To answer queries of Seventh-day Adventist church leaders and members on the COVID-19 vaccine, vaccine mandates, and freedom of conscience, the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) of the Inter-American Division (IAD) held an online symposium November 19 and 20, 2021.
The event was a response to repeated questions and comments received from across the region, leaders said.
“Questions have been asked about vaccinations,” James Daniel, IAD vice-president and PARL director. “Some members are also asking for exemptions not to be vaccinated. Some members are uncertain of the stated position of the church in matters of vaccine exemptions and requirements. We intend to present the position of the church,” he said in his opening remarks.
Daniel said that the symposium would also address the matter of freedom of conscience. “How should that be understood?” he asked rhetorically. “Some of the members have requested that the leadership of the church make clear the biblical teaching about the mark of the beast and the seal of God. Is it possible for the mark of the beast to be the vaccine?”
Finally, Daniel explained that the event sought to present the principles of health reform as espoused by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “Is it preventive or curative? Does it condemn traditional medicine?” he asked.
Daniel made clear that church leaders respect those who have taken the vaccine, and that they also respect those who have not taken the vaccine.
“During this symposium, we want everyone to respect each other,” Daniel said. “There is no need to criticize each other, no need to condemn anyone, no need to cross the line that takes us beyond that which is not good fellowship.”
The symposium included several speakers from the health, religious liberty, and legal fields, including several special guests from the General Conference, the governing body of the Adventist Church. The speaker for the opening segment was Peter Landless, Adventist Church health ministries director. Landless shared and discussed the current position of the church and its implications for church members.
The Pandemic and the Church
Landless celebrated the focus the IAD region has placed on education, as it tries to educate leaders and members on various topics, including what he called “this important issue.” It’s comforting to see that “God’s church is active and engaged,” he said.
At the same time, Landless acknowledged that the pandemic has changed everyone’s lives. “We are living in unprecedented times. Travel has changed. The world has changed. People have changed. Our concerns have changed,” he said. “When I see what’s happened with the pandemic, I see it as a dress rehearsal for times which will come. We need to be aware and consciously understand how we interpret the times we live in and the information we place any importance to,” Landless said.
Living Wisely through and beyond the Pandemic
Living wisely through and beyond the pandemic is important for Seventh-day Adventists, Landless emphasized. But to understand how to do it, he said, it’s essential to look at the very basic givens we have.
First, it implies acknowledging that life is a gift. “We have been given and entrusted life, a precious gift from a loving and grace-filled God,” Landless said. He added that we have been created in God’s image, that God sustains all things, and that He heals our diseases.
At the same time, Landless emphasized, lifestyle principles are foundational to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. “Despite our brokenness, optimal lifestyle practices foster positive health outcomes,” something that includes our immune system. “Optimal health and lifestyle practices can help maintain the function of the immune system at its best.”
Landless added that some members wonder whether the Adventist Church has walked away from its message. But this is not so, he emphasized. “The health message entrusted to this church is the primary way in which we got our health, by eating appropriately, drinking the right things, by not using certain substances, by resting, by trusting God, by careful exposure to sunlight, by temperance, and relationships,” he said. “If you are going to live through and beyond this pandemic, I plead with you that you live the Adventist health message every day.”
It was something acknowledged by the Adventist Church more than a century ago, Landless noted, when the church told missionaries to live as healthily as possible, and at the same time, do any additional intervention to stay healthy.
Principles of Adventist Health Ministry
According to the General Conference Working Policy, the Bible is foundational. “Interestingly, we find public health principles in the Bible,” Landless said, such as the counsels to the Israelites when they were living in the desert. “We talk today about washing your hands and social distance. These are not new principles,” he noted.
Also, advice given must be consonant with the counsels of Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G. White, what Adventists know as “the Spirit of Prophecy.” “This has taken the church to a different level in knowledge and in counsel,” Landless said.
“Whatever we practice should be confirmed by peer-reviewed, evidence-based health science,” he said. “Some people say that we don’t need science.” But it shouldn’t be so, he said. Landless quoted White, who in her book Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students wrote, “Rightly understood, science and the written word agree, and each sheds light on each other” (p. 426). Landless noted, “As I studied science, I have been amazed [to see] that God is an amazing God.”
Other powerful elements are lifestyle interventions, which include programs to improve one’s overall health. These programs can usually help people to strengthen their immune systems. Landless noted, however, that there are immunity suppressors since immunity can be affected by age (too young or too old), pregnancy, lack of sleep, malnutrition, obesity, inactivity, stress, and lack of immunization.
According to Landless, enjoying the best health possible includes several aspects. It includes positive, informed choices and an optimistic, hopeful outlook. Positive, supportive relationships and connectedness and trust in God are of utmost importance, he said.
The Role of Immunization
Landless emphasized that a vital adjuvant to prevention is immunization — it is not an either/or situation. And, he stressed, “immunization unquestionably helps to keep disease under control.”
Immunization is part of a package, Landless said, which includes monitoring your health. “Know your numbers — weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol,” he advised. “Act on your numbers. Do regular checkups, and do not ignore symptoms.”
But it’s also important to minimize your risks (and those of others). This includes washing your hands often, avoiding contact with people who have infections, wearing masks appropriately, staying at home if you are symptomatic, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. It also includes practicing informed immunization.
What the Church Has Said
Landless referenced the Immunization Statement 2014, voted long before COVID-19 came along. He quoted from the statement, “The Church encourages responsible immunization, and as such, we have no religious or faith-based reason not to encourage our adherents to responsibly participate in protective and preventive immunization programs.”
At the same time, he said, the same document states that “we [church leaders] are not the conscience of the individual church member and recognize individual choices. These are exercised by the individual. The choice not to be immunized is not and should not be seen as the dogma nor the doctrine of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
Landless explained, “This statement was put in place because we as a church follow healthful practices. As we send missionaries out, as we teach, as we do public health presentations, as we try to make a difference through our hospitals, responsible immunization is part of that.”
Misinformation and Speculations
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the church also reacted to misinformation and to many questions going around with the release of a document reaffirming the church’s response to COVID-19, Landless noted. “The pandemic has produced all kinds of speculations related to end-time events and misinterpretations of the Bible,” he said.
One recent view put forward is the theory that the vaccines to combat COVID-19 “belong to a process of control that will lead to the application of the mark of the beast.” But Landless said that “Adventists hold the conviction that the end-time controversy will center in the law of God, and particularly in the fourth commandment. The mark of the beast is a spiritual issue, not a vaccination issue,” he said.
He also quoted that “another speculative view argues that vaccines make those who take them unclean because, supposedly, unclean substances are used to produce them.” Landless explained that the rules of Leviticus do not apply “for the obvious reason that vaccines are produced as medication to save lives, not to serve as food.”
Landless explained that current science on vaccines has shown that “immunized individuals have a very low risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus. Current vaccines offer some protection even in the cases of variants, albeit at a lower efficacy.” He summarized, “The benefits of being vaccinated far outweigh the risks of vaccination.”
What Should We Do?
Immunization, along with sanitation and clean water, has been foundational to the improved longevity seen around the world where these interventions are applied, Landless noted. “Vaccines have been long used by Adventist church members throughout the world. Along with good health practices, they have provided protection against many infections and prevented illness and death.”
Against that background, Landless explained that as we witness the global magnitude of the pandemic, the deaths, the disability, and long-term COVID-19 effects that are emerging in all age groups, Adventist leaders are “encouraging our members to consider responsible immunization.” Leaders are calling for support of “the promotion and facilitation of the development of what is commonly termed herd immunity [pre-existing community immunity of approximately 80 percent of individuals as a result of previous infection or vaccination].” He emphasized, “We are encouraging, not mandating. We need to listen to each other. We need to be respectful of one another. We should not vilify or stigmatize each other,” Landless said.
What leaders and members should remember, however, is that community immunity is vital if we are going to see an end to the pandemic. He asked, “Could it be that responsible immunization may include our responsibility to protect one another, and not only ourselves?”