Ben and Delina McPhaull
When Ben and Delina McPhaull married, their vows included (Ben): I promise to guide, protect and provide for you, so together we can build a home that glorifies God, and (Delina): I promise to trust and follow you, as you follow God, so together we can build a home that glorifies Him. Admittedly, they had no idea what that really meant, nor did they ever imagine that their commitment would take them out of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Here's their story.
Delina: I grew up believing that accepting Ellen White was optional and Adventist beliefs could be supported using the Bible only. My parents, life-long educators, raised my siblings and me in a loving, stable, moral home where questions and discussions were always welcomed. I don't have any Adventist horror stories.
I went to public schools in Keene, Texas, where school officials routinely accommodated Adventist students in lunch menus and sports schedules. When I was baptized, I didn't know what it meant to be born again. I didn't know that salvation came through faith in Jesus, alone. I saw baptism as just another thing that a good girl was expected to do, and so I did it. Thinking the Adventist church was the true church, I wanted to join it officially.
It wasn't until I went to college that my worldview began to be challenged. At the University of Texas–Austin, I was around students who were serious about their faith in a way I'd never seen. Though I couldn't understand how they could trample on the fourth commandment, I saw that you could be a real Christian and not be Adventist.
After graduating, I moved to Washington, DC, and met Ben. We were cultural Adventists, believing what we'd always been taught without much thought. We weren't involved in church, and when we did go, we'd get there for the special music and sermon. Little did I know that Ben was running from a call to be a pastor.
Ben: Even though my parents were not Adventist when I was born, my earliest memories are of growing up on the campus of Oakwood College (now University) while my dad was a theology student. I grew up listening to my dad preach and working the sound system, recording, duplicating and selling tapes during his evangelism series every year. Early on, Adventist evangelism and the Adventist message were embedded in my brain.
I graduated from Pine Forge Academy, the only Adventist black boarding academy in the country. Our headmaster would tell us that we were special, important, unique, and head-and-shoulders above any other students in the nation. There was a sense of pride in being black Adventist youth. The school was often called "little Oakwood," and in fact more than 90 percent of my graduating class enrolled at Oakwood, including me. The network of relationships that I developed followed me into adulthood and became a large part of my identity.
The subculture of Black Adventism defies all of the negative stereotypes of what it means to be black in America. Education is valued highly and expected. The emphasis on healthy living speaks directly to the health challenges that traditionally plague black people. It is not unusual to see a child born in poverty grow up to be a successful professional, distinguished in his field (think Ben Carson, world-renowned neurosurgeon and Barry Black, US Senate Chaplain). These heroes, along with the well-dressed, articulate, shiny-car driving professionals voted into leadership positions in local churches are the image of what it means to be a black Adventist. Black churches are full of role models—successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, professors, nurses and musicians. Adventist youth have a reputation of being "about something." This is precisely how, with a glossy Message magazine in hand, the Seventh-day Adventist church is marketed in urban communities. Many attribute their "salvation" from poverty, drugs, or hopelessness to Adventism itself. When contrasted with the culture at large, there is no impetus to criticize or question. Black Adventists will debate music, having separate conferences, or women in pastoral leadership positions, but the very root of what Adventists believe is not debated or examined.
I was only at Oakwood for a year and a half before I left to work full-time. I moved to Washington, DC, where I met Delina, and soon after decided to go back to school to study to be an Adventist pastor. I'd felt God calling me to ministry for a long time but didn't really want to pursue it. No longer able to run from my calling, I quit my well-paid job and moved to Texas to finish my degree at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene.
Delina: I started thinking it would be a good idea to read the Bible for myself and started a Bible-in-a-year plan. When I began finding differences between what I knew of the Bible stories with what I was reading, I got a copy of Patriarchs and Prophets. I saw how much Ellen White added to the Bible stories—to the point of changing the facts and the message. It wasn't long before I ditched the Ellen White book but continued reading the Bible and loved it. It was the first time that God was truly real to me. Reading His Word took me to where a lifetime of church, family worship, and prayers had never taken me.
Ben: At Southwestern, the professor in one of our religion classes showed The Spirit Behind the Church. That was the first time I was confronted with people who were anti-Adventist and anti-Ellen White. I dismissed them because I thought they were just disgruntled and bitter. The things they were saying couldn't be true.
Disappointed that I didn't get a job when I graduated, I was still really excited to go to the seminary at Andrews University. There I found professors that allowed us to dialogue and think for ourselves. I finally felt somewhat free to explore some of the questions I'd always had about Adventist theology. Was the Adventist church the remnant or part of the remnant? Was the Sabbath really the seal of God? What did it mean when Jesus said, "It is finished?" (If there is an investigative judgment, then it really isn't finished.)
One of my professors, before every class, would read Galatians 3:23-25. I don't remember him ever explaining it. Little did I know he was planting a seed that would grow to reveal the biblical doctrine of salvation and how it was in direct contradiction to Adventist belief.
Delina: While in Michigan some significant things happened in my love for Bible study. My sister introduced me to Beth Moore Bible studies, and a friend invited me to Bible Study Fellowship [BSF]. The Beth Moore studies ignited my love of the Word, and it became alive, beautiful, exciting, and relevant. BSF made the Bible accessible. I didn't have to buy a study or be guided; the Holy Spirit would teach directly through the Word. It began to change me, and I wondered why the term "Bible study" turned so many people off in my Adventist circles and why verse-by-verse study was unheard of in Adventist churches.
I'll never forget the night that Ben and I went for a walk around Andrews' campus. I was so blown away by what I'd been studying in Romans. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1; 10:9-10). People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed His life (Rom. 3:24-26). We are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law (Rom. 3:21-22).
"Well, Paul is hard to understand," my theologically-trained pastor-husband told me.
Ben: In retrospect, there were some theological things that were hard to understand—because I was told they were hard to understand. Scripture is so clear to me now.
I left the Seminary with lingering questions but with hope and ambition for my pastoral career. I was hired in the Southern California Conference as an associate pastor. On the Sabbath I was introduced, I proudly shared with the congregation that I firmly believed in the ministry of Ellen White (and heard a resounding "Amen").
That first year in California, we attended a pastoral family retreat in Phoenix. During our stay there, Delina and I stopped at the bookstore of a church that was near our hotel. As we browsed, we saw shelves with anti-Ellen White and anti-Adventist books in a section labeled "Cults". We were shocked! Back at our hotel, we promptly googled the church and discovered that the pastor, Mark Martin, was a former Adventist pastor.
Delina: We didn't set out to leave Adventism. Leave? For what? We were part of a community where we'd always felt loved and supported. Leaders regularly affirmed that Ben had a bright future in the denomination. We still thought we were part of a group who were just like other Christians, except that we kept Saturday as a Sabbath. I thought Adventism just had different, quirky interpretations. I didn't see it as wrong but began to think that maybe it just wasn't for me.
Ben: The more I began to study and prepare for sermons, the less the obligatory Ellen White quotes appeared in my sermons. Simultaneously, I found a deep love for Christ and the Scriptures that I didn't know before.
Delina: Ben would go to the library to prepare his sermons. Without fail, he would return home energized and excited by what he'd discovered in the richness of the Word. Oftentimes, his zeal would be dampened with, "But I can't preach that," because it was something that was not in line with Adventist doctrines. "I just want to preach the Word," he would tell me.
Though we shared what we were learning, we never studied any doctrinal points together. I was never able to articulate the things I was learning in a way his pastor-brain would understand. But his own questions were mounting. God had him on his own journey.
Ironically, the fact that we were a pastoral family caused me to question the Sabbath. If keeping the Sabbath would determine my salvation, then we were in trouble. For a pastoral family, Saturdays are the days that are most taxing, most exhausting, least restful or rejuvenating.
I began thinking, the Sabbath has to be more than just a day. And slowly God showed me that it was. The Sabbath was a shadow pointing to Jesus! (Col. 2:16,17).
The day I finally got it, it was as if someone abruptly shut off the burner in my Sabbath hot-air balloon. I saw it slowly deflate and crumple to the ground. My pride in knowing the "Sabbath truth" and striving to keep it holy all my life, lay there in a heap. I'd reached the point of no return.
Ben: I did not feel comfortable sharing that I was questioning Adventist doctrines with anyone. Here and there, I would ask pointed questions of pastors that I respected, and they would usually brush me off or give me the answer I expected to hear. The fact was, I knew Adventist doctrines. I grew up hearing them preached week after week and night after night at evangelistic events. I studied the doctrines in school, college, and seminary. I can recite a doctrinal sermon in my sleep. One night, after attending an area-wide conference-sponsored evangelism event, I came home and told my wife that I was done. I called a friend who connected me with Mark Martin. He invited me to fly to Phoenix to spend the day talking, airing my questions and studying the Word. After the first meeting, I read Galatians over and over. I finally understood the meaning of the verses my seminary professor had read repeatedly years before. That day, I crossed the point of no return, but most importantly, I was born again.
Delina: We were finally both on the same page knowing that our days in Adventism were numbered, but neither of us was hearing God tell us, "Leave now!" In retrospect, we know God's timing was perfect, but at the time, the wait was torture.
Ben: For a year, every week we'd hear something that was blatantly unbiblical at church, or I heard other pastors talk about their special remnant mission at worker's meetings. It was like nails on a chalkboard. I couldn't ignore it, and I didn't know how much more I could take. Finally the time came, and during a favorable employee evaluation, I handed my supervisor my resignation letter explaining that I no longer believed that Scripture supports:
When my pastoral colleagues found out I was resigning for doctrinal reasons, not one pastor came to me with open Bible in hand to show me that I was mistaken. What I heard was, "How will you support your family?" "Who's got your ear?" "Those aren't reasons to quit your job!" or "I don't believe in that either. I just don't preach it." Only one person tried to address the points in my letter, but he used The Clear Word as his "scriptural" support.
My conference president offered a three-month paid sabbatical to study under an Adventist scholar of my choice and get my questions answered. What many people didn't understand was I wasn't leaving to search for answers. I left because I'd searched and found that the Bible didn't support what I'd believed all my life and what I was being paid to preach.
Delina: Leaving was stressful, emotionally, financially and relationally, but I can tell you example after example of how we've seen God's faithful hand through it all. I mostly feared how relationships would change. And they have—some for the better, and some not.
Even if we'd wanted to stay for our own convenience, for the sake of our children, we could not have stayed. Knowing what we know, we could not intentionally expose them to false teaching in church, Sabbath School, Adventist Youth, Pathfinders, and Adventist "Christian education."
Ben: The temptation to stay was there, but my desire to minister with integrity was strong. I could have stayed to collect a paycheck, have a flexible schedule, and a respected job. Life is easier when you don't rock the boat, offend people, or risk having your name dragged through the mud. But I did not want to imply by my silence that I agreed with doctrines that were unbiblical; I couldn't pledge my allegiance to the doctrines before an ordination committee. At the same time there was a temptation to get all my ducks in a row first—money saved, a job lined up, a five-year plan in place—before doing what God was calling me to do. But those thoughts were conventional wisdom, not faith. I encourage everyone, especially pastors, to follow the Lord. Trust Him. He's faithful.
Delina: My heart grieves for our friends who no longer have much use for God in their lives, who don't believe in Jesus and think they've tried Christianity because they were raised Adventist. They judge what it means to be a Christ-follower by their experience in Adventism. I pray that they'll give the Bible and Jesus a try.
I know that God has led us on this journey out of the Adventist church and into the Body of Christ. I look forward to the day when Ben gets up to preach again—this time with the freedom to preach the simple, true, and unadulterated Gospel. †
Copyright 2011 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Casa Grande, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised April 4, 2011. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Delina and Ben McPhaull met in 1999 and married in 2004. Delina is a writer and stay-at-home mom of their three children, Maxton (age 3), and twin girls Maxwelle and Maxine (age 1). In March, 2010, Ben resigned from pastoral ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist church and is founder of Quarterlife Ministries, which promotes biblical literacy among young adults. The McPhaull family worships at First Baptist Church of Burleson in Burleson, Texas. You can find links to their blogs at McPhaull.com.
January February March 2011
VOLUME 12, ISSUE 1
D E P A R T M E N T S
STORIES of Faith