Remembering the Alamodome

A review of "Where are we Headed?: Adventism After San Antonio," by William G. Johnsson

One might almost say there is a new genre in Adventist print: books written by disgruntled former church employees. Recent years have seen a spate of such productions typed unhappily into existence by safely retired denominational employees. With his new book, Where are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio, William G. Johnsson joins their ranks.

Johnsson’s reaction to the 2015 San Antonio vote, which decisively rejected the proposal to permit Divisions to approve of women’s ordination on a local basis, is this: “The war is over---San Antonio settled it, but not in the manner some Adventists would like to think. The war is over because the ordination of women pastors will spread rapidly throughout most parts of the world church” (Loc 210 [references are to ebook locations]). The author even claims that as soon as 2022 we’ll “wonder what was that all about?”

In support of his thesis, Johnsson offers four reasons: (1) North America has already begun to practice women’s ordination and “the snowball is rolling,” (2) It is immoral that men are ordained and women are not, (3) The arguments opposing women’s ordination are “bogus” (Johnsson rejects arguments linking women’s ordination to the women’s rights movement, the acceptance of homosexual clergy, and male headship), and (4) Adventist young people want women’s ordination—“Millennial Adventists are laughing at Church leaders.”

But if one person stands on his head, and then another, that does not make it a trend. At this time in a few places in Western Adventism there are unauthorized ordinations, but 99% of the Church is working in harmony with the Spirit-led San Antonio decision and not ordaining women.

It is also true that while a small number of Adventists feel it is a moral imperative to ordain women against the expressed will of God, millions more see it as an imperative to seek unity in God’s expressed will, and to work in unity with their brothers and sisters in the global church.

The arguments listed by Johnsson as “bogus” are widely held by most Adventists to be valid. And for every Western Adventist young person who thinks the church is wrong about ordination, there are several Adventist young persons who view the decision of the Church as being correct. Most of the young people in the church are neither in North America nor Australia nor Western Europe; they are in South America and in Africa and many other places. While preaching in Africa last year, I met several Adventist young people. I did not meet one who expressed support for women’s ordination.

Johnsson’s arguments are painfully Western and elitist. But I am convinced that if we could get accurate statistics on the views of North American Adventists they would show that the substantial majority, even here, are strongly in support the world church decision.

In 1995, William G. Johnsson asked in print, "When will we [Adventists] learn to beware of literature that insinuates itself as genuinely Adventist when it isn't, that mixes the Spirit of Prophecy with the spirit of faultfinding, that erodes trust in leadership and the onward progress of the movement?" (The Fragmenting of Adventism, p. 62). Ironically, Where Are We Headed? is exactly the sort of book Johnsson warned us against 22 years ago. The Pacific Union, which has chosen to disregard the General Conference Session vote not to permit the ordination of women, has also chosen to make Johnsson’s lament the first offering of its new “Oak & Acorn Publishing” imprint.

This is where women’s ordination has led the Church. The official North American church press refuses to publish anything opposing women’s ordination, but we now have individual rebel unions publishing in contradiction to the decision of the world church.

The book touches several other topics. For example, Johnsson rails against a number of Adventist Bible teachings, says that the evidence argues for an old earth (Loc 1196), and then he reproduces lengthy angry and discontented letters and documents by those disregarding the world church decision. He wants the Church to immediately cease making statements implying that Jesus "is about to appear" (Loc 621). He misrepresents and attacks the longstanding Adventist approach to biblical interpretation, arguing for a vague, "principle-based" plan.  He pits the "'flat', literalistic approach" against his "nuanced approach" (Loc 1648).

The author's most strident words are reserved for the current leadership of the Church. He is "appalled" because the General Conference executive committee decided in 2016 to enforce the decision made by delegates in 2015 (after a year of grace which will end in October, 2017). "Wrong in its policy. Wrong in its spirit. It is more papal than Seventh-day Adventist. It runs directly counter to the life and teachings of Jesus" (Loc 1926). Johnsson even attacks "the accuracy of the vote" in 2015, offering a set of bizarre allegations (Loc 1969-1990).

Johnsson charges that present church leaders are following a top-down Roman Catholic approach. Is this a charge to be taken seriously, when the leaders are simply faithfully supporting the decision made by thousands of delegates gathered from every corner of the globe out of 20 million Seventh-day Adventists?

Where are We Headed? is a compendium of erroneous claims. It is a pipe dream, an illogical tantrum. How can it be that a denomination, which according to Johnsson, is today trapped in a “literalistic” approach to biblical interpretation, will in ten or even five years suddenly be using the new critical hermeneutics the NAD says are necessary to bend the Bible to support women’s ordination? There is no reason to think that the so-called principle-based interpretive plan embraced by Johnsson and his fellow travelers would be adopted by the rest of the church.

What we have today are two groups of Adventists who interpret the Bible according to different principles. It is not just the handful of progressive theologians living in Avondale, Riverside, Loma Linda, Angwin Village, College Place, Collegedale, Lincoln, Berrien Springs, Silver Spring, Newbold, and in Germany who interpret the Bible in a “principled” way. Many Adventists, embracing the best of Protestant biblical interpretation, seek to let Scripture interpret Scripture in this matter, and their principled hermeneutic leads to the rejection of women’s ordination.

A certain group of Adventists in Johnsson’s mold are bitterly surprised, for it was not until San Antonio that they began to understand that they had been living in a bubble, an echo chamber. Meanwhile, most of the Church stands in shocked amazement at the lengths to which the pro-women’s ordination group have gone in ignoring the San Antonio decision.

The Church has made a decision that cannot be overthrown by wishful thinking on the part of Johnsson or any other author. His book is counterfactual and teaches rebellion.  Acorn & Oak should be closed in October, before it publishes more such materials.