Is the Seventh Day Adventist Church a Cult?
Is the Seventh Day Adventist church a cult? This is a hard question to answer but I will say this; there is a very real segment of that church that is very destructive and oppressive. I will present to you why I believe the church is destructive and oppressive, and let you make your choice on this question, as the term “cult” is problematic.
Please note, this article will merely discusses church culture and will not debate the theological merits of the teachings. I would also like to note that article this does not apply to all SDA churches. The culture described here is mostly seen in the “traditional” churches and in some “progressive” churches. This article has been compiled from experiences from ex-Adventists around the globe who came from conservative circles. Please keep in mind everyones experience will be different! If you are looking to escape/leave an oppressive segment of the church, I highly recommend you read this article on how to leave it. Please also note, that from now on when this article refers to “Adventists” that are “oppressive” it is in reference to the segment that is and is not referencing the whole church.
The Seventh Day Adventist church is extremely controlling
In Lifton’s criteria for deciding whether a church is a cult or not, he looks at whether the church has a charismatic leader that controls, interrogates and bullies its members. The Seventh Day Adventist church has no such leader. Instead, it has an interesting phenomena about it; instead of a leader doing this, the members fulfill this function themselves. If a church member is caught breaking one of the many rules, they face social retribution for their sin. To get a small glimpse into this, take a look at the video below:
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This is a funny video, and Adventists would generally find it very funny. In fact, it was created by a (liberal) church. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate representation of what actually occurs, even within liberal circles. Lets take the very first example, where the poor man is caught having a meat lovers pizza. In the SDA church, it is a sin to eat any meat that comes from a pig, as this violates the SDA health laws. In the video, the man gets a disappointed look from his friend who looks very unimpressed, while he looks very embarrassed. But is this it? No, it isn’t. Unfortunately, its just the beginning.
In the video, it shows what would have happened if he had the ‘Adventist Alert App’. He see’s his friend is nearby, and he quickly changes his order to a vegan pizza, so that he can be a good Adventist. You know why he is so eager to do this? Because being caught actually choosing bacon/pepperoni would be socially shunned by his SDA peers. His friend would tell his friends, who would then tell their friends.
These people would then look at him differently and treat him differently. They might “jokingly” reference his transgression in conversation, in front of other people. They might confront him and ask him why he was eating unclean flesh. They might even give him some “helpful suggestions” on how to avoid temptation. The tone in which this is done socially shames the man, as the Adventist feels the need to pull their peer “into line”, so-to-speak. They would never forget the incident, and would see the person as “not a real Adventist” since they purposely broke the rules of God. They would then, consciously or subconsciously, spend less time around them and avoid them because they are a bad influence. The more transgressions you make, the worse it gets.
This is a very high punishment to pay. For one thing, it isn’t just you that would become ostracized, but your family would suffer too. For another, being ostracized by church members is especially devastating when you consider that, due to the fact that Adventists usually only interact seriously with Adventists (since they live in an exclusive Adventist world/bubble) having these people ice you out is devastating as they are your only social network. It isn’t just church members that would ice you out; your family/friends would always have your transgression in the back of their mind, and would begin to treat you differently. Too many transgressions and your friends will start to ice you out. All because a church member caught you ordering a pepperoni pizza slice. I am not joking.
Is this different from other churches/denominations?
This is hard to say; the reality is within conservative Christianity a lot of harsh judging goes on and a lot of people get hurt. Are Adventists different in this regard? Most conservative Christians look at SDA’s and see them as extreme, as while other churches will judge you for much bigger choices, SDA’s will judge each other harshly for seemingly small, random and arbitrary “rules”.
Another interesting thing about the church is there is no room to dissent. If you chose to keep all of the Adventist rules except you chose to continue to eat ham, then most conservative SDA’s would have to declare you sinful, your actions worldly, and your blatant disregard for God’s health laws mean that God would not save you and you would die the eternal death. All of this because you choose to eat ham, is very harsh and SDA’s are unique in how black-and-white they are over such seemingly small rules that have very little impact on ones day-to-day life that don’t hurt other people. This harsh attitude towards people over such arbitrary things makes the church very toxic and oppressive, and one reason it could be seen as a cult.
Add to this the fact that conservative churches don’t leave a lot of room for interpretation of the scriptures; you are rigidly expected to obey all the 28 Fundementals. Most other denominations, even conservative denominations, have a lot more room for movement. Add to this that within the 28 Fundemental beliefs you then have additional sub-rules within those rules that you need to keep. Take rule #20, the Sabbath – general consensus is that wading in water on Sabbath is OK, but swimming is not. These are unlisted rules and are things you need to pick up from experience/reading. This makes it extremely difficult to keep them all, which means a lot of members live in fear of breaking rules and live in a constant state of guilt.
What really sets it apart though, and what might lead people to consider it a cult, is the insular culture. More so than almost any other denomination, Seventh Day Adventists encourage its members to only be friends with other Adventists, and it has designed its institution to limit the opportunity of SDA’s to make meaningful relationships with non-SDA’s. So when a SDA sins and gets judged by their church family, it is a much worse fate than what most other conservative-Christians face, as SDA’s are their only friends/family. Stakes are high.
Information is Controlled
Another “cult-like” characteristic that the church exhibits is that it controls the information that its members hear. It manages this by removing the situations in which SDA’s have to interact with non-SDA’s in any meaningful way. Consider the life of a typical Seventh Day Adventist:
- They are born in a SDA Church
- They go to a SDA pre-school, then to a SDA grade school and then go to a SDA high school
- They then go to a SDA college/university where they learn a skill they can use in SDA institutions (the most common are studying towards being a teacher, a pastor, a nurse or a doctor)
- They are then employed in a SDA institution
- They will marry a SDA spouse
- They then retire in a SDA retirement village
Adventists can easily move through life in Adventist institutions, where they will predominately meet and get to know Adventists. While they will encounter non-Adventists here, they will migrate towards SDA’s. Partially this is because they “get” each other better, and part of it is the SDA will spend extra time with their SDA peers at church events/services, which take up a significant portion of their free time. For more information, I suggest you read part 1 and part 2 of my analysis on Adventist insular culture.
The result of this, is that the information they hear is filtered through the church. The SDA’s very much enforce their teachings in their institutes, including their schools/universities; they are not just SDA in-name only. The results of this can be quite startling and result in what would be considered by many to be cult-like behavior.
Everything that contradicts the SDA church is “planted” by Satan
Growing up, when I was confronted with evidence that the earth was older than 6,000 years I would be told the same thing – “those bones were planted there by Satan” “that rock was planted there by Satan” no matter the evidence, it had been planted there by Satan. If someone came to me and gave me a good explanation about why the SDA churches theological beliefs didn’t make sense, I would be told “be wary of listening to anyone but the church. Satan is very deceptive and he can make things seem appealing. It is safest to not go any other church at all, and to not debate these things.” I would then be barred from going to the other church meeting. This was not just my experience; I was told this many times by other adults outside my family, and Adventists who have left will tell you similar stories.
Obviously, in retrospect, this logic makes no sense. If someone came to me and told me this, I would say to them “so basically, you have already rejected all other ideas from the start, because you’ve already decided that Satan is behind everything. This just seems like an excuse you have come up with so that you are always right.” At the time though, it seemed to make complete sense; of course Satan would try to do things to contradict the remnant church! At times it would as far as claiming that it was Satan who was causing the microphones to not work at church, and we would pray before every meeting that Satan would not infiltrate and stop our equipment from working. Whenever anything contradicted the record or went awry, Lucifer was immediately blamed.
We would be told on a regular, daily basis in both the home and church that “the devil is tricky” and that “Satan is deceptive”. This created a fear and skepticism that was almost impossible to breach. If you try to debate a Seventh Day Adventist, particularly those born in the church, keep in mind that they have had the information available to them filtered and controlled throughout their life from the people they trust the most. It is not that they are willfully ignoring you; it is just that they have been told these things on a regular, daily basis from the adults in their life.
It is hard to leave/escape the Seventh Day Adventist church
A lot of people use the fact that you are free to leave at any time as a reason to not call the Seventh Day Adventist church a cult. But are you really free to leave? I would argue that you are not, especially if you are born into the faith. Because Adventists live in an exclusively Adventist world (and are heavily encouraged live as exclusive as possible), most of the meaningful relationships/friendships that Adventists develop are exclusively with other SDA’s.
When you leave the church, your friends/family will treat you very differently because you will now have become part of “The World”. You lose your positive, unique identity in their eyes. You lose your friends and family. You aren’t shunned, but your relationships will become very painful.
Imagine if your family and friends, overnight, suddenly started calling you a whore? What is they would say negative, nasty things about you and your life to each other behind your back? What if they criticised every aspect of your life to your face? What if they called you a disappointment? What if they wouldn’t come to your wedding and be happy/proud of you and your new spouse? What if every conversation you had with them from now on had strong undercurrents/tones of disappointment, anger and distance? What if they cried themselves to sleep at night over your choices? What if your friends stopped talking with you? What if your parents woke up every day, sad, because of your choice, when previously they would wake up happy and proud? What if having to see them made you sick, to the point you vomited? Imagine is everyone you cared about suddenly started to do this to you overnight?
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This is what happens when you leave the church. You can walk out of your church and never come back, but we are social creatures and we care about our loved ones. When you leave, you leave a path of destruction when you exit. Overnight your good standing, love and appreciation disappears. There is little hope here; as long as you are not an Adventist, your identity will be forever lost as you become agglomerated with the rest of “The World”. Your love/affection with SDA’s is conditional on you being a Seventh Day Adventist/
And even though you technically could never come back, you still have to deal with this. You don’t just get to never talk to Seventh Day Adventists ever again. Your life has been the church. You have connections you can’t ignore. You will have family gatherings, weddings, funerals etc to attend. And while there, you will have to be bombarded with very negative attitudes towards you and your life time after time after time, from the people you love the most. Losing your entire social support network is devastating. That is why in my guide to leaving the church, I make building up a non-SDA social support network a main, core component.
What about other things such as Ellen G White?
A lot of people point to Ellen G White to label the SDA church as a “cult”. White she could be labelled strange (and it could be argued the EGW had destructive ideas), I do not believe that she should be a main concern of asking whether or not the church is a cult. When we use the term cult, what most people really mean is an insular, oppressive group that has its members controlled. Whether the group meets the official definition of a “cult” is less of a concern.
Most definitions of “cult” require there to be a charismatic leader and the closest the church had to that was Ellen White, and she is now dead. Plus she was never the official leader anyway. While, again, one could argue against her teachings, her presence shouldn’t be the concern here; its the internal culture. Although it should be noted that conservative members usually unofficially hold her writings/teachings up at the same level as the Bible.
Is the church really that extreme?
Seventh Day Adventists don’t live away in exclusive communities (bar extreme offshoot sects) and are usually friendly co-workers and neighbors. A lot of people might look at what I have written, and wonder if it is really true, and if so, how can they reconcile these cult-like tendencies with the people that they know and have met? This is a fair question and the answer to it is very simple; Adventists have very low expectations for people that are non-Adventists.
Adventists separate people into two groups; Adventists, and non-Adventists. Non-SDA’s are deemed to be part of “The World”. What you may or may not know is that your Adventist co-worker/neighbour will, in the company of other Adventists, call you “worldly”. This is their term for separating you off. As discussed in my article on “The World”, Adventists have been taught from birth that “The World” is living under the deception of Satan. They therefore don’t act this way towards “outsiders”, because they have very low expectations for people in “The World”. They only act this way to each other, and so this behavior goes under the radar.
Whether they SDA church meets the precarious definition of a “cult” does not matter. What does matter is the truth, and the truth is that large portions of the church culture are controlling, oppressive, insular and very hard to leave.
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