by Loren Seibold   |  15 February 2022  |  

Here is a question that has often puzzled me: why do some people survive in the Adventist Church in spite of their heterodoxy, and others don’t? 

Paging back through our history, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is far greater latitude for people who are on the conservative, conspiratorial end of the spectrum than on the progressive end.

Des Ford (even whose enemies conceded that he was a good and godly man) didn’t survive his differences with the church about a doctrine that cannot be considered essential to salvation. 

Yet wild speculation on eschatological themes is not just tolerated, but applauded. Walter Veith, one of the most conspiratorial voices in the denomination or out of it, is fully credentialed. Danny Shelton has written a book under the cover of the popular 3ABN ministry that is mostly right-wing politics. To these, not a squeak of complaint from the top of the church. 

But let someone say truthfully and with proof that Ellen White used and believed in the Apocrypha, and General Conference (GC) president Ted Wilson denounces him publicly. Let someone affirm LBGTQ+ people in the church, and the same leader makes his opposition a theme of his sermon. Let a union conference ordain women, and the GC’s administrative committee will slap the hands of thoughtful, distinguished leaders as though they were juvenile miscreants. Let someone point out that the church’s version of what Jesus is doing in the heavenly sanctuary doesn’t match the account in the book of Hebrews, and they’re benched, if not cut from the team entirely. 

Differing with minor details of historical doctrines is about as popular in this denomination as a pineapple-glazed ham at Sabbath potluck. 

But what if someone’s teachings could kill people?

The anti-vax cause

Some in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the church of good health, have now taken up the anti-vaccine cause. Many of these presentations are couched in eschatological theories about religious freedom. But they amount to this: we shouldn’t do what will save our lives and the lives of our family members. 

Walter Veith leads the list of vaccine questioners. The Berrien Springs (Michigan) Village church has become the congregational headquarters for this way of thinking, inviting groups such as the Liberty Health Alliance to make presentations there. Doug Batchelor, knowing who butters his baguettes, has remained as silent about his vaccination status as he is about how his previous marriage ended (although he has admitted to getting COVID-19, and there is some evidence the unmasked caveman let the disease spread in his meetings and services).

Here’s someone who, unlike Doug, hasn’t been silent: Conrad Vine, head of Adventist Frontier Missions (AFM). He has not just criticized vaccinations, but those who, on solid medical research, recommend them.

The facts are these: we are 97 times more likely to die of COVID-19 if we’re unvaccinated than if we are vaccinated and boosted. So advising people not to get vaccinated or wear masks will mean more people will die.

The law has a criminal charge for people who take the lives of others, even by bad advice.

Except that taking someone’s life by bad religious advice is protected by the bill of rights.

When it comes to religion, dear readers, caveat emptor.

Adventist Frontier Missions

It’s hard to know exactly how large Adventist Frontier Missions (AFM) is. It is a private foundation organized under the 501(c)(3) tax code, and is not directly connected to the Adventist Church organization, though its board is composed of Seventh-day Adventists. 501(c)(3) organizations are intended to be financially transparent, but not all of them are. The AFM website lists at present 107 mission projects, each of which consists of a missionary or family of missionaries.

Adventist Frontier Missions has what appears to be an admirable aim: 

Adventist Frontier Missions establishes indigenous Seventh-day Adventist church-planting movements among unreached people groups.

This statement suggests that AFM seems to have broken loose from the over-managed corporate model of missions often relied upon by the denomination. But while there is good in AFM’s model of sending missionaries, there is also cause for some concern. 

The good is that it seems to try to put mission-minded Adventists organically into local cultures, to bring our faith to people at a local level. 

The worrying aspect is that almost anyone who wants to be a missionary gets to—as long as they find their own donors and raise a chunk of money. A little digging will reveal candidates who probably shouldn’t ever have been sent to represent the church anywhere, much less in a foreign land. 

But beyond a few crash-and-burn stories (they happen within the official church, too) the larger question is whether these volunteer missionaries actually succeed. Like a lot of initiatives in Adventism, the emphasis is always on the front end of the project, on hopeful funding and planning. Church leaders have long been averse to talking about long-term outcomes, and AFM seems to follow this lead. In AFM, most of the missionaries are passionate believers, but novice missionaries—and sometimes that shows. 

AFM says it works directly with the church, though a call I made to a leader of one of the GC missions departments left me wondering. The respondent reluctantly admitted that they “work with” AFM, but he was cagey about the parameters of the relationship.

The respondent, who doesn’t want to be identified, did express serious concern about the strong political voice of AFM’s president, Conrad Vine. 

Conrad Vine, making use of the standing he has as head of this popular missions program, has in the past few years reached beyond the mission statement given above, into something quite different: he has become the conduit for bringing right-wing politics directly into Adventist pulpits. While set in a typical Adventist eschatological and paranoid style, they are political screeds masquerading as sermons. 

In a series preached in midwestern pulpits, Vine (an immigrant to America) expostulates at length against the U.S. government, comparing it to communist Russia, warning about gulags, and claiming that “western liberal democracies and their Judeo-Christian foundations are to be subverted from within and replaced with an atheist worldview and one-party Marxist dictatorships.” He speaks as though he is an expert about “cancel culture,” “inclusion,” anti-racism training, homosexuality “the great reset,” and critical race theory. He speculates from the pulpit about “a genocide of white people.” Racial resentment seems to be at the heart of his complaints.

I could go on (this is only the beginning of sorrows) but let us pause and reflect on the irony of a man who doesn’t understand the nuances of racial tension being president of a ministry that sends missionaries to win people with dark skin to Jesus, a man with dark skin.

Recently Vine attacked the General Conference itself, claiming they have no authority to advise people on vaccines and other common sense public health matters. 

The response from the GC? Tepid. A bit defensive. It amounts to, “Hey, we do too!” 

Our denomination has in the past had little hesitation about cutting ties with those who disagree with the top leaders. If you’re LGBTQ+, if you believe in evolution, if you speak openly against the investigative judgment, you’re not one of us. 

But so far few seem to be speaking up about Conrad Vine.

Even if all of the anti-vaxxers have trusts leaving large estates to the church when they die, it seems unwise to let people like Vine preach such things under the church’s banner. 

Sacrifice

Kurt Andersen recently wrote an essay in the Atlantic entitled “The Anti-Vaccine Right Brought Human Sacrifice to America.” 

He’s not being merely provocative. Andersen makes a strong anthropological case for the notion that a group of people, in the face of “astoundingly effective vaccines that radically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19” choose instead to risk their lives and the lives or others for a set of political principles set in an eschatological frame. He says that

the right’s ongoing propaganda campaign against and organized political resistance to vaccination, among other public-health protocols, has been killing many, many Americans for no reasonable, ethically justifiable social purpose. In other words, what we’ve experienced certainly since the middle of 2021 is literally ritual human sacrifice on a mass scale—the real thing, comparable to the innumerable ghastly historical versions. 

Andersen recounts some of the popular excuses heard in the public media, but adds,

whatever their reasons, millions of Americans have been persuaded by the right to promote death, and potentially to sacrifice themselves and others, ostensibly for the sake of personal liberty but definitely as a means of increasing their tribal solidarity and inclination to vote Republican.

But voting Republican and human sacrifice aren’t Adventist values, as far as I know. So perhaps it’s time to ask why Conrad Vine and those who think as he does are still in positions of leadership?

Pruning

It seems acceptable to ask our denominational leaders, who are so concerned with minor doctrinal and historical beliefs, to be equally concerned when Adventists with a big public profile, who represent the denomination to millions, become dangerous and demanding on matters that are simply indefensible—such as giving people reasons to sacrifice their lives to unproven theories. Why is it only details of historic doctrines that attract the ire of Adventists? Have we so lost touch with basic Christian ethics that we haven’t the courage to speak up for the sixth commandment?

Maybe it’s time for our leaders to protect us not from imaginary Sunday laws, but from our fellow believers who are, at this moment, expounding theories that will take people’s lives. To speak not just in favor of vaccinations, but against fatal misinformation. 

Infecting innocent people is not a religious liberty issue. Encouraging people to risk their lives for theories never mentioned in the Bible or Ellen White isn’t our soul-winning message. 

But perhaps we’re asking more courage of our leaders than they have. We may need to start at the grassroots. Let’s ask people who give to Adventist Frontier Missions whether this is the message they want to support. Let’s ask AFM’s board members whether this is the message they want this mission organization to be known for. 

Yes, I know Adventist Frontier Missions is an independent ministry. But it depends on the good graces of faithful Seventh-day Adventists. Conrad Vine’s job is promoting Adventist missions, but right now he’s better known as the voice for things heard on Fox News and other right-wing outlets. That’s become his main claim to fame—and it shouldn’t be. Because asking people to risk their lives to oppose vaccinations is not the mission of AFM or the Seventh-day Adventist Church!

And while we’re on the topic: where is the Michigan Conference and its constituents in addressing the role the Berrien Springs Village Church has played in promoting anti-vax theories? This is a conference that a few years ago declared that they wouldn’t tolerate pastors who wore wedding bands. Should one of their congregations be the headquarters for asking people to sacrifice their lives for conspiracy theories? 

Surely not every Adventist in Michigan sees discouraging vaccination as central to the Adventist gospel. Have those of you who don’t written to your leaders? 

Before COVID, we were dealing mostly with the titillation of novel end-time conspiracies that never came to pass. Now we are dealing with life and death. With people who—sincerely or self-deceived, I cannot know—would give advice that will take the lives of some of their fellow Adventist believers. 

Please, church: let us cut ties with those who threaten people’s lives with nonsense theories. Make it clear that they don’t speak for us.


Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today

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