Adventism’s Rusty Sword (Part 1)

Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

Shane Anderson
Adventism’s Rusty Sword (Part 1)

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[i]

Much has been made of the armor of God Paul describes in Ephesians 6, and rightly so. It is a marvelous metaphor for the realities of Christian living. But there is one part of the metaphor that has not, at least in the minds of some, aged well: the so-called “sword of the Spirit.”

Over the years, I have heard critics of this figurative sword point out that of all the spiritual armament the Christian is called to have, only one portion of it can be potentially classified as an offensive weapon. This, they have asserted, indicates that Christ’s followers are to spend far more of their time being a Christian than they are to be proactively waging spiritual warfare (apparently believing a clear difference exists between the two). Others have taken this stance further, suggesting that this sword, in keeping with the protective intent of the previous elements, is purely defensive in nature with no offensive intent at all, and thus it has no place being aggressively advanced in any spiritually militant manner today.

Part of me understands this de-fanging of the “sword of the Spirit.” As with every other significant spiritual movement in history, there have been in Adventism those who have abused the Word of God. They have misused its sharp edges to promote harm amongst God’s people.

Perhaps the most dominate narrative in this regard is one that I have heard countless times over the last four decades. It is the story of the twisting of scripture commonly known as legalism, and how it left legions of Adventist young people in the 1950s through 1970s disillusioned with Adventism. Adventist Education in that era, the story asserts, gave lip service to a relationship with Christ. But in reality, it majored in a salvation of one’s making—an impression backed up by scores of tales of overzealous staff members policing behavior of students in ways both seemingly mindless and endless. Wounded by this twisting of the Bible’s true message, these young Adventists vowed collectively, sometimes publicly, always ardently, to not do to their children what was done to them.

If these stories of legalistic “sword-wielding” are true, then the idea of not repeating them is a worthy goal! But I would gently suggest that the mark…has been profoundly overshot. In fact, today, in my experience, Adventism in the West is not only generally free from legalism[ii], but also too often soteriologically vague, missiologically muddled, and—at the root of it all—scripturally illiterate. What started years ago as a movement to end a twisted interpretation of scripture has ended up sidelining scripture altogether.

How Dare Thee!

Before you toss aside this article in disgust at my low estimate of Adventism’s scriptural savvy, allow me to offer some clarifying points.

First, I am not saying that all or even the majority of Western Adventism is biblically illiterate. I am instead contending that in my estimation, there is a significant, growing, and increasingly vocal minority of the church that is no longer using scripture as its primary source of authority. Many in this minority are well positioned in both local churches and elsewhere in the church.

Second, I am not saying that all those I perceive as biblically illiterate have consciously chosen to be that way. While some undoubtedly have, many others I believe are simply doing the best they can. They have unknowingly allowed wider cultural trends away from scripture to hold sway in how they approach spiritual issues.

Third, here are some of the pieces of evidence that lead me to conclude that biblical illiteracy is on the rise in Western Adventism:

  • Next time you’re at an Adventist school of any level—primary, secondary, or tertiary—ask any teacher who’s been working for more than decade to assess the level of basic biblical knowledge their students bring to the classroom. In my experience, without fail, over the last 14 years, every one of the hundreds of teachers I’ve asked[iii] this question has said biblical knowledge levels are markedly declining. Many students today, they say—whether from an Adventist home or not—lack basic knowledge about even the most well-known of Bible stories.
  • While there are definitely exceptions, I have personally and frequently experienced both private and public debates between Adventists over profoundly important issues. These issues ranged from ordination, abortion, human sexuality, various political topics, Christian education, financial policy in the church, and more. I have been repeatedly stunned (again, with some clear exceptions) when the Bible has either been only obliquely mentioned or excluded from the debate entirely—at times by both sides of the issue being debated!
  • If you’re feeling brave, the next time you’re at church, ask the pastor to poll the membership on the following question: “If asked right now, would you be able to give a coherent Bible-based study to an interested spiritual seeker on the following topics?” And then list some basic Adventist beliefs: salvation, righteousness by faith, Sabbath, state of the dead, the sanctuary/Investigative Judgment, the Second Coming, etc. What percentage of the attendees would be able to answer “Yes, I can do that”?

I must quickly add that I mean no harm by pointing out the above pieces of evidence. Not being able to give a Bible study, for instance, does not necessarily mean that one is a bad Adventist, nor is Bible knowledge our salvation—and we should nonetheless be alarmed at the growing levels of biblical illiteracy in our ranks. For while Bible knowledge alone absolutely cannot save us, knowing one’s Bible well brings with it a host of supremely tangible blessings—including helping to stave off some rather significant dangers.

[i] Ephesians 6:10 & 11, 17

[ii] Some may dispute this. I would contend that while there are indeed some genuinely legalistic enclaves in the Adventist West, they are poorly organized, poorly funded, and generally do not drive denominational policy.

[iii] From 2009 to the present, I’ve traveled extensively in North, South, and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, speaking about Adventist Education. I’ve presented to more than 10,000 teachers in that time, and thus have had ample opportunity to ask such questions.

Shane Anderson

Shane Anderson is the lead pastor of Pioneer Memorial church on the campus of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.