My Thoughts on the Church’s Response to Covid-19

Contents

  • Church statements on immunisation: the less said the better
  • Something in common: climate change, immunisation, and flat earth
  • What can we do proactively? Promote liberty & health

My recommendation for my church’s position statement on immunisation

Key Points

My Argument

I am a committed Seventh-day Adventist and love our message, mission and movement. One of the key contributions of our church is the Adventist Health message, which promotes healthy lifestyles. A direct result and advantage of promoting lifestyle health is that gains achieved through lifestyle interventions generally have corresponding reductions in reliance on pharmaceutical interventions. This should, in theory, include a corresponding reduction (even if only marginal) in the need for, and reliance on, immunisation.

Lifestyle approaches to health may not completely nullify the potential benefit of a given inoculation, but they may reduce the available benefit (measured in risk reduction) from an inoculation and its clinical trials. For example, if a clinical trial’s study and control groups both followed Adventist principles of healthy lifestyles, the measured risk reduction benefit would be less than if both groups followed a typical modern lifestyle. That’s because the baseline risk has already been reduced through lifestyle measures. Since all inoculations have a risk/benefit trade-off, it would make sense that someone following the healthy lifestyle practices recommended by the Adventist health message would, from a risk/benefit trade-off perspective, probably not be able to justify taking as many immunisations as someone following a typical modern lifestyle. Inoculations with a more marginal risk/benefit trade-off would probably not meet the threshold of benefit, given the baseline risk reduction achieved through lifestyle, to overcome the risks associated with the inoculation.

Further, one of our founders, Ellen White, the person singularly responsible for the Adventist Health message, strongly discouraged reliance on pharmaceuticals. Our church does not interpret this advice as negating all pharmaceuticals, but it predisposes us to place a relatively higher value on lifestyle interventions and relatively lower value on pharmaceutical interventions.

Inoculations are pharmaceutical interventions. By design, they introduce foreign matter directly into the bloodstream of the human body. Adjuvants are typically at least somewhat toxic. This is not a problem unique to immunisation – all pharmaceuticals carry some risk and have some marginal level of toxicity. E.g., antibiotics, by definition, are toxic to the life of particular microbes. Please remember, and I must state this clearly: I am definitely not saying that just because something has some level of toxicity it should not be used for health purposes.

According to our church’s health message and values, it could be expected that we would be relatively less reliant on immunisation and relatively more reliant on lifestyle interventions to prevent illness. And it would also be expected that the general direction we would be aspiring toward is one in which positive lifestyle interventions are maximised and pharmaceutical interventions are minimised.

This does not mean that our church should advocate against immunisation, just as it doesn’t advocate against pharmaceuticals in general.

But in the same way that the church also don’t advocate for pharmaceuticals, I would suggest that it need not advocate for inoculations either. It normally makes sense to leave it to the FDA and TGA (and similar organisations around the world) to do their jobs to ensure safety and efficacy. But sometimes new information comes to light and inoculations have to be withdrawn from the market. If the church had endorsed every approved inoculation, that would have meant endorsing inoculations that were subsequently terminated and would then need to be unendorsed by the church.

It would be better to simply say very little or nothing at all on the topic.

Big Pharma has done much good for world health. For example, Merck created a drug that has safely and effectively eradicated river blindness in Africa. Merck donated sufficient ivermectin to eradicate river blindness globally. Its inventors deservedly won the Nobel prize for it.

However, Big Pharma also has a dark side. Multiple criminal convictions and large fines have been recorded for fraud, bribery and falsifying safety data.

I’m usually very reluctant to take antibiotics, but antibiotics have been instrumental in healing my gut from issues caused by parasites that I’ve had for 20 years. Despite the problems, I’m thankful for the benefit brought to our world by pharmaceuticals.

My Proposed Statement on Pharmaceuticals and Immunisation

The Adventist church has a statement on immunization (American spelling) that I think can be improved based on our collective experience with Covid-19 and the response of governments around the world that has characterised by many as tending toward coercive and totalitarian. One thing I’d like to see removed is placing peer reviewed science alongside inspired revelation as the basis of our beliefs and practice in any area. We certainly would not do this in the area of origins, and there are many areas of health science that still conflict with inspired revelation, which clearly trumps peer reviewed science in our church’s epistemology, as substantiated by our experience over the decades. I would also broaden it to include pharmaceuticals as I think the issues involved and stance we take are applicable to both. This is my proposed revised statement:

Pharmaceuticals and Immunization

The Seventh-day Adventist Church places strong emphasis on health and well-being. The Adventist health emphasis is based on biblical revelation and the inspired writing of E.G. White (co-founder of the Church). We believe that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and therefore that looking after our bodies, including being careful about what we put into our bodies, is integral to our Christian life and worship.

The Adventist Health Message has a long and distinguished history advocating for maximising positive lifestyle interventions to promote health and minimising pharmaceutical interventions where possible. We understand that pharmaceuticals can contribute to optimising health, particularly in acute health crises, but we do not get involved in the endorsement or approval of particular drugs or immunisations. As a church, we leave it to regulatory bodies and the process of peer reviewed science to assess safety and efficacy of particular medical interventions, and encourage our church members to exercise personal freedom of conscience to decide which ones to take.

What do immunisation, global warming and flat earth all have in common?

Apart from being rife with conspiracy theories that can’t all simultaneously be correct, there is another thing they all have in common. Our church does not have special revelation or expertise in any of them. Actually, Ellen White’s advice on flat earth theories over a century ago is relevant here.

“Whether the world is round or flat will not save a soul, but whether men believe and obey means everything… [W]hen Christ gave my commission to do the work He had placed upon me, the flat or round world was not included in the message; the Lord had taken care of His house, His world here below, better than any human agency could care for it, and until the message came from the Lord, silence was eloquence upon that question.” 21MR 413-4

What I take from this quote is that as a church we don’t need to enter into disputes and take positions on things that are not relevant to the church’s message and mission.

I’ve developed my thinking a bit during Covid-19. Previously I’ve advocated for our church recognising the validity of the issue of anthropogenic global warming, in order to improve our credibility. I’ve even written articles in RECORD on the topic. While I still personally believe that there is human caused global warming that creates risks for society, I probably would be less concerned about trying to convince the skeptics and be more ready to advocate for the “silence is golden” position. (I still haven’t found a credible argument that anthropogenic global warming isn’t real.) And on the flipside, I am increasingly aware that environmental crisis is an area where a coercive government response may be a threat to religious liberty.

The church does not have special expertise or revelation in the areas of immunisation, global warming, or the shape of the earth. We have members and employees who are experts in each of those fields, but that does not confer that expertise on the church as a body. For example, I have done doctoral research and continue to work in water engineering as it intersects with climate change, so it frustrates me that many in our church speak dogmatically from ignorance about that area of science. However, it is not a topic on which our church needs to have an authoritative position.

We do, however, have special expertise and revelation in the area of lifestyle health, often known as the “Adventist Health Message“. There is an abundance of revelation (through the ministry of Ellen White), and scientific evidence through the multi-generational Adventist Health Study at Loma Linda. This is an area where we do have something worth proclaiming.

Comment specific to Covid Inoculations

Our church has made extensive statements generally in support of Covid inoculations, but emphasising that the church is leaving the choice up to individuals. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I think this is a case where the less we said about pharmaceutical interventions the better, whether for or against inoculations on the one hand (where we have weighed in) or early treatment with repurposed drugs such as ivermectin on the other (where to my knowledge we haven’t). There is ongoing debate in the media, in the scientific community, and between countries as to whether or not inoculations should be mandated and whether or not ivermectin is safe and effective or should be banned.

The risk the church runs is that we could be trying to be an authority on an area of life (i.e., effectively saying Covid inoculations are beneficial) where we don’t have any special revelation or authority. Safety & efficacy of pharmaceutical interventions is not a core function or expertise of our church. To weigh in on this topic as we have in this pandemic would effectively be trusting that the processes of peer reviewed science and regulatory oversight are going to lead to good (or at least benign) health interventions. But history shows that’s not always how it plays out. There are numerous drugs and inoculations over the decades that have had to be pulled from the market because of unfavourable risk/benefit with the benefit of hindsight.

It’s fine to trust the intentions of regulators and scientists, but as far as I know, in no other area have we ever trusted or allowed our church’s position on a topic to be determined by peer reviewed science or government policy. It is simply not consistent with our epistemology or mission to entrust church belief or policy to the outcomes of secular science or government.

It seems to me that Covid inoculations (and a bunch of other Covid public health responses) are arguably likely to be found to be at best suboptimal with the benefit of hindsight. There could, of course, be totally understandable reasons for this, such as the urgency involved in responding to a global pandemic.

What can our church contribute in the Covid response?

The ultimate solution to every problem besetting humanity, including Covid, is the gospel. As such, it makes little sense to prioritise mitigating Covid risks over preaching the gospel. In fact both those objectives can both be met simultaneously without compromising either. Preaching the gospel should always be the church’s central mission focus.

The gospel provides an interesting insight into pandemic response. Given that the gospel is the ultimate solution to every problem, including Covid, it could be argued that belief in the gospel should be mandated to bring about the ultimate favourable resolution for everyone rapidly. But such a mandate would be entirely anti-gospel. The gospel is about love and freedom. Mandated irreversible personal health interventions are inevitably associated with fear, coercion and control.

The church has a wonderful opportunity to present the biblical message of hope and purpose, based on love and freedom. While we are surrounded by fear and tight controls in the face of the pandemic, hundreds of times the Bible says not to fear. We can bring healing through love and hope as the antidote to fear and mental suffering. Protection and promotion of personal and religious liberty is extremely important in this time of excessive coercion and control.

And we have an eminently safe and effective health toolkit through the Adventist health message. While we can trust our government to have good intentions to do the best it can for public health within the constraints of human wisdom and expertise, we have a scientifically proven health message inspired by Divine omniscience and omnipotence in which we can place our full trust and confidence!

The Liberty & Health Alliance is one group of Adventists who, from what I’ve seen so far, are doing amazing work in advocating a biblical message of health and freedom extremely relevant for these times. They are not particularly pro or anti inoculations, but share relevant information for people to make their own decisions. I believe they provide a template for how our church can contribute meaningfully in the Covid response.

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