What Is the Purpose of the Sabbath School Lesson?
by Alvin Masarira, | 16 March 2023 |
According to the General Conference Statistics, the over 20 million members of the Seventh-day Adventist in over 200 countries worship in over 52,000 congregations. Each congregation is unique, and it would be difficult to know exactly how various church members across the world are relating to the Adult Sabbath School Bible study guide of the first quarter of 2023.
The theme of the lessons for the quarter is “Managing for the Master Till He Comes” and the focus is on wealth, money, assets, the returning of tithe, giving offerings, etc. It is very clear that the objective is to teach, educate, or remind members about stewardship as taught in the Adventist Church, especially concerning money. If the very passionate conversations among Adventists on the many social media platforms are anything to go by, this topic has raised questions among many members.
As with all the quarterly Sabbath School Lessons, there is a principal contributor/writer, who in this case is G. Edward Reid. Reid is an ordained minister, a licensed attorney, and has served as the Stewardship Director for the North American Division. He has published widely on the topic of financial stewardship and therefore this is familiar terrain for him. The manuscript from the principal contributor then goes through an editorial process and through committees to ensure it is aligned with the teachings of the church.
The Sabbath School lesson
It might be worthwhile to take a look at the origin of the Sabbath School study guide in the Adventist church and the main purposes it is meant to serve. In 1852, while James and Ellen White were traveling by horse-drawn carriage from Rochester, New York, to Bangor, Maine, they stopped along a dusty country road for lunch. James took out a pen, ink, and paper, and using his lunch box as a desk he wrote some of the initial Sabbath School lessons. James White was a certified teacher, and one would assume he had the training to write a lesson guide that could be used to teach Bible doctrine.
This was the genesis of what is today the Sabbath School Quarterly, although the concept of a weekly approach to Bible study—most commonly known as “Sunday School”—began almost a century before among Christian churches.
The Bible study lesson time generally forms part of the broader Sabbath School program in the Adventist Church, and there are Bible study guides for all age groups in the church, with the adult study guide’s just being one of them. These study guides, as well as the time set aside during Sabbath School, are such an integral part of the Sabbath experience that many don’t even ask about the purposes and objectives the lessons and discussions were meant to serve.
Before going further, I would like to mention that I strongly support the idea of having these study guides, and congregations’ using them to engage with the Bible on Sabbath. It is one of those things I really look forward to. I sometimes feel this time is more important than the preaching time, in terms of engaging with the Word. The Sabbath School lessons provide Adventists (from Cradle Roll and Beginners to the Adults) a great opportunity to study the Bible, engage, and learn on their own or in small groups. This is unlike some churches where the Word is presented by the preacher almost in monologue form with practically no opportunity to engage.
This brings me to what I believe would have been the original objectives of the Bible study guides, and for that I will focus mainly on the adult study guides. Firstly, these were meant to be a guide to personal Bible study in the week. Not everyone can develop their own systematic Bible study program, and these guides were to go some way in providing such a Bible study plan.
Unity of the faith?
However, with passage of time, and as the church grew from slightly above 100 congregations and 3,000 or so members in the late 1850s and early 1860s to where it is now, the role of the Sabbath School Bible study guides evolved (or was changed). Now an additional purpose seems to have been added: using the study guide as a tool to present (or drive home) church teachings which the world church leadership wants to be accepted and believed by all Adventists globally. These lessons and teachings have evolved in such a way that they are not open to debate or discussion. Some of the themes over the years have been on Adventist lifestyle, the health message, the sanctuary, creation, family life, marriage, the Sabbath, and many others.
Increasingly, Adventists across the world want to debate on what is the correct understanding of the Bible. And it appears that one of the greatest concerns (maybe even fears) of the world church leaders is the growing divergence of views among members in various geographical territories, which is seen as a threat to the “unity of the faith”. One thing the Adventist Church has placed great value on is “unity”, although there is no consensus on the definition of this desired unity. The Sabbath School Bible study guide has over time evolved to be seen and used as a tool to drive a common understanding and beliefs on doctrinal matters.
This helps to explain how the themes of the various quarterly lessons are chosen, the choice of the principal contributors, and the editorial and review process before the lessons are published. This also explains the church policy on the translation of the Sabbath School Bible study guides from the original English into other languages. The translations are generally done by the responsible union conferences (e.g., the German union conferences would translate into German, and the Zimbabwe union conferences into local languages such as Shona or Ndebele). However, there are strict guidelines from the General Conference on how this should be done, in order to ensure there are no changes to the key message of the lesson.
The translators could be allowed to change some of the symbols or examples in the English document (e.g., not using examples about snow in countries which never have snow) as long as this does not alter the core message. The General Conference does not want anything lost or changed in translation. There have also been requests from some union conferences across the world to be allowed to write their own Sabbath School study guides, which focus on issues they feel are relevant for them. These requests have of course been denied, and it can be assumed that such a move would have taken away the control of the General Conference over an important “teaching” tool of the world church. The concern would be that each region/territory would end up with its own doctrinal focus and threaten the “unity of the faith”.
This quarter’s lessons
Let us look specifically at the adult lesson study of this first quarter of 2023, on the broad focus of money. We are now mostly through the quarter, and the discussions on social network platforms are heated. I am not sure how the discussions in the classes in churches are going, but I suspect they are equally quite passionate.
There are several reasons why these discussions are happening the way they are. One of the reasons is that money is always a sensitive matter, and we all have a lot to say about “our” money.
Another one is that we have all gone through a painful COVID-19 period, and during that time many have had a chance to reflect on many things, even the very likelihood of our own deaths. COVID-19 led people to ask many difficult questions, including the role of organized religion and whether it is even relevant, after we spent 18 to 24 months worshipping from home. Some members still have not returned to the physical church.
Social media has also provided us with a platform for public debates and global interconnectivity, which we didn’t have previously. Rather than arguing inside our own four walls with those around us, we can now argue in public with anyone across oceans who feels like arguing. The noise is louder and sometimes even deafening.
But foundational to the discussion appears to be this question: why does the church institution believe it is the only vehicle that should be funded in a specific manner to spread the gospel? Who says this is the only vehicle that can make a claim to tithes and offerings, given that it is very different from the “church” of the Old Testament and from the early church of the New Testament?
The main contentious issues have been around the Biblical basis of the tithing system as adopted by the Adventist Church. Questions have been raised about whether it’s correct to “transport” the tithing system from the Old Testament, given that tithe was given to the priests (e.g., Melchizedek) or Levites (in the sanctuary) who stood in the place of God. The Adventist church today does not believe in that form of priesthood.
There is only scanty reference to tithing in the New Testament and no conclusive evidence (if any) that the early church was financed through the tithing system. Many have expressed the view that the theology of tithing in the Adventist Church is weak.
(Of course, Ellen White has a lot to say about tithing, but the Adventist Church claims that its theology is not based on Ellen White, but on scripture.)
Let me hasten to say that, in my observation, no one is opposed to the idea of financing the gospel. Everyone knows and accepts that the church needs money to do its mission, and that money must primarily come from its members. The questions raised are around the method used and the Biblical basis for it.
Can we disagree?
But my main point here isn’t the debate on whether the church teaching on tithing is biblically sound or not. My concern, rather, is that some church members and leaders find this robust debate and the challenging of some long-held teachings on tithing unacceptable. Some even call it “sowing seeds of a tithe rebellion”.
The strange thing for me is that as a church we often boast to other Christians about the high levels of biblical literacy among our members. Adventist members, even those with no theological training, can study and engage on Biblical subjects, and we encourage that. We often speak of the Bereans (Acts 17:11), who did not just accept the teachings they heard but critically investigated them on their own. Yet the discomfort when Adventist members question their own church’s teachings sounds like the church is saying, “Don’t think for yourselves. Don’t accept any teaching unless it comes from us”. This ignores the nature of critical thinking, because critical thinkers ask difficult questions.
I have been asking this: when (and by whom) was the Sabbath School study guide changed from a guideline for study into a tool—or even weapon—to drive a certain doctrinal narrative? If that has become its purpose, should that tool still be in the hands of a principal contributor/writer and a small editorial team? Shouldn’t that become the responsibility of an institution such as a Biblical Research Institute reporting to the General Conference Executive Committee, or even to the General Conference in session?
But really, isn’t the whole idea of the study guides encapsulated in the term “study guide”—something to help us to study and discuss and engage? Why is there an expectation that we must agree with the author? Why is there an impression created that disagreeing with the writers of the study guide is rebellion?
This can only be the case if the church leadership at General Conference is trying hard to ensure that people toe the line. And who draws that line? And who even says that line is a straight line?
A return to robust conversations
One of our greatest characteristics as a church—yes, even as a movement—has been our ability to have robust conversations. We have had many public discussions—even disagreements—in our history, such as the famous 1888 General Conference Session in Minneapolis, which church historians say threatened to split the church. The session discussed crucial theological issues such as the meaning of righteousness by faith, the nature of the Godhead, the relationship between law and grace, and justification and its relationship to sanctification.
Then we had the Desmond Ford issue in the 1980s. Dr. Ford challenged the church’s teaching on the investigative judgment and even disagreed with the church on the level of authority it allocates to the writings of Ellen White. We have ongoing disagreements on the nature of Christ when He came to earth: did He have the pre-fall or post-fall nature of Adam? The position one holds on this question has implications on how one believes they will be saved. And of late the question of ordination of women to gospel ministry has come up, although the matter was first raised at the 1881 General Conference Session.
Adventists are not strangers to heated theological debate, and it is a healthy practice because it enables us to get closer and closer to Biblical truth.
In Review and Herald of 26 July 1892, Ellen White wrote
We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church would be encouraged to let the heated discussions continue. Let’s continue asking ourselves difficult questions and even challenge our own long-held positions. Truth should not be afraid of scrutiny.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.