The Seventh-day Adventist Church has done well at using Scripture to sift traditional doctrine and practice, and reject that which is not biblical. A good example is the Sabbath, there being no sound biblical argument for keeping the pagan day of the Sun in derogation of the biblical Sabbath. Another example would be the state of the dead; the notion that a disembodied consciousness continues on after death is a pagan Greek idea that is contrary to the Scriptures. But Adventists have not done as well as most other “high Scripture” Christian churches in one area. We are weak on the one topic that Christianity has historically seen as emblematic of, almost definitional to, the distinction between Christians and pagans.
We Have No Fundamental Belief on Sexual Behavior
As Dr. Elizabeth Iskander pointed out in an article here last October, the SDA Church has no fundamental belief on sexual behavior. Elizabeth proposed that the following language be added to FB No. 22, on Christian Behavior:
We are not to engage in biblically unlawful sexual acts, including sexual acts between persons of the same sex, or between unmarried persons of opposite sex. Lev. 11:1-47; 3 John 2; Lev. 18:6-18, 22; Ex. 22:19; Prov. 7; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 5:1-2, 6:9-11, 7:2-3; 1 Thes. 4:3-4; Heb. 13:4.)
It is not clear why our fundamental beliefs contain no statement setting out this basic, near universal Christian belief about sexual activity.
It could be argued that such a statement is not necessary, because it is common to Christianity. But there are many things in our fundamental beliefs that are shared by almost all Christians, including that the Scriptures are the written word of God (FB 1), the there is a Trinity (FB 2), that Jesus is God, was incarnated, died for our sins, and was resurrected (FB 4), etc. Since we chose to reiterate many of the basics of the Christian faith, why did we omit a statement on sexual behavior?
We Have Ignored All Biblical Guidance on Sex Roles
I will not extensively rehash what has often been discussed on this site, but the Bible establishes sex roles in the home and in the church. The husband is the head of the home. (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1). The church offices of episkopēs (“bishop” or “overseer”) and presbuteros (“elder”) are described as male offices, to be filled by sober men who are the husband of one wife, and capable fathers. (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Effective leadership of the family is a prerequisite to leadership in the church: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4) There are specific admonitions that women should not be in church leadership roles. (1 Cor. 14:33-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-14).
But when we Adventists read these passages, they seem alien to us. They have never been emphasized in the Quarterly, the Review, or any other official SDA publication. They seem almost the guilty secret of individual Adventist Bible readers, who think, “Wow, my pastor never said anything about this.” Needless to say, there is no fundamental belief on male headship. The clear biblical model of patriarchy in the home and in the church is not any part of our Adventist religious subculture.
I do have an idea how this came to be. Adventist pioneers often had to deal with those who—quoting the patriarchal passages—argued that because she was a woman Ellen White should sit down and shut up. Having a group of texts constantly used against you will not engender any fond feelings toward those texts. Adventists apparently decided there must be something wrong with the texts themselves, rather than in how they were being deployed against Ellen White. In fact, there is clear biblical precedent for female prophets (Judges 14:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Luke 2:36; Acts 21:8-9), and for women to prophesy in a church setting (1 Cor. 11:5). But the biblical fact that women may be prophets and may prophesy in church does not vitiate the normal gospel order of headship. (1 Cor. 11:3)
The result of our ignoring the biblical guidance on sex roles is that the SDA Church is now riven over the issue of women in church leadership. Most SDA members are in third world countries with more traditional cultures; they do not want female ordination. But the first world, having drifted along with post-Sexual Revolution feminism, is committed to implementing female leadership in the church, just as first world cultural, business, military and governmental elites are committed to implementing female leadership in all aspects of secular life. Even otherwise very conservative Adventists in North America, Europe, and Australia see no problem with women in leadership roles in the church. Last year, we watched as the NAD's attempt to remove the barrier to women becoming conference presidents led to a rebuff from the GC, which led, in turn, to a rebellion by the Columbia Union and the Pacific Union, both of which voted to ordain women notwithstanding that the world church in General Conference session has twice voted against it.
We Are, as a practical matter, Pro-Abortion
God has commanded us to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28; 9:1), and Scripture portrays children as a blessing from God (Gen. 33:5; Deut. 7:14; 28:4, 11; Psalm 127:3-5; 113:9; 128:1-6; Prov. 17:6; John 16:21; 1 Tim. 2:15; 5:14). A recurring scriptural motif is the barren woman who, in answer to her prayers and through God's power, is made fertile and bears a child. This was true of Sara (Gen. 18:9-15; 21:1-6), Rachel (Gen. 30:1-22), Samson's mother (Judges 13), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:1-20), and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25). In Scripture, children are greatly sought after, a cause for rejoicing, and fondly cherished.
Interestingly, the prophets write of God having formed them in the womb, and called them to be his messengers while still in utero. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb.” Psalm 139:12. “Yet you brought me out of the womb . . . from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” Psalm 22:9-10. Of Jeremiah, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jer. 1:5. Isaiah testifies: “Before I was born the LORD called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. . . . And now the LORD says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself.” Isa. 49:1, 5. Paul states, “But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles . . “ Gal. 1:15. Samson's mother began preparing him for his future calling while he was yet in the womb, by eating a special diet during her pregnancy. (Judges 13:7, 13-14) These passages clearly imply that personhood begins before birth; a person is a person, capable of being designated for a consecrated purpose, while yet in the womb.
One who accidentally causes a premature birth or a miscarriage is subject to a fine (Ex. 21:22-25), but Scripture does not seem to have contemplated a situation in which someone would intentionally kill a baby in the womb. Yet there can be little doubt that abortion is contrary to a biblical and Christian world view. Scripture condemns the ritual killing of children as a “detestable practice.” (Lev. 18:21; 2 Chron. 28:3, 33:6; Ezek. 16:20-21; Jer. 7:31; 19:3-6; 32:35). In most pagan cultures, including ancient Greece and Rome, it was perfectly acceptable to abandon unwanted babies to die of exposure. But just as a Christian Rome eventually outlawed gladiatorial combat, she eventually, in 374 AD, also outlawed the pagan practice of exposing unwanted babies (the ancient practice most comparable to the modern late-term abortion). The Christian consensus about babies is that they are not to be killed, in the womb or out of it.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has an ambivalent official statement about abortion, which speaks of an unborn child as “a magnificent gift of God,” while also seeking to preserve “the personal liberty of women” to toss that magnificent gift in the trash. But there is nothing ambivalent about the Church's involvement in the abortion industry. We are hip deep in the abortion business. Elective abortions are performed at many Adventist hospitals, but the real history has been made by individual Adventist doctors. Dr. Edward C. Allred, a graduate of La Sierra University and Loma Linda University, founded “Family Planning Associates” and personally aborted well over a quarter of a million babies. Dr. Allred made the abortion business very lucrative by spending no more than five minutes with each expecting mother. “We eliminated needless patient-physician contact,” he told one reporter. Allred owned 23 abortion clinics, which generated $70 million in annual gross revenues and $5 million in annual profits. When Dr. Allred retired from the business, he sold it to another Seventh-day Adventist, Dr. Irving M. “Bud” Feldkamp III. (Dr. Feldkamp is a dentist, not an OB/GYN, but he recognized a profitable business when he saw one.)
Although Allred's fortune was built on aborted babies—and he continues to own horse-racing venues which he has stuffed with slot machines—his money was plenty good enough for his alma mater, La Sierra University, which named the “Edward C. Allred Center for Financial Literacy and Entrepreneurship” after him. La Sierra's board is chaired by Pacific Union President Ricardo Graham; other union officials and three conference presidents also sit on the board. If these men approve of taking blood money from a mass abortionist and naming a “center” after him, it cannot reasonably be argued that the SDA Church is ambivalent about abortion. We are pro-abortion. We seem to consider abortion as wholesome as motherhood and apple pie.
The church’s pro-abortion stance has consequences. It is often argued that high standards are an impediment to church growth, but all of the research and empirical evidence suggest that people are attracted to churches that have high standards and make demands on their members. Our failure to take a Christian position turns people off, including many Adventists. Teresa Fry Beem was a Seventh-day Adventist anti-abortion activist, one of four children of a prominent family in Keene, Texas, where I grew up and was educated. Teresa became so frustrated with the church's stance on abortion that she converted to Roman Catholicism. She's written a book entitled, “It's Okay Not to be an Adventist,” and has founded a “former Adventist discussion group” on Facebook. It's hard to know how to respond to the Teresa Beems; abortion is a needless and indefensible stain on the Adventist Church.
We Are Slowly liberalizing the Church Manual on Divorce and Remarriage
At the 2000 General Conference session in Toronto, a comprehensive re-writing of the church manual chapter on divorce and remarriage was approved. Actually, the re-writing had been tabled after stiff opposition from the conservative third-world delegates, but was revived by a parliamentary maneuver and approved by majority vote on the last morning of the session, when only about 150 of more than 2,000 official delegates (fewer than ten percent of the official delegates) were present on the floor. Most of the conservative delegates from the developing world had gone to check on flight reservations (there was a rumor of an Air Canada strike) and were not present for the vote.
The new chapter on divorce and remarriage begins with a general discussion of marriage that includes an unsubtle attempt to undermine the Biblical teaching of male headship in the home. (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1) The new chapter states: “Partnership in Marriage—Unity in marriage is achieved by mutual respect and love. No one is superior.” Of course, role distinctions do not imply ontological superiority or inferiority, but role distinctions between men and women are part of the created order. The new chapter also states, under “Restoration and healing, No. 2”: “Oneness and Equality to be Restored in Christ—The gospel emphasizes the love and submission of husband and wife to one another (1 Cor. 7:3-4; Eph. 5:21).” The cited scriptural passages are not germane. Corinthians 7:3-4 commands spouses not to withhold sex from each other. Ephesians 5:21, telling believers to “submit to one another,” probably does not even apply to relations between the sexes, but rather to Christian believers in general. Most translations attach this phrase to verse 20, as in the KJV: “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” Some politically correct translations, like the most recent NIV, detach verse 21 from the preceding verse and place it below an added, editorial subheading, “Instructions for Christian Households” or some similar verbiage. The next verse, Eph. 5:22 states, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.” In verse 25, husbands are commanded to love, but not submit to, their wives.
The biblical standard for divorce is very clear: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Mat. 19:8. Jesus' disciples thought His teaching on divorce was outrageous, and we are just as committed to easy divorce as were the people of Jesus’ day. But the standard is the standard. “Men are not at liberty to make a standard of law for themselves, to avoid God’s law and please their own inclination. They must come to God’s great moral standard of righteousness.” Ellen White, The Adventist Home, p. 342.
Ellen White’s counsel notwithstanding, the SDA Church at Toronto made a new standard. The revised Church Manual chapter states:
Grounds for Divorce—Scripture recognizes adultery and/or fornication (Matt. 5:32) as well as abandonment by an unbelieving partner (1 Cor. 7:10-15) as grounds for divorce.
Did Paul really intend to add another ground for divorce to what Jesus had clearly stated? (How ironic that, based upon this lone passage, we’ve expanded the biblical grounds for divorce, yet remain in full-throated denial of Paul’s oft reiterated specification of male headship in the home and the church.) Even assuming that Paul created a new ground for divorce, does this situation arise often enough to warrant mention in the Church Manual? It seems to apply only when two non-Christians marry, one is later converted, and the unconverted spouse then insists upon getting a divorce without biblical grounds.
The re-written Church Manual chapter also postpones discipline in cases of non-biblical divorce until either of the spouses marries a third party, at which time the remarrying spouse should be removed from church membership. The most probable practical effect of this change is that one or both of the former spouses will have moved to different church before remarriage, the prior marriage and divorce will have been forgotten, and discipline will go by the boards.
As explained below, church discipline in cases of divorce has become rare, so the changes to the church manual were largely academic. But the absence of practical consequences argues for leaving the standards as they were: Since discipline is rare anyway, why add another ground for divorce, and why defer the possibility of discipline from the time of the unlawful divorce until the time of the unlawful re-marriage? It is difficult to view these changes as other than incremental (creeping) liberalism, a slow abandonment of that much-hated, impossibly high moral standard on divorce and remarriage.
What to do?
In all of these areas—biblical grounds for divorce, sex roles, sexual behavior, and abortion—a Southern Baptist will be far more likely than an Adventist to be familiar with the relevant biblical principles. That is not something to be proud of. Our Adventist religious subculture has, strangely, failed to acknowledge plain biblical standards and principles in the area of human sexuality.
Until about four decades ago, Adventism in North America could ride the coattails of a basically Christian sexual constitution. In the 19th and early 20th Century, we were more patriarchal than Latin America is now or ever was. Father knew best. Divorces could only be obtained by rigorously proving a ground for divorce (or by agreement, but even an agreed divorce usually necessitated an extended vacation in Nevada). Abortion was illegal, expensive and dangerous. Pornography was illegal; “stag films” existed underground, not as a multi-billion dollar above-the-counter business. Sodomy was illegal, and laws against overt homosexual activity were often enforced. Social disapproval of unwed motherhood and illegitimate children, and the lack of effective birth control, discouraged out-of-wedlock heterosexual activity; when an unmarried girl was found to be pregnant, inquiries were made and a shotgun wedding was arranged.
But the Sexual Revolution changed all that. Society rejected the concept of sex-role differentiation in the workplace, and governments began to enforce gender neutrality across a wide range of endeavor. Between 1967 and 1973, all 50 states adopted no fault divorce, meaning that either party could be granted a divorce without having to prove grounds. In the late 1960s, a few jurisdictions began to liberalize their abortion laws, and in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court mysteriously found a theretofore unimagined constitutional right to abortion. Some 55 million babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade. Most forms of pornography—those that did not involve minors or extreme acts—effectively became legal, as the Supreme Court subjected state obscenity laws to an expanded notion of freedom of expression. The gay rights movement erupted after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and by the late 1970s most cities had stopped enforcing sodomy laws (although they remained enforceable until the Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas deemed them unconstitutional). Strong social disapproval of unwed motherhood began to dissipate (does anyone remember “Murphy Brown”?); unsurprisingly, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births has quintupled since the sexual revolution, and now stand at 41% of all births. In sum, the Sexual Revolution overthrew a basically Christian sexual constitution and replaced it with one that is pagan or worse.
The Sexual Revolution’s toppling of the Christian sexual constitution has many implications for organized Christianity, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, one of which concerns church discipline following divorce. Before the introduction of “no fault” divorce, the church could usually rely on the state to determine who was at fault in a divorce proceeding. But today, almost all divorces are no-fault divorces; the state courts no longer find fault, but merely divide the common property and issue any necessary orders regarding child custody, support, and visitation. The church would need to introduce ecclesiastical divorce courts in order to replace the factual findings of fault that the civil courts no longer make. Thus far, the church has shown no interest in instituting church courts. The result is that, in North America over the past 35 years, there has been less and still less formal church discipline over divorce, until it is now almost never seen. Sadly, we now have even pastors who are remarried in a way that is biblically unlawful.
The Sexual Revolution brought about radical changes to the sexual constitution of the developed world, discarding a traditional Christian view of sexuality and replacing it with a pagan view of sexuality that is based upon the idea that anything consenting adults want to do with each other is normative and acceptable. Because of this cultural earthquake, Christians in the developed world can no longer coast along with the dominant culture. And yet that is exactly what Seventh-day Adventists have done in the areas of sex roles, abortion, and divorce and remarriage. We must not continue to drift along with an increasingly pagan larger culture. As Seventh-day Adventists, we need to open our Bibles and, in humble submission, learn what Scripture teaches about sexuality. It seems late in the day to transform our sexual subculture, but the first step in solving any problem is to admit you have one. We have one.