even minimal compliance with moral markers once generally acknowledged is no longer what it used to be. Consequently, even what some might call “mainstream” legalism—as distinct from the more ascetic, pharisaic varieties—carries an imperative considerably diminished from what it was in even very recent times.
One of Ellen White’s best known denunciations of Adventist legalism is her statement, following the 1888 General Conference, in which she stated that “as a people we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa, that had neither dew nor rain” (12). It is hard to escape the conviction that if Ellen White were alive today, she would observe that through cheap grace, false assurance, and self-accommodating spirituality, the proverbial “hills of Gilboa” in Adventism have long since morphed into the humid swamps of Louisiana.
1. Jerry M. Lien, “Let’s Give the Pharisees a Rest,” Review and Herald, June 10, 1976, pp. 1,6-7.
2. Ibid, p. 1.
3. Ibid, p. 6.
5. Ibid, p. 7.
7. Kevin Paulson, letter to Review and Herald, July 22, 1976, p. 3.
8. C.S. Lewis, quoted by George E. Vandeman, Sail Your Own Seas (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1975), pp. 71-72.
9. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 572.
10. ----The Desire of Ages, p. 35.
11. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), p. 195.
12. White, Review and Herald, March 3, 1890.