by Mark Gutman

By Mark Gutman, October 28, 2013

People would generally rather feel certain than uncertain. Other antonyms for “certain” are hesitant, unconfident, and insecure, and who enjoys feeling that way? We like the ease of certainty, and we are attracted to people who exude it. People who appear hesitant are criticized for waffling or being wishy-washy.

How much room does the church have for uncertainty? Some members believe that members should have 100% confidence in the same understanding of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs that certain leaders expound. Either have that same degree of confidence or keep quiet (or leave)!

Solomon Asch ran experiments a few years ago that publicized the phenomenon of conformity and peer pressure.1 Those taking part in the experiment looked at the flashcards pictured here and were asked to choose which line (A, B, or C) was the same length as the line on the other flashcard. When a control group was asked the questions, the participants answered correctly 99.3% of the time. But in the trials where participants first heard seven respondents answer incorrectly (because the respondents were confederates in the experiment), the research participants gave the same wrong response as the confederates 37% of the time. However, if one of the seven confederates answered correctly, the participant error rate dropped to around 8%.

Asch’s experiments dealt with answers that were “black-and-white,” and the participants were in a group with strangers. There is evidence that the pressure to conform is even greater when the answers are more subjective (or abstract or hazy), or the pressure to conform is from friends.2 One correct confederate answer strengthens the resolve of the participant to answer correctly. But some interpret the results differently when one breaks ranks. They see that one dissident can lead to a greater breakdown of the community.

If everyone in the church says the same thing, it will help to keep doubters in line. But if one doubter is allowed to voice his questions, some fear that he may raise or encourage questions among others, resulting in a breakdown of the community. Yet we know a risk of not allowing questions. “When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what.”3

We encourage those who are not members of our denomination to investigate our teachings and see their reasonableness. Once the new folks have joined us, though, we sometimes get nervous about what they investigate. We would prefer that they get comfortable with our beliefs. That Bible study participant who we complimented for asking so many questions is now seen differently when she keeps asking questions after being baptized. We want her to ask questions, but… So where do we draw the line? Which questions are permissible and which ones are off limits?

The current situation in Samoa has raised a question. Adventists in that island country disagree over which is the correct day to observe as the Sabbath.4 Are the ones who worship on what is now called Sunday taking the easy way out? Or are they using common sense? The question is different from comparing the lengths of lines A, B, and C to another line. There is no unquestionably right answer. Some Samoan members immediately knew how they were going to relate to the change of days. Others weren’t so sure; they could see good reasoning for both sides. But we don’t blame the Samoans for raising the question. The government changed the calendar, and Samoan Adventists were unexpectedly confronted with a problem. So the question is permissible.

We can, though, blame people who hang around non-members or read certain unorthodox material. They should have stayed away from the forbidden fruit. If they don’t stay away, they should at least keep their doubts or questions to themselves. On the other hand, if we have the truth, we have nothing to fear from questions. Come to think of it, even if we don’t have the truth, we don’t need to fear questions. If I’m wrong, why not find out sooner than later? "If the pillars of our faith will not stand the test of investigation, it is time we knew it."5

Some church members ask questions about the age of the earth or the length of time that human beings have been around. Some wonder if anything special happened in heaven in October 1844? Bad questions? Naughty questions? People who come up with “naughty” questions often stumble into problems with other church doctrines, so the safest approach is to stop the naughty questions before they develop.6 There’s plenty in the Bible to study without needing to get into the risky areas.

We praise a member of another denomination who ignores his pastor’s warnings against studying material of “that Adventist cult.” But once you join us, we form our own Index of Forbidden Books.7 You should only read material that is put out by the right publisher. Of course, the “right publisher” is determined by the Index compiler.

Some things are hard to prove beyond the possibility of doubt. Devout Bible-believing Christians can be found on both sides of most issues. A problem develops when we begin evaluating why someone disagrees with us. Since we are rational and Spirit-guided, we can assume that the other person simply doesn’t know all the facts. However, once we know that the other person knows what we know (which is itself quite an assumption), we are left to assume that the other person is either stupid or wicked. Unfortunately, you can listen to some radio and TV hosts of the right or left for examples of the thinking and belittling that has been known to occur in the church. As Kathryn Schulz puts it: “Our faith in our own reading of the facts undergirds our certainty that we are right, our shock when turn out to be wrong, and our willingness to deny the perspicacity, intelligence, and moral worth of everyone who disagrees with us.”8

“Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same.”9 Some people more naturally question everything. Those who don’t question often benefit because of those who do.

Let people ask questions. It would probably help if questioners recognize the need to be discrete and tactful. But if we stop the questions of others, we limit their chance to contribute to our own growth even as they work on theirs. The urge to stop others from asking questions might give us pause to reflect on when we stopped asking questions and why. “There are no foolish questions, and no man becomes a fool until he has stopped asking questions.”10

1See Solomon Asch, Social Psychology, but you can find the experiment described in many places.

2Williams and Sogon 1984; I can’t locate a good reference, but their experiment is referred to in many places but not as widely as Asch’s experiment.

3Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol 5, p.707.

4See atoday.org news item: Conflict Over Calendar Change Splits the Adventist Church in Samoa.

5Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 107.

6Now if God had just done that in Lucifer’s case!

7Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (New York, NY: Harper-Collins Publishers), 109. Also see on pages 107 to 109 her description of the Ignorance Assumption, the Idiocy Assumption, and the Evil Assumption, all of which grow out of the ‘Cuz It’s True Constraint.

8”The Index was a list of books considered dangerous to faith or morals. In establishing the Index the Church intended to protect Catholics from such material.” See https://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/what-was-the-index-of-forbidden-books-and-is-it-ok-to-read-those-books-now.

9Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 483.

10Attributed to Charles Steinmetz, as if it matters. See my column, “As Benjamin Franklin Said…” in Aug 2011.