By Kevin Burton | 12 April 2019  |

A conference on Adventists and Military Service met during week of the Spring Meeting of the denomination’s General Conference (GC) executive April 10 and 11 at the GC offices in Silver Spring, Maryland. The meeting was convened by Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM), the denomination’s agency for military and other chaplains who are Adventist clergy but employed by outside organizations. The conference was designed primarily for Adventist chaplains and denominational administrators that oversee chaplains.

GC President Ted Wilson welcomed attendees and reaffirmed the official Adventist position on military service, which stresses the position of noncombatancy but upholds the freedom of individual conscience. This position was continually upheld and reaffirmed throughout the meetings by both presenters and panelists. Chaplain Mario E. Ceballos, GC director of ACM, followed Wilson and emphasized that ACM does not glorify military service, but seeks to minister to Adventists in the militaries around the world. “We are not a people of war,” Ceballos stated. “We are a people of peace.”

Three papers were presented on the first day. Dr. David Trim, the historian who serves as Director of Archives and Statistic for the GC, presented an analysis of the history of the Adventist position on war. This history is more complex than often presented, said Trim, and he stressed that Adventists have held a spectrum of views on war, ranging from just war to non-participatory pacifism, although the more recent consensus has been toward non-combatancy.

Dr. Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the GC, focused on biblical and contemporary worldviews on violence. He emphasized that Jesus presented a message of non-violence. Christ had a reformation and restoration agenda, and Adventists are to carry on Christ’s mission. Promoting non-violence moves beyond the limits of war to include aspects in daily life, such as avoiding hate speech. Diop stressed, “We have to learn new ways of relating to others without being terrorists.”

Dr. John Reeve, a historian on the faculty of the seminary at Andrews University (AU), explained how Christians in the first centuries evolved in their understanding of their relationship to the state. Though Christians never fully agreed on points of doctrine, there was a general tendency to believe that Christians should not participate in the military. However, as Christianity became more prominent in the Roman Empire, military service became more acceptable. Augustine of Hippo provided a firm rationale for this shift in principled thinking through his invention of just war theory, which enabled him to justify sending an army to kill a group of “heretical” Christians known as the Donatists.

The first day of meetings concluded with reports from each of the denomination’s world Divisions. These stressed the challenges faced regarding the military service question in that part of the world and how chaplains were serving Adventists in the militaries in the region.

Day Two

The group reconvened Thursday morning. After a devotional by Pastor Thomas Lemon, a GC vice president, Frank Hasel introduced the new book that he edited with Barna Magyarosi and Stefan Höschele, Adventists and Military Service: Biblical, Historical, and Ethical Perspectives. After the group watched a short video of Adventist soldiers explaining the challenges they face in the military, Wilson and Ceballos reemphasized the denomination’s position on the military.

Six papers were presented throughout the day. Pastor Barna Magyarosi, secretary of the denomination’s Inter-European Division, addressed the topic of war and genocide in the Old Testament and Dr. Cedric Vine, a Bible scholar at AU, discussed the New Testament teaching on war and non-combatancy.

Dr. Jiři Moskala, dean of the seminary at AU, and Dr. James North, seminary professor of pastor care who has served as a chaplain, both focused on the sixth commandment but drew different conclusions. According to Moskala, “murder” is not an appropriate translation for ratsach in the sixth commandment—the verb conveys the broader sense of “kill.” Therefore, the commandment is an absolute prohibition of killing in the universal sense. North disagreed and argued that the sixth commandment should be translated, “Thou shalt not murder.” What is prohibited in this commandment is the illegal, unjustifiable taking of human life, not the prohibition of self-defense, capital punishment, or just wars. Though Moskala and North drew different conclusions and a spectrum of views was represented at the conference, it was done in a spirit of collegiality.

A panel discussion after lunch included Gary Councell and Paul Anderson, both retired military chaplains in the United States and ACM staff for the North American Division; Dr. Peter Landless, a physician with the GC health department; and Magyarosi and Cebballos. It addressed the question: What do we do with church members serving in uniformed military service? Councell shared his pastoral concern for Adventists in the military. Anderson appealed to Adventist leaders to not neglect their combatant members and remember that God called warriors in the Bible. Landless drew attention to the need to teach Adventist children our position on war so that it will be clear in their mind when they become of age. Magyarosi echoed Landless on this point and stressed the need for Adventists to uphold a middle position between strict pacifism and total embrace of combatancy. Cebellos talked about the importance of informing those interested in volunteering that they will sustain “moral injuries” (psychological and spiritual trauma) when they serve in the military.

A second panel focused on the question of how to communicate to Adventists around the world what the official position is on these issues. Participants included Blanchard and Hasel; Dr. Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, the education director for the GC; and retired chaplains Marty Felbush and Dick Stenbakken. These panelists affirmed that Adventists should not be disfellowshipped for volunteering for military service but they should be discouraged from enlisting. Participants also affirmed what Hasel stressed publicly (and Stenbakken stressed to me privately): the need to provide funding for Adventist youth, especially those from low-income families, so that they can receive Adventist education debt-free. Doing so would remove the temptation for many to voluntarily enlist and get education paid for by the military.

Dr. Darold Bigger from Walla Walla University presented the final paper. He focused on the challenges Adventists face related to the military question. He emphasized that Adventists need to model meekness and be inclusive of those who hold differing views from their own. He, along with several others during the conference, stressed the importance of holding onto members who enlist as combatants.

Wilson provided the concluding remarks for the conference at the end of the second day. He again stressed the church’s position in regard to war and emphasized the need for mission to all people on earth, including those in the military. To conclude, he asked the participants to stand, form a circle around the auditorium, and sing, “We Have This Hope.”

I attended as an observer for the Adventist Peace Fellowship[1] and observed that participants and attendees emphasized the importance of the church’s official position—a noncombatant ideal and the freedom of conscience. In this, there seemed to be general agreement. Though a collegial spirit was manifested, some participants felt that the military and state were presented in glorified fashion (particularly in the Division reports), while others expressed some concern that non-participatory pacifists were attempting to pull the church in that direction. These contrasting concerns were expressed in private conversations and were not overly stressed. Overall, attendees and participants seemed to appreciate the conference, particularly the scholarly insights, resources and information, and camaraderie. The conference brought attention to several important points regarding Adventists and their relation to the military, and this dialogue will hopefully continue.

Attendees received a packet filled with numerous resources that pertained to the military question, including statements on department policies, copies of For God & Country, which is a journal for Adventists in the military, and a DVD prepared by ACM-GC for Adventists considering military service and those currently serving.

Kevin Burton is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Florida State University in Tallahassee who will begin teaching at Southern Adventist University this coming summer. He completed an MA in religion at Andrews University in 2015 and has been an ESL teacher in Prague, Czech Republic; a teacher at Sahmyook Middle School in Korea; and chaplain and Bible teacher at Ozark Adventist Academy in Arkansas.


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