In the absence of serious-minded, broad study of the Bible, Adventism inevitably courts danger in at least four ways:
First, biblical illiteracy can lead to the uncoupling of vital context from both specific biblical truths and general biblical principles. Consider carefully: The more distance a church has between its members and robust Bible knowledge, the more it is inclined to…well, to do what? It is tempting to say, “to leave the faith!” or “to lapse into a Laodicean apathy!”—and certainly such things can happen. But in my experience in the last 20+ years in Adventism, the greater temptation instead appears to be to separate the specific truths and principles of the Bible from the necessary context that would otherwise rightly guide their implementation.
For instance, in some portions of Adventism (to say nothing of wider Christianity), “God is love”[i] has gradually devolved into simply “love,” with God no longer a defining factor in what “love” actually is. By the same token, “Love your neighbor as yourself”[ii] has too often been separated from specific scriptural counsel as to how, practically, this love is to be shown. Such “love” has, over time, degraded into mere “tolerance,” which has further degraded into “acceptance of all behavior,” which will inevitably lead to moral bankruptcy…all while some may be standing by, assuring themselves that, “We’re doing the loving thing.” Timeless biblical truth has thus been transformed into maudlin sentimentalism.
To my eye, this progression has long been unfolding in wider Western culture, and now is making disturbing inroads within Adventism. In the last decade, for instance, sizable numbers of Adventists have joined in with openly secular movements ostensibly pursuing love and unity. Many of these Adventists may not have sufficiently considered whether or not the movement’s definitions of love and unity comport with their true, biblical definitions. Even in the socio-political causes which Adventism ought to have a voice and hand in, I have too often seen such causes supported by church members who don’t appear to know their Bibles well, and who therefore end up following the secular crowd in endorsing patently unbiblical principles and actions—again, all while honestly seeking to “do the loving thing.”
2. Biblical illiteracy can lead to authoritarianism. To be clear, I am not saying that biblical illiteracy must lead to authoritarianism, nor am I saying that Adventism right now is overrun with authoritarian leaders. But I am saying that biblical illiteracy too easily lends itself to the development of authoritarian leadership, both among our laity and in formal leadership, and in both liberal and conservative portions of the church. Why? Because if there is a dearth of biblically literate members, increasing numbers of—for lack of a better term—experts, in whatever field of knowledge, are more likely to be given unchecked influence in making decisions for the wider church.
Do we need experts in the church? Certainly! I appreciate deeply, for instance, the biblical scholarship that goes into so many of the more biblically-technical publications of the Adventist Church. The financial acumen of so many treasurers in our local churches and administrative offices is clearly indispensable. And who knows how many potential disasters have been diffused because of dedicated lawyers dispensing sage legal advice to pastors and teachers?
But no expert, no matter their training or personal piety, has sufficient biblical chops to work independent of accountability to the body of Christ. Joe and Jean Member—if they know the scriptures well—still retain the biblical duty to challenge an expert when called for, and if necessary, to correct and even replace them (as many a church business meeting or constituency session have shown).
But what if Joe and Jean have not steeped themselves in the Word? What if sizable portions of the church are sufficiently un-versed in the Bible that they cannot understand, much less challenge, an expert who makes unfounded biblical assertions? In my experience, regardless of whether those assertions are nefariously intended or not, the answer is fairly predictable: Church members will respect the expert’s perceived expertise. And because that respect is coupled with members’ biblical illiteracy, that expert not only goes unchallenged, but is often elected to higher office, either in the local church or elsewhere. Such experts can go far afield, biblically speaking—again, whether done so intentionally or not—for perilously long periods of time before constituents begin to realize there is a problem. Widespread biblical illiteracy can thus facilitate well-intended, but nonetheless authoritarian leadership, both within the local church and at any level of the corporate church’s leadership structure.
3. Biblical illiteracy dramatically reduces the church’s ability to rightly interpret Bible prophecy. For an apocalyptic movement such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, interpreting Bible prophecy is not something we can afford to get wrong. Yet rising tides of biblical illiteracy are threatening to undermine our ability to both explain past interpretations of prophecy and to combat new, erroneous interpretations when they arise. Perhaps more than other genres of biblical literature, Bible prophecy depends on a broad range of biblical knowledge for its proper interpretation. The symbolism used in books such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, for instance, is sufficiently rich that successfully unpacking it demands familiarity with large portions of scripture. In fact, without broad biblical knowledge—a knowledge that is attainable by nearly every Adventist who takes the time to read their Bibles widely and regularly—errors in interpretation are not only possible, but extraordinarily likely. Such errors can lead to everything from potluck disagreements to splits in the church, and on occasion to more drastic consequences.[iii]
4. Biblical illiteracy can destroy the church. Needless hyperbole? I wish it were. Though some may be reluctant to admit it, we are a movement birthed of and steeped in the Bible. Were it not for the Three Angels Messages of Revelation 14; the theme of God’s righteous and loving vindication of His character that permeates scripture from beginning to end; and most importantly, the message of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ as defined in scripture—without these, there would never have been a Seventh-day Adventist Church. We are not merely a product of 19th-century pietism. We are not the accidental offspring of millennialism gone awry. We are instead a divinely-ordained, Jesus-loving, Satan-crushing steamroller of a movement that traces its raison d’etre squarely back to God’s Word. Without the Bible, our claims to existence—much less to being heard and heeded—plummet quickly into the ecclesiastical graveyard of history.
Consequently, I see a relatively direct relationship in play, here. The more our membership knows and lives the Bible, the greater our appreciation of our God-given mission. The less our membership knows and lives the Bible, the less our appreciation of that mission. Logic and history dictate that any movement with an unchecked decline in mission appreciation will eventually cease to find a compelling reason to be. If true, then increasing biblical illiteracy is not an annoyance. It is an existential threat.
[i] I John 4:8 (see also v. 16)
[ii] Mark 12:31
[iii] As the David Koresh’s and Jim Jones of the world sadly testify.