I recently watched the story of a Seventh-day Adventist couple in my area who was kicked out of their local Adventist congregation for promoting anti-trinitarian views. The YouTube video had been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, which is an astounding number for an episode that took place in a small congregation in rural Maine. But there is, apparently, an appetite for such stories.
Though I don’t know the couple personally, we share a lot of mutual friends and I know much of the leadership of the church they were nudged out of, including the pastor, whom I consider to be a good friend. They are all really good people, as the couple themselves repeatedly admits in their YouTube “testimony.”
I don’t really know what to make of the whole situation, having questions about the role of church discipline in general and the degree to which we should hold people’s feet to the fire when it comes to theological precision.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly trinitarian, of course. And I certainly wouldn’t want to reduce this important truth to the realm of theological minutia (though it does seem there’s a line we can cross that enters fully into the sphere of speculation). I’m also aware that, for whatever reason, there continues to be a growing anti-trinitarian faction within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is unfortunate.
What struck me the most about the couple’s testimony, perhaps more than anything else, and which I think speaks to the growing trend of anti-trinitarianism within the denomination, was the underlying preoccupation with uncovering some new and novel biblical insights. They were deeply intent on—perhaps even obsessed with—theological correctness.
To me, this is just a symptom of a much larger reality within Adventism—and, in many ways, their experience is just the proverbial chickens coming back to roost.
Adventism is certainly not unique in this, but we have, essentially from our very beginning, emphasized a religious experience that is primarily focused on doctrinal rightness. We mostly stay in our heads and have intellectualized our faith. We have largely turned the Bible into a mathematical equation—literally following the lead of our grandfather William Miller—which we think simply requires rational engagement. We often read the Bible like it’s the Da Vinci Code, with hidden meaning behind every jot and tittle. And then we argue over those jots and titles as though eternity depends on them.
I’m speaking in very broad strokes, of course, and perhaps sounding a bit too cynical. There are many, many wonderful features about this faith community—and I absolutely wouldn’t be a part of any other denomination.
I believe, by God’s grace, we’re blessed to understand the most beautiful and fullest expression, at least to this point, of God’s character.
But in my 15 years or so of pastoring—and in particular, in my 15 years of pastoring in northern New England, where Adventism essentially began—I’ve noticed that much of Adventism is characterized by a preoccupation with being intellectually and biblically right.
We are, in short, addicted to theological correctness.
Is Religious Addiction a Thing?
Five or six years ago, my friend Jim, who is a pastor-turned-alcohol-and-drug-abuse-counselor, introduced me for the first time to the existence of something he called “religious addiction.” It was a new term for me, but one I found intriguing and clarifying.
Religious addiction, he explained, is when people are overly focused on and obsessed with religious rituals, practices, and beliefs.
Of course, it’s good to be highly committed to and zealous about our faith. We don’t want to be lukewarm and non-committal, after all. But the real issue with religious addiction is that people cling to and obsess over religious rituals, practices, and beliefs as a way to avoid dealing with deeper emotional and psychological wounds that are too painful to face and process.
This is the nature of addiction in general. People experience trauma, for example, which produces significant shame—and that shame is too painful to acknowledge or process. So as a way of avoiding the feelings of shame, they turn to various substances—drugs, alcohol, sex—which buries those feelings and masks the pain.
Religion, it turns out, has been one of the best tools to help us avoid processing and dealing with our pain. For example, instead of sitting with our shame, and processing the things that have deeply affected us on a psychological and emotional level, we quickly turn to a positive Bible verse that allows us to assure ourselves that everything is going to be okay. Or we use prayer—not as a way to share our feelings of emotional pain and shame to God, but as a way of bypassing those feelings.
Similarly, a religion of the head is also a symptom of religious addiction. The more we can stay in our heads—the more we can argue about theological minutia—the more we can avoid what’s going on deep down inside of us. It’s why the average Sabbath School class, at least in my experience, is an exercise in theological argumentation. It’s just a lot safer that way because if we’re arguing about the Bible, it means we don’t have to be open and vulnerable in the way the Bible wants when it seeks to address our wounds and traumas.
What also happens so often is that people who are converted to faith in general, and Adventism in particular, from an experience that was characterized by substance abuse, are often prone to high religious addiction. Such people just trade one addiction for another. This is also especially true for people who have experienced traumas over which they felt they had no control, since rituals and traditions offer a sense of control.
In laying this out, I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m immune to any of this or that this is a problem only other people have, as though I’ve reached some sort of superior religious experience. Neither am I wanting to give the impression that rituals, traditions, studying the Bible, or pursuing and being excited about theological insights are wrong. These things are all well and good and important.
The point, however, is that we must be very intentional about growing three-dimensional disciples who are well-rounded intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally. We must create spaces that help foster an environment that allows people to openly process what’s truly going on inside—not just discipling people to be in their heads all the time.
As my friend Ty Gibson likes to say: religion is one of the best places to hide from God. It’s also one of the best places to hide from our pain and shame, in unhealthy ways, and to experience “clean” addictions that nevertheless deeply hinder our ability to love our neighbors as ourselves to the degree they need.
It all reminds me of a term Ellen G. White frequently applied to others as she looked over the theological and religious landscape in her day: “fanatics.” This was used in reference to people who were unbalanced in their religious approach, who became obsessive about biblical interpretations, couldn’t consider alternative perspectives, and zealously, annoyingly, and closed-mindedly promoted their viewpoints every opportunity they had.
In one instance, for example, she spoke of a church in Norway that was comprised of members who were “magnifying matters of little importance into tests of Christian fellowship,” displaying a “spirit of criticism, fault-finding, and dissension” over the issue of dress. They were “making the matter of dress of first importance, criticizing articles of dress worn by others, and standing ready to condemn everyone who did not exactly meet their ideas.” Such people, she said, were “fanatics” and “extremists,” “one-idea” people who “can see nothing except to press the one thing that presents itself to their minds,” which ultimately caused the church’s witness to suffer in the surrounding community. “The church,” she boldly proclaimed, “needs to be purified from all such influences” (see Historical Sketches, pp. 211-212).
Though I don’t know that Ellen G. White connected any of this to deeper psychological deficits, I think the connection is clear and obvious. At the same time, I think it would be a mistake to assume that such individuals are outliers or exceptions. It seems to me that precisely because of our nineteenth-century DNA, which places a premium on theological correctness, Adventism is especially prone to produce such an approach to faith—where we become addicted to doctrinal rightness and consequently correct those who don’t get in line.
The solution to such religious addiction, just as it is for any form of addiction, is prioritizing healthy relationships—with God, with ourselves, and with others. Only as we allow ourselves to be embraced by the gospel, and realize God wants us to be made whole—spiritually, intellectually, socially, emotionally—can we step into freedom.
Shawn Brace is a pastor in Bangor, Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @shawnbrace, and sign up for his weekly newsletter at: shawnbrace.substack.com