A Seventh-day Adventist’s Long Way Home
Featuring Kevin Wynn/
Background: Seventh-day Adventist/
October 27, 2014
I was raised Seventh-day Adventist (SDA). My father’s side of the family is all Adventist; my mother’s side of the family is all Southern Baptist. My mother converted for my father and, ironically, turned out to be a more committed Adventist than he was! Thus, my sister and I were raised in the Adventist Church.
I can remember a brown brick church that we used to pass just down the road from our church; it was a tall, gothic looking building that I instinctively recognized as a church. I remember asking my father if we could go to that church sometime. He told me that those people had very different beliefs than ours, and that they were “almost Catholic.” I learned at a young age that Catholic meant “bad” even though I didn’t understand why. If those people were Christian, I couldn’t understand how their beliefs could be so different that my father wouldn’t even be comfortable going into their building. A few times I remember asking what made Catholics different and the answers I received were tempered to whatever age I happened to be. As I matured, I was told that, according to an Adventist prophet, the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, was actually the antichrist.
Trying to understand faith amidst turbulence
I was twelve years old when my parents got a divorce. Adventists don’t believe in divorce, and have a very similar understanding as Catholics of the sanctity of marriage. Not long after that, as the sordid details of the break up were still coming out, my father got married again (to someone who apparently had been waiting in the wings). I was devastated and stopped taking anything he said too seriously. I started to wonder if there was anything to the “truth” I had been taught.
I need to give my mother credit for keeping it together through that difficult time. Had I not witnessed the faith with which she faced that situation, I might have walked away from the church forever. My father died suddenly of a heart attack at the young age of forty-four. I didn’t cry much about my father’s death at the time (although I have since). It was hard to find comfort in our faith, which pretty much consigned my dad to hell for having abandoned the faith to divorce my mom and remarry. The belief was that once you know the “truth” of the Adventist faith and then turn your back on it, you are lost. If you, through no fault of your own, were raised in another faith, and never came to know the “truth” of the Adventist teaching, you still had a chance at being saved. They would say “even Catholics might be saved if they were living according to the light that was revealed to them.” On the other hand, once you came to know the “truth,” you were responsible for acting on it. If you chose to ignore the teachings of the Adventist Church after you had been made aware of them, you were certainly lost. (I believe this is one reason why there are so few converts from the Adventist Church.)
However, because of another teaching of the Adventist Faith, I was sure that my father was not suffering any sort of punishment — yet. Adventist teach “soul sleep,” which means when you die you cease to be — period — until the resurrection.
Wanting to go deeper
I’m sure that any Protestants reading this are familiar with the term “revival.” The Adventist Church doesn’t hold revivals, as such; they have “Revelation seminars.” Whenever doubt starts to creep in, you can find a Revelation seminar to attend to get a booster shot of Adventism! When I was in high school I remember going to one that my church was holding at a local school. Revelation seminars are largely based on the Book of Revelation and usually last about one week. Every night, you are systematically drawn deeper into Adventist “Revealed Truth,” and, by the end you are either convinced that they are way off base, or that the Pope is actually the antichrist. These seminars make a very convincing argument. I even know of some former Catholics who have been drawn into believing this.
After the Revelation seminar, I was convinced that our church was the only way to heaven, and I wanted to lead others to understand the “truth.” I prayed and asked God to show me these things in the Bible, so that I could lead others to Him. I remember reading the Book of Revelation, trying to pick out the different points from the seminar. I was starting to get very frustrated, because some of the things they talked about were in there, but they seemed to have been taken out of context. A basic reading of Revelation will show there are errors in the Adventist timing of all the events. However, at the time, I thought myself fortunate to have been born Adventist — because, there was no way I could have figured all this out on my own!
Confusion amidst revival
We had a wonderful preacher who made the Bible come alive for me. I greatly enjoyed his sermons. He had a son who was my age and we became good friends. Sometimes after church, I would go over to his house. On one occasion, I went to his refrigerator to get a drink and noticed a bottle of wine. Adventists are not supposed to drink. I couldn’t understand why our preacher would have wine in his home. I asked my friend about this. “Jesus drank wine,” he responded. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Some Protestant churches even use grape juice for communion, no matter what their stand on drinking, I argued. My friend pointed out a couple of Bible verses that clearly showed the wine they were drinking in Jesus’ day was fermented. Could the Bible be wrong? Not long after this, our preacher left and started his own church, taking a good percentage of our membership with him. This was something that was unheard of in the Adventist Church.
Our new preacher was straight out of the seminary. He preached a good sermon, though, and followed Adventist teaching to the letter. He was also the new teacher of our Sabbath School class. With my newfound conviction that what our church taught might be wrong, it was not long before we butted heads. I just wanted to be shown from the Bible exactly why we believe what we believe.
Seventh-day Adventists keep the Levitical dietary laws, but when I was reading a familiar passage from 1 Timothy 4, I was struck by verses 4 and 5: “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving; For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” Verse 6 goes on to say, “if thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, Thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ…” I sincerely wanted to be a good witness for Christ to others. I brought this perceived discrepancy to the attention of our class. Shouldn’t we be free to eat anything as long as we asked God’s blessing and gave thanks for it? Our preacher didn’t know how to respond. We agreed to continue the discussion the following week. At our next class, I had come prepared with other supporting texts. Among them 1 Corinthians 10:25 and the texts my friend had pointed out about the wine that Jesus was drinking. When I tried to pick up the discussion where we had left off, our preacher informed me that we had spent enough time on that. We would be moving on to a new topic. I don’t think I ever went back to his class.
Later, I began making a “Witnessing Bible,” in which I wrote out each of our Adventist beliefs on the blank pages in the back of the Bible. I started gathering the verses used to support each one. As I assembled our supporting texts, I began to realize that they didn’t in fact say what I thought that they did.
I still thought the Adventist Church was mostly right, though. They were certainly the only church that was keeping the biblical seventh-day Sabbath, so where else could I go? The Adventist Church had books written on how keeping Saturday is the seal of God on His true end-time church. Adventists make keeping Sunday the equivalent of receiving the “mark of the beast.” They have also been convinced (for the last 150 years or so) that they are personally living in the last days of earth’s history. That belief can have serious consequences on your psyche. When I was going to grade school, I remember our teachers telling us we probably wouldn’t have time to grow up and have families of our own. As a result, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to getting married. I just assumed Jesus would return any day now, so why bother. I also didn’t want to have any young children when we entered the Tribulation. Adventists don’t believe in the Rapture, so if you are living at that time you would have to run to the hills to avoid persecution. I have also seen the affects that this thinking has had on the older generations in the Adventist Church. Imagine that you have lived your whole life believing you were “not going to die.” Sometime very soon, most likely in the next 5 to 10 years Jesus would return and you would pass into Glory without seeing death. That is a comforting, pacifying belief until you wake up one morning and you are 70 years old. I have seen the faith crisis that comes from realizing way too late in life that you are actually going to die someday. It can be devastating and leave you feeling abandoned by God. I woke up one morning on my 25th birthday and realized that I probably should start thinking about getting married and raising a family.
Just in case Jesus doesn’t return in my lifetime…
I met my wife the night a mutual friend had convinced us to attend an Adventist singles’ party. Marrying within our faith was important to both of us. My wife, Julie, was a devoted Adventist. She was taken to church the day after she was born. Her mother was the church organist for many years. Julie was the youngest of seven siblings, and every week her family would occupy the front row of their church.
Julie and I started attending the church she had grown up in and she was very happy about returning to her old church, so I didn’t feel the need to share my doubts about our faith with her at the time. My wife has a beautiful voice and, since she was a little girl, she would often sing for special music in the church. Not long after we started going back to her old church they got a new music director with very different ideas about the musical program. Special music was now a thing of the past. This had been Julie’s church since the day after she was born, and the church we were married in; now, she didn’t feel like they had a place for her anymore.
Gradually, we stopped going to church at all. This is where our journey home began, although it would take us another 10 years to get there.
Rationally defensible beliefs
One day, I came across an Adventist website whose author was making arguments against Catholicism. At the end of the page there was a link called “A Catholic rebuttal,” with a disclaimer that warned this link would actually take the reader to a Catholic website. I thought to myself, This should be interesting. I didn’t see how Catholics could possibly answer the accusations made against them. However, I was impressed with the Catholic answers to the Adventist claims. Rather than making counter accusations, as I had expected, they presented their beliefs and explained them in a rational manner. This Church seemed different than the way in which the Adventist Church had presented it to me. I decided to study the history of the SDA Church for myself and find out where we had gotten it wrong.
A study of the Adventist tradition didn’t take very long. There was a preacher named William Miller who was going around convincing people that he had deciphered the prophecies in Daniel and Revelation (the original Revelation seminars). He claimed the world was coming to an end in October 1844. What happened next came to be known as the “Great Disappointment,” and most of Millers’ followers went back to their former congregations. Miller admitted he had been wrong, and returned to his former church as a lay member. There were about one hundred believers, however, that couldn’t admit Miller had been wrong. They believed something had happened in 1844. Since nothing visibly happened on earth, something must have taken place in heaven. This is the basis for the Adventist faith. It was not long before a member of that group was claiming to be a prophet, confirming all the answers they were coming up with. At this point I started asking myself, If I had been alive during this time, which group would I have been in? Matthew 24:36 — “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” — came to mind. If only God knows when the end will come, why would I listen to anyone who thought they had figured it out? I would have probably been a member of one of those other churches, waiting for my friends to realize their mistake and come back. But which church? What was my religious heritage?
I found out that, of the little group that became the Adventist Church, most had come from the Methodist tradition. I thought maybe this was my heritage. I began to study the Methodist Church. I discovered that the Methodists had started as a movement within the Church of England. Therefore, I decided to find out where that church came from. This took me back to the English Reformation. I decided that some king wanting a divorce was not a valid reason to start a church, so I started looking at the other churches that had come out of the Continental Reformation. I felt Luther hadn’t gone far enough and, in fact, wasn’t even trying to start his own church. Thus, I concluded that Calvin probably was the closest to getting it right. I started looking for a church that was based on his theology.
I searched for a Presbyterian church in our area. I found one in a beautiful old building that reminded me a lot of the church my father didn’t want to visit when I was a child. I set up a meeting with the pastor to discuss the things I had been studying and answer a few questions I had about Calvin’s teachings. There were five points to Calvin’s teachings, I learned, and I wasn’t on board with all of them yet. I told the pastor in our meeting that I believed at the time of the Reformation the Church was definitely in need of reform. I didn’t, however, think that just anyone was free to decide what the Bible meant to them personally and to start their own church. He told me that what I said sounded very Presbyterian and that I didn’t have to agree with all of the five points to start attending their church. I loved the liturgy in the Presbyterian church and the sanctuary reminded me a lot of the church I had grown up in.
My wife didn’t attend with me at the beginning, but she didn’t mind that I was going, since we weren’t going to any other church at the time. I don’t think she or any of my Adventist friends took me too seriously — they thought this was just a phase. However, I made several friends there, and eventually my wife started attending, too. Since Julie wasn’t ready to give up on the church she had grown up in yet, I never transferred my membership.
Who had the authority to transfer the Sabbath?
In my studies, I had learned a lot of things about our Adventist prophetess, Ellen G. White, and shared them with my wife. We were both convinced that she wasn’t a true prophetess, but the Saturday Sabbath was the only thing Julie still held on to. Through Church history, I understood that the Christian Sabbath was Sunday — if it hadn’t been for 1800 years of Sunday-keeping Christians, the Adventist Church would have had nothing to break away from! I wanted to continue to look into this issue for my wife’s sake, so that we could be united. I found a Christian apologetics website and started my research. I saw the need for some definitive authority in the Church, and the Presbyterian Church didn’t seem to have that.
Then a thought occurred to me: If the Catholic Church transferred the solemnity of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, when did that happen, and under what authority did it claim to have the right to do so? As I studied my way through the early Church Fathers (whose writings were at least contemporary with the books of the New Testament), I found that the early Church was, in fact, the Catholic Church! The Catholic Church got its authority from the Apostles who had received the authority from Christ Himself. Honoring the Lord’s Day went all the way back to at least the middle of the first century. Most of the apostles were still alive at this time. That’s much earlier than the Adventist Church claimed that Catholics changed the day. I understood that if the Apostles had changed the day, it was certainly within their authority to do so (Matthew 16:18-19). I started wondering if there was anyone today who could claim to have that same authority that Jesus passed on to His Apostles.
“Why do you watch that nonsense?”
I started reading everything I could about the Catholic Church, and discovered EWTN on our local cable network. I would get up early before work and watch. I greatly enjoyed watching The Journey Home. Witnessing how the Spirit had led others out of the denominations they had grown up in and home to the Church Jesus founded on the Apostles. Sometimes I would think to myself, I wonder what my story would sound like if I ever made it home. I also loved to watch anything with Scott Hahn. I had reached the point in my journey where I wasn’t Catholic yet, but I wasn’t comfortable being anything else either. I had shared none of this with my wife. Sometimes Julie would get upset with me when I would leave the TV in the living room tuned to EWTN. She would get up, turn the TV on, and see Mother Angelica praying the rosary (or something equally offensive to Adventist sensibilities). She would say: “Why do you watch that nonsense? If you are going to watch that channel at least change it before you leave for work.” Then one day she said, “I like that feisty old nun. I watched one of her shows today.” I could tell that the Spirit was working on her heart.
In 2013, Julie’s health took a turn for the worse. She had breathing problems and spent five days in the ICU and two more in the hospital, before they let her come home — without knowing what was causing it! A week later she was back in the hospital, and they wouldn’t let her leave without being on oxygen.
By this time, I was convinced that joining the Catholic Church was the right thing to do. I didn’t want to put it off any longer. I knew that if something happened to Julie, I would regret having put it off. I had watched enough EWTN to know I would have to go through Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) first. I let my wife know what I was planning to do. She was upset, but a Baptist friend of Julie’s could tell this was something I needed to do, and encouraged my wife not to stand in the way. “I think Catholics are sincere Christians,” her friend said, “They just don’t really understand grace.” (Honestly, I can say I didn’t understand grace until I met our Lord in the Eucharist.)
Julie and I called our local church and learned the next RCIA classes were starting in a month (which gave my wife a little time to adjust to this idea). We started attending Mass at St. Francis Church together. It was different at first, but the service was beautiful. There was a lot happening that we didn’t seem to be “in” on. I hadn’t admitted to my wife that I still had one concern about becoming Catholic. I was not sure about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Although, I was certain that the priest could actually forgive sins in Jesus’ name (John 20:23), I just was not certain I would be able to go through with the confession part of the process. I didn’t know if I would be able to share with someone else every time I didn’t live up to Christ’s example. At the first Mass we attended, however, as Christ was made present in the Eucharist, I had an overwhelming sense of peace about going to Confession. I could hear Christ’s words to Paul in my mind, “My grace is sufficient.” As a Protestant, I had always assumed “Communion” meant a communion with our fellow Christians. Suddenly I understood. It should mean a Communion with our Lord. I understood Christ’s words, for the first time: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” He never has!
Julie agreed to go to RCIA classes with me. I didn’t know it at the time but she had an ulterior motive. She told me later that she assumed I would figure out Catholics were wrong, and she wanted to be there to “pick up the pieces” and lead me back to the Adventist Church. After we had gone for a month or so, she started to realize that might not happen. Then, the reality of the situation hit her: her husband was going to become Catholic — and she was not okay with that. She started to resist going to Mass. We always made it but a couple of times we left early. Every time she got up and walked out of the church, I would follow her out to the car, and we would leave. I diligently prayed for her, and I asked God for His help and guidance. I didn’t know what else to do. The last time she wanted to leave, I told her I needed to stay. She asked for the keys and walked out. I stayed and prayed like I had never prayed before. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a ride home when I walked out of the church. A few minutes later, she came back and dropped the keys on the seat next to me. She said, “Well, you’re taking me to hell; I might as well enjoy the ride.”
I didn’t want her to feel that way.
In His Church — together
A few weeks later we were discussing God’s covenants in the RCIA class, and it was then that Julie had her “Ah-ha!” moment. The Adventist Church had always tried to place us squarely under the Old Covenant. Something someone said in class got her attention: the Old Covenant had a beginning and an end. The Old Covenant had to have come to an end to make way for the New. Now, the things she was hearing in class started to make sense to her.
I could sense that there was still something holding her back, though; and I didn’t know what it was. My wife had always had a hot/cold relationship with my mother. Julie desperately wanted her approval. Although completely unbeknownst to me, my mother was putting a lot of pressure on Julie to bring me back to the Adventist Church. Eventually, at Christmastime — sparing the details — my family betrayed my wife’s trust for the last time. It is truly regrettable that it happened that way, but no longer caring about what my mother wanted, Julie committed wholeheartedly to joining the Catholic Church with me.
On April 19th, 2014, at the Easter vigil, that is exactly what we did! The Easter Vigil happened to coincide with my wife’s birthday, and even though the Church had recognized our marriage as valid, we restated our wedding vows in front of the congregation. The whole vigil was exhausting, but it had a strangely familiar feel to it. I remember looking around the church shortly after receiving our First Communion, taking it all in and thinking, “We finally made it home.” Thanks be to God!