A recent Inter-American Division Online Symposium on “Freedom of Conscience and the Vaccine Mandate” featured Adventist experts from various fields who discussed the topic and provided information to church members and leaders. They also gave advice and answered questions from viewers across the region.
Among the November 20, 2021, presenters, David R. Williams, the Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health at Harvard University and Adventist Health Ministries associate director, discussed what he titled, “The Role of Science, if any, in a Christ-Centered Health Ministry.” Williams explained the context of health ministries in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what Adventist church members and leaders can do to study, pray, trust God, and, at the same time, act wisely.
A Call to Health Ministry
According to Williams, any health-related discussion must include a wider perspective. “We need to put our conversation into a broader context of what God is calling us to do,” he said, adding, “God is calling each one of us to health ministry, [which] is integral to the mission of the church.” Williams reminded church leaders and members that because of what Jesus has done for us, “each Seventh-day Adventist Christian is called to dedicate [his or her] life to give God glory.”
Against that background, health ministry is following in the footsteps of Jesus, making God’s love real in practical ways to others, Williams explained. Health ministry is all about “helping men and women reach their full potential, mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
But to reach our full potential, we must practice health principles, he said. Using the story of the time when Jesus resurrected Lazarus (John 11) as an illustration, Williams emphasized that prayer is essential to health ministry. “Prayer and dependence of God are at the foundation of experiencing God’s healing,” he said. “There are people in our network who may be hurting, who could be suffering, who could be healed if we only had the love of God and His compassion in us and prayed to God on their behalf.”
The Role of Human Cooperation
Another aspect of the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection is that we see Jesus making two requests to the crowd standing by. He asks those present to take away the stone of the sepulcher before He performed the miracle, Williams said. And when Lazarus went out, He commanded people to untie him. Jesus “didn’t need it to do it, but He relied on human help,” he noted. “So, to experience God’s healing power, we need to cooperate with God and His laws. God wants us to do our part. And cooperating with God means that we must strengthen our immune system,” he emphasized.
God uses different means to bring healing, even though He is the only and ultimate source of all healing. In agreement with Adventist pioneer John Harvey Kellogg, himself a physician, Williams said, “Only God heals. Physicians do not heal. Medications do not heal. But they are instruments that God uses” to heal. “This is the reason why, to experience God’s healing power, we must use all the knowledge God has provided,” he said.
In agreement with a previous presentation by Adventist Health Ministries director Peter Landless, Williams said we must only promote practices consistent with the Scriptures, supported by the Spirit of Prophecy, and based on sound, evidence-based science. “God is the author of science; He uses science to bring light.… When we see discoveries of science, we see God at work.”
It is against this background that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has encouraged responsible immunization, Williams said.
He emphasized that God wants each one of us to make our own decisions. At the same time, he explained, it is possible to be conscientiously wrong. Thus, we should approach every issue with that awareness.
Adventists and Vaccines
Specifically, Williams said, it is essential to examine the benefits and risks of the COVID-19 vaccines. “I’ll be brief on this,” he said. “The science is abundantly clear: vaccines save lives.”
Williams added that vaccines have been proven safe and effective in studies of thousands of people and reminded viewers that getting vaccinated is about preventing the virus from spreading and preventing deadly infections. He also noted that the benefits of vaccination outweigh risks in healthy people and that intensive safety monitoring continues.
Above all, Williams emphasized, COVID-19 vaccines offer an important opportunity to support and protect those who have been, and stand to be, the most harmed by COVID-19. “This is not just about me and my health; it is also important for my family and my community,” he said.
Williams also made clear COVID-19 vaccines, along with handwashing, distancing, and mask-wearing offers opportunities to protect ourselves and those around us.
Risks and Concerns
Williams acknowledged that there are some legitimate concerns and fears about the COVID-19 vaccines. “I agree that it is totally reasonable to raise your questions and concerns,” he said.
One concern is that COVID-19 vaccines have been made too fast. It is true they were made fast, Williams said, but the technology is 20 years old, and billions of dollars have been invested. According to him, vaccines were developed so quickly this time because of the incredible investment behind them (literally billions of U.S. dollars). “Normally, a pharmaceutical company raises money on its own and generates populations to do the vaccine, which takes a long time.” But in this case, he explained, there was money available from the U.S. government.
Williams explained that even though emergency use was authorized after just two months of studies, by November 2021 there is already a one-year follow-up. “This is one of the most effective vaccines [humanity] has created,” he said. “As a scientist who reads the literature, that is what we know.”
He acknowledged that at the same time, it is true that we do not know the duration of protection. “We cannot tell you that 10 years from now there won’t be a side effect,” Williams said. “But at the same time, most of the vaccines’ side effects occur in the first 45 days. That’s the reason [health officials] decided to wait for 60 days, two weeks more than usual.”
Finally, Williams emphasized that even though no vaccine is 100 percent effective, “the efficacy of the current vaccine in preventing severe disease and death is remarkable.”
A Few Conclusions
Williams reminded his viewers that the decision to be immunized or not is the choice of each individual and that such a decision should be taken in consultation with one’s health-care provider. He also said personal research on the subject is essential. “Part of staying safe and keeping your family safe involves making sure you have the information you need about the vaccines to make an informed decision.” He advised again, “Seek God’s wisdom as you consider the Bible, the Spirit of Prophecy, and evidence-based science. We have evidence-based science, and then [we] ask the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us into all truth.”
Williams then shared a statement by Ellen G. White, who wrote in Counsels on Health, “God will not work a miracle to keep those from sickness who have no care for themselves but are continually violating the laws of health and make no efforts to prevent disease. When we do all we can on our part to have health, then may we expect that the blessed results will follow, and we can ask God in faith to bless our efforts for the preservation of health” (p. 59).
It is important to study, pray, trust God, and act wisely, Williams said. “I trust God, and I still brush my teeth every day,” he pointed out. “I trust God, and I change the oil in my car. I trust God, and I wear a seatbelt.… I trust God, but I lock my house doors at night.… Acting prudently and wisely does not indicate a lack of faith or a lack of trust in God,” he said. “We must keep studying to see ourselves approved by God.”