The work of health care, healing, and health education has been a collective emphasis among Adventists since the denomination’s earliest years. After all, caring for the well-being of others was central to Jesus Christ’s ministry when He walked among us.
Following the Holy Spirit’s guidance, church leaders upheld this focus as they began to see the connection between fundamental health principles and quality of life—and that there are many ways we can be better stewards of the bodies and minds God gave us.
So let’s look at how the Adventist Church includes this emphasis on whole-person health in mission and ministry.
- Comprehensive Health Ministry – What does that look like?
- Forming the “Wholistic Health” philosophy
- Teaching self-discipline through temperance work
- What science has to say about the “Adventist lifestyle”
- Principles of healthful living
- Prioritizing mental health
- Our calling—to reflect the ministry of Jesus
- Brokenness as a pathway to wholeness
We’ll start with a brief overview.
Comprehensive Health Ministry – What does that look like?
Comprehensive Health Ministry (CHM) embraces the traditional phrase “medical missionary work,” used by Adventists for over 100 years. Ellen G. White, a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, would use the phrase when urging members to engage in wholistic caring, health education, and the work of healing.
CHM is not limited to health workers but includes positions such as pastors, teachers, administrators…it can be practiced by anyone no matter what they do. The primary objective is to follow Christ’s example, which is expressed in this portion of the Church’s mission statement:
Affirming the biblical principles of the well-being of the whole person, we make healthful living and the healing of the sick a priority and, through our ministry to the poor and oppressed, cooperate with the Creator in His compassionate work of restoration.Mission Statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
When put into practice, CHM will:
- Make it feel as if Jesus is among us. The sick are being cared for, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed—and sympathy, love, and inclusivity abound.
- Strive toward wellness and wholeness, not just the treatment of disease.
- Emphasize preventive lifestyle activities.
- Embrace a continuum of care that addresses physical, mental, spiritual, social, and emotional well-being.
When every church member takes part in CHM, every congregation can become a center for health promotion. Our communities can experience Christ’s method of mingling, sympathizing, and meeting felt needs. This way confidence may be won, and then the timeless spiritual truths of salvation and eternal life can be shared.
Forming the “Wholistic Health” philosophy
Seventh-day Adventists believe that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and that we are, intelligently and carefully, to care for them.
As early as 1863, the year this denomination organized, Ellen White followed the Holy Spirit’s leading to help shape the church’s philosophy and emphasis on health. Long before the medical evidence emerged, she spoke out strongly on the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and poisonous medications, such as those containing arsenic and mercury.
And as we abstain from such substances, we are, instead, to engage in activities that bring our “thoughts and bodies into the discipline of Christ, who desires our wholesomeness, joy, and goodness.”1
Along with adequate exercise and rest, Adventists encourage the adoption of the most healthful diet available. We encourage a balanced vegetarian diet, and to avoid unclean foods as listed in the Old Testament.2
Adventists also discourage the use of caffeine and other stimulants. In addition, we encourage the liberal use of fresh, clean water (inside and out) and pure air. We promote adequate exercise and appropriate exposure to sunshine. We also promote rest, faith, integrity, and social support.
Each of these principles forms the foundation of our health education and practices.
Teaching self-discipline through temperance work
The Adventist Church has a strong history of promoting temperance, though it may be a term not often used today. In the Bible, Paul described how he practiced temperance:
I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified1 Corinthians 9:27, ESV
An early health reformer, Ellen White eloquently defined temperance even further
True temperance teaches us to dispense entirely with everything hurtful, and to use judiciously that which is healthfulWhite, Ellen G., Child Guidance, p. 398
From the Adventist Church’s inception, and long before science recognized the significant health risks, members and new converts have been encouraged, with the help of God, to cease using alcohol or tobacco. And since these two mind-altering and addictive substances are both legal and common, they make up the primary focus of temperance work.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Seventh-day Adventist Church led the way in this movement by developing and offering to the public a group smoking-cessation initiative, known worldwide as the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking.
This program has subsequently been revised twice and continues as the BreatheFree 2.0 Plan to Stop Smoking3, used today in many countries.
Focusing on addiction in general, Adventist Recovery Ministries Global4 uses a 12-step Christ-centered approach in line with Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs5. This ministry focuses on bringing recovery and restoration to people struggling with addictive behaviors.
What science has to say about the “Adventist lifestyle”
So it’s nothing new for Adventists to be playing significant roles in promoting wholistic health. And it also hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In 1966, Time magazine described the “Adventist Advantage,”6 referring to the remarkable outcomes observed in the first Adventist Health Study. Researchers noted significant reductions in most cancers and cirrhosis of the liver when Adventist members were compared to the general population in California.
Subsequent studies have shown a significant increase in longevity among those who live the Adventist lifestyle that emphasizes whole-person wellness.7
The research has been so compelling that the U.S. National Institutes of Health initially allocated $19 million to conduct Adventist Health Study 2, which emphasizes the differences in common cancers between Adventists and the general population. This study is ongoing.
Adventists received further international recognition when the November 2005 National Geographic ran a cover feature, “The Secrets of Long Life.”8 This led to a book, The Blue Zones, showcasing places where people live healthfully into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s.
Loma Linda, a city in Southern California with a large Seventh-day Adventist population, is one of only four blue zones in the world.
Additional research is revealing that most people, by faithfully making careful lifestyle choices, can create their own “blue zone,” even if they don’t live in one.
In February 2009 U.S. News and World Report posted 11 habits that will help a person live to 100 years old. Habit number 8 stated, “Live like a Seventh-day Adventist. Americans who define themselves as Seventh-day Adventists have an average life expectancy of 89, about a decade longer than the average American … Followers typically stick to a vegetarian diet based on fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts, and get plenty of exercise.”9
It’s encouraging to see not only the benefits people are experiencing as they pursue wholistic health, but also the recognition that Adventists are helping spread positive change to the health landscape around the world.
But we know it’s not easy. The challenges of everyday life, and the power of long-term habits, make lifestyle change difficult. And even with the best of intentions, we break resolutions almost as soon as we make them.
That’s why health coaching is a key ingredient for consistent and sustained health behavior change. By using a lifestyle coaching approach, the Health Ministries Department helps equip health professionals, pastors, and health enthusiasts to facilitate the behavioral change process. We’re all in this together.
But if we want to get more specific, what things in life do we need to look at if we want to pursue wholistic health and wellness? Let’s take a look at things on the principle-level.
Principles of healthful living
Adventists believe that focusing on health should be an intentional and voluntary decision for each individual, but informed by the God who created us. He is the Author of all true science.
The acronym CELEBRATIONS© describes 12 principles of healthful living that, when consistently practiced, result in a healthful lifestyle and an appreciation of living well.
- Choices largely determine our destiny. Be intentional about choosing what is best for your health and avoiding harmful practices.
- Exercise regularly to maintain God’s gift of optimal health and peace of mind.
- Liquids—choose pure water to stay hydrated for optimal health. Avoid harmful or intoxicating drinks.
- Environment is God’s gift to humanity. Care for it and keep it safe and clean—for today and for future generations.
- Belief in a caring God can reduce stress and anxiety. Trusting in Him imparts strength to the whole being.
- Rest refreshes a tired body and a weary soul. It helps maintain optimal physical and mental health and performance.
- Air that is fresh and unpolluted is essential for health.
- Temperance—avoid what is harmful, and enjoy in moderation what is good.
- Integrity—be honest, transparent, and accountable for your actions, fostering trust in all relationships.
- Optimism—choose to look on the bright side, even when things don’t turn out the way you wish. We can always ask God to help us see His blessings, even in unfavorable circumstances.
- Nutrition supports vibrant, productive living. For optimal health, make plant foods the foundation of each meal, avoiding refined and highly-processed products.
- Social support—build relationships with friends and family, thus strengthening stress-coping skills and nurturing resilience.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, CSB).
As Seventh-day Adventists seek to honor God with their whole being—body, mind, emotions, spiritual life, and social interactions—we CELEBRATE His wonderful gift of health.
Prioritizing mental health
And at the center of our lifestyle is the mind. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, and act—as well as how we relate to God, others, and ourselves.
It profoundly influences how we make choices and handle stress, which in turn affects how we contribute to society. It also impacts how we experience joy, meaning, and hope in life. Mental health is a cornerstone of positive, healthful living. And it cannot be neglected.
We can find this expressed in Scripture, such as Proverbs 17:22: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22, ESV).
That’s likely why Ellen White expressed these words when discussing medical missionary work:
To deal with minds is the greatest work ever committed to men.White, Ellen G, Historical Sketches of the Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists, p. 209.
Our calling—to reflect the ministry of Jesus
As we go about our lives exemplifying CHM, we just have to remember the reason behind all of what we do—Jesus Christ. The most important biblical imperative is to “do the works of Him who sent me” (John 9:4, CSB).
We believe God has given consistent guidance about how to be healthy, happy, and holy. Health and wellness are to be channeled into His service. And as His servants, we can become conduits of His grace to a suffering world.
Jesus spent much time healing the sick. Matthew reports that “And Jesus went all about Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23, NKJV).
Consistently, Jesus (the Great Physician) practiced and demonstrated the spirituality of health and blended healing with preaching and teaching.
Jesus’ healings addressed the whole person—body, mind, and spirit.
He healed not only physical ailments but addressed the forgiveness of sin and relief from guilt.
He restored dignity to the downtrodden.
He affirmed faith and ministered to the very needs that led people to Him to begin with.
He advised those He healed to make the necessary changes in their lives, encouraging them with renewed faith.
And no matter what our vocational or social roles may be, we can emulate this type of ministry when we follow the primary commandments of Jesus: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other command greater than these” (Mark 12:30, 31, CSB).
The call to serve humanity is exemplified by the health education any of us can share as we learn, experience, or witness its effects. Where any of the 22-million-member church is active around the world, health ministry can be done.
Most local churches are involved in community health programs and events. These can be about nutrition, cooking, exercise, smoking cessation, addiction recovery, support groups, etc. Each congregation aims to offer helpful options that best meet the needs of their communities.
The same commitment to service explains why the Seventh-day Adventist Church operates seven medical schools, more than 70 nursing schools, and 783 hospitals, clinics, and dispensaries around the world.
More than 250,000 employees work within these non-profit health systems, and over 22 million outpatients and 1.5 million inpatients are served each year. Adventist hospital systems in the United States and around the world provide more than US$1 billion worth of charity medical services every year.
And all these efforts, from the local level to the top administration of the largest hospital network, are united in mission to extend the healing ministry of Christ.
Brokenness as a pathway to wholeness
At creation, there was perfection and wholeness. But ever since the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, this perfection has been broken and eroded. Many suffer physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, and emotionally.
And we can’t avoid this part of reality. It’s an inevitable result of living in a sinful world.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. Even in the here and now.
If we look at the book of Job, we see that despite all his brokenness and struggles, he “did not sin or blame God for anything” (Job 1:22, CSB).
And even amid his fervent ministry for God, Paul pleaded three times for his particular struggle, or “thorn in the flesh,” to be removed (1 Corinthians 12:7, CSB). But instead of physical healing of his “brokenness,” he received a special kind of wholeness: “My grace is sufficient for you,” he was told by the Lord, “for My power is made perfect in weakness” (verse 9, CSB).
No wonder Paul could say, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (verse 10, CSB).
This encouragement is particularly meaningful to those who, despite faith, prayer, and medical intervention, still suffer from chronic conditions or residual symptoms.
Paul reflects the spirituality that opens every part of life to the presence of God. This same spirituality has been seen in many who reflect wholeness in Christ, despite brokenness of body, and who—by God’s grace and in His strength—live fruitful lives with blindness, deafness, physical deformity, disability, or any other type of health-related hindrance.
Wholeness through brokenness, indeed. As it is only Christ who makes us whole.
Even by living out all the principles in the CELEBRATIONS acronym, one does not achieve wholeness. If God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, we shouldn’t ever be able to boast in our own strength or works. This reality reminds us that physical health, although desirable, is a means to an end, not the end itself.
Here is where the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, and their modern-day counterparts, often falter and fail.
Christ’s promise, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, ESV), can still be a reality even within the most broken individual. Health is not a rite of passage in this life. As important as wellness is, Jesus emphasized an important balance: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28, NASB).
Seventh-day Adventists, inspired by the principles and instructions of the Bible, and encouraged by the illuminating writings of Ellen White, and backed by robust scientific confirmation of the Adventist health message, are committed to promoting healthful and productive lives of service.
And we invite you to join us, despite our inevitable brokenness, in this journey to wholeness.
- Seventh-day Adventists Believe, p. 317
- see Leviticus 11
- Adventist Recovery Ministries Global
- Gateway to Wholeness
- Time magazine, October 28, 1966
- Gary E. Fraser, Diet, Life Expectancy, and Chronic Disease: Studies of Seventh-day Adventists and Other Vegetarians (Oxford University Press, 2003)
- Dan Buettner, “The Secrets of Long Life,” National Geographic, November 2005
- U.S. News and World Report, February 2009