Conflict over Calendar Change Splits the Adventist Church in Samoa
By Milton Hook, October 15, 2013
Many Seventh-day Adventists in Samoa are now First-day Adventists. Hundreds who once worshipped on Saturdays are now regularly worshipping on Sundays. This situation has arisen because the denomination's South Pacific Division (SPD) recommended that Samoan congregations ignore the consequences of the local government’s decision to shift the International Date Line to the east of Western Samoa at the beginning of 2012 which caused every seventh day to fall on Sundays.
Schism is now rife in Samoa. In order to continue worship on Saturday some members have joined a group that separated from the denomination some years ago. Others are confused or fearful of peer pressure and simply choose to stay at home. A growing group that now numbers about 300 decided to accept the new local calendar, continuing to worship on Saturdays but not uniting with the earlier schismatics. They believe it is indefensible to worship on Sundays despite the shift in the calendar. The vast majority of Samoan Adventists abroad support this latter group. A retired president of the denomination's Samoan Mission preaches at their gatherings.
Some SPD leaders have become increasingly annoyed at the level of opposition to their viewpoint. They sent emails to each other urging a ban on Samoan pastors abroad from traveling to Samoa in order to preach against or persuade members against the SPD position. The allegation was that such visitors were destabilising the situation. One message spoke of pastors from Australia and New Zealand visiting their families in Samoa, working on Sundays and worshiping on Saturdays. This “must be stopped” was the request.
At great expense the SPD organised meetings with Samoan pastors abroad, first in New Zealand and a short time later in Australia, seeking a written consensus of support. However, most of the pastors refused to sign. Their convictions remained steadfastly with the minority in their homeland who want to worship on the new Saturday. At the meeting in Australia a number of these pastors candidly opposed the SPD position.
Courage in the face of SPD administration came from strong feelings of certainty rooted in conscience. The Samoan pastors had read a number of study papers on the Internet that argued the case for practicality; that the Sabbath should always be kept according to the local calendar wherever an individual finds himself in the world.
Another meeting was scheduled for August 2, 2013, at SPD headquarters in Sydney. The Samoan church president and a member of his executive committee flew in to dialog with the SPD administrators and some Samoan pastors handpicked by the Division president. The most important outcome of the meeting was a decision to allow a small group of Samoan pastors from Australia and New Zealand to go to Samoa and discuss the issue, a reversal of the earlier effort to ban such visits.
To date there is no apparent change in the resolve of the Saturday-keepers in Samoa. The reality is that, over time, their numbers are increasing.
The debate is like a juggler’s bag of tricks. Mention of the Saturday Sabbath prompts some to pull out Romans 14:5. This is not helpful because neither party accepts Paul’s tolerant stance. Instead, both sides of the argument believe they are worshiping on God’s mandatory Sabbath. One side believes it occurs on what is now Sunday according to the current Samoan calendar, the position taken by the SPD. The other side has the view that the Sabbath falls on the Saturday according to the present Samoan calendar.
Others describe complex arguments about the International Date Line. The only biblical demarcation line is “evening/morning." On a round earth it is ever-changing and, relative to longitude, is usually skewed. But when this line was included in the creation story there was no mention of the spherical nature of the earth or provision for world travellers.
The debate is rife with quasi-intellectualism and riddled with legalism, which is divisive and tragic. There is much to be gained by religious communities worshiping on the same day. For those who wish to worship on the seventh day of the week, the most practical approach is to consult the local calendar.
The SPD leadership told Samoan Adventists to ignore the change in the local calendar in order to maintain a seven-day cycle. The SPD would not tolerate the one-off omission of one day when the Samoan government shifted the International Date Line. It is a strange anomaly that the same SPD administrators, whenever crossing the line themselves to visit America, do not keep to a personal seven-day cycle. Instead, they fall in line with the local American calendar.
Early Adventist missionaries from America crossed the International Date Line to arrive in Australia in the nineteenth century and then adopted the local calendar. They reverted to the American calendar when they returned home. Precedent is not an infallible guide, but the fact remains those missionaries followed common sense. Everyone does it. The General Conference president does it when he travels the world and so do the SPD administrators. Those who wrote the study papers advocating that Samoan Adventists worship on Sunday abide by the local calendar when they travel. All Samoan Adventists who leave their homeland and cross the International Date Line to visit or settle in another country adopt the local calendar. The policy guarantees harmony.
Most of the Adventists in Samoa have gone along with the SPD decision, but a minority at the time had a visceral sense that something was amiss. They felt their Adventist identity was robbed of its character. Those who had, in the past, been members of Sunday churches and converted to the Seventh-day Adventist Church were mortified because their church, in the eyes of their local community, now advocated what they once rejected as non-biblical.
There is no end to this schism in the foreseeable future. It is like a nuclear reactor disaster, leaking toxic waste into the sea while church government fiddles with spin, passes the buck and waits in hope that the debate will dissipate.
Perhaps a better solution would be to allow those Adventists in Samoa who believe that Saturday is the Sabbath to worship on Saturdays. Those in Samoa who believe that Sunday is the Sabbath are allowed to worship on Sunday and could continue to do so. Choices based on individual conscience might provide the least divisive way to relate to the new local calendar.
Milton Hook writes from Sydney, Australia.