by Charis Granger-Mbugua | 13 June 2023 |
I was born and raised a Seventh-day Adventist. My parents, immigrants to this country, brought with them a deep-rooted faith that they instilled in my siblings and me. We were raised with Friday night worships, Sabbath potlucks, and Pathfinders. We rarely ate meat (we wouldn’t have recognized pork if we saw it), were not allowed to wear nail polish (although my sister snuck a bottle to school once, and paid the price) or pierce our ears. We were made well aware of the soon-to-come Sunday blue laws, the dangers of the Catholic church, and the time of trouble that would force us to run and hide in the rocks and mountains, before Jesus’s eventual triumphant return, appearing first as a small fist in the sky.
It was an upbringing both defining and isolating.
But children grow up, and parents grow old. And with the passing of time, even the most devout Adventists must take a thoughtful, and perhaps critical, look at the religion that has shaped and molded them.
The cremas incident
A recent incident with my father, where his faith and his commitment to the church that he has loved and served for his entire life were called into question, forced me to take a closer look at what it means to be an Adventist Christian, and ask myself some hard questions.
A few months ago my father attended, along with several members of Shiloh Adventist Church in Smyrna, Georgia, a going-away celebration at Zeke’s Kitchen and Bar in honor of one of the matriarchs of the church.
Shiloh is a small and unassuming congregation. The church has seen many pastors come and go, and many members as well. But my parents and a handful of others have remained faithful members there for more than 25 years.
This particular celebration was not sponsored or paid for by the church, though it was advertised on the church website. Many members, young and old were in attendance.
While there, my father ordered a drink called a cremas. This is a Haitian version of a holiday drink called ponche de créme that is served during the Christmas season in his home country of Trinidad. It has cultural significance and invokes deep nostalgia.
And yes, it has some alcohol in it. But my father, ever the romantic, never misses an opportunity to enjoy the reminders of the home of his childhood. He enjoyed the celebration with friends and loved ones, ate his meal, drank his drink, and went home.
I would be remiss if I did not pause here to say that my father is not, nor has he ever been, an alcoholic. Like some Adventists and other Christians he has sparingly consumed alcohol. He is, however, a man committed to serving others: he loves well and is loved well, as evidenced by the hundreds of people who have spoken on his behalf since this incident occurred.
Shortly after the going-away party, my father was approached by the pastor of the church and questioned about what was in the beverage he ordered. When it was determined it contained alcohol, he received a formal request to meet with the pastor and the board of elders to discuss his behavior and the consequences.
My father chose not to attend the meeting, instead responding in writing. In his letter to them he noted what he felt was the hypocrisy of the church that he has known since a boy. What matters? he wondered. What are we investing our time, energy, and resources in? How are we living out the call of Micah 6:8, his favorite Bible verse, as a church and in our daily lives: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
It wasn’t well-received: the pastor and elders took offense that he did not meet with them.
A few days later my father received an email response from the pastor:
After careful consideration, the Board of Elders has decided to suspend your duties as a Sabbath School teacher commencing immediately and remaining in effect throughout this process. The Elders also recommend the disciplinary action of a period of censorship for 12 months.
The letter goes on to say that a church board had been called, which would be followed by a church business meeting via Zoom, to discuss and vote on their recommendation. Again, he was invited to attend. He would be afforded 10 minutes to defend himself, and could have no other party present to represent him. He was also instructed not to include anyone besides the pastor in his response.
Number 22 of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs that we Adventists hold as our interpretation of the scripture states,
We are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures.
Since alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are to abstain from them as well.
I also acknowledge that when an Adventist is baptized into the church, that person takes a vow to abstain from unhealthy substances. My father had made that vow.
I am not arguing about what we believe, or even against what we believe. But going through this experience with my father has caused me to ask whether it is biblical to elevate such things to such importance that they call into question one’s commitment to Christ and the church. I’m asking if matters like this are relevant to the call of Christ to
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).
Are these rules the gospel? Are they biblical? Are they helpful? Should they be so rigid, so black-and-white? Should they lead to church discipline? Could it even be that they are archaic and antiquated?
The Bible says that we are not saved by “meat or drink” (Romans 14:17). If we were, many Adventists would be in trouble: we all partake in unhealthy things daily, because we are human, we are tempted. Even the meat substitutes Adventist vegetarians favor are laden with unhealthy substances like sodium and additives.
How rigid should we be about such things? How important are they?
On Monday, June 12, at 8 pm, I logged into a church business meeting to vote on the fate of my father’s standing at our church. There the pastor and church board submitted their recommendation: that my father be removed from the position of Sabbath school teacher for a period of a 12-month censorship because he drank a Haitian cremas which had alcohol in it.
There were more than 60 participants, significantly more than the usual amount in attendance, ready to bear witness to the charge against my father by the pastor, elders, and church board.
For two hours, I listened to men and women, young and old, debate the character of my father, the severity of his sin, and his ability to continue serving in the church he helped build. I felt a bit like I was watching the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Bible, standing with their stones poised to condemn the woman caught in adultery.
In the end, I’m glad to say, the church membership in the business meeting voted not to accept the recommendation of church leadership against my father that he be suspended from his church duties—reducing the suspension to a warning.
About church relevance
Again, please understand that I am well aware of two things.
First, I know what the church believes on this matter, as does my father.
And second, I also know that I am blindingly close to this situation, as the daughter of this man who has loved me well, who has loved and served his fellow man well. I have a stake in this; I’m not unbiased.
So what you are reading here are my musings about what my church is, and what this experience has led me to believe it ought to be—what it might be.
I see the Adventist church struggling, often failing (particularly with the young, but also with people like my father) to understand that our obsession with doctrine, and fundamental beliefs, with Church Manuals, with food, with the rules one must follow to attain a godly life, has made us irrelevant and unapproachable—the exact opposite of being Jesus’ representatives on earth.
Rather than advocating for social justice, for the widower, and the homeless, the brokenhearted, and the hopeless, for the immigrant and the hungry, I see church leadership stand in judgment and condemnation on their own. How can our church remain relevant when we are so judgmental about rules and infractions of them? How can we win souls to Christ when we are as hard-hearted as Pharaoh himself?
John 1:16 says, so simply, “for from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” I feel like grace was not extended to my father by church leadership. It was excruciating to sit silently by while church leaders acted in what seemed to be in opposition to the grace of the God I know and love. I’m thankful that the church membership knew what kind of man he is and saw past what he’d done.
Yet I am the church. I, in fact, do love this church, with all its flaws. So I must challenge the status quo; I should not succumb to the bystander effect. As one of my favorite authors, Elie Wiesel, expressed so eloquently:
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.
We need to listen more closely to the voices of the youth and young people of this church, who came out in droves to support my father, but who refuse to attend the church that raised us or to even identify as Adventists. If we do not listen, then we have missed the mark. We have done a disservice to God, and we have failed to be the peculiar people the Apostle Peter writes about.
- Not peculiar because we don’t wear earrings—peculiar because we love the unlovable, the sinners, those who make mistakes.
- Not peculiar because we can recite the 4th commandment—peculiar because we give grace that abounds.
- Not peculiar because we are vegetarians—peculiar because we speak out against injustice and give voice to the voiceless.
- Not peculiar because we don’t drink a cremas at a going-away party—peculiar because we know a God who says “Come as you are.”
In light of this experience, it now seems clear to me that the most important principle for the church as a community should be this: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Charis Granger-Mbugua is a former English teacher turned stay-at-home mom who lives in the Atlanta metro area with her husband, Peter, and their two young children.