Is the Adventist Church an apostate cult?

What are we—a church or a cult?

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Recently I had a long discussion with members of the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement (SDARM). SDARM is a small ex-Adventist offshoot1 that makes the claim, among many others, that the mainstream Adventist Church is apostate and numbered in “Babylon”.2

Trinity

As proof of our supposed apostasy, it was pointed out that the Adventist Church endorses as an official belief the doctrine of the Trinity.3 According to SDARM publication, Principles of Faith (1925),4 this is supposedly a Catholic doctrine5 not found in the Bible.6 In response, I simply asked how they viewed the Godhead then, if not according to the doctrine of the Trinity?

Did they instead accept Tritheism7 like the Hindus;8 the worship of Father, Son and Spirit as three separate gods? No, they didn’t. Did they adopt Arianism9 like Jehovah’s Witnesses;10 the belief Jesus was a demi-god, created by the Father? No, they didn’t. Did they accept Modalism11 like Oneness Pentecostals;12 that Father, Son and Spirit were not really separate persons but illusory transitory modes? No, they didn’t.

So what do they believe? It turns out, after hours of torturous debate, they essentially accepted the Trinity as we understand it; they just didn’t like the term!13

Were they going out of their way to be misunderstood? I did point out that there are Christian terms not strictly found in the Bible, the name “Seventh-day Adventist” among them. Compare the attitude I encountered in trying to genuinely understand SDARM with the attitude of the apostle Paul in Acts 17, where he refers to a pagan altar and even quotes pagan poetry to speak in a way his Athenian audience can understand.

Are we embarrassed to be Adventists?

It certainly made me wonder what other hotly contested disputes are more misunderstandings of terminology rather than actual differences over doctrine. Even worse, it seems many Adventists are now embarrassed by many of our “distinctive” beliefs. Many of us seem to assume, quite wrongly I might add, that these distinctives are at odds with “mainstream” Christianity. In fact, this is best illustrated by three well-known “historic” Adventist beliefs, often raised by critics against us as supposed proof of our cult-like status.14

Pre-advent investigative judgement

The first distinctive is the Adventist doctrine of the pre-advent investigative judgement. A lot of our theology attaches to this teaching, and it has been the subject of much controversy within Adventism itself. Suffice to say, its core message, as the name implies, is that individuals will be judged in an investigative manner before the second advent of Jesus.

It might surprise many, including some embarrassed Adventists, to learn that mainstream Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox traditions, also believe in the pre-advent investigative judgement! They just happen to call it the “particular judgement” of the individual, to be distinguished from the later “general judgement” at the second coming.15

Atonement

The second “proof” of our alleged cult-like status is the idea that Jesus’ atonement was not completed at the cross. However, the English word “atonement” is actually a compound of “at-one-ment”, so it is used by different Christian groups at different times to mean different things.16 

“The writers of the Bible were God's penmen, not His pen . . . It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.”

Of course Adventists affirm the Bible’s teaching in Hebrews 10:10 that Jesus’ sacrifice was for once and for all. It’s just that when we use the term “atonement” we traditionally mean it in its broadest sense to cover the entire plan of salvation, including the eventual destruction of sin and death itself after the second resurrection.

The idea that Christ still has something “to do” in heaven, by serving as our High Priest and Intercessor, is a wholly biblical concept found in Hebrews 4:14. Similarly, the idea that Christ does not merely save us by His death but also by His life is a key concept supported by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:14.

Again, these concepts have long been supported in mainstream Christian thought. In fact, these exact points were put forward by Theodore of Mopsuestia during the 5th Century Council of Chalcedon about the nature of Christ.17

Gift of prophecy

The final frequently used “proof” of our alleged cult-like status is the Adventist acceptance of a contemporary gift of prophecy, which we recognise in the ministry of Ellen White. The problem is, the sort of prophet our critics say Ellen White was, is not the sort of prophet Adventists understand her to be. Our critics speak a different language.

First, some critics simply assume prophecy can no longer exist after the apostolic age.18 However, prophecy is simply one spiritual gift listed in Romans 12:6 and Ephesians 4:11, and there is no biblical suggestion the gift would stop. The Assemblies of God, a large and influential denomination, accepts contemporary prophetic ministry.19

As a matter of history, the gift only ceased to have widespread recognition when the bishops of the Proto-Catholic Church crushed the Montanist Revival in the late 2nd Century. At that time, “church father” Tertullian backed the Montanist prophets, being executed by the ruling bishops for doing so.20

Even early Christian histories recorded in the Didache (c.50-150 AD) and the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c.215 AD) mention spiritual gifts, including apostleship, prophecy, healing and teaching. There is clear historical evidence for the continuation of spiritual gifts, including prophecy, well after the Apostolic Age and into at least the 3rd Century AD.

Secondly, our critics speak a different language because they sometimes adopt an extreme “verbal-inspiration” view of the gift, which is an unbiblical concept that sees the prophet as a mere secretary scribing God’s dictation.21 Adventists, by contrast, accept the “thought-inspiration” model, which Ellen White best explained: “The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen . . . It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.”22

Jew to the Jew and Gentile to the Gentile

On the one hand it’s certainly true that we shouldn’t overly care what other groups think of us or call us. We don’t pander to them. Nonetheless, the worldwide mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is to take the three angels’ messages to the whole world. This includes a message for our fellow Christians.

If we take this role seriously, we will avoid misunderstandings based on terminology or jargon. We will uphold our “historic” beliefs but try to go beyond clichés that often just confuse others—if not ourselves. We will follow Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 9:20: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.”                        


Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, and member of Livingston Adventist church.

  1. Technically two offshoots, the “German IMS” and “American Nicolici” branches, mutually disfellowshipping and calling each other apostate, despite having virtually identical beliefs: Vance Ferrell, The Adventist Reform Church (Beersheba Springs: Pilgrim Books, 1988), 6.
  2. Gerhard Pfandl, “History of the Adventist Reform Movement,” Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 7/03).
  3. SDA Fundamental Belief #2.
  4. Quoted in A Balbach, Consideration about the Godhead (Sacramento CA: Northwestern Pub. Ass., date unknown), <http://www.sdarm.net/issues/issues.html>.
  5. It isn’t. To be accurate, it is a doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which barely involved Rome or the Latin Church in the West.
  6. Not true, but beyond the scope of this article to explore in detail. Simply read John chapter 1.
  7. EA Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford Uni. Pres., 2006), 599.
  8. Hindus have their own Trinity called the Trimurti, however, they typically worship Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as three separate gods. Most Hindus favour one of the three gods over the other two: A Basham, “Trimurti”, Wikipedia, retrieved 30 June 2014.
  9. Ibid., 36,37.
  10. “Is Jesus Almighty God”, JW.ORG, <http://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/is-jesus-almighty/>, retrieved 27 June 2014.
  11. Supra n7, 390.
  12. “Oneness Pentecostalism”, Wikipedia, retrieved 30 June 2014.
  13. There continues to be long-standing confusion within the SDARM about the Godhead, with many denying the Holy Spirit as a personal being or rejecting the divinity of Christ: Helmut H. Kramer, "The Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement (German Reform)", Biblical Research Institute, (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1988), 55.
  14. “Criticism of the Seventh-day Adventist Church”, Wikipedia, retrieved 27 June 2014.
  15. Angel Rodriguez, “The Judgement and the Second Coming”, Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 11/01).
  16. Niels-erik A. Andreasen, “Atonement/Expiation in the Old Testament” in W. E. Mills (ed.), Mercer dictionary of the Bible (Mercer University Press, 1990).
  17. Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church (translated by Matthais Westerhoff; edited by Andrew Louth; Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 1993), 202.
  18. Sometimes described as “Cessationism”. A good summary is found in “Cessationism versus Continuationism”, Wikipedia, retrieved 27 June 2014.
  19. “Prophets and Personal Prophecies”, AG <http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/topics/sptlissues_prophets_prophecies.cfm>, retrieved 27 June 2014.
  20. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 52.
  21. Angel Rodriguez, “Issues on Revelation and Inspiration”, Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 4/05).
  22. Selected Messages, 1, 19-22; Manuscript 24, 1886.
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