06 Mar


Sometimes I do things I know I shouldn’t do.

It usually feels pretty good. At first. Later, I feel really bad about it.

That’s my worldview.

Well, part of it. From there it goes in some rather bizarre directions. Extraterrestrials battle over the character, government, methods, and motives of the Ruler of the Universe. Unanswerable questions are raised. Questionable answers are offered.

I call what I believe, the distilled Adventist worldview. It’s not a finished view. It’s not the final truth. There is room for growth. It continues to mature. Newfound truths may advance our understanding. It’s not uniquely Adventist. Glimpses of it can be found in the writings of John Milton and Henry Melvill, in Manicheanism, and in stories like The Mandalorian.

Distillation is a process through which impurities are removed. Simple nuisance particles may also be detached. The process is often intense. It calls for heat and transparency. It must be closely monitored. Combustion or even explosions may occur.

I find a clear distinction between the distilled Adventist worldview and both the historic and current Adventist worldviews, which seem more and more undifferentiated to me. Instead of going through this tedious and potentially dangerous distillation process, I see our church “retreating” to a safer, evangelical, fundamentalistic, Reformation-based form of theology. I don’t believe that was the intention of our founders. I believe they are two radically different worldviews.

I see one based in love; the other, based in fear.

I don’t think I was afraid of God when I was six-years old.

That year, my friend, Gayle, and I, saw a dark cloud about half the size of a man’s hand in what she thought might be the eastern sky. She excitedly told me that Jesus was coming! Her father was a pastor. I figured she knew. We ran home and told our mothers. They gave us Graham crackers and milk and told us to calm down.

That’s the last time I can remember being excited about Jesus coming back. Mostly it scares me. Still.

By the time I was eight, my worldview was saturated in fear.

I don’t blame my parents for my fears. They always shared a loving view of God with me. Largely unwittingly, and I think for the most part unintentionally, my pastors, teachers, and Sabbath School leaders somehow instilled in me a fear of God, a fear of my neighbors, a fear of our government, a fear of the Devil, a fear of the Ten Commandments, a fear of The Last Days, a fear of the Judgment, a fear of the Second Coming, a fear of persecution, a fear of Hell, a fear of the General Conference president, a fear of hidden sins, a fear of death, a fear of my body, and a fear of Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity. I feared everything outside of the safe and comfortable confines of the church. Although inside the church it wasn’t always so comfortable, either.

When fear is overwhelming, there are at least three possible responses. You may have a mental health crisis, you may deny the fear and its causes, or you can “whistle past the graveyard.” I chose the latter. I pretended I was not afraid. I was terrified.

I’ve been asked how I can seem to be so critical of our church and yet continue to be a loyal member. My loyalty to Adventism is directly tied to the classes and tape ministries of several Adventist pastors, theologians, and educators that I encountered in the 1970s and 1980s. Through them I finally saw the light of the good news about God and His character. It shines brilliantly in the First Testament in the writings of men like Moses, David, Isaiah,

Jeremiah, Micah, and Hosea. It explodes into vibrant colors through the prism of Christ’s life and death in the Second Testament—most clearly in the works of John, the disciple who so gratefully reveled in the love of Jesus.

Based on the intended audience for this article, I will presume most of you are well acquainted with the current Adventist worldview. As I mentioned above, I do not see it as being significantly different from an evangelical, fundamentalistic, Reformation-informed Christian worldview. Not having the space to expand and contrast the differences between the current and distilled worldviews, I will focus on describing the distilled Adventist worldview. Hopefully, you will be able to see some of the important lines of divergence between the two views.

In distilled Adventist theology, sin is rebelliousness. It is an attitude of self-centeredness, not a collection of behaviors and acts—a vicious inborn character flaw that leads us to fight God and His government. It is less “what we do,” and more “who we are.” Living with this attitude, everything we do, good or bad, is sin. God’s response to our sin is less anger than sorrow. Each time we act out in sin, we hurt both ourselves and others whom He has created. We form scars, and accumulated scar tissue will eventually destroy both our capacity and our desire to be healed.

God has given us at least five “tools” to help us fight against our sinful natures. The first is the enmity he has put between us and our great enemy. This is what makes us want to change for the better. It’s what eventually makes us feel bad about doing those things we know we shouldn’t. God has also given us His Spirit, to help us respond to that enmity against sin and to give us the power to take the steps needed to accomplish a change in our characters.

And He has given us forgiveness.

We often worry about forgiveness, but forgiveness is not a problem for God. We’ve been forgiven. It’s guaranteed. He forgives freely—even before we ask. The father of the Prodigal Son was not waiting for his son to come back with a speech of confession and repentance. The love and goodness of the father drew the son home to himself. He cut his son off with a hug and a family robe when he began his speech of contrition.

The Roman soldiers at the Cross didn’t ask for forgiveness. Christ gave it to them anyway. But being forgiven doesn’t mean being saved. And presuming on God’s forgiveness may callous us to such a degree that we eventually no longer respond to His entreaties.

What we need is a new character. A rebirth. A change of heart. A healing.

To be healed, we must trust God enough to allow Him to heal us. If we do, He can and will heal us completely. While we must confess (admit guilt) and repent of (turn away from) our sin, that doesn’t induce forgiveness. Confession and repentance are but the first steps in the healing process. They make forgiveness efficacious in our lives. They are not down payments to help cover our sins.

The last two gifts, the greatest ones from God, are found in His Son.

Christ’s primary mission to earth was to show us the Father. He, being of the same nature and character of God, could not fail to do this. He was the greatest gift the Trinity could possibly give. Through Him, we receive the fifth gift, a clear representation and revelation of the goodness and righteousness of God.

This Gift was not meant for humanity alone. In that peculiar, “Star Warsian,” extraterrestrial conflict we Adventists have recognized in our reading of Scripture, we find that a defense of the righteousness of God, His goodness, and His trustworthiness, was necessary for the eternal peace and safety of all creation. That defense was most brilliantly displayed on the Cross.

At the Cross, the impure accretions that had formed on the world’s view of God were distilled off in the clearest revelation of the character of God that the universe could ever receive! Lesser nuisances that had accumulated were also removed. Confusing terms such as propitiation, expiation, payment, cost, penalty, and appeasement were clarified and should no longer befog our view. God doesn’t demand sacrifices, nor does He destroy sinners! The death of Christ ultimately and irrefutably verified that God told the truth regarding the natural results of sin and demonstrated His role in the destruction of the wicked.

Calvary was Hell. On it, Christ experienced the full wrath of God. No eternal fire. No brimstone. No smoke of torment. No destruction at the Father’s hand. Nothing like the anger we humans possess. Just the overwhelming, fatal pain of separation from the Creator—of being given up (forsaken). “God’s wrath is simply His turning away in loving disappointment from those who do not want Him, anyway, thus leaving them to the inevitable and awful consequences of their own rebellious choice” (A. Graham Maxwell).

We can’t overstate the goodness of God. Everything He does and allows is a manifestation of loving righteousness. This is the distilled Adventist worldview. This should be our message to the world.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]

21 Dec


You may need to leave the church to find Jesus.

I do not say this lightly. I say it with sincere sadness and deep regret. But I have heard countless stories and have witnessed many examples of those who have experienced a lack of grace, love, respect, or honesty from someone representing the church. You may have been cheated financially, abused mentally, damaged spiritually, misrepresented theologically, or molested physically by someone you felt was trustworthy. Your pain, guilt, anger, bitterness, or fear may be crippling and overwhelming.

Seeing beyond it may not be feasible. The barriers you have built for self-preservation may make it impossible for you to find the love of God in your current relationship with the church. To you I say, with great sorrow, go. But don’t stop searching, for He is there, and His love is unconditional.

Unconditional. That’s a word we bandy about as if we think we understand its meaning. I question that we do. In the context in which I’ve used it, it means that there is nothing—no act, no behavior, no thought, no mistake, no sin, no sexual involvement or orientation, no substance use or abuse, no broken relationship, no unethical motive, no level of doubt, no attitude, no criminal behavior, no doctrinal belief, no church council, no academic censure, no judgmental humiliation, nothing—that can separate you from the love of God. It’s a biblical promise (Romans 8:38, 39).

The problem with most large organizations, like churches and the people in them, is that their delivery does not always live up to their promise or their intent. They harbor leaders and members who are cruel, self-centered, and manipulative. And so, I say, even to those in my own denomination, if you need to leave this church to find the unconditional love of God, go quickly. And I pray with all sincerity that you find it.

It’s a good thing I didn’t work for the church. Because I would have missed out on many wonderful friendships, I don’t always play well with others, and, as you can see from my comments thus far, I’m not very good at sales. Whether we wish to admit it or not, much of what a church does resembles marketing and sales.

There are at least three conventional ways to make a sale. The first is to unveil something new that is highly attractive. Think Apple iPhone. The second is to identify a fear, a need, or a desire, and show how you can resolve it. Think toothpaste or deodorant. The third is by threat. In January 1973, the cover of the counterculture magazine, National Lampoon, had a picture of a man holding a gun to the head of a dog with the caption, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” I bought a copy. I hope the dog survived.

Historically, churches have used all three of these methods. Christians claim that their mission is to spread a new and improved understanding of the Good News about God as revealed by Jesus in His life and death. To do this, they have held out on one hand the promise of eternal bliss for those who believe them. On the other hand, they have threatened a fearful judgment and the fires of hell for those who do not. Just like Job’s friends, they have also implied that God will hurt or kill you, or your children, or your livestock, or your dog, if you don’t buy what they are selling.

This approach has worked fairly well for some. St. Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame, and many other medieval cathedrals, hospitals, and orphanages bear witness to the effectiveness of playing on fear and guilt and selling forgiveness. So do the mansions, jet airplanes, and fleets of luxury automobiles of some of today’s most successful pastors and televangelists. Tickets to heaven and protection from calamity now, as well as from a hell to come, are great assets for both consumers and suppliers.

Attempting to work, or buy, one’s way into heaven may now be out of style theologically.  But the transactional attitude of “what’s in it for me” still appears to be a prevalent religious philosophy. So, perhaps the question we must answer is, what does our church have to offer, since eternal life is now agreed by most to be a gift of grace?

Well, what is it that people want?

I think I know. They want to be loved. They want to be free and independent. They want to be creative and productive. They want to live a healthy, safe, and financially secure life. They want to live in a community of loving friends and family members. They want a worldview that makes sense. They want to find meaning in their life and feel that they have served a worthwhile purpose. They want to die young at an old age from a painless cause of death. If in the afterlife there is a wonderful paradise, that will be nice, but even more than that, they want the assurance that there is no painful punishment awaiting them. Moving from fear of the unknown to fear of a judgment is not great progress.

Through research and the work of such projects as National Geographic’s Blue Zones, we have learned that the Adventist way of life can fulfill many of these widely held desires. Our emphasis on mission and volunteerism addresses the need for meaning and a worthwhile purpose in life. Our focus on educational achievement, combined with abstinence and a strong Protestant work ethic, supports a creative, stable, productive, and financially secure career. Our emphasis on nutrition, exercise, rest, and other health-related activities has garnered worldwide attention for our increased longevity. And our relatively close-knit community potentially provides a place of belonging and social stability.

But you don’t need to join our church, and you certainly don’t have to give tithes and offerings, to reap most of the rewards of our lifestyle. Volunteerism and educational achievement can be found elsewhere. Social cohesion can be found in many places, including sports leagues, political parties, taverns, and country clubs. And we have struggled in our attempts to capitalize on the significant wisdom we have on a healthful lifestyle. We have in large part lost the marketing edge on this to many other interests and organizations outside of our church. Even the unique properties we placed in our very name, a Sabbath-day rest and an emphasis on Christ’s return, are now ideas and beliefs that many others share.

But what about the more profound needs, wants, and wishes that we identified? Those such as love, freedom, a coherent view of the universe, and a fair and righteous accounting in the end for how we have lived. I believe Adventism is uniquely prepared to address these fundamental human desires, too. In fact, I believe Adventism is the ideal religion for a secular world because, at its best, it emphasizes sanctified reason.

While all Christians share the Great Commission of Christ to go everywhere and make disciples for Him, each church takes a slightly different approach to the assignment. I believe the central Adventist focus is meant to be on the truth about the character and government of God that was revealed by the life and death of Jesus. That He is not the kind of person his enemies have made Him out to be—arbitrary, unforgiving, and severe. That the Father is just as loving and trustworthy as Jesus, just as willing to forgive and heal. That He is mighty and powerful, but equally gracious. That He values nothing higher than the freedom, dignity, and individuality of His intelligent creatures. That He is actively searching for loving, trusting, and trustworthy friends with whom He can share infinite freedom for eternity. And that the results of living a rebellious life are natural consequences, not imposed punishments.1

We have too often focused on “what.” The comprehensive Adventist “package” can be seen as requiring a lot of “whats” from its adherents. It can be very attractive to people with strong wills and over-developed guilt complexes. It’s a great church for people who abstain from everything unhealthful, who, through sheer determination, refrain from sinful activities, who floss every day, and run marathons, attempting to prevent plaque in all the wrong places.

I believe God is more concerned with why. The comprehensive Adventist “package” can then be seen as full of helpful promises rather than grueling demands. Even weak and struggling folks can find rest, health, forgiveness, and freedom. Instead of focusing on a life of work and servitude, it can lead to a life of repose and friendship with God. No force, no guilt, no drudgery. And no fear that God may kill your dog if you do something that displeases Him.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]


See Maxwell, A. Graham (1992). Servants or Friends: Another Look at God. Pineknoll Publications.

24 Jul


The gentleman in Western Tanzania was drop dead drunk, but his dull red eyes brightened. He flashed a toothless grin when he heard I was an Adventist.

“So am I,” he said cheerfully!

He probably was.

The way I see it, it’s a “behaviors versus beliefs” issue. One can behave like an authentic Adventist, or believe like an authentic Adventist, or both.

I consider myself a bit of an expert on authentic Adventist behavior. I’m great at evaluating lifestyles and assessing appearances. It’s an important part of my life as an Adventist. I can observe what you eat and drink, how you dress, what you do on Saturdays and Saturday nights, how and whom you love, and tell, with a great deal of confidence, if you’re behaving like an authentic Adventist. I’m very good at it.

But I would never claim to be an authority on Adventist beliefs.

On the beliefs side, I’m relatively ignorant. Or at least confused. I have limited access and little insight into the hierarchy of all the pronouncements, guidelines, rules, principles, commitments, vows, fundamental beliefs, position statements, and requirements that an Adventist must hold and uphold socially, spiritually, economically, ethically, and theologically to permit me to identify an authentic, belief-based Adventist. It may not even be possible.

Part of the problem is that Adventism apparently is not a single, unified church. The late William Johnsson, editor of the Adventist Review for a quarter century, claimed that there are two different versions of Adventism, while Jon Paulien, the past dean of the Faculty of Religion at Loma Linda University, has identified at least four brands of Adventism. It’s difficult to define authenticity among those in division.

We Adventists come to our present discord, in large part, because of our church history. Our denomination was born in confusion and disagreement. Adventism suffered a “great disappointment” based on a significant misinterpretation of prophecy, and then splintered into numerous Adventist components. The splintered components then fragmented further.

As with many Protestant churches, early Adventists claimed to believe in the “priesthood of all (male) believers.” They also believed in “present truth,” the idea that truth was progressive; dynamic, as opposed to static. This is a formula for fragmentation.

Having a church full of individual “priests” studying the Bible for themselves leads to singular convictions that often result in sharp divisions and disputes among members and between members and leaders. This difficulty was magnified in the group that eventually became the Seventh-day Adventists. There, believers could not only study and view biblical writings differently, but they could also study and interpret the writings of their “prophetess” differently. This led to confusion both inside and outside of the church.

To prevent and suppress such chaotic behavior, most churches adopt a standard creed. Our denomination, however, was founded by leaders who were not just non-credal, they were dogmatically anti-credal. Many of them felt that creeds stifled the work of the Holy Spirit. However, not having a creed, or even a list of fundamental principles or beliefs, made it difficult to “shepherd” the members, and almost impossible to explain to the outside world what it was that they believed.

There was no “officially” pronounced set of fundamental beliefs for more than a century of the church’s existence as an organization. Unofficially, though, in 1872, Uriah Smith, the editor of the church’s leading periodical, published a “Declaration of Fundamental Principles.” He did this, in large part, to address the confusion that reigned in the Christian community regarding what it was that made Adventists different. This unadopted and unofficial list of Adventist principles essentially defined the church and explained its mission until 1931. Unfortunately, it included key items that were not only unorthodox, but they were also seen as being heretical by many non-Adventist Christians.

By 1931, church leadership realized that the “Declarations of Fundamental Principles” were causing Adventism to be seen as a cult. Additionally, requests to clarify our beliefs were coming in from church divisions around the world. In response, a committee was established to produce “a statement of what Seventh-day Adventists believe” to be printed in the church’s Yearbook. It was felt that “such a statement would help government officials and others to a better understanding of our work.”

The committee’s product became known as “The Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists.” This was first presented to the public in the February 19, 1931, edition of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. There was no official church vote on its acceptance, nor was there any apparent push to adopt it as a creed for the denomination. However, it finally offered to the world, and to church members, the articulation of “our faith” in a manner that presumed to reflect an entirely agreed upon system of beliefs. Importantly, it corrected the heretical positions that had been present in the earlier list of principles.

Unfortunately, this document was not widely disseminated, and the odor of heresy and the criticism of being a cult continued to hang over the church.

In 1955 and 1956, a group of Adventist scholars and theologians met with several non-Adventist Evangelical leaders over a period of eighteen months, hammering out answers to a number of questions about our church and its beliefs. This led to the publication, in 1957, of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. This book warmed the hearts of leading American fundamentalist Evangelicals, who finally agreed that Adventists should be admitted into the Christian fold.

Many Adventist theologians who had not been involved in the publication, however, loudly criticized the work. They felt we had surrendered too much of our distinctiveness in purchasing a seat on the bench of so-called Christian orthodoxy. And, although the book was “prepared and authorized” by the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference administration, it was not an “official pronouncement” of the church, as it was never “endorsed or adopted” by the General Conference in session.

Finally, in 1980, at a representative meeting of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in session, the church officially adopted a comprehensive summarization of “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists” in 27 paragraphs. The Bible remained as the church’s only creed, but the church officially now had a statement of the shared beliefs of the community in a form which was structured by subjects which summarized its core tenets. This was in contradistinction to a creed, which has been defined as “a statement of the shared beliefs of a community in a form which is structured by subjects which summarize its core tenets.”

In 2005, a 28th fundamental belief was added to the list to apparently help support and assist perfectionists. This list constitutes the church’s understanding and expression of the teaching of Scripture. The Bible is still our only creed, but we now have an “official” way of identifying, by both beliefs and practices, an “authentic” Adventist.

Or do we?

Sadly, confusion remains, at least among some of us living in the intellectual and theological hinterlands. While we have the 28 fundamental beliefs, there are still two different sets of baptismal vows and dozens of official church position statements that expand on and attempt to clarify the list of beliefs. Knowing which of these statements are authoritative is perplexing, as they have been variously approved by the General Conference Administrative Committee, the General Conference Executive Committee, the General Conference in session, the General Conference Communications Department, and the General Conference Communication Department on behalf of the President’s Office.

Personally, there are some official statements and positions with which I disagree. Fortunately, I have been told by several local pastors and conference officials that one does not have to believe all of the Fundamental Beliefs and official position statements to be an Adventist. But still I worry. Am I authentic? Who has the ultimate right to decide?

Our church includes numerous categories of believers, all of whom are encouraged to spread our beliefs to the world. There are lay members, such as I. There are Bible workers, local pastors, elementary and high school Bible teachers, college and university professors, independent and employed evangelists, and seminary theologians. Additionally, there are local conference officers, union and division administrators, and executives of the General Conference. But not everyone is on the same page. Does the General Conference president speak with more authority regarding our Fundamental Beliefs and positions than does a local Bible worker? How can one be certain?

The official position of the church is that our fundamental beliefs and doctrines are given the formal imprimatur of the church when the Adventist General Conference is in session, with accredited delegates from the whole world field present. These General Conference in session meetings occur every five years. Perhaps the safest thing to do is to wait until 2025, when, hopefully, we’ll once again find out what it is that “authentic” Adventists believe. Until then, however, I’ll just keep spreading my own little list of present truths! I am, after all, an authentic (male) priest.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]

24 Apr


My church is infallible.

Well, at least it’s in-fall-able.

We have been promised that “the church may appear as about to fall, but it does not fall.” 1

But why even talk about failure, or falling? We are one of the fastest growing and most diverse religious denominations in the world. We have the largest Protestant educational system and the largest Protestant healthcare system in the world. Our members, at least in North America, live 10 years longer, on average, than the typical American. One of our members ran for U.S. president and served in a presidential cabinet position. A major Hollywood movie about another one of our members won numerous national and international film awards, including two Academy Awards. We Adventists are doing quite well, thank you.

And yet….

Many of the local churches with which I am acquainted seem to be living on life support, and “two radically different versions of Adventism are competing for the future” 2 of the church.

Perhaps it would be well for us to remember that “the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” 3

I believe culture is basic to the conditions that are threatening our church.

Culture is a society’s way of life. It includes its art, its music, its theology, its manners, its food, its dress, its language, its entertainment, its customs, and its standards of morality. The scope of a culture may be worldwide, or may include an entire hemisphere, a geographical region, a single country, a business, a religious organization, a small group, or even a single family.

Cultures are also constantly at war, at least since the Middle Ages, when we have the deceptive sense that there was some level of cultural tranquility. Subsequently, however, there has been constant tension in almost every society between what we may call a conservative view, with those who wish for things to remain as they are, or to even retreat into the safe, warm bosom of the past, and what we may call a progressive outlook, made up of those who are consistently agitating for change. I believe these two divergent views clearly describe the two versions of Adventism that are currently competing for the future of our church.

The conservative cry is, “We have abandoned the faith of our forefathers! We must nail down and stand firm on the principles of truth!” The response of the progressives is, “We are still here. ‘Had the church of Christ done her appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would before this have been warned, and the Lord Jesus would have come to our earth in power and great glory.’ 4 Change is necessary and we must constantly be alert to revealed present truth.”

To the progressive, “knowledge is elusive and mistakenness the inescapable human condition.” 5 To the hard-core conservative, “there is one clear truth in the world and many liars. The other side is not merely wrong, it is lying … The very best you can say about people who deny obvious truth is that they are … ‘willfully naïve.’ ” 6

Despite those who fight change, culture is constantly changing, and that change is bi-directional—smaller groups influence larger groups, and vice versa. While most religions attempt to change the culture around them, many groups are more worried about how the larger culture of “the world” will impact their members, especially their young people. This is especially true in small groups, but can also be true in larger ones, even entire countries. China, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan historically limited or excluded foreigners from entering their countries in attempts to preserve their religions and unique cultures. Conversely, many non-religious people now worry that the cultures of religious organizations in America are impacting them and their families in ways they feel are detrimental to their way of life.

The Seventh-day Adventist church is a worldwide organization, and the overall culture of the church varies from country to country. Although there are wide variations in what is considered necessary or allowable in each of the following categories, I believe there are six principal arenas of social life that are commonly found among cultural Adventists: an abiding interest in healthful living; an impetus for a witnessing ministry, including the healthcare ministry; a strong motivation for educational achievement; a traditional standard of morality; an awareness of last-day events; and a reverence for the seventh-day Sabbath.

In each of these areas, we have had significant impacts on the culture of the world. Vegetarianism and veganism are now viewed as integral parts of a healthy lifestyle. Our hospitals and health facilities for many years provided the best health care available in many countries. Governmental leaders and politicians around the world have been educated in our schools or raised in our churches. Our official stance on the inability for women to be ordained and the perception of a growing acceptance of Headship Theology in the church continues to impact our society. And the two doctrinal beliefs highlighted in our very name, the second coming of Christ and the value of a Sabbath-like rest, have moved from being obscure theological ideas to widely appreciated principles in many religious denominations.

It could be argued, however, that the greatest influence our church has had on the culture of the world has come from two unlikely sources—the music of Little Richard and the dietary innovations of John Harvey Kellogg. Richard Penniman, professionally known as Little Richard, strongly influenced popular music and laid the foundation for the rock and roll music that has inspired rock groups and young people around the world since the 1950s. John Harvey Kellogg’s inventions changed the world’s eating habits with his breakfast cereals and, at least in America, the vital ingredient in peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

Adventism, however, was not primarily founded to introduce the world to Long,Tall Sally, or to help the world enjoy peanut butter. Our ultimate mission should be like the mission of Jesus—to provide the world with a clear revelation of the character of God.

When the object of his mission was attained—the revelation of God to the world—the Son of God announced that his ork was accomplished, and that the character of the Father was made manifest to man.7

To help us with our mission, we were given some cultural aids: guidance on a healthy lifestyle, a health-care ministry, an educational ministry, a Sabbath-like rest, a prophetic voice, and a cosmic picture of God’s activities for the salvation of his creatures. This includes a somewhat nebulous timeline to help prepare the world for the “soon” Second Coming of Christ. These aids have, to a large degree, helped form our unique church culture.

We as a church have benefited from these cultural aids. We are a healthy church. We are a health-giving church. We are a well-educated church. We are a diverse church. We are a prophetic church. We are a growing church.

All these things are good, in and of themselves, but they are not, and never were meant to be, our ultimate mission. They were intended to be useful in helping us achieve our ultimate mission, but too often they have distracted us from that mission. We are famous for being the best or the largest in many arenas, but I have never yet had anyone tell me that our church has the best picture of the character of God that they have ever seen. No one has ever told me that they believe our church exhibits the greatest ability to love others unconditionally and disinterestedly that they have ever experienced.

Christ was clear about how the world would be able to recognize his followers. This is how all men will know that you are my disciples, because you have such love for one another (John 13:35, J.B. Phillips translation). Until it can honestly be said of us that we are a healthy church because we love, that we are a health-giving church because we love, that we are a well-educated church because we love, that we are a diverse church because we love, that we are a prophetic church because we love, and that we are a growing church because we love, the world has every right to look away from us because they do not recognize that we are followers of Christ.

And until we preach the gospel, the best of all good news, that the character of God the Father is just like Jesus showed it to be, we will continue to be just another cymbal in the cacophony of the world’s culture.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Adventist Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]

1  White, Ellen G.  Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 380.

2  Johnsson, W. G. (2017). Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio. Oak and Acorn Publishing.

3  White, Ellen G. Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 67.

4  White, Ellen G. The Desire of Ages, p. 633-634.

5  Rauch, J. (2013). Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. The University of Chicago Press.

6  Ibid (p. 107).

7  White, Ellen G.  Signs of the Times, January 20, 1890.

31 Jan


I never felt I was bad enough to be a minister.

I’m not saying I was a saint, nor am I claiming to have been a choirboy, but I never did drugs, never joined a gang, never killed anybody, didn’t smoke, drink, or abuse sex, and never lived like a hippie in a cave.

When I was younger, these types of experiences seemed to be prerequisites for joining the clergy, at least as a youth pastor or an evangelist. Having been redeemed from such habits and lifestyles provided opportunities for emotional testimonials that apparently enhanced evangelical effectiveness. They gave hope to the hopeless. They also seemed to help build careers in church administration.

There was something else about these folks. Many of the most enthusiastic Christians had the most colorful histories. The most passionate sinners became the most zealous saints. Perhaps pendulums retain their basic nature at both ends of their arcs.

My spiritual life was boring. I didn’t have an exciting redemption story, or even an interesting conversion. My experience was more like the one Christ described to Nicodemus. The Spirit came into my life periodically, like a quiet wind. I didn’t hear it coming, wasn’t sure from where it came, and couldn’t always see where it was leading. It’s hard to give a moving testimonial or preach a powerful sermon about an event for which one can’t “tell the exact time or place” it occurred and can’t “trace all the circumstances in the process.” 1  

So instead, I went into medicine. 

The medical specialty I chose contains addiction medicine as a subspecialty. My coursework included training and preparation for the provision of prevention, evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment services for those with unhealthy substance use or substance-related health conditions.

But no one really understands addiction. To comprehend addiction accurately and intelligently, one would have to have a complete understanding of the human brain and all of its genetic and social influences. While progress is being made in understanding the brain, we’re far closer to the beginning of the search than we are to the end.

Speaking of addiction, Dylan Thomas said that “an alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” 

Here, though, is a better working definition of addiction:

“Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. Prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases.” 2

This suggests that human behaviors fall on a spectrum of habits and life activities that at some point can “become compulsive and continue despite harmful consequences.” Exactly where on that spectrum an individual passes from “normal” into addiction can’t be predicted and seems to differ for each person. The definition also proposes that addiction is influenced by both genetics and environment and involves complex neural circuits in the brain. 

The human brain is, arguably, the most complicated, intricate, and marvelous object on earth. It weighs about three pounds, feels a bit like tofu, and is about 80 percent water. It only experiences the world as a stream of electrical pulses and chemical interactions. And yet your brain, with its billions of nerve cells and trillions of cellular connections, is the site of your personality, your mind, your sexuality, your spirituality, your emotions, your memories, your thoughts, your sensations, your decisions, your impulses, your will, and much more. As Bill Bryson has said in describing the human body, “Your brain is you. All the rest is plumbing and scaffolding.” 3 

There are a limited number of neurotransmitters, though, which means each one stimulates many of our brain’s diverse functions. Dopamine is one neurotransmitter that has been extensively studied. It influences desire, creativity, meaning, planning, learning, memory, aggression, motivation, and judgment. It also interacts with circuits related to control, spirituality, sexual activity, impulsivity, and general pleasure. Dopamine has, in fact, been called the pleasure molecule, but perhaps a more appropriate term for it is “the molecule of more.” 4 It always pushes for more and never accepts the current situation as being adequate. It is a major actor in addiction. 

Without knowing anything about neurotransmitters, many authors have recognized addictive personality traits and the interplay of ostensibly conflicting systems and circuits in the brain. “Sex and religion are bordering states. They use the same vocabulary, share like ecstasies, and serve as substitutes for one another.” 5  “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another) … .” 6 “In religious fervor, there is a touch of animal heat.” 7 “Whatsoever odd action they (religious zealots) find in themselves a strong inclination to do, that impulse is concluded to be a call or direction from heaven, and must be obeyed; it is a commission from above, and they cannot err in executing it.” 8 Our professor of bioethics at medical school used to tell of a young man who preyed upon young women at religious revivals. He had found that their emotionally charged spiritual enthusiasm also decreased their moral inhibitions.

We usually talk about addiction to substances, and this process has commonly identified steps. First, one is exposed to a substance that brings great pleasure or relief. Then one begins to crave, use, and finally, abuse it. They become physically or psychologically dependent on it. Gradually, the dosage of the substance must increase for them to get the same effect. And, finally, the substance becomes the controlling object in their life. They continue to abuse it despite adverse consequences in their health, their family, their job, their finances, and their social interactions.

We also, however, now talk about addictive behaviors. We speak of addictions to things like sex, gambling, shopping, video games, plastic surgery, and even religion. Behaviors and addiction intersect at the point in our definition which states, “People with addiction … engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

Foundational to the whole process of addiction, however, are important players that we sometimes overlook—those who provide, and usually push, the addictive substances and behaviors on vulnerable and often unsuspecting populations. These have been called addiction supply industries. They include such entities as drug cartels, cigarette companies, alcohol producers, pornography and video game creators, casinos, sports betting companies, and many others.

The concept of addiction supply industries raises some potentially disturbing questions about addictive behavior and religion. We may agree that addiction to religion happens, but we like to think that such characteristics are limited to cults, such as the People’s Temple at Jonestown in Guyana, Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe, California, or the Branch Davidians at the Waco massacre in Texas. A closer look at all religious behavior, however, reveals some common features with other addictions. 

The promise, hope, and communion of religion provides pleasure to many, as well as relief from guilt and pain. Some adherents learn to crave it, use it, abuse it, and eventually become dependent on it. It may take control of someone’s life, and many religious communities require a complete surrender of the will. 

There are also many examples of pious preoccupations with religion producing severely adverse social and personal consequences. The religious leaders in Christ’s day hurried home to keep the Sabbath after having crucified the Creator of the Sabbath. In 1989, a 14-year-old son in a Seventh-day Adventist family died of starvation when his father refused to buy food with the thousands of dollars he had on hand because they were reserved for tithe.9 

Most of us would say such fanatical, addictive behavior is a sign of mental illness, but does the Church bear any responsibility? I would argue that it does. In my experience, some authorities in the Church have implied that an almost worshipful adherence to tithing, diet, baptism, temperance, and the hours of the Sabbath is required, even at the risk of the health and wellbeing of their members. Sometimes addiction supply industries do awful things out of sincere and apparently benevolent beliefs. But the Bible stresses freedom, which does not call for addictive behavior, even toward God, and Christ made it clear that pious behavior should never take precedence over the basic needs of humanity.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected] 

1 White, Ellen G., The Desire of Ages, p. 172.

2 Definition adopted by the American Society of Addiction Medicine Board of Directors, Sept. 15, 2019. (Used with permission.)

3 Bryson, Bill. The Body: A Guide for Occupants. New York: Anchor Books, 2019.

4 Lieberman, Daniel Z. and Long, Michael E. The Molecule of More. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2018.

5 West, Jessamyn. Hide and Seek. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

6 Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960.

7 Whitman, Walt. The New Religion.

8 Locke, Jonathan. Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689.

9 https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-02-19-mn-170-story.html 

21 Oct


I didn’t win the $1.337 billion Mega Millions lottery.

I’ll bet you didn’t either.

I would assume, though, that many of us played the “what if…” game.

The first thing I would do if I won a huge lottery, of course, would be to pay my tithe and give a generous offering to the church. I have been assured by more than one pastor that the church would gladly accept my ill-gotten gains.

Next, I’d take care of my children and grandchildren. I like Warren Buffett’s philosophy on this–give them “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”

Then I’d work on building a bigger library in my basement.

Finally, I’d probably tell my wife I’d won some money, just to see if there was anything she wanted.

I don’t think anybody really expects to win the lottery, but it is fun to play “what if….”

Well, “what if…” you could significantly change, or even start the Adventist church all over again today? I mean it in the sense that an appellate court hears a case de novo.  That means that as we play this mental game, in addition to what we know now, we assume we have all the knowledge and understanding available to us that were present when the church was originally established, but we start again, brand new.

The world has changed dramatically since our church was founded, but has the church?  Should it?

In the mid- to late-1800s, the birth and growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was powerfully influenced by the current events. Notwithstanding renewed interest in the second coming of Christ, manifested most prominently in America by William Miller and his date-specific predictions, the predominant Christian belief was in the imminent establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth, with the promise of a thousand years of righteousness, peace, and prosperity.

The knowledge of medicine was rudimentary. Most medical facilities were tuberculosis sanitaria, or glorified health spas for the rich and famous. Most “educated” physicians were the products of relatively short courses at proprietary diploma mills.

Poverty and civil unrest in the new Kingdom of Italy, and the Potato Famine in Ireland, sent a wave of unwelcome Roman Catholic immigrants to the “Protestant” United States. In 1888, the American Sabbath Union was formed by representatives from major Protestant denominations (It continues as The Lord’s Day Alliance and is an ecumenical Christian first-day Sabbatarian organization that lobbies for the passage of Sunday-rest laws). It had some very powerful congressional champions in the late 1800s.

Into this environment came a new church. It addressed these social, political, and theological positions aggressively, but not always winsomely. It espoused the soon return of Christ, a radical dietary and health message, and the seventh day of the week as the true biblical Sabbath. It accused the Roman Catholic Church and “apostate” Protestantism of attempting to break down the wall of separation between church and state. This defiant organization had the temerity to clothe itself in the mantle of the Three Angels’ Message of Revelation, and to call itself the Remnant Church. It claimed it did so with the endorsement of a last-day prophet.

In response, mainstream denominations labelled it a legalistic, quasi-Christian cult.

Religion in America is much more diverse today. The three major religious traditions in most states are Catholicism, white evangelical Protestantism, and the religiously unaffiliated. The controversial theological and political issues facing many churches are now same-sex marriage, abortion, the role of women in ministry, public funding of private religious schools, and immigration reform. To many of the unchurched, “Christianity” and “evangelical” are words of contempt and derision.

How has Adventism responded to these changes?

It really hasn’t. It appears that the things for which we are still best known to the public, in no particular order, are: (1) an emphasis on last-day events, the second coming of Christ, and a day of judgment; (2) a concentration on health; (3) worshipping on Saturday instead of Sunday; and (4) having a founding prophet.

For the most part, those to whom I speak think we Adventists make good neighbors, but they are rather confused about Adventism. They usually know about our hospital systems. They believe we are all non-smoking, teetotalling vegetarians. They know little about our religious beliefs, and are either unaware of, or are too polite to mention, our rather embarrassing beginnings. A few still aren’t sure if we’re Christian. The majority vaguely remember that we had a prophet, but they’re not sure if it was Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy.

So, what if…?

This game is not new, nor is it original with me. Many Adventist thought leaders have been playing it for years. George Knight and William G. Johnsson, among others, have written extensively on the subject. If you haven’t heard, or read, some of their reflections and projections, it is probably because they are so painful that they have not been widely disseminated. It is not easy to admit we might need to change, or that we are a deeply divided church. Change implies error, which is particularly embarrassing for us.  We have boasted for years about our “remnancy” and have preached that we are the ones who will in perfect unity finally and perfectly reflect the character of Christ to the world.

When we speak about possible flaws in today’s Adventist church, we usually focus on organizational, administrative, or doctrinal issues. But if I could change the Adventist church, I wouldn’t start by changing its fundamental beliefs (much) or its administrative and organizational structure (much). I also wouldn’t begin by addressing the major controversial religious and political issues facing Christianity today. While each of those arenas may need to eventually be addressed, I believe our primary problem is much more basic–we are viscerally afraid of God.

We whistle in the dark, and pretend we are not really afraid, but our presentations of last-day events, the day of judgment, Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary, the second coming of Christ, and the final destruction of the wicked are dripping with fear.  In the short term, fear may work well as a motivator, and may be necessary for immediate survival. Over a longer period, however, it is usually detrimental to performance, relationships, and well-being. A constant state of fear causes chronic stress, and eventually either breaks one’s body and spirit or leads to a complete disregard of important warnings. We’ve all heard recalcitrant smokers say, “Well, we’re all going to die of something, it might as well be lung cancer.”

If I could change the church, I would change its focus.

I would focus it on what Jesus said His mission was. Both the Bible and our prophet claim He came to show us the true character of the Father. That was the basic problem of sin in the first place—we, as creatures, did not trust God or believe He had our best interests at heart. The serpent in the garden claimed the Creator had lied to us, and that He was holding us back from our full inherent potential. We literally fell for the shiny object–a beautiful, shimmering, miraculously talking snake. Since then, because of our lack of trust in God, we have taken the gifts He gave us to help reconcile us back to Him and have legalistically either turned them into heavy ritualistic burdens or made them into objects of worship themselves.

The legalistic solution to this problem is to attempt to either appease our angry God or somehow buy His forgiveness. The biblical solution is to learn to trust Him.

To trust God, we must first find Him trustworthy. This was Christ’s whole mission on earth. In the upper room, Christ reminded the disciples that in His life and work on earth, He had irrefutably revealed the loving and trustworthy character of the Father to the universe. Moreover, He told them He was going to die as if He was a sinner to demonstrate that the Father had not lied about sin leading to death. If this led us back to trust, there was no need for us to die.

Our primary mission should be spreading the Good News that God can be trusted and that He is searching for friends whom He, in turn, can unconditionally trust for eternity with infinite freedom. To become such friends, we must believe that He can heal all that is wrong with us. That is a promising message of love, and love obliterates fear.

It might be well for us Adventists to remember that we are not the first Sabbath-keeping, tithe-paying, Bible-believing people with rigorous dietary restrictions and prophetic “proof” that we are God’s special people. I imagine there were many colorful, wall-sized charts, graphs, and beast-filled illustrations predicting a glorious future for Israel that went up in flames in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at [email protected]

01 Jun


“Where hustle’s the name of the game…” 1

I don’t remember his name, but he represented a well-known Adventist evangelistic ministry, and had some amazing facts to share with our church in Wyoming.

He was also surprisingly candid. When I questioned the purpose of his frequent use of altar calls, he told me, “I use altar calls to show the congregation that I am in control. It forces them to decide. It builds my confidence, and it gives them confidence in my ministry.” His breathtaking honesty was both refreshing and disturbing. It wasn’t clear to me that he appreciated all that he had revealed.

In another small town where we lived for several years, Adventism had a rather mixed reputation. There were fewer than ten members in the church, and most of them were known as kind, generous, and hard-working farmers, and ranchers. One member, however, had taken on the self-appointed burden of community evangelist and watchman. Almost every Sabbath afternoon, he could be found going door-to-door, handing out literature, to ensure that the blood of his neighbors would not be required at his hand (Ezekiel 33:8).

His approach was rather unconventional. He would move toward each door with caution to avoid detection, and once it was opened, he would insert his foot to make sure it couldn’t be closed. If the literature was refused, he would attempt to toss it through the door frame before he left. One more “wicked” family had been warned! He may also have been the inspiration for Neighborhood Watch, for as soon as he was spotted in a neighborhood, the phone lines would come alive with warnings of a different kind.

The world of evangelism has had its fair share of obnoxious folks. In 1926, Sinclair Lewis’s satirical novel, Elmer Gantry, chronicled the exploits of one fictional evangelist, based on real-life examples. It was so critical of American evangelism that it was banned in several cities and denounced from pulpits across the country. It became a best-seller. In the mid-twentieth century, Marjoe Gortner and his family ran a well-documented evangelistic con game. Marjoe began preaching on the sawdust circuit at the age of four, and he estimated that his family had taken in more than three million dollars by the time he was sixteen. Watching some of today’s televangelists, especially those espousing the prosperity gospel, one sees similarities to Elmer Gantry and Marjoe Gortner. Creflo Dollar, a well-known televangelist, asked his followers to each donate $300 so he could raise $65 million to buy a Gulfstream G650 twin-engine jet airplane, not necessarily for his benefit, but so that they would receive a blessing by giving. He got his jet.

This “in-your-face” quality is not rare among evangelists. To make a “sale,” some feel they must apply pressure and exhibit a high degree of confidence in themselves and their product. The faster they talk, the louder their conversation, and apparently, the more outrageous their claims, the more likely it is that they will be successful.

One son and nephew of Adventist evangelists referenced this characteristic when he said that he and his brother also tried to become an evangelistic team. They gave it up, however, when they realized that, to be successful, they would have to become the kind of persons most people don’t want to be around. Oswald Chambers described this characteristic as pseudo-evangelism, and said it requires “that you must be on the watch all the time and lose no opportunity of speaking to people…. It does not produce a disciple of Jesus, but too often, it produces the kind of person who smells of gunpowder and people are afraid of meeting….”

I have found in conversations with classmates and others of my generation that many of us have a rather negative view of evangelism. We feel we were manipulated in our youth by professional evangelists playing on our emotions. I cannot remember how many times, usually after a rousing sermon on the Judgment or Last-day Events, with the heat turned up, the lights turned low, and the piano playing softly in the background, a silky-voiced week of prayer speaker, or itinerant evangelist, challenged us with, “While every head is bowed, and every eye is closed, is there just one more who would like to give their heart to Jesus?  Thank you, Jesus! Just one more?”

Every eye was not closed, and over the coming weeks, we would closely watch our colleagues who had yielded, to see how sincere the conversion had been. Such manipulative methods are a type of spiritual and psychological force, based on fear and emotionalism, and “while force may secure outward submission, the result with many…is a more determined rebellion of the heart.” 2 This we frequently observed.

But didn’t Christ call on all His followers to be evangelists? Yes, yes, He did. He was very clear on that point, and I know that many of our professional evangelists have the best of intentions in their actions and methods. They have a sincere desire to save the lost, and many of them approach their work in a very Christlike manner.

So, what did Christ ask of us, and what were His methods that we might imitate?

Here, in my modern paraphrase, is what He asked His disciples to do: “Before the end comes, this good news will be preached in all the world, so go everywhere and teach everyone to obey the command I’ve given you: love one another.” (Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19, 20; John 13:34)

Some Adventist evangelists seem to have adopted the methods of commercial salesmen and other evangelical denominations because [those methods] seem to be so successful. But Christ’s method of approaching people with the truth was much less elaborate and aggressive than many we see today. He did not apologetically chase after the aggrieved rich young ruler, but sadly, because He “loved him,” watched him walk away from salvation. After a special request, He secretively met late at night with Nicodemus, who was too embarrassed to be seen with God in public and was too proud to make his decision for Christ until after His crucifixion. He did not try to evangelize the two thieves on the cross, but waited for one to show interest. He then responded with loving acceptance.

He seemed to have more respect for the freedom of choice of His creatures, and more trust in the working of the Holy Spirit, than we apparently have today.

The closest example of an altar call that I can find in His ministry was His call to, “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, GNT). There was no fearful or emotional appeal. No heated room with low-lit lights. No soft piano or choir in the background, and no pressure to make an immediate decision.

By definition, evangelism must be good news, and by Christ’s command, it must result in love for one another. Fear is not good news. Love cannot be forced, controlled by another, or manipulated. Neither can the Holy Spirit.

Mark Johnson is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at [email protected]


1 Weiss, Larry, Rhinestone Cowboy.

2 White, Ellen G., Child Guidance, p. 210.

28 Mar


By Mark Johnson … “Why are you so loyal to the Church?”

This question was recently asked of me by my father, whose journey into and out of Adventism over a 97-year period makes an interesting case study.

He was not being critical or cynical. He was not necessarily being complimentary. He was just comparing the similarities and differences in our experiences with the organization.

I had no ready answer for him but after some thought,

I have concluded that there is one main reason why I have remained in the Church while he has chosen to leave. He was raised in an era when Adventists were not “allowed” to ask questions, and I was blessed with parents, pastors, and teachers who encouraged them (my father was led to believe the Church wouldn’t, or couldn’t, seriously address his issues and concerns, while I have discovered a robust and cohesive theology, hidden away in Adventist teachings, that makes a great deal of sense to me).

Paradoxically, while my father marvels at my loyalty, others have wondered if I am a real Adventist.

A church is recognized by its beliefs and behaviors. Beliefs are determined through the processes of exegesis and hermeneutics, and these beliefs then lead to certain behaviors among the members. Those who doubt a church’s use of exegesis and hermeneutics, are skeptics. If one disagrees with a church’s beliefs, they are a heretic. If one flouts a church’s behaviors, they are rebellious.

Rebels send the message to the youth and weaker members of a church that the rules of the carefully cultivated lifestyle are irrelevant. This threatens social disintegration. Thus, the community must act to stigmatize dissent.

But it is so easy to be a rebel in the Adventist Church! There are so many rules to break!

As a young man growing up in a small-town Adventist church and school, I subconsciously categorized my class- mates’ families by how strictly they adhered to the Adventist “blueprint.” The best Adventist families had a mother and a father who were still in their first marriage; they did not, however, wear wedding rings to prove it, nor did they wear any jewelry; they claimed to believe in the Bible as the only rule of faith, but they also tended to include the writings of Ellen G. White; they regularly attended and actively participated in the weekly church services; they did not work, eat out, or do anything personally pleasurable on Sabbath; they did not go to the theater, nor did they dance; they had daily family worship, reading from the annual Adventist devotional books and the Sabbath School lesson quarterlies; they were vegetarian; they did not smoke; they did not drink alcohol, coffee, tea or cola; the females dressed modestly and behaved with appropriately-subdued decorum; the males had crewcut or flat-top haircuts and took strong leadership roles; the children went to Adventist schools; they denied being legalistic, but the attitude of “give me another law and I’ll keep it,” was frequently encountered; and, those of appropriate age voted a straight (in both meanings of the word) Republican ticket (I did not meet an Adventist who was openly a Democrat until I was in college, or a gay or lesbian Adventist until many years later).

Unconditional and disinterested love was a concept we heartily endorsed, but just as vigorously ignored.

The clearest way to express rebellion in the Church was by smoking. Alcohol use was a close second. These behaviors essentially signaled to other members that you no longer wished to be considered an Adventist. Many of the rest of the rules could be breached in ways that conveyed individuality without showing an unacceptable level of open defiance. In those halcyon days of communal naivete, one could retain membership, though draw a great deal of criticism, by wearing earrings, or short skirts, or Beatle-length hair, or by swimming on Sabbath, or publicly drinking a CokeTM or going to see something like The Sound of Music in a movie theater.

Over time, the level of rebelliousness attributed to various questionable behaviors waxed and waned. In college, the stigma of movie-going had become rather passé, but the length of my hair was of very great concern. Also, the attitudes and guidelines around sexual behaviors took on a much greater emphasis.

Heresy takes more work than rebellion. It begins with a skeptical attitude of doubt, but it requires a fairly in-depth understanding of doctrine to achieve. For Adventists, the most common source of heresy is uncertainty surrounding inspiration. While several pastors have told me one does not need to believe in the inspired writings of Ellen G. White to be a good Adventist, her pronouncements are so intertwined in our basic beliefs and doctrines that it is a very difficult position to balance successfully. It has been my experience that most members who lose faith in the inspiration of Ellen G. White eventually see little reason to remain in the denomination.

While many members may rebel against the apparently rigid rules found in some of Ellen G. White’s writings, I believe that true heretical dissent in the Church comes mainly from a resistance to her views of what happened on the cross. C. S. Lewis stated that “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter.” I would argue that theories as to why Christ had to die are also important matters.

In large part, it is these atonement models that separate denominations from one another and differentiate heresy from orthodoxy in the Adventist Church. While many of us may focus on those things that we think make us different, such as our beliefs on a recent creation, the gift of prophecy, Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary, the meaning of the Sabbath, the nature of man in death, the role of the remnant and the end of sinners, I believe the crux (Latin for “cross”) of the problem that ultimately divides us is what we believe happened on the cross and why.

I do not have the space here to explore the various atonement models, but suffice it to say, it has been

my experience that most evangelical Christians and Adventists agree that the importance of the cross is that by shedding His blood, Christ somehow bought forgiveness from sin for those who accept His sacrifice, thus granting them a path to eternal salvation and keeping them from the fires of hell. This is basic Reformation theology, and it may be wonderfully good news for sinners.

My reading of the Bible, Ellen G. White, and some leading Adventist theologians, however, has led me in a slightly different direction. It has been called a heretical direction by some. I believe that my personal salvation is not of primary importance to the rest of the universe. It was not the principal reason for Christ’s mission to earth. It is, however, a wonderful by-product of His infinite goodness. Christ came primarily to reveal and vindicate the character of God. This needed to be done to answer the questions that had led to the rebellion of sin in the first place: Can God be trusted? Does He truly love His creatures? Does sin really lead to death? What is God’s role in the death of sinners? Are His methods and motives as benevolent as He claims them to be? Can the universe truly be governed on the principle of love? What difference does it make why we obey Him, just as long as we do?

The problem, as I see it, is not with our fundamental beliefs. It is in how we emphasize and present them.

Every Adventist I know claims to love Jesus and supports justification by the righteousness of Christ as revealed on the cross and agrees that the preeminence of the character of God is vital and sees the importance of an orderly universe governed by the laws of God, including the Sabbath.

But there are at least two streams of Adventism. Each stream accepts our fundamental beliefs but presents a very different picture to the world of what we claim to believe. One group appears to value mercy and the unconditional, disinterested love of God for all fallen humanity. They believe that the truth spoken in love is God’s only instrument of persuasion and healing. The other group appears to worship a God of fearful judgment. They believe that the truth presented with terrifying images of apocalyptic beasts and final destruction is the best way to achieve conversions.

While our theology must account for both mercy and judgment, we do not worship a two-faced God. Fear is used to manipulate and control. Love casts out fear. Skep- tic, rebel, and heretic that I am, count me in the group that believes in unconditional love, even in judgment.

–Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at: [email protected]

06 Jan


By Dr. Mark Johnson … My wife and I were in the mountains, driving back from visiting my aging father.  Our 6-year-old granddaughter, who currently lives with us, had called to share her concerns.  My daughter soon got on the line and informed us that it appeared that there was a house on fire in the adjoining neighborhood, and the smoke was so bad that she was leaving the house with her two daughters.

At this point, the conversation was interesting but not too worrisome.  Perhaps there was a house fire in the neighborhood, but the fire department should soon have it under control.

The next call shook us to the very core.  “I’m on the highway, and all I can see is flames on both sides of the road!  The smoke is so black and thick that I can’t see anything else!  I don’t know what to do!  I’m afraid we might be hit by another car!  Wait, I’ve got to go!”  The line went dead.

By now, you can surmise that my daughter and granddaughters were caught in the middle of the worst wildfire in suburban Colorado history.  Fortunately, the reason she had hung up was because she saw a Highway Patrol car flashing its lights and going down the wrong side of the highway.  She did a rapid U-turn and followed it out of the conflagration.

Our story is just one of thousands that occurred on December 29, 2021.  Many of the stories are nothing but miraculous.  The fire, driven by hurricane-force winds, moved so fast and at times in such a random fashion that many had only minutes to grab a few precious items and flee their homes.  Almost a thousand of those homes were destroyed.  So were many businesses.

The physical damage from the fire is obvious.  Whole neighborhoods have disappeared, and thousands have been displaced.  But the social and mental health costs of such devastating events is harder to observe and measure, and on the surface, can appear contradictory.

Research on the after-effects of disasters shows some interesting and, at times alarming, trends.  After natural disasters, marriage rates go up slightly, but so do divorce rates.  However, after man-made disasters, the divorce rate tends to drop!  It is thought that the responses differ between disasters that have a relatively small loss of life but a great deal of physical damage and those that have a relatively small amount of physical damage but a larger loss of life.  If that is true, we can expect to see both the marriage rate and the divorce rate rise after the Marshall Fire.

Suicides may also increase after disasters with an increased rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  However, data shows increases in suicide after earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes, but not after tornadoes or severe storms.  Suicide rates are high among firefighters, though, and may also increase among first responders and health care workers after a disaster.

In summation, it is difficult to predict what the behavioral health effects will be on any group or individual after a disaster such as the Marshall Fire.  We should, however, be aware of the tremendous stress that occurs and be ready to assist friends, family members, coworkers, and acquaintances who have recently undergone such a traumatic event.  And while none of us who are not behavioral health experts should in any way attempt to treat those experiencing symptoms, experts say that it is healthy, in a safe and compassionate atmosphere, for them to talk about the traumatic experience through which they have lived.

–Dr. Mark Johnson is a member of Boulder Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Johnsons live in Louisville, Colorado; photo by Diane Johnson

29 Sep


By Mark Johnson — A painted line ran down the middle of the sidewalk in the center of the school campus. “This line separates the boys’ side from the girls’ side,” our student guide explained. “The boys walk on that side of the sidewalk, and that is their side of the campus. The girls stay on this other side.”

Our family was visiting one of our Church’s boarding academies in the 1960s, looking at potential schools for my sister and me. “That has got to be the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” I thought to myself.

Unfortunately, it was not to remain so.

I didn’t attend that school, but over the next few years I attended four different Adventist academies and an Adventist college. Each of them had their own unique set of rules, customs and regulations. Based on those, it seemed to me that the main purpose of most Adventist schools was not necessarily to ensure a high level of education, but to safeguard their students from being “conformed to the world”, mainly by keeping the boys away from the girls* and by keeping all of them away from drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

The weirdest example of this I found at a boarding school for missionaries’ kids high in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. They had a system of one-star, two-star and three-star social events. For a one-star event, you could invite the girl of your choice. As I recall, there were only two one-star events during the entire school year. For two-star events you could invite anyone except the girl of your choice (the faculty was occasionally fooled because it was difficult to know who was dating whom in such an atmosphere), and for a three-star event, you were either assigned a date, or you rotated, and spent time with each of the girls (except your girlfriend) during the event. It was really weird.

This archaic process made more sense when I learned that there had been several student pregnancies in the preceding years, but it still felt weird. It also highlights the notorious, but not unique, problem that Christians seem to have with sex. The unchurched love to gossip about the sexual exploits of prominent, fallen Christian clergymen and women, but research in neuroscience using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) may help to explain this apparent hypocrisy. It has identified an area in the brain that activates and rewards highly emotional experiences, whether they are induced by drugs, music, sex or religion. Thus, for someone whose religious life is highly emotional, the rewards they receive from their spiritual and sexual lives may be indistinguishable. This can be problematic in relationships.

As a child, it hadn’t taken long to learn that our Church was different. We worshipped on a different day than most others, we played Rook™ instead of poker, and we went to our own separate schools. Officially, we didn’t eat many of the foods others ate, we didn’t drink many of the things others drank, we didn’t dance, we didn’t smoke, and we frowned on the use of makeup and jewelry. To top it all off, we had our own somewhat iconoclastic female prophet.

By socially clustering together, we tended to camouflage our differences, at least from ourselves. We seemed to believe that isolation would provide insulation from temptations and from “outsiders.” This produced our own cultural hierarchy and status symbols. We had our own magazines and books. We had our own television shows, record labels and recording “stars.” We had our own food companies, making many food products that only weird people seemed to enjoy. We had our own youth groups. We had rather inward-looking church congregations and we “partied” with ourselves for Saturday night entertainment.

There were some among us, however, who stood out as being particularly odd. In the church of my youth, there was a family in which the mother and girls always wore long-sleeved blouses, with pants under their skirts and dresses. There was a couple who ate so much garlic that you needed to stand upwind, and, there were rail-thin “nuts and berries” folks who seemed to be constantly dyspeptic but smugly believed they would live forever. They had a special scowl of disapproval for the young people of the congregation.

There were also those folks who just looked and talked weird. They always included a, “happy Sabbath,” or a “thank the Lord,” even if you were talking about something as secular as football. They seemed happy, and were typically friendly, with a personality that some have called “Midwest nice”, but it appeared that their highest form of humor consisted of corny stories. They seemed to feel that using painful puns made them clever. Their personae often came across as being more pleasantly plastic than human. Unfortunately, many of our pastors fell into this category.

We actually took pride in being weird. We believed we had “the truth”, so what did we care what others thought of us? We memorized Bible verses that praised those who were “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” We lustily sang about being pilgrims in a world that was not our home. We didn’t belong here with the worldlings, we were just passing through to our glorious reward. Unfortunately, it took me years to learn that being peculiar, in the biblical sense, meant having a special, or unique, relationship with God, not being weird. I also learned that this world apparently is our home, and will be so for eternity.

Perhaps at this point I should clarify a couple of things. By its very nature, this is a critical and judgmental article. Any critic opens themselves up to receiving criticism in return. This is one reason I have included a “we” in the title, not a “you.” I wholeheartedly include myself in the weird group being examined. The truth is that every group and tribe is weird in some way. That’s one reason they’re a separate group or tribe.

I have also discovered that it is very difficult to define “weird.” Psychologists have struggled with this as well. There seems to be some consensus, however, that you are weird if you are considerably socially awkward or inappropriate; if you are significantly non-conventional; if you don’t mix well with others; if you are really naïve; if you are inappropriately hyperactive or childish; or if you have truly odd beliefs compared to the norm. While the word may be difficult to define, I believe most of us “know it when we see it,” to use the phrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart coined when attempting to define pornography.

Whether or not you believe Ellen G. White was inspired, it is undeniable that she had an enormous influence on our Church and its culture. It is also true that some of her teachings regarding diet and fashion, among others, have caused us to be different from the rest of the world, and have increased our appearance of weirdness. But a summary of her thoughts on this topic reveals that she was actually quite open-minded.

She plainly states that by believing the Bible and obeying God’s commands we will be seen as being different (“singular”) from most other people. But she then tells us not to be weird about it. It is not our duty to be out of fashion. We should not be odd in our dress or diet just to be different. We shouldn’t be any weirder than we have to be to avoid sin and to honor God. In fact, it’s wrong to be different than others unless being different is required for us to do right. Being different just to be different is “positively detestable” and damages our influence with others. God doesn’t require us to have strange, odd doctrines and theories. “There is a medium position in these things. Oh, that we all might wisely find that position and keep it.”

When I imagine the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the future, I see a people who are different from most because they are true to the principles of the Bible and they shun sin. But they are not weird. At least they’re not any weirder than they have to be, or any weirder than most people are. Through wise counsel and example, they immunize their children against using harmful substances, unhealthy sexual relationships and other destructive practices, but they do so in ways that make good sense. They mix freely with others and are not socially awkward or inappropriate. When people think of Adventists they don’t focus on their odd behaviors, doctrines and theories, they don’t tremble at their view of the judgment, but they marvel at the love and compassion they show for others, based on a most loving picture of the character of God.

And they don’t use puns.

–Mark Johnson, MD, is a retired public health physician and the chairman of the Boulder Vision Board. Email him at [email protected]

*At that time there was no consideration of LGBTQ relationships in our schools, although I am aware of several that occurred, and the boarding school model actually facilitated them.