General Conference Convenes Meeting on Military Service

Kevin Burton recently attended a conference hosted by the General Conference addressing themes of participation in the military. He attended as an observer for the Adventist Peace Fellowship group at Southern Adventist University, and he reported on the event for Adventist Today. Below is the first section of the AT news report, followed by a link to the remainder of his article. Additionally, Kevin Burton and Lisa Diller recorded a podcast conversation on Friday afternoon that will be coming out soon.

By Kevin Burton, 12 April 2019  |  The conference on Seventh-day Adventists and Military-Related Service convened after the close of the General Conference (GC) Spring Meeting on April 10 at the GC headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. The meeting was convened by Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM), the denomination’s agency for military and other chaplains who are Adventist clergy but employed by outside organizations. The conference was designed primarily for Adventist chaplains and denominational administrators that oversee chaplains.

Photo credit: Kevin Burton.

Photo credit: Kevin Burton.

GC President Ted Wilson welcomed attendees and reaffirmed the official Adventist position on military service, which stresses the position of noncombatancy but upholds the freedom of individual conscience. This position was continually upheld and reaffirmed throughout the meetings by both presenters and panelists. Chaplain Mario E. Ceballos, GC director of ACM, followed Wilson and emphasized that ACM does not glorify military service, but seeks to minister to Adventists in the militaries around the world. “We are not a people of war,” Ceballos stated. “We are a people of peace.”

Three papers were presented on the first day. Dr. David Trim, the historian who serves as Director of Archives and Statistic for the GC, presented an analysis of the history of the Adventist position on war. This history is more complex than often presented, said Trim and he stressed that Adventists have held a spectrum of views on war, ranging from just war to non-participatory pacifism, although the more recent consensus has been toward non-combatancy.

Dr. Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the GC, focused on biblical and contemporary worldviews on violence. He emphasized that Jesus presented a message of non-violence. Christ had a reformation and restoration agenda and Adventists are to carry on Christ’s mission. Promoting non-violence moves beyond the limits of war to include aspects in daily life, such as avoiding hate speech. Diop stressed, “We have to learn new ways of relating to others without being terrorists.”

Panel discussion. Photo credit: Kevin Burton.

Panel discussion. Photo credit: Kevin Burton.

Dr. John Reeve, a professor at the seminary at Andrews University, explained how Christians in the first centuries evolved in their understanding of their relationship to the state. Though Christians never fully agreed on points of doctrine, there was a general tendency to believe that Christians should not participate in the military. However, as Christianity became more prominent in the Roman Empire, military service became more acceptable. Augustin of Hippo provided a firm rationale for this shift in principled thinking through his invention of just war theory, which enabled him to justify sending an army to kill a group of “heretical” Christians known as the Donatists.

The first day of meetings concluded with reports from each of the denomination’s world Divisions. These stressed the challenges faced regarding the military service question in that part of the world and how chaplains were serving Adventists in the militaries in the region.

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Kevin Burton is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Florida State University in Tallahassee who will begin teaching at Southern Adventist University this coming summer. He completed an MA in religion at Andrews University in 2015 and has been an ESL teacher in Prague, Czech Republic; a teacher at Sahmyook Middle School in Korea; and chaplain and Bible teacher at Ozark Adventist Academy in Arkansas. Kevin’s podcast episode discussing this event will be posted soon.