Some years ago a book was published by a leading denominational outlet with the title, Ten Who Left (1), featuring testimonies from former Seventh-day Adventists describing why they left the church.  Though written more than two decades ago, I believe its insights—even those lacking credibility for various reasons—offer a glimpse into a problem which faithful Seventh-day Adventists need to acknowledge if they are to avoid past mistakes relative to religious guidance and correction, and provide healing for those still suffering from the effects of these mistakes.

Put simply, I am speaking of the problem of negative cultural memories, which in too many minds have been wrongly associated with the spiritual worldview of classic Adventism as articulated in Scripture and the writings of Ellen G. White.  In particular, I have found this cultural baggage to be an impediment to the acceptance in many minds of the message that has lately come to be called Last Generation Theology, with its agenda of preparing a community of Christians at the end of time to experience total victory over sin prior to probation’s close.  

As one who read the aforementioned book soon after its release, I continue to marvel at the blend of grief, outrage, even mirth evoked within me by the book’s content, not to mention my wonderment as to how nearly every grievance against Adventism from the church’s liberal wing just happened to find its way into the variety of testimonies included.  1844, standards of Sabbath-keeping, adornment, women’s ordination, homosexuality—all managed a mention from this very small group of ex-members.  In view of previous surveys of ex-Adventist young people—not so distant from the publication of the above book—which reported that among their respondents, “No one gave doctrinal reasons for leaving the church” (2), one could rightfully ask how the church’s Bible-based doctrines and lifestyle standards had now become so objectionable to those abandoning our fellowship. 

One was thus led to ask if the “ten who left” truly represented a random sample of persons choosing to leave the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  Or had they been intentionally selected as a means of venting objections to our faith and standards which happen to be popular among certain still-professing Adventists who wish their church would give up any number of tenets and moral expectations which these still-professing members have long since found—for various reasons—annoying and uncomfortable?

The Larger Cultural Background

But whatever the flaws found in this book, or in similarly negative recollections of life inside Adventism, it is useful for thoughtful and dedicated church members to consider the extent to which purely cultural issues—as distinct from issues that arise out of Scripture or the writings of Ellen White—have exerted an unhealthful, even hurtful impact on the public witness and member retention rates of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In the early 2000s, the NBC television network ran a drama for several years called “American Dreams,” featuring the story of two American families experiencing the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.  For anyone who grew up during that time, even tangentially (as in the case of the present writer), the episodes of this drama evoked haunting, painful, but nevertheless instructive memories.  Racial animus, blind allegiance to human authority (whether parents, clergy, schoolteachers, police, the president of the university, or the President of the United States), arbitrary social norms, excessive severity on the part of authority figures, parents screaming commands at children with the rejoinder, “I don’t have to give you a reason!”—all left their mark on those whose formative years paralleled or were sideswiped by that era.                                                                                                                    

The glimpses offered by that television show into the struggles of that time were culturally and historically informative at a level reached by very few such programs.  From the present writer’s perspective, it was unfortunate that the network cancelled the program after only three seasons.

I have often wondered if any in-depth study has been done on the impact of the movements, causes, and cultural conflicts of those years on Seventh-day Adventist young people who came of age during that time.  Whether or not such a study has ever been conducted, it isn’t difficult to find and hear recollections of those years among current or former church members. 

U.S. presidential historian Theodore White, in his provocative book on the fall of Richard Nixon, offers the following insight as to the similarities and contrasts between the upheavals of the 1960s and the social and cultural clashes of previous periods:

Within families, within communities, much of the clash could be translated as the natural clash between generations—most fathers and mothers have revolted at some point against their own parents.  Long-hairs and short-hairs, beardless and bearded have succeeded each other in those generations of American heroes whose portraits hang in schoolrooms and in the corridors of the Capitol.  But now this clash of culture and personal values was taking place at the same time as the political clash over the hard issues.  And the two multiplied each other emotionally and politically (3).

When it looks like everything around you is coming unglued, when so many norms, values, and authority systems come under attack all at once, it’s easy for defenders of these systems to strike back by any and all means available.  But for a cluster of reasons, one is led to wonder why more Seventh-day Adventists weren’t better prepared for this onslaught, and why more didn’t exercise greater discernment and discrimination regarding the difference between principles and rules based on inspired counsel and those arising merely from popular culture and tradition.

After all, most Adventists who have joined the church across the decades of our history have done so through questioning and challenging established authority.  Many devoutly held traditions in any number of religious communities—not to mention the authority of family members and religious leaders—have been disputed and set aside by those who have chosen to accept the Seventh-day Adventist message.  A favorite passage of Scripture used by Adventist evangelists in addressing the problem of tradition as a doctrinal authority is the statement of Jesus regarding the norms and maxims of the scribes and Pharisees: “In vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9).                                       

One would think persons familiar with the spirit of inquiry and disputing of human authority in the light of Scripture that so often has accompanied conversions to Adventism would have nurtured a more understanding spirit toward young people in particular who found themselves asking questions about social norms and authoritative systems at a time of chaos and conflict.  Sadly, it seems too many failed to apply these lessons in seeking to instruct and guide the young during those years. 

Negative Cultural Memories

Some of the vignettes of Adventist life contained in the book Ten Who Left were so extreme, even eccentric, as to lose relevance in a serious conversation about acknowledged misdeeds experienced by those growing up in the church.  One of the ex-members interviewed, for example, speaks of his ultra-strict upbringing which included a rule against fire in the fireplace during the Sabbath hours (4)—a prohibition no doubt based on a misreading of the Biblical command against kindling fires in one’s home on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:3), an issue addressed in a very balanced and contextual fashion by Ellen White in her own account of Israel’s wilderness wanderings (5). 

While not wishing to dispute the accuracy of the account given by the above former Adventist, one must truly wonder how widespread this extreme practice has ever been in the church.  Speaking as a born-and-bred conservative Adventist myself, I can’t say I knew of any families—even among the most conservative, even fanatical—who refused to use their fireplaces during the hours of the Sabbath.  Anecdotes of this nature tend to lose credibility unless they can be shown to be significantly representative of the lifestyle or belief system with which they are associated.

Another incident recounted by this book was strange to the point of bizarre, in which an ex-Adventist woman described a church school principal who made a habit of reaching inside female students’ blouses to make sure they were wearing bras (5).  Again, the issue is not whether the story being told is true, but whether it is representative.  And again I must fall back on my own deeply conservative upbringing within the church and its educational system, and confess that despite any number of eccentricities on the part of authority figures that I witnessed in such settings, I truly cannot imagine a schoolteacher or principal behaving in the fashion described by this woman and not being summarily fired!

But the widespread abuse of authority by some in responsible positions, even if not as anomalous or eccentric as the above examples, cannot be denied.  One such example of this abuse is mentioned by the book in question, in a story told by one ex-Adventist about an academy dean who physically assaulted him and provoked a similar response (6).  Far too many such tales from home and from school, unfortunately accurate in many cases, could be told by the children of the church.  I could tell some myself.

Family Government

One notable aspect of authority abuse in the church has been the employment of principles and rules of a purely human origin, with no basis in either Scripture or the Ellen G. White writings, as a means of controlling the lives of the young.  This article will consider this problem as it has appeared in families, in church institutions, and in the personal lives of the devout.                                                                                                                     

One such notion—nowhere written, to be sure, but still very real in many experiences—has been the assumption of certain parents that in the rearing and discipline of children, normal principles of godly behavior (e.g. restraint on the temper and the tongue, patient forbearance, consideration of others’ feelings, and the Golden Rule) are suspended and no longer apply.

This assumption often justifies the free use of angry words, the raising of one’s voice, inflexible rigidity in family government—the latter often excused for fear of encouraging children to think that “if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.”  Such upbringing runs the very real risk of leaving lasting scars on a child’s emotional and spiritual makeup.  Often the issues involved in such rigid governance have nothing to do with inspired counsel, but arise instead from age-old cultural notions that resist the questioning of authority at any level, be that authority religious or secular.

I fully understand the risks involved for one who addresses principles of parenting who hasn’t yet been called upon to raise a family.  I recall with a measure of amusement the words of one prominent, now deceased Australian evangelist, who for a time served as ministerial director of what was then the Australasian (now the South Pacific) Division.  In a sermon I heard him preach, he spoke of the counsel he had given to young ministers under his charge, which I am paraphrasing as follow: “If you’re going to give lectures on raising children, do it before you have any, because once you do, you won’t know how!”                                                                                                                           

But whatever our marital or parenting status, the written counsel of God is there for us to utilize in measuring our own and others’ conduct, including that of parents.  Both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White contain intricately balanced wisdom in the counsel offered to parents with regard to family government.  The apostle Paul declares: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1), yet goes on to admonish fathers to “provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (verse 4).

It’s difficult to find Ellen White counsels regarding the raising of children which don’t state the dual imperatives of love and justice side by side.  While the modern prophet warns parents not to withhold godly correction from their children (7), to never tolerate disrespect (8), and reminds her readers of the fate of Eli and his undisciplined sons (9), her instructions relative to child-rearing include many admonitions that I fear were ignored by parents during the years of cultural upheaval, whose consequences the church continues to suffer.  In the very same context where she warns parents never to allow disrespect from their children, she writes:

Let none imagine, however, that harshness and severity are necessary to secure obedience.  I have seen the most efficient family government maintained without a harsh word or look (10).

Elsewhere she gives similar instruction:

The scolding and faultfinding of parents encourages a hasty, passionate temper in their children.  Love and justice should stand side by side in the government of the household (11).

Firmness is ever to be united with love in the home life.  Otherwise love is worthless. . . . God is our lawgiver and King and parents are to place themselves under His rule.  This rule forbids all oppression from parents and all disobedience from children (12).

These growing boys and girls feel very sensitive, and by roughness you may mar their whole life.  Be careful, mothers.  Never scold; for that never helps (13).

It will pay to manifest affection in your association with your children.  Do not repel them by lack of sympathy in their childish sports, joys, and griefs.  Never let a frown gather upon your brow or a harsh word escape your lips.  God writes all these words in His book of records.  Harsh words sour the temper and wound the hearts of children, and in some cases these wounds are difficult to heal.  Children are sensitive to the least injustice, and some become discouraged under it and will neither heed the loud, angry voice of command nor care for threatenings of punishment (14).

Ellen White underscores her appeal for balanced parental discipline when she urges that corporal punishment always be attended with an absence of anger:

Some parents correct their children severely in a spirit of impatience and often in passion.  Such corrections produce no good results.  In seeking to correct one evil they create two.  Continual censuring and whipping hardens children, and weans their affections from their parents.  First reason with your children, clearly point out their wrongs, and impress upon them that they have not only sinned against you, but against God.  With your heart full of pity and sorrow for your erring children, pray with them before correcting them.  Then they will see that you do not punish them because they have put you to inconvenience, or because you wish to vent your displeasure upon them, but from a sense of duty for their good; and they will love and respect you (15).

You may have to punish your child with the rod.  This is sometimes essential.  But never, never strike him in anger.  To correct him thus is to make two wrongs in trying to cure one (16).

My heart truly aches for those reared in Adventist homes who have developed the image of Ellen White as a heartless taskmaster because of parents who miserably failed to follow the above counsels.  Could some of the resistance to authority we now see in the Seventh-day Adventist Church be traceable to such negative home experiences?

Institutional Government

The problem of undue harshness and man-made rules in the Adventist experience isn’t, of course, confined to the home.  It has also presented itself in the church’s institutional life, perhaps most often in secondary and self-supporting educational settings, though certainly not exclusively in that context.

Young people my age who grew up in the church often nurtured a negative view of Ellen White, not because they had actually read and studied her writings, but because teachers and deans in boarding school—like the parents noted above—often wrapped their authority in Ellen White statements, many of which were either wrenched from context or simply non-existent.  Whether the issue was the length of male hair, dress standards, social relationships, or a variety of other topics, authority figures either applied legitimate inspired counsels in a severe fashion or took the modern prophet’s name in vain by claiming her support for rules not found anywhere in her writings.

When I was a junior in boarding academy, one faculty member insisted to me that according to the book Messages to Young People, dating couples shouldn’t hold hands.  I truly doubt that this dear lady had previously met a sixteen-year-old Adventist kid who had actually read the book Messages to Young People!  Politely I informed her that I had read the book carefully, and couldn’t recall any such statement.  When I asked her for the reference, she couldn’t find it—understandably, because the statement doesn’t exist. 

Like all her counsels, Ellen White’s instruction on the issues of dating, marriage preparation, and physical affection prior to marriage are entirely balanced, devoid of any Talmud-style prescriptions as to which physical expressions are proper at which point in the lead-up to the wedding altar.  Aside from affirming the Bible’s prohibition against sexual fulfillment prior to marriage, the following statement from her pen is about as explicit as she gets regarding what kind of physical intimacy is proper for dating couples:

Not one word should be spoken, not one action performed, that you would not be willing the holy angels should look upon and register in the books above (17).

A quick elaboration is likely needful at this point regarding Ellen White’s counsels against dating (or courtship) while in school, an often notable feature of the rules governing Adventist self-supporting institutions.  These counsels have frequently suffered serious misunderstanding due to the failure of certain ones to consider the ages of the students to whom such counsels were often addressed, along with the relatively brief educational experience with which these counsels were generally connected.  The present writer conducted a considerable amount of research on this subject a number of years ago, which yielded some very interesting results. 

Among other things, an inquiry on my part to the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University in the summer of 1984 produced evidence that for three particular years at Battle Creek College, during the time Ellen White gave some of her stronger counsels against romance while in school, at least 40 percent of the students were in their very early teens—some even younger (18).  According to Ellen White’s grandson, the late Arthur L. White, a significantly larger percentage of the students at Avondale College in that school’s early years were of a similar age:

The records indicate that nearly half the student body were 16 years of age or younger.  Restraints of a more rigid character were called for than in dealing with a normal college age group (19).

When she (Ellen White) had written in 1897 the larger number of the students were under 16 years of age (20).

With students enrolled at so young an age, most would likely agree that such Ellen White statements as the following make a good deal of sense:

Some of those who attend the College do not properly improve their time.  Full of the buoyancy of youth, they spurn the restraint that is brought to bear upon them.  Especially do they rebel against the rules that will not allow young gentlemen to pay their attentions to young ladies.  Full well is known the evil of such a course in this degenerate age (21).

Again and again I stood before the students in the Avondale school with messages from the Lord regarding the deleterious influence of free and easy association between young men and young women.  I told them that if they did not keep themselves to themselves, and endeavor to make the most of their time, the school would not benefit them, and those who were paying their expenses would be disappointed (22).

We have labored hard to keep in check everything in the school like favoritism, attachments, and courting.  We have told the students that we would not allow the first thread of this to be interwoven with their school work.  On this point we were as firm as a rock.  I told them that they must dismiss all idea of forming attachments while at school.  The young ladies must keep themselves to themselves, and the young gentlemen must do the same (23).

Elder C.W. Irwin, who was president of Avondale College when the last of the above statements was written, presided at Pacific Union College when the book Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students was in preparation.  He fully expected that the new book would include the unequivocal “no courting” stance of her previous statements.  W.C. White, in contact with Brothers G.A. Irwin and E.E. Andross, explained that “the strong and unqualified statements in the testimonies regarding this matter refer to and apply chiefly to the schools made up largely of young and immature students” (24).  This response was prepared in consultation with his mother (25).

In response to the request for qualification so far as the maturity of students and the courtship issue was concerned, Ellen White wrote the following statement in Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, once again demonstrating the wise balance attending all her instructions:

In all our dealings with students, age and character must be taken into account.  We cannot treat the young and the old just alike.  There are circumstances under which men and women of sound experience and good standing may be granted some privileges not given to the younger students.  The age, the conditions, and the turn of mind must be taken into consideration.  But we must not lessen our firmness in dealing with students of all ages, nor our strictness in forbidding the unprofitable and unwise association of young and immature students (26).

Wrongful severity relative to this issue has certainly left its mark.  Years ago a young man who had attended a self-supporting academy told me how faculty members at this particular school had been known to intercept love letters between students and read them aloud in chapel assemblies!  (Thank God for the comparative privacy of the networked world in our own time!)  I truly wonder if those who have subjected youthful hearts to this kind of embarrassment and violation can appreciate the harvest of bitterness and resentment such actions can bring.  From the present writer’s observation, it would seem such conduct on the part of school authorities has not been isolated.  During the Desmond Ford controversy in the early 1980s, at the college from which I graduated, one professor sympathetic to the Fordian camp reminded college board members of such extreme incidents in the church’s past.  The faculty observer at this board meeting reported the following on this professor’s remarks during the morning devotional:

Do we really yearn for the days when the college president read intercepted love letters to the student body assembled in chapel, or when administrators bore the wrath of certain persons from “the field” over the laxness of a biology professor who dared to allow female students to wear slacks on field trips? (27). 

The professor was obviously trying to dissuade the board from correcting the very real problems of doctrinal heresy in the school at the time, for fear such corrections would invite a return of the sort of undue rigidity of which he spoke.  Thus the cause of revival and reformation was set back.

Those in authority—whether in the home, the church, or the school—should as much as possible exalt the beauty, delight, and pleasures of marital intimacy while urging the young to preserve their purity in anticipation of married life.  Tragically, the children of the church have not always encountered such a balanced emphasis.  The negative influence of one women’s dean of my acquaintance has always stood out in my mind relative to this issue.  If the stories I heard from some of the girls under her charge are to be believed, this lady had a habit of describing her own marital relationship in terms not likely to encourage the young to preserve themselves for the bridal suite!  Certainly she and her husband had the right to govern their private relationship as they pleased.  But when older persons in a mentoring position describe the marriage relation to young people in a manner more in harmony with Augustine’s Confessions than the Song of Solomon, it’s easy to see how Biblical standards of sexual purity can lose their appeal.

Student Self-Government

A rarely referenced admonition from Ellen White’s writings regarding the governing of our educational centers, would—if followed—avert much of the abuse of power that at times has wounded the spirituality and derailed the consecration of youthful Adventists.  Prefacing this admonition, the modern prophet writes:

The wise educator, in dealing with his pupils, will seek to encourage confidence and to strengthen the sense of honor.  Children and youth are benefited by being trusted.  Many, even of the little children, have a high sense of honor; all desire to be treated with confidence and respect, and this is their right.  They should not be led to feel that they cannot go out or come in without being watched.  Suspicion demoralizes, producing the very evils it seeks to prevent.  Instead of watching continually, as if suspecting evil, teachers who are in touch with their pupils will discern the workings of the restless mind, and will set to work influences that will counteract evil.  Lead the youth to feel that they are trusted, and there are few who will not seek to prove themselves worthy of the trust.

            On the same principle it is better to request than to command; the one thus addressed has opportunity to prove himself loyal to right principles.  His obedience is the result of choice rather than compulsion (28).

Then she writes:

The rules governing the schoolroom should, so far as possible, represent the voice of the school.  Every principle involved in them should be so placed before the student that he may be convinced of its justice.  Thus he will feel a responsibility to see that the rules which he himself has helped to frame are obeyed (29).

If the above principle had always been a vital aspect of the governing policies in our schools, my guess is that a good deal of the resistance to authority that has marked the experience of so many Adventist young people would have been avoided.  Student self-government has, unfortunately, tended to be unpopular among campus administrators of a conservative bent, and this spirit has often rendered more difficult the rightful education of the youth.  The above counsel from Ellen White plainly endorses an approach to rule-making and policy enforcement that inculcates a measure of democracy so far as students and the rules that govern them are concerned.

“Teaching for Doctrines the Commandments of Men”—Two Case Studies

Jesus’ warning against “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9) bears closer scrutiny than has often been afforded.  In this statement, Jesus does not forbid the teaching of human ideas.  God doesn’t do our thinking for us.  Sometimes decisions must be made in a sacred or moral context for which explicit inspired commands do not exist.  What Jesus forbade was the teaching of human ideas for doctrines.  Here is where religious conservatives, including some Adventists, have erred at times in their efforts to guide the youth as well as others.

We’re going to consider two case studies which illustrate the problem of which we speak. 

Four decades ago, a prominent Adventist educator wrote a book on why so many of our young people leave the church.  His research focused significantly on the problem of man-made rules in the experience of the young, many of them arising from culture and established common wisdom rather than inspired counsel.  At one point he recalls a camp meeting experience in which a pastor and his wife complained about a leader in the youth tent who wore a beard.  Attempting to be fair, the educator asked the reason for the couples’ concern.

Did the Bible forbid the wearing of beards? he asked.  Did the Spirit of Prophecy writings?  (Imagine James White, Uriah Smith, and any number of our Adventist pioneers hearing this!)  Did some official church policy prohibit the practice?  The answer to all of these queries, on the part of this pastor and his wife, was No (30).  The educator in question then recounts the dialogue that followed:

“Now I’m a bit confused.”  I cast a longing glance at my rapidly cooling meal but decided to see it through.  “If this beard standard, which you ask me to uphold, doesn’t come from any of these authoritative sources, where does it come from?”

            “Well,” [the pastor’s wife] said, “it isn’t written down anywhere.  It’s just general knowledge.  Everybody knows what beards stand for.”

            “I’m sorry, Mrs. Thomas.  That’s just too nebulous for me.  I have to get my standards from a more authoritative source than some kind of vague general feeling” (31).

The educator, of course, could have guessed with reasonable accuracy as to where this no-beard standard came from.  No one living in Western society during those years could easily have missed the outward badges of the culture wars then in progress, some of which we noted earlier in the reference from Theodore White.  The mystery is why so many Adventists got involved in those wars.  The knee-jerk cultural conservatism that swept through much of Caucasian America in those years was an often confusing mixture of Biblical and merely traditional values.  Our purpose in this article is not to untangle all of these, but to simply affirm that only those values with a basis in the written counsel of God merit the loyalty, effort, and moral zeal necessary for the prosecution of spiritual conflict.  Picking and choosing one’s battles appears to have been an article of discernment frequently absent among authority figures during the time of upheaval we’re discussing.

Far more consequential, even tragic, is the second of the two cases we will consider—that of Joshua Harris, the popular Christian author and pastor most famous for his attack on modern Western dating practices (32).  (While Harris is not an Adventist, his views on marriage preparation have been significantly popular among conservative Adventist young people and their spiritual guides during the past two decades.)  Like other conservative Christians at different times in history, going back to Augustine, Harris appeared at one point to elevate the offensiveness of sexual sins to a near-pre-eminent level, stating in one book: “I’ve come to believe that (sexual) lust may be the defining struggle for this generation” (33).                                                                                                                       

Speaking for myself, I have no problem whatsoever affirming that sexual lust constitutes a defining struggle for the present generation, and perhaps for all previous ones as well.  But it helps to remember Jesus’ statement that the sexually immoral cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would find a more tolerant hearing in God’s judgment than the self-righteous Galilean towns who experienced the Savior’s ministry but turned their backs upon it (Matt. 11:21-24).  Moreover, when one considers how, in the poorest countries of our world, one in five children dies of hunger before the age of five (34), I certainly have trouble making sexual lust the defining moral sin of our age—more egregious, presumably, than the lust for wealth and power, persistent racial hostility, and a host of other widespread and deeply hurtful transgressions. 

But within the past year, Harris’s stand on dating experienced a dramatic reversal.  Describing changes in his thinking on this subject, he apologized for the harm inflicted on certain lives by his book I Kissed Dating Good-bye.  In Harris’s words:

While I stand by my book’s call to sincerely love others, my thinking has changed significantly in the past twenty years. I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner (35).

One felt encouraged by the following statement by Harris, which appeared to maintain his reverence for the Bible as his supreme authority in matters spiritual:

There are other weaknesses too: in an effort to set a high standard, the book emphasized practices (not dating, not kissing before marriage) and concepts (giving your heart away) that are not in the Bible. In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, it instilled fear for some—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken. The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by scripture (36).

Due to the misgivings that reversed his former views, Harris asked that the book I Kissed Dating Good-bye be withdrawn from publication (37).  But sadly, his spiritual journey hasn’t stopped there.  More recently Harris has publicly renounced both his marriage (38) and the Christian faith itself (39). 

The rejection of the Christian message by anyone is heartbreaking and horrendous.  But I fear the saga of Josh Harris is less the case of a “bright light” going out—as some have alleged (40)—as it is the case of someone gyrating from one extreme to the other.  The entire anti-dating, pro-courtship mindset—ambiguous at best when applied to the practical task of relationship building and marriage preparation—is a man-made paradigm.  Neither Scripture nor (for Adventists) the writings of Ellen White offer a rigid formula for choosing a mate.  Principles are spelled out, to be sure, but many of the red-lined boundaries fabricated by the “don’t date, only court” philosophy are contrived strictly by human judgment.  And only God’s biddings are enablings (41), not those of fallible mortals.  Moreover, the hyper-conscientious, even mystical perceptions of God’s will found in Harris’s books (42) are dangerous for other reasons.  Only the written counsel of God, with its intricate balance and fully reasonable requirements, offers a definite guide to Christian duty.

A sensitive conscience is certainly an ally in today’s increasingly amoral world, but a hypersensitive conscience can create major pitfalls for the striving faithful.  In Ellen White’s words:

There is a conscientiousness that will carry everything to extremes, and make Christian duties as burdensome as the Jews made the observance of the Sabbath (43).

Describing the experience of the Jews in Jesus’ day, she writes:

With all their minute and burdensome injunctions, it was an impossibility to keep the law.  Those who desired to serve God, and who tried to observe the rabbinical precepts, toiled under a heavy burden.  They could find no rest from the accusings of a troubled conscience.  Thus Satan worked to discourage the people, to lower their conception of the character of God, and to bring the faith of Israel into contempt.  He hoped to establish the claim put forth when he rebelled in heaven—that the requirements of God were unjust, and could not be obeyed.  Even Israel, he declared, did not keep the law (44).

Perhaps many through the ages, including some of the post-exilic Jews, have been sincere in the construction of man-made rules as safeguards against disobedience to the divine law.  And perhaps some of these rules have at times served a wise purpose.  Again, God doesn’t spell out every aspect of the believer’s duties.  Where we get into trouble, returning to the words of Jesus, is when we transform requirements of human origin into doctrinal imperatives (Matt. 15:9).  That prerogative belongs only to the written counsel of God—which for Seventh-day Adventists, of course, includes both Scripture and the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. 

Learning From Our Mistakes: “A Lantern on the Stern”

The British poet Samuel Coleridge once lamented, “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!  But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us” (45).  Historian Barbara Tuchman, in her magnificent account of political folly through the centuries, comments as follows on the above lament by Coleridge:

The image is beautiful but the message misleading, for the light on the waves we have passed should enable us to infer the nature of the waves ahead (46).

People have said that “hindsight is genius.”  However true that may be, the wisdom the past imparts can easily be smothered by impulse and the perceived imperatives of present priorities.  But for the Seventh-day Adventist Christian—even more so, based on our doctrinal heritage, than for mainstream evangelicals like Josh Harris—the imperative of sorting out culture and tradition from the counsel of God should rank among the highest of spiritual priorities where moral and behavioral issues are concerned.  This sorting out should have been a major priority long before the storm-swept seas of the mid-twentieth century confronted the church.  But now we have the experience of those decades to warn us.  And as a revival of primitive godliness has begun in many contemporary Adventist circles, particularly among the youth, the necessity of avoiding man-made agendas and wisely choosing spiritual battles should never be lost to our focus.

The delayed advent, like getting older, offers few advantages, but most assuredly one of these is the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. 


An unfortunate reality in the human story is that the reception of ideas—be they good or bad—-is usually determined by the manner in which they are conveyed as opposed to their factual content.  An example I will always remember is from the story of an Adventist teenager who got caught up in the Hitler Youth movement during the 1940s.  Describing her teachers at the Nazi school where she was educated, she wrote: “Though they demanded obedience and strict self-discipline, they were kind, warm, understanding, and fair” (47). 

An author’s personal reflections are easy to take at face value, until—as in this case—one stops to consider their context.  The very human portrait painted by this book of these considerate, devout young people is obviously belied by their service to one of the most detestable regimes in history, which would go on to annihilate millions of innocent human beings.  Yet the fact that one who trained under their tutelage was prepared in retrospect to describe them as “kind, warm, understanding, and fair” not only reminds us of the Biblical warning that “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (II Cor. 11:14); it also reminds us that the packaging of an idea or ideology—be it good or evil—makes all the difference as to its reception. 

The preaching and inculcation of God’s Word and of His final message for humanity is no exception to this rule.  The children of the Advent movement—indeed, of Christianity as a whole—have all too often accepted or rejected that message based on the manner in which others (authority figures especially) have talked and lived it.

Negative experience has long been a favored weapon among modern Adventists in the fight against the call to Christian perfection and other features of what has come to be known as Last Generation Theology (48).  The use of such arguments is especially conspicuous in more recent books directed against this theological construct (49).  It is thus fair to say that when we hear either ex-Adventists or less-than-conservative professing Adventists speak of their alleged journey from legalism to grace, when we hear or read them denouncing Last Generation Theology and its respective features for the lack of assurance with which these teachings supposedly afflicted their Christian walk, it is important for us to acknowledge the “deep background” of cultural memories and hang-ups often lurking in the shadows of such testimonies, and to recognize that much of this baggage carries no authority either from Scripture or the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. 

This isn’t always true, of course.  Many who reject the Biblical summons of perfection theology likely do so for the simple reason that they wish to hang onto their favorite sins.  This is the predominant tendency of human hearts when faced with uncomfortable truth, if the evidence found in the Sacred Record is to be taken seriously.  Such persons, like the rest of us, will only experience transformative change when they choose to surrender all to God and His written authority.  Moreover, it can’t be stated often enough that the excessive rigidity addressed in this article is not by any means the prevailing problem in contemporary First World Adventism.  It seems to the present writer that persons with even minimal discernment in today’s church would be forced to acknowledge the prevalence in such settings of the exact opposite problem. 

But the cultural issues addressed here can’t be allowed to slip from the radar screen.  To what extent the resistance of certain ones to affirming the moral attainment placed by the inspired pen before God’s remnant church is rooted in the negative cultural issues here addressed, or simply in the old-fashioned resentment of the unconverted against Biblical righteousness, only God can know.  In the words of Solomon, addressing the all-knowing Sovereign of heaven to whom he dedicated the great temple in Jerusalem: “Thou, even Thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men” (I Kings 8:39).                                                                                                 

But the purpose of this article is to at least call our attention to the reality of these negative cultural challenges, and to urge the Biblically faithful among us to greater sensitivity in discerning where the commandments of God end and the commandments of men begin.  The continuing struggle for revival and reformation in the Seventh-day Adventist Church demands no less.



1.  Fred Cornforth and Tim Lale, Ten Who Have Left: People Who Left the Church and Why (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1995).

2.  See Roger L. Dudley, Why Teenagers Reject Religion and What to Do About It (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1978), p. 77.

3.  Theodore H. White, Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1975), p. 332.

4.  Cornforth and Lale, Ten Who Left, p. 27.

5.  Ibid, p. 56.

6.  Ibid, pp. 49-50.

7.  Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 119,216-219.

8.  ----Signs of the Times, March 11, 1886.

9.  ----Review and Herald, April 13, 1897.

10.  ---- Signs of the Times, March 11, 1886.

11.  Ibid, Aug. 12, 1913.

12.  Ibid, Feb. 22, 1905.

13.  Ibid.

14.  ----Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 532.

15.  ----Signs of the Times, April 10, 1884.

16.  ----Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 2, p. 519.

17.  ----The Adventist Home, p. 55.

18.  Letter of Louise Dederen to Kevin Paulson, July 19, 1984.

19.  Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Australian Years, 1891-1900 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1983), p. 312           

20.  ---- Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years, 1905-1915 (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1982), p. 384.

21.  Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 110.

22.  ----Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, pp. 101-102.

23.  ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 8, p. 256.

24.  Letter of W.C. White to G.A. Irwin and E.E. Andross, Sept. 7, 1912, quoted by Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years, 1905-1915, p. 382.

25.  Ibid.

26.  Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 101.

27.  Greg Schneider, Report to the Faculty, Pacific Union College Board Meeting, May 20, 1982, p. 1.

28.  Ellen G. White, Education, pp. 289-290.

29.  Ibid, p. 290.

30.  Dudley, Why Teenagers Reject Religion, pp. 66-67.

31.  Ibid, p. 67.

32.  Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Good-bye (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1997); Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 2000). 

33.  ----Not Even a Hint (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 2003), p. 19.

34.  Robert P. Watson (ed.), George McGovern: A Political Life, A Political Legacy (Pierre, SD: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2004), p. 68.

35.  Josh Harris, “A Statement on I Kissed Dating Good-bye,”

36.  Ibid.

37.  Ibid. 




41.  Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 333.

42.  See Harris, I Kissed Dating Good-bye, p. 227; Boy Meets Girl, pp. 141-143.

43.  Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 319.

44.  ----The Desire of Ages, p. 29.

45.  Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 383.

46.  Ibid.

47.  Maria Anne Hirschmann, I Changed Gods (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1968), p. 13.

48.  See Clifford Goldstein, “Beyond Logic,” Adventist Review, Jan. 23, 2003, p. 28; Keavin Hayden, “My Journey to Graceland,” Adventist Review, March 15, 2001, pp. 11-13; George R. Knight, I Used to Be Perfect: An ex-legalist looks at law, sin, and grace (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1994); The Pharisee’s Guide to Perfect Holiness: A study of sin and salvation (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1992), pp. 190-191,195; Marvin Moore, Conquering the Dragon Within: God’s Provision for Assurance and Victory in the End-Time (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1995), pp. 15-17; Lee Venden, It’s All About Him: After Jesus, Everything Else is Hardly Worth Talking About (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 2004), pp. 93,100; Morris L. Venden, Never Without An Intercessor: The Good News About the Judgment (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1996), pp. 33,102; Martin Weber, More Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1992), pp. 27-38; Who’s Got the Truth? Making sense out of five different Adventist gospels (Silver Spring, MD: Home Study International Press, 1994), pp. 169-186,199; Woodrow W. Whidden II, Ellen White on the Humanity of Christ (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1997), p. 73.

49. See Jiri Moskala and John C. Peckham (eds.), God’s Character and the Last Generation (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2018), pp. 18,44,85-87,105,137,167,236-237,275; George R. Knight, End-Time Events and the Last Generation: The Explosive 1950s (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 2018), pp. 10,16-19,85). 


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Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan