As Adventists look to 2021, we find ourselves reflecting in many ways the divisions found within society. The social, political, and public health questions that divide our neighbors sadly all too often bring division between church members. How can we make our loyalty to Christ—and our place in His body—our first and primary identity, yet still deal thoughtfully with our duty as citizens of this world?
Early Adventism was a small, apocalyptic, end-time movement, devoid of ambitions for formal political power, either as a church or as individuals. Yet Adventists acted and exerted influence on matters of public policy ranging from slavery and racism, to alcohol prohibition and public health, to religious liberty and foreign policy. These policy engagements did not fragment their fellowship; rather they helped propel them to become one of the fastest growing and most widespread denominations in the world.
As we enter a new year, we are just exiting the most divisive political season in living memory, while the United States and the world still battle a pandemic, all amid tremendous social unrest. Now is a good time to revisit some of the principles of public engagement that guided our pioneers, praying that we can also engage coming social and public policy challenges and at the same time retain our unity in the body of Christ. Consider the following points.
The church’s primary role must be about the gospel and conversion; but the application of the gospel will result in working for social change. In light of the prophecies of Revelation 13 and 14, our pioneers were firmly opposed to any attempt by the church to enlist the state to promote its spiritual agenda. Ellen White wrote that “the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments.”1
But those who quote this passage as defining all Adventist involvement in public matters overlook the context of the quote. It had to do with a movement we call today Christian Dominionism—believers who seek to establish a theocracy in this world. As Ellen White put it: “Today in the religious world there are multitudes who, as they believe, are working for the establishment of the kingdom of Christ as an earthly and temporal dominion.”2
In describing Christ as keeping “aloof” from earthly governments, Ellen White was highlighting the spiritual mission of the church; but she was not purporting to set out Christians’ role and duty as citizens of this world. Elsewhere she dealt with the topic of the Christian’s role in public morality by word and action. In doing so, she revealed that the gospel and conversion would necessarily lead to the support of public justice, human equality, and social morality.
Obey and respect government when it is just; resist the overreach of government when it acts unjustly, even to the point of civil disobedience. Many Adventists are attracted to the philosophy of law and order. After all, we are end-time commandment keepers. Most Adventists understand that civil disobedience will become necessary in relation to Sabbath and Sunday observance. But many seem to think that this will be an exceptional case, and that before then most government laws should be obeyed (just don’t ask about speed limits!).
How can we make our loyalty to Christ our first and primary identity, yet still deal thoughtfully with our duty as citizens of this world?
But shouldn’t our prophetic view of the centrality of civil disobedience in opposing the ultimate religious tyranny help us to see the truth that other unjust laws should be disobeyed and opposed? In other words, the final conflict is a culmination of smaller trends to evil and coercion; if we are meant to oppose the final step, should we not also oppose these earlier and smaller steps of injustice?
Ellen White evidently thought so. Even before the U.S. Civil War, Ellen White called for civil disobedience, the breaking of federal law, in order to protect the human rights of African Americans. “The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master,” she wrote, “we are not to obey.”3 Several Adventist leaders participated in the Underground Railroad to help escaped slaves, including John Byington, the first General Conference president.
Laws that threaten freedom of worship undermine the right of conscience that is part of the image of God found in each person. We must, however, be careful to distinguish laws about worship during the pandemic that merely regulate in-person gatherings for the health and safety of ourselves and our community. But equally wrong are laws or policies that threaten or undermine human equality, whether racial, ethnic, religious, or gender, which is also based on the image of God in men and women. Both kinds of unjust laws should be opposed.
Vote when you can do so for “justice, humanity, and right,” but not for those who oppose virtue, oppose the rule of law, and support racism. Some early Adventists believed that their focus should be entirely on heavenly things, and that church members should not even vote. But fairly quickly the church that opposed slavery and alcohol use realized that voting was one method by which these evils could be lessened. Only two years after formal organization, the General Conference passed a resolution on voting:
“Resolved, that in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity, and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper; but that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife.”4
At least three points can be derived from this guidance. First, voting may or may not be the correct course of action, depending on the options available. There is no mandate either not to vote or to vote. Second, in order to vote, one must be able to support or further “justice, humanity, and right.” Third, one should not vote for candidates that support “intemperance, insurrection, and slavery.” These latter categories would fit the modern terms of open immorality, opposition to the rule of law and democratic norms, and support of racism or ethnic supremacy. Adventist Christians simply cannot support these “criminal” evils.
Prioritize religious freedom as a right for yourself and others. Ellen White and the pioneers prioritized the issue of religious freedom, which is the first and central basis of all our freedoms. Ellen White said that we cannot support those who will “repress religious liberty. . . . The people of God are not to vote to place such men in office; for when they do this, they are partakers with them of the sins which they commit while in office.”5
Some mistakenly apply this quote to say we cannot vote for any person, because we would be guilty of misconduct they commit while in office. But this is to overread the instruction. We cannot be guilty of that for which we are ignorant and had no reason to know. She is referring to instances in which candidates openly promise or propose to violate religious freedom. This could include candidates who target minority religious groups for discriminatory treatment, or those who assert that they will promote the beliefs and power of majority religious groups.
Do not link with political parties. Our pioneers believed that political parties were deeply and inherently flawed. One could but should not declare for any of them. “There is danger, decided danger, for all who shall link themselves up with the political parties of the world. There is fraud on both sides. God has not laid upon any of our people the burden of linking up with either party.”6 Ellen White consistently counseled pastors and church teachers against involvement in purely political issues. “Those who teach the Bible in our churches and in our schools are not at liberty to unite in making apparent their prejudices for or against political men or measures.”7
Ellen White here appears to set down an absolute ban on church leaders’ involvement in any matters of politics or public policy. But the context was that of partisan politics on matters of policy not directly having to do with moral principles or basic human rights and freedoms. Later she clarified that these “absolutist” statements, as noted below, should not prevent Christian involvement in matters of basic morality and human rights.
Some moral issues are so connected with gospel principles of the image of God, including freedom, human equality, or health, that they deserve our support in the political sphere. Near the end of her life, Ellen White wrote that “while we are in no wise to become involved in political questions, yet it is our privilege to take our stand decidedly on all questions relating to temperance reform. . . . In our favored land, every voter has some voice in determining what laws shall control the nation. Should not that influence and that vote be cast on the side of temperance and virtue?”8
Ellen White did not believe that we should only vote and keep quiet about it. “The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty,” she wrote, “unless they exert their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote.”9
Some would wish to limit Ellen White’s statements about public issue activism to the immediate question of alcohol use and temperance reform. But she herself used language that was broader than that, including when she wrote that we should advocate for “temperance and virtue.” Also, she herself publicly advocated on issues of slavery, racism, religious liberty, and questions of social and economic justice and equity.10
She also had strong views of the sacredness of life, the importance of the family, including parents and child rearing, and the importance of distinctiveness and purity when it comes to gender and sexuality. She would surely have much to say in our day about redefinitions of marriage, family, gender, and appropriate sexual behavior, which have been advanced recently by Supreme Court decisions and voted legislation on both federal and state levels.
Be open to God’s call to nonpartisan government service, or public engagement with issues of social and economic justice. When I was young, most Adventist youth were encouraged to go into health care or education. Law and politics were often considered less than worthy fields of endeavor. Because of these views, I was particularly impressed by this statement from Ellen White about young people serving the Lord in the worlds of law and public policy. “Dear youth, what is the aim and purpose of your life? . . . Have you thoughts that you dare not express . . . that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations. . . . Aim high, and spare no pains to reach the standard.”11
Inspired by these words, I followed the course of legal studies, law practice, and public policy work. I had the privilege to partially fulfill them when I testified to congressional staffers on behalf of religious liberty legislation in the United States Congress. Other Adventist young people will even more completely fulfill these words by engaging in legislative and legal work for our nation, while avoiding partisan entanglement.
More recently I have become aware of Ellen White’s candid comments about social equality and economic fairness. In commenting on ancient Israel, she wrote about the system of laws, including gleanings, offerings for the poor and aliens, forgiveness of debts, freeing of slaves, and the return of land to the original families in the year of jubilee. These regulations, she noted, were “designed to promote social equality.”12
Given the capitalist bent of our socially conservative church, some of my students insist that these economic regulations could work only in a theocracy. Since God’s not directly in charge today, they argue that we must rely on the free-market, personal effort, and private charity to deal with issues of social and economic inequality.
Ellen White did not agree. She wrote that “the principles which God has enjoined would prevent the terrible evils that in all ages have resulted from the oppression of the rich toward the poor and the suspicion and hatred of the poor toward the rich.”13
In words especially relevant to today’s world, when the cities of America have been filled with angry protesters, clashes between police and angry young people, and the flickering shadows of burning buildings, White said such laws would “bring a peaceful solution of those problems that now threaten to fill the world with anarchy and bloodshed.”14
Is it possible that Adventists have more to offer the world of public policy and social fairness than we have previously realized? I have recently seen many young Adventists waking up to this possibility. The year 2021 could be a year of opportunity to prayerfully revitalize and reengage Adventism with the growing challenges we face as a nation and a world.
Nicholas P. Miller teaches church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States, and serves as legal counsel for the Lake Union Conference of the Adventist Church.