Commentary: Is the church immune?
Editor's note: Commentaries are intended to express the richness and variety of informed and responsible Adventist opinion on current issues. They do not necessarily convey the viewpoint of the Adventist Review editorial team or the General Conference.
Have you heard that there’s a conspiracy going on inside the Seventh-day Adventist Church, insidiously working to destroy the people of God? Or perhaps you’ve been told that Jesuits have infiltrated Adventist Church leadership, quietly promoting a destructive agenda? I myself have been accused of being one of these Jesuits! And what about a secret plan—accepted by church leaders—to change Christian doctrines by using modern translations of the Bible?
Such stories make me think that we’re living in the midst of conspiracy theories.
What Does Conspiracy Theory Mean?
A conspiracy theory “explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.”1 It also consists of “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for an unexplained event.”2
Conspiracy theories are nothing new; they usually appear when a community has lost their trust in religious or political authorities. After World War II, for example, Americans slowly lost their faith in government; thus, anything government officials did was under suspicion. Some people today believe that the Jewish Holocaust was a scheme used by the United States government to gain control of the world. When President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, all kinds of conspiracy theories arose, some lasting even to this day. Then there are those who doubt that Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew actually landed on the moon in 1969; they believe it was just some form of Hollywood production to deceive the world. And, of course, we have the September 11 attacks, a conspiracy de rigueur, during which, according to conspiracy lovers, nothing happened as it appeared in the media.
Why are these often bizarre and impossible-to-prove ideas so popular? Because society has lost its confidence in government and any form of leadership or authority; ergo, whatever leaders do is under suspicion.
Conspiracy theories are advantageous to some people, though: those who gain financially from them through books, videos, and Web sites. They know people love a mystery, so they give them what they want. It’s a profitable business.
Conspiracy Inside the Church?
Conspiracy theories began emerging in the Adventist Church decades ago, often with pastors and church officials as targets of the attacks. I remember a particular conversation I had with a church member that went something like this:
“Pastor, I have a question for you,” he said.
“OK, ask your question,” I answered.
“Is it true that pastors have another book besides the Bible, a secret one?”
“Well, we have the Adventist hymnal, but you can get one too.”
“No, no. I’m talking about a book that the General Conference gives only to pastors and other church leaders; a book that the rest of us cannot get.”
“The Church Manual?” I suggested.
“No, no. A more secret one,” he insisted.
“No, there is nothing; that story is not true,” I assured him. Unfortunately, he wasn’t convinced.
Why do we have conspiracy theories even among our own church members? It’s because sometimes, for one reason or another, some members have lost confidence in church leaders. Here again, some people profit financially from slandering church leaders at all levels by using such means as videos, Web sites, or print publications. They make their living from scandals, controversy, and rumors that spread among believers; and they present themselves as contemporary “saviors” ready to help “open the eyes” of God´s people.
How could this happen to us? Here are a few ingredients for that recipe:
The social context. We live in a world that’s open to conspiracy theories. Every day in the media we hear, watch, and read about accusations against governments and politicians. Unfortunately, the idea that no one in authority deserves confidence remains in our minds. This influence carries over to God’s people in the church as well.
Human error. Errors are part of human nature. We are not infallible. Sadly, when a pastor or other church leader makes a mistake, it causes a lot of pain. We can’t, of course, justify those things that are clearly wrong. But it is important to remember that these are usually isolated situations and generally not common. People who make a living from conspiracy theories, however, proclaim that this is the way Adventist leaders perform, then they use a very effective tool: generalization. They infer that all pastors always act unscrupulouly.
Ineffective communication. When pastors do not keep their congregations updated on what they’re doing, where they are, and how their plans are developing, they’re preparing the soil for all kinds of rumors, gossip, and speculation. While serving as a pastor for several congregations in southern Mexico, I discovered this effective communication approach: Along with other methods of communication, I published a monthly bulletin to inform my congregations about my schedule, conference plans, and local church events. It worked well. People appreciated receiving reports directly from the pastor, and it helped me to avoid rumors, speculation, and gossip about my job.
Lack of pastoral attention. Many problems can be avoided if church members are given a little pastoral attention. When someone harshly criticizes the conference and its leaders, for example, perhaps they just need to discuss the issues with the pastor. When access to the pastor is unavailable, doubts can grow, and rumors and inaccurate information can flourish.
Not enough time in serious Bible study. People today are hungry to believe, but rather than think, many people just want to feel. Singing Christian songs or listening to a preacher on the Internet can be inspirational and result in emotional responses. But nothing can serve as an adequate substitute for actually reading God´s Word.
Jesus warned us about deceivers in the end-times: “And many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. . . . For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:11-24). The apostle Paul tells us about the danger of just listening to the things we want to hear: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3, 4).
What do you want to hear? Do you want to hear innuendos about conspiracy theories in the Adventist Church? If so, I’m sure someone will be happy to talk to you about them. But if you want to know truth as God has revealed it in His Word, then we should turn to the Bible to find it. Jesus promised that we will know the truth and that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Trust in the Lord, and be assured that in spite of our human weaknesses, He is leading His church. We are living in the end-times, so we must encourage one another and work toward unity in the church. Let us pray for our leaders, other church members, and ourselves, that God will give us strength, courage, and wisdom to share the gospel message with those around us. Let’s especially pray for those who have been called by the Lord to guide His people at this crucial time in earth’s history, because Jesus is coming soon!
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. “conspiracy theory.”
- Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. “conspiracy theory.”