Just over 20 years ago I walked away from my pulpit as a Seventh-day Adventist minister, having spent 18 years of my adult life in the denomination, including serving as a pastor in both the Carolina Conference of SDA and the Gulf States Conference of SDA.
At the time that I left the Adventist denomination I was going through an unwanted divorce, and although my conference president was gracious in seeking ways to preserve my ministry, even securing a pastorate in another Conference, I opted to resign and walk away, with a hope of going back to the drawing board of my faith, life, and pastoral ministry.
My choice to leave, was not solely because I had issues with the conference, disputes with theology, or because I was displeased with my parishioners. I certainly had issues, disputes, and displeasure, but really – I needed a place of grace, a safe haven to heal, and a fellowship that would foster a growing faith in Jesus and hope for my future, at a very difficult time in my ministry and life.
Unfortunately, I knew I couldn’t find grace in the Sabbath-keeping focused Adventist church, because I knew by experience that its culture favors an over-emphasis of legalistic adherence at the expense of pointing to Calvary’s grace, so I found myself attending a small local United Methodist Church and eventually a Baptist church during those months of transition and healing where I found grace to grow and get back to my calling.
I have nothing but goodwill toward the Seventh-day Adventist church, and have never understood the level of disdain many former members spew on social media. My position has been if you are an active Seventh-day Adventist and born-again believer and happy in the Adventist church, then I’m happy for you.
However, if you are a former Adventist or inactive member or are simply seeking biblical peace in Christian fellowship while balancing grace and truth, then I want you to know that there is a place for you in the larger church.
Worship with Sabbath-Keepers
I have found that it’s hard to find peace in a church where the congregational culture tends to emphasize adherence at the expense of emphasizing grace, growing in knowledge more than growing in a relationship, and where the majority of conversations are centered on the faults of doctrines held by other churches, or on diet and Sabbath-keeping rather than on praises of Christ for saving and healing.
About 5 years after I left the Adventist denomination, I actually visited the local SDA church in my new hometown of Mobile with my new family, at the urging of my pastor friend who assured me over lunch that “things have changed” and that I would find his church “more grace focused now.”
My wife and I left shocked and saddened after hearing “Happy Sabbath” over and over and over. In fact, we recounted at least 21 “Happy Sabbath’s” from the time we were greeted at the door, greeted in the sanctuary, and as we heard over and over again from the platform during the worship hour by everyone who stepped up to the microphone. Sadly, we never heard the name “Jesus” mentioned – zero, zippo, not even in the sermon.
Now, I realize that the Adventist church as a denomination doesn’t sanction the worship of the Sabbath and I know the church believes in Jesus as the only Savior and Way to heaven. However, on the local church level, the congregational culture can seem like the opposite is true.
Worship of the Sabbath
From my perspective, the Adventist church seems consumed with worshiping the Sabbath, rather than the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath, in the Holy Decalogue, as I understand it is a command to rest not on the day of a week through works, but a command to rest in the Creator through faith. Jesus Christ is the Sabbath that the command bids us to not forget, and to rest in and exercise our faith in.
In the Old Testament, the Sabbath was a type of Christ to point them to the Christ to come. They were taught to refrain from work, because we could not be saved by works but by resting in faith of Jesus who would come.
There is no command of worship in the 4th command, although it is called a sign in Exodus 31:13. The fourth commandment does not mention the word “worship” or make reference to the practice of fellowship or assembly.
It is a sign that points to the covenant of the Messiah just as the rainbow is a sign that points to God’s covenant not to send another flood. We use signs on the highway to remind drivers of which road is at the exit ramp, but the sign is not road. The sign points to the real thing – the road at the exit.
The 10 Commandments are the behavior standard of righteousness and a monument of the character of God, but they are not a means of being justified by God (Galatians 3:10-11). Jesus said He did not come to destroy but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17-20). He came to live them out and in His teachings He taught us that it is the spirit of the law where application gets fleshed out in our day to day life.
Remember that Jesus said that to kill means to hate (Matthew 5:21-22) and that adultery means to lust (Matthew 5:27-28) and that it means to love God and love man (Matthew 22:36-40). Likewise, I understand the Sabbath as pointing toward the Messiah in whom we find rest (Matthew 11:25-29).
The laws and regulations given in the Old Testament were for a people who could not look back at Calvary or have the full measure of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Old Covenant law for the pre-Pentecost believer became the New Covenant faith for the post-Pentecost believer. John 1:17 says “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”
In Galatians 2:21 we find assurance with these words from Paul, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (NIV).
Worship on the Sabbath
I think its possible that a Christian can maintain some type of Sabbath keeping practice, but I also think its most difficult without fellowship in a grace-centered congregation. Worship of the Sabbath, not on the Sabbath, is the inevitable result of sinful human flesh and the attempt to construct a means to obtainment, without faith.
Several years after the return visit experience that I shared above, I was involved as a pastor with a Sabbath keeping church that began with the stated aim of remaining a nondenominational fellowship. The church did a good job at staying away from a legalistic culture but struggled with its nondenominational commitment and allegiance to the SDA organization, eventually disbanding.
I do not deny that a local church can keep the Bible Sabbath by gathering together to worship on the seventh-day. However, it must have a strong Christ-centered mission, focus, and absence of other tests of fellowship.
By tests of fellowship I mean having a local culture of focus on adherence and other religious practice, like dietary laws, given emphasis in the congregation through continual communication that underscores a legalistic attitude.
There is much that I am grateful for in regard to my past within the Seventh-day Adventist church and over these years I have sought to maintain relationships with those that I had left behind when I walked away from my SDA pulpit.
This post, is really in some ways just my answer to those who wonder why I left the denomination or to clarify in light of wrong assumptions. It is also given as a brief explanation of the dynamics I faced during those early days of leaving the SDA denomination.
Finally, I realize that I may have raised questions in my answers, so if you have any questions about my story, experience, or background as a Seventh-day Adventist, please don’t hesitate to ask me.