By Colleen Tinker
This last week, a former Adventist posted in an online forum that she was presenting a talk at a conference for family therapists. Her goal was to help her audience understand issues a former Adventist who came for therapy might have that weren’t necessarily part of the presenting problem, and she asked for input from other formers.
Reading her request for input, I realized that there are some things about former Adventists that I wish pastors and other Christians knew about former Adventists when the formers venture into a Christian community. I would not have been able to articulate many of these concerns when we were newly “out”, but in the years that we have been involved in ministry to people leaving Adventism, several things have become clear.
First, Adventism teaches a unique worldview that is not “Christian”, although they believe it is. They use the same words as Christians, but their definitions are different. This difference creates confusion when Adventists and Christians talk. Consequently, when a former Adventist asks questions (especially if the former is relatively “new”), the Christians may not truly understand what the Former means. The Christian may try to answer what he thinks the Former is asking, but that answer may not address the real concern at all because the question doesn’t make sense to the Christian who is unfamiliar with the Adventist lexicon and worldview.
For example, in 2009 Pastor Bryan Clark at the Berean Bible Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, sat on a panel with some of us from Life Assurance Ministries during a Q & A session held on the Berean campus. Pastor Clark was asked, “When did you begin to understand that former Adventists needed help debriefing from their Adventism?”
Pastor Clark responded that a few years before, a rather significant number of former Adventists had begun to attend his church and had also begun to come to him privately to find help resolving their confusion. He said, “I began to realize that I didn’t understand their questions. It was as if they would ask me, ‘Where does the Bible say you shouldn’t wear a yellow shirt?’ And I would respond, ‘Where does the Bible even mention wearing a yellow shirt?’”
The dilemma is real. When a Christian encounters a Former asking a confusing question, the first thing the Christian should assume is that there is a deeper meaning than the words they hear, and they should respond by clarifying what the questioner is actually trying to understand.
The flip side of the “different vocabulary” coin is that the questioning or former Adventist may experience cognitive dissonance if he is actually paying attention to what he hears. As Adventists hear the Bible being taught contextually and truthfully, they begin to realize they have been deceived. They begin to hear the words of Scripture as they were meant to be understood, and this plain meaning of the text will contradict what they have been told the Bible says. This cognitive dissonance is God’s tool; He uses the contradictions to cause people to search the Bible for truth.
When Adventists realize how Scripture contradicts their Adventist teachings, they face an integirty problem: do they stay in Adventism and try to “get along” or “change it from within”, or do they make their behavior match their new beliefs?
Gospel the only answer
The only way Adventists (or any cult members) become free from the subtle bondage of their cult is to actually understand the gospel and to trust Jesus. Leaving without knowing Jesus happens often, but those people remain “Adventist” in their overall worldview. People who leave for the sake of Jesus are the ones who ultimately are able to leave the Adventist attachments behind. They face the loss of identity, social structure, family, and many times income/work. They go through the five stages of grief.
Knowing the truth about Jesus, moreover, ultimately means the Lord causes them to look at their own lives and to know the truth about their families and experiences. More times than not, Adventists who leave for the sake of the gospel discover that there is deep dysfunction and very often overt abuse in their backgrounds. It is disorienting and frightening to begin to face the truth about one’s past, but the Lord is stable, and His word is alive and comforting.
In fact, it is impossible to overstate the importance of a former Adventist’s becoming immersed in Scripture. The Bible is the only tangible source of truth and reality that we have: the very word of God. In it He reveals Himself, and He convicts us of our own sin and need. In Scripture we find the way to know Jesus and to trust Him—and trusting Jesus is the way we are born again and sealed with the Holy Spirit. There is no shortcut to becoming whole after a fracturing, disorienting past with a warped view of reality, but there is only one way a former Adventist can become stabilized and anchored in truth: knowing and trusting the gospel of the real Jesus and submitting to His word.
People who leave Adventism need to talk to people who understand the worldview differences between Adventists and evangelical Christians. Moreover, they need to be seen as people who likely are trauma victims. The perfectionism, the false beliefs, the secrets, the spiritual, physical, emotional, and even sexual abuse that affects so many former Adventists in varying degrees shapes everyone who has been raised in deception with a false gospel.
Christians often don’t want to know how bad things were for those who have exited a warped worldview; in fact, some former Adventists themselves have trouble facing that reality. Nevertheless, pastors and Christians who find themselves mentoring and teaching people who have left a cult need to know that some of those Formers really suffer deep and serious abuse. While some may not have backgrounds marked as deeply by physical cruelty, still the fear, loss, and disorientation they experience when they leave is severe. They need to be taken seriously and believed; when Christians try to “normalize” Adventism to a former Adventist who knows how dark and deceptive his former religion is, they damage the Former’s trust in his new community. Someone who is told to “move on” or is stopped from speaking truthfully about their past experience as they discover reality soon suspects that Christians don’t know what to do with them.
It takes several years of comparing Scripture to one’s past beliefs to begin to shed the warped worldview the Former thought was “real”. Ultimately, God’s word is the anchor of stability and reality that provides the framework to recover. The gospel is not just for salvation; it’s also the means for people to learn what is real and true about life. In His wisdom, our Father has made the body of Christ his chosen agent for administering the truth of His word and the love of Jesus to those who have been called out of deep darkness into the light of truth and eternal life.