I could be amiss here, but it seemed pretty clear to me that when Ben Carson released his 2012 book, America the Beautiful, he was contemplating life in politics, if not a run for the White House. With his brand new book One Nation just coming out and being launched at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in March, I have even less doubt he may well run for President of the United States (POTUS).
That being the case, one could simply say “Go Ben” and leave it at that. The recently retired neurosurgeon is a very impressive fellow with pretty solid conservative credentials, and would make a great POTUS. But I fear that just as many misguided and unhelpful Christians refused to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 because he is a Mormon, many will do the same with Carson since he is a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist.
Of course the next US election is not even close – it is a full two and a half years away (November 2016). But those considering running for POTUS or VPOTUS need to plan things very early on. So while he has not fully declared his hand here yet, there is a good chance he could run.
So for that reason it may be worth while looking a bit more closely at what the SDAs actually believe, and whether these beliefs are something Christians have to be worried about. Specifically, are they more or less a Christian group, or in fact a cult?
To try to answer that, we must say a few words about the history and teaching of the SDA. It basically started when Ellen G. White (1827-1915) in the 1840s claimed to get visions and revelations from God. Let me pause here for a moment. It is most interesting that quite a few cults all emerged around the same time in the US with very similar features.
Most had strong charismatic leaders, often claiming direct revelations from God, and most were millennialists. Four quite famous ones which also emerged during this period were:
-Mormons: 1820s, Joseph Smith
-Christadelphians: 1840s, John Thomas
-Christian Science, 1870s, Mary Baker Eddy
-Jehovah’s Witnesses: 1870s, Charles Taze Russell
But back to the SDA. Obviously as their name implies, one of their chief tenets is the rejection of Sunday as the day of rest, and the dogged commitment to only a Saturday Sabbath. And they are another adventist or millennial group. Many of the groups mentioned above were influenced by the teachings of William Miller who in 1833 publicly predicted the Second Advent of Jesus Christ in 1843-1844.
When that failed to materialise, his many followers reacted differently. Soon thereafter White started receiving her visions. A seventh-day Sabbath was one of her revelations, along with special emphasis on diet and health. Complete abstinence from coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, pork and various types of seafood is an important part of their religious practice.
The revelations and prophecies of White led to the formation of the first SDA church in 1863 with some 3,500 founding members. The church grew due to conferences, Bible study groups, and her books, such as The Great Controversy (1858), which helped to spread her message.
Theological problems of the SDA church include: an unnecessary legalism with emphasis on Old Testament ceremonial laws as necessary for salvation; belief that Jesus had a “sinful nature”; belief that Satan was a scapegoat and on him mankind’s sin was laid; belief that Sunday Sabbath observance is a mark of the beast; belief in soul sleep; and a denial of the eternal punishment of the lost.
So back to our original question: Is it a cult? One leading expert on the cults is the late Walter Martin. In his important volume, Kingdom of the Cults, first published in 1965, the founder of the Christian Research Institute looked at a number of the major cults. He did not include the SDAs in the main body of the work.
However, (as in my Revised 1968 version of the book), he did have a lengthy (64-page) appendix closely examining the group and its teaching. He begins his careful study with these words:
“It is my conviction that one cannot be a true Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Christian Scientist, etc., and be a Christian in the Biblical sense of the term; but it is perfectly possible to be a Seventh-day Adventist and be a true follower of Jesus Christ despite heterodox concepts which will be discussed.”
And he concludes the appendix this way: “I am convinced of the sincerity of the Adventists’ claim to regeneration and allegiance to the New Testament principle of saving grace. I appreciate their high regard for the law of God and their desire to obey it. I cannot agree, however, with their insistence upon linking ‘commandment-keeping’ to observance of the ceremonial law, especially with regard to ‘unclean’ foods. I feel, moreover, that they err in saying that Michael is a title of Christ, and I believe that I have shown that they violate the linguistic and scriptural meaning of Jude 9.”
It should be noted that there have been some major splits, factions and doctrinal divisions over recent decades in the SDA, with some still siding fully with White and her revelations, others not, and so on. So it is not a monolithic, uniform body today.
As one of their own told me elsewhere: “Right Bill. I was brought up SDA. Very difficult to explain their theology if not brought up with it. Some are on the Christian cultic side but others are not – just Christians who go to church on Saturday.”
Many of the older standard works on the cults included the SDA, such as Hoekema’s 1963 The Four Major Cults; Van Baalan’s 1962 The Chaos of the Cults; Gerstner’s 1960 The Theology of the Major Sects; DeHaan’s 1958 A Study of Cults; and Breese’s 1975 Know the Marks of the Cults. But many of the newer works on the cults and aberrant religious movements are less confident in making this claim, partly because of the various recent changes taking place in the SDA world.
For example, McDowell and Stewart’s 1992 volume, The Deceivers, briefly discuss the SDA and a few other groups in a section on “Groups in Transition.” In their earlier volume, Handbook of Today’s Religions, they barely get a mention. A three-page article on them found in the Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World edited by Partridge discusses their history and teaching, noting areas of divergence from evangelicalism.
Ruth Tucker in her 1989 Another Gospel says this: “When the distinctive doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventists are not strongly emphasized, most Protestant evangelicals would probably find themselves far more at home in an Adventist church service than in a liberal mainline Protestant one.”
Bob Larson’s volume, Larson’s New Book of the Cults (1982, 1989) does not even mention White or the SDA. Nor do Ankerberg and Weldon in their 1999 Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions. Ditto for Mather and Nichols’ 1993 Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult.
So all in all, I would tend to not call them a full-fledged cult. They certainly do not deny some of the biblical fundamentals that the other cults do, such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity. They do have some odd, if not aberrant teachings, but some of those seem to be in flux to some extent at the moment.
So, if Ben Carson will get involved in US Presidential politics in the days ahead (and we are still not even sure if he will), it seems to me that if you are inclined to not vote for him because of his faith tradition, that may not be a very good reason for any Christian to raise here.
As I said often enough back in 2012 as I was defending Romney over against Obama to all the purist critics, Romney was not running for theologian-in-chief, but for POTUS. This will be just as true of Carson – if he runs. Even if there are areas of concern about SDA theology, teachings and practice, we are not voting for them but for one individual.
So soon enough we may learn if Carson throws his hat in the ring. While he is not perfect in all areas (who is?), he is a very substantial conservative and Christian thinker on most important issues, and at this early stage would certainly get my vote.
For further reading on the SDA, as found on the Web, here are three helpful, balanced and informative articles:
Also, Ben Carson’s new book can be viewed here: http://www.amazon.com/One-Nation-What-Americas-Future/dp/1595231129