Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Quick Survivor’s Guide: Basic information about the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement (SDARM)

- The Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement (SDARM) comprises a number of ultra-conservative offshoots separated from the ‘mainstream’ Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA). Thus, the term 'SDARM' is used as a generic term and not necessarily limited to just one legal entity. It is very important not to confuse the 'mainstream' SDA Church with the various SDARM Churches.  
- This site is primarily dedicated to the SDARM because it is the biggest and best organized of the SDA schisms.  However, other SDA offshoots are also explored in other articles, as well as on our sister-site "Sevy Taliban: Ex-Adventist Cults".  Our sister-site discusses: David Koresh, Wayne Bent, Chirck McGill, John Thiel, Walter Veith, Christopher Hudson, Samuel Pipim and more.
- In a nutshell, the SDARM are fanatically conservative and extreme, treating ‘non-essential’ questions as ‘salvation' issues and tests of membership.  For example, baptism will be refused or Church discipline initiated (i.e. censor or excommunication) on the basis of failing to comply with Reformist standards concerning vegetarianism, long hair and dress reform.  They adopt a Pharisaic attitude to religion.
- The SDARM arose during World War One Germany, and there is a strong authoritarian German element to their religion.  A major split within the SDARM occurred in the 1950s, with two major groups now both claiming to be the SDARM.  There are in turn a number of ‘independent historic’ Reformist groups as well.
- Reformist devotees typically seek to live a rigidly parallel life to that experienced by the SDA pioneers, who lived in a Victorian society of 19th Century America.  By obsessing with regulatory minutiae, the SDARM arguably can become assessed with law-keeping which in itself can become an idol, defeating the very good to which God originally intended.  
- Although some might argue about classification, the SDARM Church(es) is probably a cult. Some members of the ‘mainstream’ SDA Church adopt a similar mindset; however, the vast majority of mainstream Adventists are not so caught up in regulatory minutiae. 

Who or what is the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement (SDARM)?

The SDARM is an offshoot of the mainstream Seventh-day Adventist Church. It is important not to confuse the two.  The mainstream SDA Church is quite different from the SDARM. 

As will be discussed below, the SDARM does not represent one particular organization or church, but is an umbrella term, representing a range of different ultra-conservative groups, some large, some one-congregation churches, often hostile to each other and the mainstream SDA Church, but who all share a wide range of very conservative Adventist beliefs and practices.  The 'M' in SDARM does after all stand for 'movement', not church. 

Not every group will agree with the label 'SDARM', and some may wish to deny that label to others, whilst some may argue they have divergent beliefs from the SDARM. However, for the purpose of this website, the overwhelming similarities between these groups outweigh their differences, and the term SDARM offers a convenient label to describe groups with shared beliefs and practices.  That said, readers should be aware that there may be small differences from place-to-place, and group-to-group.  

This author is not intending to insult groups who would prefer not to call themselves SDARM. The term is largely a matter of classifying convenience.  

How does the SDARM and the mainstream SDA Church differ?

This article will not attempt to describe in detail every nuanced difference.  Some of the differences will be explored in other future articles.

In a nutshell, the SDARM is an ultra-conservative cult-like group of offshoot Adventists, who have left the mainstream SDA Church.  On the whole, the SDARM adheres to many of the major doctrinal beliefs of the mainstream SDA Church, as found its 28 fundamental beliefs.  There are some major theological differences on the Godhead (denying the Trinity), divorce (forbidding marriage in any circumstance, even adultery), belief in a special resurrection for those who have died since 1844, belief they alone are the 4th Angel of Revelation 18 and teaching the mainstream SDA Church is apostate and in Babylon.  

However, the SDARM largely differs on minor matters. They create proverbial storms in a tea cup over matters such as the 144,000 (which they believe is literal), mandatory vegetarianism, extreme dress reform (something out of a 19th Century period drama), and excessively long hair for women (often worn in enormous buns).  

In this way, the SDRAM differs from Adventists in turning ‘minor’ or ‘non-essential’ issues into ‘major’ or ‘salvation issues.’  For example, whilst most Adventist would agree on the importance of modest dress and apparel or vegetarianism, only the SDARM makes these tests of membership.   One is reminiscent of the Pharisees, who Jesus describes in Luke 11:42 as follows:
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
The SDARM also differs from the mainstream SDA Church by the lack of open and transparent checks and balances. Whilst the SDA Church is not perfect in this regard, the SDARM is in a whole other league when it comes to control.  

The SDARM has a range of minor beliefs about Church organization, which like most cults, in effect serve to ensure the authoritarian control of the SDARM leadership.  These include teaching the leadership is the 'voice of God' (not far removed from Papal infallibility), 'Gospel Order' (no new idea is permitted without the leaders' ok), 'Church organization' (code for the leaders to have almost total control of the church and its monies), the 'missionary work of the church' (unnecessary and excessive funds spent on travel for leaders) and 'unity and submission' (code for those who do not submit to the leaders can expect swift disfellowshipment).

How might one describe the culture of the SDARM?

On the whole, and as a generalisation, the SDARM has an authoritarian culture that seeks to impose a Victorian mindset.  Even by the standards of conservative Christianity, and much of mainstream Adventists fits within that, the SDARM is imbibed with an overwhelming spirit of criticism.

Most mainstream Adventists would agree on certain eternal biblical principles, but then seek to adapt them to changing cultural circumstances, dependent upon geographical location and the historical passing of time. The SDARM Reformers, by contrast, typically seek to live a rigidly parallel life to that experienced by the SDA pioneers, who lived in a Victorian society of 19th Century America.

A biblical analogy might be the circumcision faction of the early Church, who are mentioned in Acts 15 and elsewhere, as teaching Gentile converts to obey all the laws of Moses in order to be saved and accepted as full members (Acts 15:1).  In its judgment, the Council of Apostles and Elders condemned these Judaizers, as making it more difficult than was necessary for those Gentiles who wanted to convert (Acts 15:19).

Another common analogy might be the Pharisaic faction of Judaism, where Jesus warned in Matt 23:4:
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
How many members does the SDARM have?

Exact figures are hard to come by to those outside the Church(es).  However, it appears the SDARM has less than 60,000 people after approximately 100-years of existence since 1919.  By comparison, the mainstream SDA Church has been around approximately 150-years since 1863, but has grown to approximately 20 million members worldwide.

The SDARM usually boasts of their small numbers, using it to justify their elite and selective status – a common argument used by most cults.  It is true that only a handful of people can change the world, and God would rather a handful of honest followers than a legion of unrighteous.  After all, Jesus never raised an army but merely taught 12 disciples.  However, a group’s growth after a reasonable period of time does appear to be a test of its fruit-bearing worth, as Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39 observed:
Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For it their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will find yourselves fighting against God. 
How do the respective successes of 150-years of the mainstream SDA Church compare with 100-years of the SDARM? 

Consider another example.  Compare the growth of the SDARM in approximately 100-years to the Sabbath-keeping True Jesus Church in China.  Established in 1917, around the same time as the SDARM, it now has some 2.5 million members! Which group is being blessed by the Holy Spirit? 

Where do most of the SDARM members come from?

Again, hard data is hard to come by for those outside the Church(es).  However, it appears the majority of new converts to the SDARM are either born into the Church(es), or come from the mainstream SDA Church.  As a result, they engage in what many consider to be ‘sheep stealing’, and do not really add to the Kingdom.

What are the origins of the SDARM?
In short, the background to the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement is as follows:

  • In 1914, World War One begins.
  • In 1915, SDA pioneers and messenger Ellen White dies.
  • The German Government introduces conscription and the leadership of the SDA Church in Germany buckles under the pressure, encouraging Adventists to enlist in the military.
  • The General Conference in the USA, who ended up on the Allied side of the conflict, was too far removed from this crisis now taking place within the German Conference.
  • Many SDAs in Germany, citing Adventist beliefs and traditions about Sabbath-observance and pacifism, refuse to comply with the German Conference’s acquiescence to join the military.
  • A number of German Adventists protested and were disfellowshipped.
  • The disfellowshipped German Adventists begin a bitter campaign, distributing 10,000 copies of a pamphlet describing the Adventist Church as the great apostate woman.
  • In 1919, the disfellowshipped German Adventists organise themselves into a church body called the “International Missionary Society of Seventh-day Adventists.” They later change the name to “Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement.”
  • In 1920, after the War ends (thus making it possible for officials from the General Conference in the USA to re-establish contact with the German Adventists again), a delegation from the USA, led by GC President Daniells, travels to Germany.
  • In July 1920, before some 200 pastors and laypersons, Elder Daniells apologises, making clear the German Conference was in error for its actions during the War. Elder Daniels then attempts to heal the rift with the new “Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement.” 
  • The attempt at reconciliation ultimately fails, primarily because the General Conference did not adhere to the demands of the Reformers, who request the German Conference be disbanded and its leaders disfellowshipped as punishment.
  • The SDARM has ever since continued its bitter campaign against the mainstream SDA Church, and continued to accuse it of being in apostasy and being part of Babylon.
SDARM Churches: What there’s two of them?

Yes, there are in two major SDARM Churches – the ‘American’ SDARM and the ‘German’ International Missionary Society of the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement (‘IMS’). In addition, there are also 'independent historic' Reformist groups as well – offshoots of offshoots of offshoots. In that sense, the term 'SDARM' does not describe any particular oganization or church as much an ultra-conservative movement within Adventism – after all the 'M' in SDARM stands for 'Movement', not 'Church'. As it states in Mar 3:25, a house divided against itself cann't stand. 

The story of the SDARM’s origins does not stop in 1920, because there was a major schism within the SDARM itself.   In short:

  • In 1951 there was a major split during the session held in Zeist, Utrecht (province) Netherlands, where nearly half the delegates of the SDARM walked out following the then Secretary of the movement. Apart from accusations of maladministration, there was a power-struggle as to who was entitled to be elected President, and whether proxies from delegates stranded on the communist side of the Iron Curtin should be accepted. 
  • In 1952, the faction subject to the protest reorganized itself, under an old but unofficial name, ‘International Missionary Society of the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement’ (‘IMS’), headquartered in Baden Germany.
  • In 1955, the faction who had walked out formally registered the name ‘Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement General Conference’ in the USA.
  • Between 1952 and 1967, there were various legal actions between the two groups. 
  • In 1967 and 1993, attempts were made to further reconcile the two factions, but were again ultimately unsuccessful.
The important lesson to take from this is again about judging by fruits.  Despite the clear exhortations of Paul in 1 Cor 6:1-8, brother sued brother before the state courts of Caesar, rather than judging the matter themselves in Christian humility.  It makes one wonder how the SDARM Church(es) say with a straight face that the mainstream SDA Church is supposedly apostate and in Babylon. One might recall the old cliche about those living in glass houses daring to throw stones!

What are the doctrinal differences between the two branches of the SDRM?

Not much.  There appears to be some slight differences about the nature of Christ (which is still an open discussion within the mainstream SDA Church with no official position) and certain ideas about organisation. 

If there are no major doctrinal differences, what is stopping the two branches of the SDARM from re-joining?

Good question.  It would appear the major problem is essentially one of money, status and power. The behaviour of the SDARM leaders, of both groups, is somewhat reminiscent of the behaviour of the disciples in Luke 9:46-48, arguing over who would be the greatest: 
An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
What is the psychology or sociology behind those who join the SDARM?

It is hard to say, and it is unknown to this author whether any professional studies have been undertaken.  However, as a matter of anecdotal evidence, and keeping in mind the subjective nature of these comments, the SDARM, like many cults and other extremist groups, offer an escape mechanism for those who feel trapped in a personal crisis of overwhelming life-changing choices.

Often, but not always, new converts to the SDARM have undergone some sort of significant personal crisis.  Often it is a divorce, and the number of separated or divorced women who join the SDARM is on the surface quite surprising, given its misogynistic teachings. Like those who become anorexic, cut themselves or undertake other forms of self-harming behaviour, the SDARM offers a somewhat paradoxical benefit.

In particular, it gives someone a sense of safety and certainty, where most aspects of daily decision-making become delegated to the SDARM leadership. Much like those who join other extremist groups, including Islamic fundamentalists, many of those who are in crisis are looking for a religion where every aspect of their lives is regulated in minutiae. 

This is not that dissimilar from the Pharisees of Jesus’ own day, who dealt with the uncertainties of Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and then finally Roman domination, by creating a highly regulated religion.  Another analogy may be with the ancient Essenes, who withdraw from Jewish life and live in tiny seclusion on the Dead Sea.  Jesus in effect criticised both groups in his sermon about salt and light in Matt 5:13-16,20:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven… For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Keeping in mind, many of these underlying reasons for conversion to the SDARM will probably be subconscious, and would no doubt be hotly denied by adherents.

Are all Adventist Reformers bad?

No of course not. In fact, most of the ordinary SDARM members are exceptionally good people, who are crying out for God.  Often what people really want is fellowship, and have been wronged somehow by brethren within the mainstream SDA Church – much like that first WW1 generation of SDARM pioneers.  Where forgiveness of those who did us wrong is hard, the SDARM provides a sense of elite self-righteousness, where one's enemies can be scorned as belonging to Babylon.  With most cults and extremist groups, it is the system itself, and the leaders who dominate that system, which is the problem.

What things should a mainstream Adventist watch out for when dealing with a Reformer from the SDARM?

Like the Pharisees, the Reformers often have an astounding memory of the minutiae of the scriptures, and that knowledge should not be underestimated.  Like the Pharisees, they love to be greeted as ‘Rabbi’ (teacher), with people being astounded at their knowledge (Matt 23:7).  Remember that even Satan knows the scriptures (Luk 4:9-13), so that Bible knowledge does not in itself prove anything.

Reformers will also typically utilise a proof-text method of biblical interpretation.  They usually will tell you ‘let scripture interpret scripture’ as code for this approach.  Whilst the Bible obviously does endorse this method to some extent, the Reformers will often string along random texts, often out of context, to fit their agenda. 

It is not that dissimilar from the method used by Jehovah’s Witnesses and other ultra-conservative Christian groups.  Using this method, the Reformer can make the Bible say whatever they want it to say.  Again, given they will have already memorized long chains of texts in advance, they can easily overwhelm the casual observer. 

What is the best approach when dealing with a Reformer?

As outlined above, engaging in a theological tit-for-tat may not be the best way of dealing with a Reformer. To be honest, given the amount of hours they routinely spend memorising chains of proof-texts, they will no doubt beat most mainstream Adventists hands down.  However again, it should be remembered the Pharisees, who were in fact laymen, had knowledge of the scriptures far superior to most other factions of Judaism, including the official clergy of the Sadducees. 

Rather, a far better approach is to follow the advice of Jesus in Matt 7:15-20, and look at their fruits:
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Actions speak much louder than memorised words.  As James 1:22 tells us, simply memorising and preaching words in of themselves are meaningless.  As Paul instructs in Rom 2:13, it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.  And righteousness is more than simply eating the right type of food, or not mixing with the wrong sort of person, or wearing the right sort of clothing, as these are the mere outward signs of righteousness, which the Pharisees had in abundance (Luk 12:23; Matt 23:1-8).

Instead, try simply asking a Reformer how their Church(es) have fulfilled the command of Christ in Matt 40:34-40:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
Ask the Reformer how may prison ministries their Church runs?  Ask how many medical missionaries, hospitals and clinics it operates?  Ask how many schools and colleges it has, and how many Christian teachers are moulding young lives for Jesus? Ask how many welfare programmes it has, how many international emergency disaster relief and development organisations they operate?  Finally,  then compare their response to that of the SDA Church, which whilst far from perfect, does all of these things, perhaps at a greater level on a pro rata basis of membership size than any other Christian group on earth. 

What should I do if a family member or friend becomes involved in the SDARM?

If a family member becomes involved in the SDARM, you may wish to consider some or all of the following:
  • Educate yourself, by reading resources such as this and some of the articles found in the further information section below.  Being forewarned is forearmed.
  • Contact your local SDA Pastor or someone you know is solidly grounded in their own faith.  Be especially careful of having anything to do with SDARM leaders without sufficient support.
  • Avoid tit-for-tat theological discussions with Reformers. Do not underestimate the Reformers ability to recite on command a string of random scriptural verses, which may well overwhelm you.  Whilst many of these texts will be out of context, it may be difficult for you to respond on the spot.
  • When discussing the issue with your family member or friend, appeal to the spirit of the scriptures rather than their form.  Whilst the Reformers can memorise enormous chains of Bible verses, they are not so successful at demonstrating their adherence to their spirit, such as the commands of Jesus in Matt 40:34-40.
  • Most importantly, if they chose to remain in the SDARM, stay a friend.  As often happens, they may eventually decide it is not after all a place for them.