NOTE: This is part 2 of my article on exclusive Seventh Day Adventist culture. Click here for part 1. In that article I address whether Adventists shun non-members, and I explain how the culture is exclusive. In this article, I will go into the two major reasons that Adventists choose to avoid non-members. The first reason is cultural, the second reason is theological.
Reason #1 – A Unique Social Culture
As I have mentioned, Adventists have a lot of rules, many of which greatly impact on the practicalities of their lives. I cannot begin to explain how keeping the Jewish Sabbath greatly influences your week-to-week life. And practically, not drinking an alcohol limits where you can go and it means that Adventists find ways to amuse themselves compared to the rest of the population. They also are encouraged to engage in church activities throughout the daily week, taking up a lot of their free time. So Adventists do a lot of things together, and they have their own jokes, their own favourite activities and know each other in ways that outsiders would never understand.
There are other major factors that add to this culture too. A major one is the idea of secret knowledge and a secret Adventist-only vocabulary. Take for instance the health message. While the health food laws state that you can eat certain types of meat, bringing meat to a church lunch would not be considered socially OK and people would judge you very harshly for doing so. Since most people like to include meat in their dishes, a non-Adventist attending a church lunch would not know this.
A new member might also not know this. But long-standing members know this social rule, and they also know that non-members don’t know this rule. They have secret, unspoken social rules amoungst themselves that binds them together over other people. And if someone brought meat to a church lunch, then it would become obvious that they weren’t a “good” SDA. The members would whisper to each other about the dish, and avoid talking to the person that brought it.
As already mentioned, they have a special, unique vocabulary. Take the health message again. While many Adventists eat meat, they know to not include it in their dishes for church, or to serve it to other members they invite home. Consequently, they have developed a lot of tasty vegetarian recipes that have unique ways of getting around the non-meat rule. These recipes are shared amongst Adventists and, while an Adventist would immediately recognise a particular vegetarian recipe, a non-Adventist would not. Adventist companies also produce meat substitutes that very few non-SDA’s purchase, and so these have become symbols of the SDA culture. Take this video for instance:
A non-member could enjoy this video for its surface joke about husbands liking disgusting/simple food, while their wives put a lot of effort into creating nice, complex meals. But what you would miss is that it is laden with SDA jokes. It references creative vegetarian recipes that only SDA members would know such as special-K loaf and it references meat substitutes, a call-out to the SDA health message. I found this youtube comment very amusing:
The poor person noticed that grape juice was mentioned, and realised that it was deliberate, but they misinterpreted the reason it was included. It had nothing to do with communion at all; the reference to pouring grape juice is supposed to be a play on the fact that Adventists have grape juice instead of wine, which is also made of grapes, but is fermented. In reality Adventists would not usually drink grape juice at a meal (it is quite bitter) but it was included as a reference to the fact that they don’t drink alcohol.
Even as an ex-Adventist, I still watch this video and smile. I still feel that special, warm connection to Adventists; because only we get these references to the unique things that only Adventists do. For cultural reasons, Adventists stick to other Adventists, because they do the same things, have shared experiences, understand the same jokes and have their own unique vocabulary. The more you are engaged in the Adventist bubble the more unique inside-jokes you know and the harder it will be to relate to people outside of your bubble. As Adventists say, they are “in” the world but not “of” it.
In effect, when an Adventist decides to deconvert and leave, they are removing themselves from this culture. SDA members will struggle to relate to them. Since the SDA members life is the church, they can no longer share this with their friend/family member. A lot of the secret social norms are built on the basis of their unique theological beliefs too. When someone deconverts and rejects these, to the SDA member it almost acts as a rejection of their cultural and social identity. Naturally, SDA members will disconnect with non-members.
Reason #2 – Theological conflicts
While the above is incredibly unfortunate and sad, it is not overtly malicious. Unfortunately, this reason is more directly offensive and insulting to non-believers. It should be noted that this is a lot less common among progressive circles. In most progressive churches, they practice the rules because it is apart of their social culture, and the basis for their social norms. But to a conservative member, they truly believe in following the rules and studying the Adventist literature. This is what happens as a consequence.
While Adventists do not theologically promote shunning, they do theologically encourage separating themselves from non-believers on purpose. If you sit in on a conservative Adventist youth group, you will quickly become familiar with this Bible verse:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? – 2 Corinthians 6:14
What fellowship can light have with darkness is a very big point here. To a lot of Adventists, they see a theological reason to not have close relationships with non-members. Now, a lot of denominations use this verse to great effect – so what makes Adventists unique? The uniqueness comes from their strict view of what darkness is. For plenty of other reasons, most other churches have a less narrow view of what constitutes “darkness”. To Adventists, darkness is quite simply “The World”. It is anyone who is not an Adventist.
Adventists pastors will marry two non-Adventists, or two Adventists. But they will not mix the two, because it goes against SDA theology to do so. SDA’s are only allowed to marry other SDA’s. This idea is also theologically applied to a lot of other relationships too. It is applied to close friendships, and close business relationships. For a fascinating insight into regular SDA’s discussing the issue of marrying a non-SDA to an SDA, click here. You’ll notice that some say they wouldn’t even attend the wedding of a close family member if it broke the SDA bonds.
A common line you will hear from Sabbath School teachers to youth is this; “we aren’t saying you can’t have friends that aren’t Adventists. But think very carefully about it. Those friends are apart of The World. You will be influenced by the people you associate with. Be wary of missionary dating/friendship building, because while you will influence them, they will influence you too. Satan is very persuasive, most people are part of The World.”
While my parents let me go to non-SDA schools and make non-SDA friends, they always tried to get me to attend youth groups and would regularly remind me to be “wary” of my non-SDA friends. They would talk with me about my non-SDA friends, but would be a lot more eager and on their own accord ask me questions about my SDA friends, encouraging and pushing those relationships. If I had a non-member friend called Tim, they would never go “how is Tim?” Tim would just never come up in discussion. But if I had an SDA friend named Kate, they would ask me questions like ‘how is Kate? Have you spoken to her lately?” You were not banned from having non-member friends, but they were strongly discouraged.
Adults are also given this line too. But they hear it less, because if you stay in the church up to adulthood then you’ve likely only made close SDA relationships anyway. If you are born within the church, hear this attitude your entire life, and are limited in your opportunities to make non-SDA friends then you will just never get to engage with the outside world, and will be forever sceptical of it. But because the church does not have a ban on friendships/relationships outside the religion in its church manual (you won’t be excluded from church membership technically), it gets a free-pass from outsiders because no one has proof that this goes on – even though it literally happens all the time in the mainstream Seventh Day Adventist church.
Adventists have an insular culture and avoid non-members for the following reasons:
- They have very limited opportunities to interact with non-Adventists.
- They have unique social codes/culture/knowledge that only Adventists know and so they find it hard to relate to the rest of the world.
- They view the rest of the world with suspicion and see them as being in Satans grip.
This is why it is so scary to leave. If your whole social network is Adventist, then leaving is terrifying, because you will be:
- Excluded from your friends/family’s lives, either by necessity or by their choice.
- Lose your unique positive identity to them, because you will become part of “The World”. You will be harshly judged.
- Have trouble including them in your life, because not only will they judge your sinful life, they will also have a lot of trouble relating.
Adventists don’t shun ex-members, but they have their own ways of leaving ex-members out in the cold. For further reading you might be interested in this blog post. Please be warned, the author goes on a rather offensive rant on Adventism, but some may find it interesting.