by Loren Seibold | 7 April 2022 |
I remember, years ago when I was a young pastor in the Bay Area of Northern California, talking to an older pastor friend who worked in a church near me.
I remember saying to him, “I’m looking forward to the time when those of us who are gospel-believing pastors now, who don’t teach all the legalism and end-time fears, will be in leadership in the church. The old conservatism of the past will be gone and we’ll focus on Jesus rather than conspiracies and rules.”
He said, “What if just the opposite happens?”
I didn’t think that possible. I knew how I felt—and the way many of my friends felt—about the kind of Adventism that presumes that we know everything and we’re God’s only true church. I knew the damage that the old fear- and rule-based religion had done to people around me. I knew how many had left the church because they were literally terrified out of it.
I didn’t think anyone, once they understood that God wasn’t the scary Deity described in our evangelistic series and books, would want to continue with that kind of religion.
Boy, was I wrong.
As time passed, and the legalistic and conspiratorial strain remained strong among us, it gradually dawned on me that as many of us who are open-minded and tolerant, who believe in God’s grace more than rules, who trust science and want to verify sources of information, may never fit quite comfortably into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
It may have been that kind of church once—a church that sought for truth, present or otherwise—but we seem to have lost our way. I’m seeing more and more people in our beloved church who belong to the itching-ears set, who want to hear titillating theories and scary stories, who love novelty. My church increasingly seems to belong to those who sense that there is something meritorious in living in fear and being surrounded by imaginary enemies, who scoff at science whether in origins or medicine—in short, those who value being in the opposition, even if the opposition beliefs are thin and silly.
Then one day, watching the national news and seeing another story about how many citizens believe 5G phone signals will set off the microchips in their vaccinations, then another about how a huge percentage of the citizens believes the American elections were stolen with virtually no evidence, it suddenly struck me that the world has finally caught up with us: we now live in a world where a significant number of people find comfort in tall tales rather than truth, in conspiracies rather than Christ.
The thought came to me: perhaps this is our moment in history!
That Adventists feel a great place to hand out The Great Controversy is in a crowd of armed people attacking the United States Capitol confirms that we may be positioned to offer precisely the kind of religion a certain set of Americans (and probably some in other countries, too) are seeking.
For such a time as this
Right now, people are looking for conspiracies. And it just so happens that we are a church, in history and practice, of conspiracies.
Our movement is suspicious of liberalism—that is, believing that we can live with multiple viewpoints, or accept people who are different from us.
There appears to be an appetite out there for authoritative voices. It doesn’t really matter if your chosen authority speaks verified truth or makes any sense—and that, too, has a parallel in the world out there.
In short, perhaps we Adventists are at our best when we’re aligned with the conspiratorial, conservative and authoritarian elements in society.
We were doing conspiracies before conspiracies were cool. Is the world finally ready for what we have had on offer all along?
Please remember that we still, today, officially hold that the United States as a nation will be traitorous to God. One of our early beliefs, still strongly held, is that the Roman Catholic church is literally run by Satan, and specifically designed to persecute Seventh-day Adventists.
We have, like Richard Nixon, an enemies list.
Now, it is also true that we Adventists have let our conspiracies get a bit long in the tooth. A world-dominating pope is good, but it’s not enough. We can do better. We could go beyond Catholics and spiritualism and apostate Protestantism to gays and vaccines and the Illuminati and hidden world powers and Antifa and vaccinations as a depopulation tool. We can add liberals to that list—maybe Jews, Bill Gates and Joe Biden.
We could graft in a pro-gun message, a pro-war message—all of which can be justified by the violence in the Bible. Let’s go fully pro-Israel—because no matter how badly that country treats non-Jews, some Christians say that they have a place in God’s plan. Let’s assume that the pope is backed up by imaginary cabals like the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission, and in league with the mythical Elders of Zion.
Imagine the response to an evangelistic campaign, in certain parts of the United States, that led out not with millennia-old beasts but with anti-Antifa, anti-Joe Biden, pro-gun images!
Take advantage of the present paranoia, church! Let’s denounce vaccines, rather than embracing them as our denominational leaders appear to have done. We could renew QAnon’s claims of pedophilia in high places, which would lead naturally to Catholic blaming. We could focus on the breakdown of American democracy because of stolen elections—just like the sea beast of Revelation 13!
We have pastors who are ready and able to carry on this program. Make our churches places of unending conspiracy, and we will fill them with people who are seeking precisely that.
But would it work?
Some will say, “But conspiracies are ephemeral. Changing. They come and go. Won’t people weary of them after a few failures?”
I see no evidence of that. I see an appetite right now for stories, not truth. Here are the principles to keep them engaged.
Focus on the unverifiable. Is our denomination really secretly run by Jesuits? Who knows? As a famous Adventist eschatologist once told me, “Of course there are Jesuits in the church. But I can never prove it to you, because Jesuits are skillful enough never to be found.”
Is the Catholic church really a Satanic cabal? We have no one in there to tell us they aren’t, so yeah, it must be true.
Does Joe Biden take his marching orders from the deep state, or from China, or from the Vatican, or George Soros? Speculation here is as useful as the truth.
Are there microchips in the vaccine? I haven’t seen them, but they’re too tiny to see so we should assume they exist.
Keep people waiting. That something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Anything can be affirmed if we just say it will happen someday. That it never happens isn’t important. Faith is a powerful thing, and faith in scary stories beats everything else.
Is the Catholic church going to persecute us for our faith? They haven’t, but they will. Given enough time. Someday.
Will Sabbath become an issue worthy of capital punishment? Hasn’t yet, but it will. Just wait.
Pick out a few confirming events. The popes have helped us a lot here, such as when they encourage Catholics to go to church on Sunday, which is interpreted to mean they’re opposing Sabbath worshippers. Another talked about saving the environment by not working on Sunday, which was interpreted as abolishing Sabbath worship for environmental reasons.
That neither meant what we heard them say is irrelevant. It’s what we say they’ve said that matters.
What about disconfirmation? What if a conspiracy doesn’t come true? Not a problem. Memories are short. How many times has the church predicted some action of the pope or the government that doesn’t happen? It is forgotten quickly.
Remember the election of John F. Kennedy? Adventists were weeping openly in church, believing that the pope was going to move into the White House. It didn’t happen, but it was a great encouragement to people at the time.
That is to say, people forget—if you handle it right. Here’s how you do that:
Move rapidly from story to story, from conspiracy to conspiracy! Produce them like a machine gun. Remember: people want stories, not truth. There is no end of stories! Never let a conspiracy hang around long enough that people have time to ponder its veracity, much less its outcome! Before one is dead, have a new one ready!
There are no end of stories of things to fear—and remember, you don’t need evidence! Speculation is enough!
Never say you know for sure and never, ever set a date. Give your theories, present them strongly and dramatically, and let people draw their own conclusions. By not setting a date, you can string out a good conspiracy for years—sometimes centuries, as in the case of Roman Catholics persecuting us for the Sabbath.
If you keep these principles in mind, no one can ever say, “You told us Jesus would return in 2027.” No, you didn’t. You may have led them to conclude that, but you never said it in so many words.
OK, Loren, but aren’t we in fear of losing our distinctive conspiracies? No. Here’s why.
Start with what catches people’s interest, and move on to what we have historically believed. Our anti-Catholicism fits with today’s conspiracies like legs fit in yoga pants. So we begin with the most current, most radical beliefs: gays recruiting our children, ANTIFA, guns, abortion, Israel, the deep state, vaccinations for depopulation. And once we’ve got their attention, we can make the case that the Catholics are behind it all, and the true test of faithfulness is not a relationship with Jesus, but the Sabbath.
I’ve heard people say that in our early days, our prophecies reflected the news of the world. Let’s do that again—but choose news sources that work for us, like Tucker Carlson and NewsMax.
Getting rid of the liberals
Our biggest problem? All these so-called Adventist liberals. How did we end up with these bozos?
Higher education was Adventism’s first big mistake. We should never have sought to credential our schools. Now we’re stuck with places like Loma Linda, where science is taken seriously. All our universities are accredited, which means they are veritable hotbeds of verified knowledge.
We’ve got two choices.
First, we could just spin them off into the secular world. Is Loma Linda University worth saving? Or is it just another bunch of medical robber barons doing their thing in the church’s name?
Or we could purge those running them. Loma Linda could become a natural healing center. Our universities could become Bible colleges that teach evangelism and right-wing politics like, say, Bob Jones University. Throw out all those departments that cause us so much trouble, like biology and psychology and literature. Teach Bible and Ellen White and natural healing.
So we progressive Seventh-day Adventists are building on an unstable foundation. We flirted with a few progressive ideas early on, such as abolitionism, but we were never really progressive. We remain officially anti-Catholic, anti-gay, anti-women. It is dangerous to aspire to be something we were never meant to be.
In the past, I have objected to Elder Ted Wilson having an authoritarian role. But if the church is going to take advantage of this moment, we will need him (or his successor) to keep us on track, to throw out the liberals and replace them with people who believe in conspiracies and simple answers and top-down authority.
In short, we need a pope of our own.
This could work…
This could work, people. Adventists have reached a fusion of horizons with the secular conspiratorial world, which means we have an opportunity right now that we haven’t had since we were birthed.
Already there are pastors who are doing this, but they’re a bit too cautious. They don’t want to go all out, for fear of alienating some members. Fortunately, we can look to Walter Veith to lead the way. Let us make Veith and his kin mainstream Adventism, and spin off all the complaining liberals. Show people that we are the church of the conspirators, and we will fill our congregations again!
This is not my personal choice. But in view of the resistance to any kind of change, perhaps it is our best strategy to survive, and to keep money coming in for all of us who are living off of the church’s dime in our retirement.
Let us pray we have the strength to continue to live in this conspiratorial fantasy long enough to keep this church growing until, well, until something we have predicted actually happens!
Loren Seibold is a retired pastor and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.