Viewpoints Interview Series #15

Idel Suarez, Jr. Interview by Jeff Boyd

Submitted September 3, 2014

Welcome to Viewpoints: Adventist Perspectives on Peace, Justice and Righteousness. Pastor Idel Suarez Jr. is serving his second term as General Conference President of the International Missionary Society Seventh-day Adventist Church Reform Movement. Pastor Suarez converted from the Baptist church. As an ordained elder and pastor in the Reform Movement, Suarez has held numerous positions, including American Union President, Secretary, Youth leader, and National Health Director, General Conference Secretary, and International Medical Missionary Director. Suarez obtained his doctorate with a major emphasis in Nutrition Education and a minor in International Development Education from Florida State University, his master’s of science in Dietetics from Florida International University, and his bachelor’s of science in Food Science from University of Florida. Before entering the ministry full-time, Suarez worked with the Florida Public Health Department and also served as Clinical Dietitian at the South Florida Baptist Hospital. Suarez is married to Linda, a native of California, and has three beautiful daughters: Persia, Kaila, and Shiloh.

AToday: For readers who aren’t familiar with the International Missionary Society, can you tell me a little about the organization as it is today? And what is the most appropriate common name for the Church?

Suarez: First and foremost, we are a Christian church, part of the Protestant body and part of the Adventist heritage. Our official name is the International Missionary Society, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Reform Movement. It is a very long name, but each part emphasizes our heritage and mission. International Missionary Society—our goal is to carry the gospel of Jesus to all the world. Seventh-day Adventist—we’re emphasizing the Sabbath and the second coming of Christ. And Reform Movement—we want to emphasize the historic roots of Adventism, especially regarding its original pacifist position.

I guess “Reform Movement” would be the most appropriate name though some people refer to our church as the IMS, others as Adventist Reform. But I prefer Reform Movement or Adventist Reformers, referring to the believers. Today the Reform Movement is represented in over 120 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, as well as Australia or Oceania.

The Reform Movement today has about 70,000 members in two branches. Our branch has a German heritage, and the other branch has more of a Romanian heritage. Our church specifically has about 32,000 members. On any given Sabbath, there’s probably 70,000 people that come to church. We have about ten missionary schools. The Reform Movement has two-year post-secondary programs in Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Asia. It also operates publishing houses, primary schools, and secondary schools around the world. We don’t have any hospitals, but we do have sanitariums and clinics run by medical professionals.

There are several branches or departments we emphasize in the gospel work. One is The Good Samaritan, which can be compared to ADRA. Another is the health work under the Medical Missionary Department that provides assistance to the medical clinics in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. The other two major branches are education and ministry. The Education Department supervises and provides financial and human resources to primary and secondary schools. The Ministerial Department offers continuing education to ministers, elders, and deacons.

AToday: What kinds of services are offered at a sanitarium?

Suarez: Sanitariums use natural remedies for healing, like Uchee Pines does in Alabama. We have a beautiful sanitarium known as Kurhaus Elim in Nonnweiler/Saar, Germany, led by a physician—Dr. Hugo Arturo Lopez Orench, M.D., D.V.M. They use a lot of natural healing methods. They’ll use water, herbs, clay treatments, exercise, diet, as well as sun, rest, prayer and faith. It is a holistic approach to medical therapy and disease prevention.

AToday: Can you give me a summary of activities in North America?

Suarez: Let me describe both the General Conference and the American Union work in North America. We have our General Conference office in Cedartown, Georgia. It operates a primary, secondary, and missionary school in Cedartown. The General Conference also has an outreach to the community, called the Home Improvement Project, where we receive donations from hardware stores in the vicinity. Donations are kept until December, and then are distributed free to those in need in the community. Recipients must have financial need and have children, elderly, or disabled people living at home. At the General Conference offices, we also provide free community courses such as English as a second language, and Spanish for professionals. We have our publishing office there, too, where printing is done on demand. We have over six hundred different publications. Some of the newest publications are the facsimile reproductions of the ancient codices of the Bible.

The General Conference of the Reform Movement is a separate legal and financial entity from the American Union, but shares the same principles of faith. The American Union covers basically the entire United States and is made up of four fields—Northeast, Southeast, Puerto Rico and the Western Field. The American Union has a publishing company in Denver, Colorado. Both the General Conference and the American Union collaborate in issuing a publication called The Sabbath Watchman that is printed every two months in English and Spanish similar to the old Adventist Review.

The American Union has nearly forty churches and groups throughout the United States. It has ordained ministers and elders. Most of the churches are run by local elders, and the ministers have to move and visit the churches to keep up with the interests.

The Reform Movement emphasis is to present to the world the three angels’ messages and salvation by grace through faith. It seeks to prepare a people for the return of Jesus.

AToday: I understand that the fourth angel is also an important feature in Reform Movement teaching.

Suarez: That is correct. We believe it’s the “other angel” of Revelation 18. There are three phases of the other angel. The first phase started in 1888 with the presentation of Christ Our Righteousness. It’s the message of A.T. Jones, E.J. Waggoner, Ellen G. White, and William White, as they were trying to emphasize that Christ should be the center, not the law. We believe that message is the light of the “other angel”, as the scriptures and the testimonies [of Ellen White] bring out.

Then there is the voice of the angel, and we believe that voice started in 1914, when the church was called to take a stand in favor of the law of God, and by faith in Christ was not to take up arms, not to kill other human beings. This second phase of the other angel started with the onset of the Great War or World War I when some Adventists raised their voices advocating pacifism, conscientious objection, and abstaining from bearing arms and participating in war, according to the example of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

And we’re looking at the third phase, which is the power, which is yet to come—the latter rain, in which God will have a people ready for His return and will present this message throughout the world. You have to accept the first, second, and third angels’ messages in order to be part of the latter rain, which follows the work of the angel of Revelation 18.

You could also advocate that the scope of this angel’s message is to call out from the fallen and nominal churches those who are faithful to God. God has most of His believers, according to the testimonies, still in the Protestant churches; they need to hear the message and come out. So, we understand that there are three phases to the other angel’s message; namely, the light, the voice, and the power.

AToday: The Church recently held a centennial commemoration ceremony. Tell me a little about this event.

Suarez: From July 30 through August 4, 2014, the General Conference of the Reform Movement hosted a Centennial Commemoration of faithfulness to the third angel’s message. It took place at our world headquarters in Cedartown, Georgia, which is about an hour northwest of Atlanta. Three hundred forty people from 33 countries were present. Speakers addressed the faithfulness of Jesus in preserving Adventists who stood up as peacemakers advocating nonresistance and conscientious objection. Martyrs and imprisoned Adventists were remembered for their faithfulness.

It was an historic event for us, because back in 1920, when the delegates of the Reform Movement met Elder A.G. Daniells, he said that this reform movement would cease to exist in ten years. Now we’ve reached the one-hundred-year mark, and we wanted to commemorate the faithfulness, not just of reformers, but of Adventists who stood as conscientious objectors. Here in the United States there were conscientious objectors who would not bear arms and would not break the Sabbath. They were penalized and even jailed for their convictions with suffering in stockades and mistreatment.

In Europe the trouble started in 1914 as soon as the war broke out in August. On August 1 and 2, there were protests by many Adventist believers [against the German Adventist leaders] because the members did not want to go with the government, bear arms, break the Sabbath, and kill their fellow human beings. We believe there were about fifty Adventists and Reformers who were jailed during that war in Germany; about 20 were killed. We’re doing more research, but so far we have the names of nine who were jailed and gave their testimonies, and their testimonies appeared in our Sabbath Watchman (the German edition) between 1919 and 1923. So, this event was a commemoration of faithfulness to God’s word; namely, that faith can overcome any obstacle, even the obstacle of governments wanting to conscript members of the church to bear arms and to kill.

We want to emphasize that the church has been a peace church. We are a peace church. One hundred percent of our members are conscientious objectors. That is a requirement for baptism, and in order to stay in the church you have to be a conscientious objector. We believe in life, and we take it all across the spectrum—against murder, suicide, genocide, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, and engaging in war, and in favor of the ethical treatment of animals.

AToday: You’ve spoken to this already, but what were the major factors or events at the time of WWI that led to the Reform Movement in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere?

Suarez: The Reform Movement started in Germany. It was Germany that entered the war first, that made a declaration of war. And Guy Dail, secretary of the European Division, issued a letter, stating that Adventists should bear arms and go to war. That was August 2, 1914. Of course that letter caused a grave difficulties among the churches in Germany. Many believers—these were Adventists, they did not see themselves yet as reformers—stood up during Sabbath services, saying that we need to remain pacifist. It’s one thing to be noncombatants, but it’s a totally different position to be combatants, to bear arms, to kill, and to break the Sabbath.

This protest, which started at the church in Bremen, was put down by Elder Barr, who was a leader among the Seventh-day Adventists. They began disfellowshiping members in August of 1914. The Adventists who were disfellowshiped eventually became reformers. The protest extended in 1915 to other localities in Germany, and more members were disfellowshiped. This had an effect also in Romania, Switzerland, Holland, and Russia, where other Adventists were disfellowshiped. According to Elder Oscar Kramer, who was an eye-witness, about 2,000 were disfellowshiped during the Great War. According to Elder Otto Welp, the first President of the Reform Movement, there were 1,000 believers in Germany alone by the end of WWI.

As the war progressed, somehow there was communication among these Adventists, and they started to hold conferences. They held their first conference in Welmelskirchen, Germany, in 1915, but the church was not officially registered until after the Great War, in 1919, with the name International Missionary Society Seventh-day Adventist Old Movement Standing Firm Since 1844.

These were Adventists who had no desire to be separate. They were disfellowshiped, so they had no choice but to organize themselves. They found this had happened in about fourteen countries in Europe, so they formed a movement in order to have strength in numbers and to ask the Adventist Church to reconsider its position.

They wrote to the [Adventist] leaders in Germany that they wanted to have a conversation. Wilhelm Richter, who was with the Reform Movement for many years before he returned to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said it started in 1914 and that he himself wrote to the German leadership asking for a conversation. That dialogue didn’t happen until 1920 at Friedensau. In short, that was the beginning of the Reform Movement.

AToday: Why do you think reunification was not successful after WWI ended and the German leaders admitted they had been wrong?

Suarez: There were two reunification attempts. One was in 1920 in Friedensau, and the other was in 1922 in San Francisco during the world assembly of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. At Friedensau in 1920, there were 16 or 17 delegates; and I thought it was significant that without having coordinated it, there were 16 or 17 Reformers present when we met in May of 2014, at Friedensau. Back in 1920, there was a genuine desire on the part of the reformers to hear Daniells say, “We made a mistake, and that was wrong.” That didn’t happen in Friedensau. They also wanted to hear from Daniells, “In America, our young people did not go to war.” And they didn’t hear that either.

Daniells said—if you read the Protocol [minutes]—“there were some in America who did not bear arms, some did not wear the uniform, some took the uniform and took arms but wouldn’t do it on the Sabbath, and some of them took the uniform, weapons, and went across the ocean and came across to France, and I don’t know what they did.” So Daniells extended the term “noncombatant” to the point of being a combatant, and the reformers did not accept that.

At Friedensau they appealed, saying, “We want to speak to the full General Conference board.” And Daniells says, “No, you have here representatives of the General Conference, and I know what’s going to happen to you—after ten years you will cease to exist.” Daniells could not tolerate the fact that these reformers had organized themselves as a society.

The second attempt was in 1922 in San Francisco. The reformers had held a conference in 1921—their first international conference, where they elected an international committee—and they elected two delegates to come over to America.

By that time they had contact with workers here in America. Doctor Jacob Miller, who was also a minister and apparently a chiropractor, was among the reform pioneers here in the United States. He had worked for one of the Michigan conferences. So they went together in 1922 to San Francisco, but they were denied a voice. They wanted to present the issue to the whole world assembly. So we’ve been waiting for 92 years for an opportunity to speak to the world delegation and have them make a resolution—are we going to be noncombatants and conscientious objectors, or are we going to be combatants?

Now, if you read the literature, it’s going to say that Conradi, Schubert, and Dail apologized in 1923. I have no doubt they did, but no reformers were present in 1923 when they met in Bern, Switzerland. Adventists apologized there to their fellow believers, up to a certain extent. I don’t think Conradi admitted wholeheartedly to anything significant; he only consented that he really shouldn’t have written some things. He ended up leaving the church. We have not really received something in terms of an apology until recently. It was at Friedensau, this past May 2014, when a statement was read by the two German unions, when the Reform Movement was mentioned by name, and they asked forgiveness specifically, and it was handed over to us. That is the only apology I know of that has been made directly to the Reform Movement.

AToday: You mentioned this recent apology that was read at the symposium in Germany.[1] What is the statement’s significance to you, and what was your reaction to it?

Suarez: I think it was a very significant moment. It was a very touching moment because here are representatives of the spiritual descendants of the German Union that disfellowshiped reformers and reported their names to authorities. Those Adventists were jailed for their faith, and they were ostracized by the government and by their community of faith. And now there’s recognition of that, and they asked for forgiveness. And they also stated that they want to follow peace, want to be peacemakers. As reformers we could only extend our hand and say, “Amen, brothers. We want to be peacemakers.”

We want to encourage those in Friedensau, in Germany, and everywhere around the world, those that want to promote peace, because we believe war is of the devil. He started war in heaven. He made war on earth. And in Revelation 12:17, the dragon was wroth against the remnant of the woman’s seed and went to make war. He will make war even after the millennium. So, we don’t want to be part of that group of warriors. We have a spiritual warfare to fight. We have spiritual weapons. And Paul is very clear about that—we are not to resist evil with evil, but to overcome evil by doing good.

It was a significant declaration, so we applaud the stand taken regarding WWI. And we have issued a seven-point statement that was published by Adventist Today in English.[2] It is also on our website: www.sda1844.org. It will soon be issued in German for our German brethren.

AToday: We’ve talked about the history of the Reform Movement in WWI, but the movement traces its spiritual roots back to 1888 (and further, obviously). What is significant about 1888 for the movement?

Suarez: 1888 is a very important date for reformers for several reasons. We believe the reformation started in 1888 as part of the other angel, at least its first phase. Sister White in 1888 made several statements about a crisis that was coming. We believe that crisis to be World War I. She also said she remembered the reformers more than at any other time. We believe there was a group of reformers during WWI that wanted to say, “Adventists can still keep the law of God—not engage in war, not bear arms, and they will survive.” And they did.

A second reason that 1888 is important—not just because of what Ellen G. White saw in terms of the crisis and reforms—is that the 1888 conference in Minneapolis included two events. One was the Bible Institute, and the other was the General Conference meetings. When you add those two together, there were 26 days. Interestingly, 26 years later the Adventist Church in Germany went to war. And we believe that was open transgression of the sixth commandment and the fourth commandment. So 26 days meeting in Minneapolis; 26 years later (from 1888 to 1914) you have the first letter by Adventist leaders stating that their military-age male members should go to war; not may, but should go to war, should bear arms, should defend the fatherland, should invest time and funds in the war effort, and that God should give the victory to the fatherland, to Germany.

A third reason is if you look at the minutes of 1888, you will see that one of the names that was being considered by the Seventh-day Adventist Church for their missionary and tract ventures was International Missionary Society. That name had been used but was abandoned in 1888, and they took the name International Missionary and Tract Society. It’s in bold letters when you look at the minutes of 1888—International Missionary Society. We have found it very interesting that our Adventist reformer pioneers took that name. I don’t know if they had copies of those minutes from 1888.

The fourth reason is that in 1917 the SDA General Conference and the North American Division met again in Minneapolis. It was at that conference that they stated that they would give the liberty of conscience to their members to participate as noncombatants or as combatants. So Minneapolis is a significant town, and we believe it’s because the Christ Our Righteousness message was rejected in 1888. And 29 years later, the church revisited that city with a new policy of conscientious cooperation in war as it was looking at World War I. In so doing, it fell short of its reliance by faith on God’s guidance in the time of crisis.

Let me add that the center of 1888 was Christ. And it’s only when we lose sight of Christ that we drown like Peter at sea. Think of these winds of war that came during the Great War, and because the eyes were taken away from Christ, they looked at their own person like Peter. “I’m going to drown.” “We’re going to lose the church properties. We’re going to lose our name before the government. Let’s not do that. We’re going to lose missionaries.” That’s because the eyes were removed from Christ, and that’s where we need to go back. We need to put our eyes back on Christ, knowing I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. Jesus did extend His hand, and He did lift Peter. And He can do that with us.

AToday: Is there any possibility of reunification between the mainstream Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Reform Movement, or is the conversation now about how best to co-exist?

Suarez: I believe that with God all things are possible. And Jesus said in John 10 that there would be one flock and one shepherd. Jesus is the Shepherd, and it’s His flock. There will be a merger between the visible and invisible church in the end time.

Right now our concern is that among mainstream Adventism, there is a big divide. There is a big divide between someone who wants to be a combatant and someone who wants to be a pacifist or peacemaker. That is a huge divide. One is conscientious cooperation with the government: “We want to earn medals of honor from the government.” The other says, “No, I want to earn a medal of honor in heaven from Christ regardless of what the government says.”

This big divide within mainstream Adventism, I think, is a result of taking liberty of conscience too far. It states in other words, “It’s okay to take arms and kill; it’s okay if you don’t. It’s okay if you commit abortion; it’s okay if you don’t. It’s okay if you are vegetarian, or you can slaughter as many animals as you want and eat them.” That’s a huge divide; it’s a big issue—life. While this divide continues, unification is impossible.

God has a plan, and I have faith in God’s leading. There will be a people who will be ready when He returns, and they will keep His law. They will show that the law of God can be kept in times of peace and times of war.

AToday: What are some of the major similarities and differences between the International Missionary Society and the Seventh-day Adventist Church today?

Suarez: Our similarities exceed our differences. We believe in the second coming. We believe in the observance of the Sabbath, the Ten Commandments, the state of the dead. We believe in the heavenly sanctuary. We believe also in temperance, in righteousness by faith, in the dual nature of Christ, in the personality and personhood of the Holy Spirit.

But the differences are over life. Whereas within mainstream Adventism there is a growing divide—there are over 8,000 combatants today in the United States alone that claim to be Seventh-day Adventist—we are one hundred percent pacifist. We are conscientious objectors, not conscientious cooperators. We stand against war.

We also reject the killing of the innocent, the unborn. We are against abortion. We also respect the lives of animals and are for the ethical treatment of animals, so we are one hundred percent vegetarian. We believe that God is the Creator of life and only He can take it away, so we stand against capital punishment. Yes, that was allowed under the Old Testament, but we are under a different dispensation in the New Testament. As we near the end of time, we need to return to Eden. God gives us life, and life is holy; it is sacred. Even if there is a difference of belief or philosophy, we need to respect life. And that’s our major difference with mainstream Adventism today. But we are overjoyed that there are a number of Adventists that are taking a pacifist position and publishing literature about it. I’ve seen it from authors at Washington Adventist University, and I’ve seen it also from authors at Friedensau Adventist University, and even from Andrews University. Anything we can do to add more support to our Adventist brothers and sisters to go back to our historic roots of faithfulness to life—more power to them.

AToday: I understand that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has some level of cooperative ministry with the Reform Movement in some regions. Can you give me any examples of where there are shared activities?

Suarez: We believe that God will judge everyone according to the knowledge that they have, and according to their conscience. We respect different points of view. I believe that in heaven we will see people from many different denominations that were faithful to the light they had. Salvation is individual, and it’s based on our relationship with Jesus.

I can tell you that in Germany they recently had a meeting between reformers and members of the Adventist Church, and they put up a plaque in front of an Adventist Church to remember a martyr of World War II. So I can say that in Germany there has been cooperation.

I can say also in South Africa, some Adventist ministers have cooperated with our members in sharing the word.

Friedensau is a very tangible example, where Reformers were invited to a research symposium, and we presented our viewpoint. We heard the viewpoints of others that I don’t see would have been any different if they had been given by Adventists or Reformers. I agreed with what they were saying, in terms of “We need to go back to being a peace church.” I think that throughout the world on the local level there is perhaps greater harmony and desire to praise God and serve the community on a collective basis.

AToday: I’m curious how relations are between the branches of the Reform Movement.

Suarez: Recently, I picked up the phone and spoke with the other Reform Movement’s president, and we had a friendly conversation. The separation in the movement came on May 20, 1951, when eleven delegates walked out of a world assembly of the Reform Movement and formed a new organization. There have been three attempts to reunite both reform groups. We don’t have a lot of difference. Both are conscientious objectors. Both are vegetarian. Both are against abortion. We have very few differences, and I believe that as Christians if we claim to be peacemakers, we’re not to engage in name-calling nor in an attitude of ostracizing or criticizing our fellow believers. There’s this proverb among Native Americans, “Oh, Great Spirit, help me not to judge my brother until I’ve walked in his moccasins for two weeks.” I think Adventists have a mission to carry out, and the world is large. There are seven billion people that we need to reach. We should not lose our energy fighting each other. It doesn’t make sense.

AToday: If readers want to learn more about the Reform Movement, whether its history or current activities, what resources do you recommend?

Suarez: One very good resource is the Reformation Study Course. That is a twenty-lesson course on Adventist history and the birth of the Reform Movement. A second resource is the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement booklet that I believe was published by Dr. Miller and his co-workers around 1924. There’s no date in the book, but we obtained it from Andrews University. That would be a good resource because it was published right after the fact. It’s called History of the S.D.A. Reform Movement, published by the International Missionary Society S.D.A. Reform Movement when the headquarters were in Takoma Park, Washington, D.C.

Another good resource in terms of current activities and events is our Sabbath Watchman publication. It is published as a free download on the American Union website (www.sda1888.org). This whole year we’re publishing articles on the history of Adventism because of the centennial. The General Conference website is www.sda1844.org.

Another interesting resource is a booklet called the Reformation Handbook. And there’s a new publication that’s going to be issued by Pastor Antonino Di Franca, in which he traces the birth of the Reform Movement in Germany and throughout Europe. And that should be available within the coming months.

Also there is a fine book titled And Follow Their Faith about the martyrs of World War II. We’re expanding that now. We’re trying to include some history from WWI, going back to our roots, finding more resources and putting it together.

I hope that Friedensau will have another symposium in two years. We could cite many instances of faithfulness on the part of Adventists during the Nazi regime. I have a copy of the letter that was sealed by the Nazi government outlawing the Reform Movement in 1936 before WWII broke out. All of our properties were confiscated, and a lot of our people died in concentration camps. I went to Auschwitz because one of our sisters was sent to Auschwitz for sharing the gospel and bringing people to Christ. She died there.

There are other publications. We have publications on more than conscientious objection and pacifism. We have literature also on health, marriage, homiletic themes, spiritual growth, and many other subjects.

In many cases we have republished books from Adventist pioneers, also from Ellen G. White. There are a number of books that are in the public domain. Next year it will be one hundred years since Ellen White died, so I assume we’ll be publishing a lot on the Spirit of Prophecy and Ellen White’s contributions to the movement.

AToday: To conclude, are there any other things you would want AToday readers to know?

Suarez: The main thing I would like readers to know is that Jesus has a purpose for every believer, and He is calling us to a life of faithfulness and service. And we should not neglect the call of God, but follow and try to live up to the light we have. It’s a wonderful light. We should not be like those servants who say, “My Lord delayeth His coming,” and then began to eat and drink and beat the other servants. No, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and God has a high calling for everyone.

God called Calvin. He called Luther. He called Zwingli. And Zwingli and Luther came together and couldn’t agree about the Lord’s supper. I believe they were both servants of God. They were sharing the Word in wonderful ways—one in Germany, the other in Switzerland. I know that in the end the curse of Babel will be overcome. There will be one people, one Lord. We will speak one language, and that will be the language of love. We will bear one name, and that is the name of Jesus.

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[1] “German Adventist Leaders Release Statement on ‘Guilt, Failure,’ War,” https://www.atodayarchive.org/article/2490/news/may/german-adventist-leaders-release-statement-on-guilt-failure-war.

[2] “Reformed Adventist Movement Responds to German Union Conferences,” https://www.atodayarchive.org/article/2613/news/july/reformed-adventist-movement-responds-to-german-union-conferences.