A. Introduction and Summary of the Argument
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is headed for a schism over female ordination. Accidents of history have drawn us into this conflict, but a split over female ordination would be a catastrophe for conservatives and for the world church. Because most members in the developed world favor female ordination, the world SDA Church could suffer huge losses in the split.
It is therefore imperative that the split not occur over female ordination, but that the focus of the conflict be changed to LGBT issues. By changing the basis of the split from female ordination to LGBT issues, conservatives would be in the majority even in the developed world, and hence a split over that issue would be far less damaging to the world church.
The General Conference Corporation could engineer a split over LGBT issues by using its ownership of the trademark on the terms “Adventist” and “Seventh-day Adventist” against every church that compromises on LGBT issues, and every conference and union that fails to swiftly discipline the organizations below them.
B. The Crisis We Face
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is headed for a crack-up. The 2015 General Conference session voted, for the third time, that our church will not ordain women to gospel ministry. The issue was framed as a policy question—whether church divisions can go their own way on ordination—but the effect was to vote down female ordination.
Even prior to San Antonio, several unions had begun ordaining women, despite the 1990 and 1995 session votes, and they did not stop ordaining women even after the 2015 vote. General Conference President Ted Wilson is trying to devise a way to enforce the session vote. Last year the Annual Council opted for a “year of grace,” deferring discipline until this year. But next month, Annual Council must decide on a process by which discipline of some sort will eventually be imposed on the rebel unions.
The problem is that those unions have let it be known that if there is any real discipline they are leaving the world church. From everything I’ve been told, they are deadly serious about leaving. Any real enforcement of the San Antonio vote will split the church.
But if the General Conference session vote is not enforced, then the SDA Church’s form of government has already broken down, because measures adopted in General Conference session can be ignored with impunity. When session votes can be ignored by subdivisions of the Church, then the Church is no longer a unitary world church, but has de facto adopted a looser confederated or affiliated structure. The world church, as it was organized up until 2015, no longer exists. The split has already happened.
Because of these circumstances, a split is unavoidable. It is a reality. Effective discipline means the church will soon split; no discipline or ineffective discipline means the church has already split.
C. The Majority Favor Female Ordination
Do we want to split the church over female ordination, something most members in North America and the developed world do not oppose?
I recognize that there is a dispute about whether the majority in North America and other precincts of the developed world support or oppose female ordination. Many on my side of the female ordination issue have pointed out that the votes at the Pacific Union and Columbia Union constituency meetings—both of which were about 80% in favor of female ordination—were not representative of division-wide opinion on this issue, and they argue that if a scientifically accurate poll or plebiscite could be conducted, the majority would oppose female ordination. I disagree, and I draw on my experience on the Theology of Ordination Study Committee to explain why.
The TOSC met four times over the course of 2013-2014. The committee included most of the prominent leaders on both sides of the ordination question. At the first meeting, looking over the long list of those I knew favored female ordination, I wondered about the outcome. But fellow TOSC member Eugene Prewitt, who was more familiar with who stood where, assured me that “in terms of numbers, all is well.” I now believe that the committee was designed to include almost every prominent proponent of female ordination—so that no one could complain that the pro-female ordination leaders were unfairly left off the committee—while still containing a slender majority of conservatives. “All is well,” I was told, and so I believed, because we would have the numbers in the end.
But all was not well. What happened?
What happened was that there was a structural fault in the conservative majority. Turns out there are two kinds of Adventist conservative. The first group that emerged at TOSC is what I call the “biblical conservatives.” They oppose female ordination on biblical grounds, because of the biblical directive that the office of elder/bishop/overseer is a male office. I noticed that most of the leaders in this group, including Doug Batchelor, Gerard Damsteegt, Raymond Holmes, Clinton Wahlen, Ingo Sorke, and others, were adult converts to Adventism. They read and studied themselves into Adventism, and they knew that if one uses the same rules of Bible study they used to validate Adventist doctrines, one must conclude that the office of elder is restricted to men.
The other type of Adventist conservative was not revealed until the fourth and final meeting, at which Nicholas Miller and David Trim presented their “third way” option. Miller and Trim acknowledged that there is a biblical principle of male leadership in the church, but argued that it is a “guideline of church organization,” not a “moral absolute.” Hence, they argued, it can be waived for reasons of “missional” expediency, and whether to waive it should be decided locally.
Those who agreed with the Miller-Trim position were typically multi-generation Adventists, deeply immersed in our subculture. They were not liberals and did not accept a liberal hermeneutic (or inconsistently accepted it only in relation to female leadership in the church, not on any other topic). They were sympathetic to the egalitarian argument for reasons unique to the Adventist sub-culture. These reasons often boiled down to one big reason: the role of Ellen White in the founding of the church. You could tell them of the female prophets mentioned in Scripture—hence the fact that God, in modern times, had chosen a young woman as a prophet did not upend normal church organization. But they would counter that Ellen White was much more than just a prophetess conveying discrete messages of divine guidance. She had a larger and more comprehensive role in the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist movement than just that of a prophet.
Given her out-sized role, how important could Paul's prohibition of female elders really be? The answer, for many of them, was that it was not important enough to insist upon, not in the face of the cultural pressures of the egalitarian Western world. They ultimately decided that male leadership in the church is not an issue of principle but of culture, and should be decided locally. I call these people the “EGW conservatives.”
At the end of the meetings, a straw poll was taken, and results were as follows:
Biblical conservatives (anti-female ordination) – 32
EGW conservatives (male leadership ideal; local option female ordination) – 22
Liberals (pro-female ordination) – 40
Miller and Trim delivered a huge propaganda coup to those in favor of allowing female ordination to go forward on a regional basis. They could now trumpet the fact that the TOSC committee favored allowing a local option on female ordination by 62 to 32, almost a two-to-one ratio.
I’ve told this story because I think the groups that emerged on the TOSC committee roughly reflect the composition of the larger Adventist Church in the developed world. Many multi-generational Seventh-day Adventists have been raised to revere Ellen White, while the biblical passages that specify male leadership in the church have for decades been carefully hidden, ignored, or explained away by the editors of the Review and Sabbath School Quarterly. These factors, as well as the radically (and suicidally) egalitarian culture of the developed world, have combined to create a special Adventist sub-culture which is un-biblically egalitarian within an otherwise biblical worldview. This peculiar Adventist sub-culture is the fountainhead of the EGW conservatives.
Liberals were over-represented on the committee, and probably compose less than a third of the larger church in North America. Liberals combined with EGW conservatives are probably not two-thirds of the North American church, as they were on TOSC, but I’m guessing they do compose a solid majority, probably 55-60 percent.
Obviously, liberals and EGW conservatives don’t have much in common other than female ordination, and they often do not agree on the rationale for female ordination. For liberals, female ordination is an imperative moral issue of justice and equality; they explain away the relevant biblical passages as entirely culturally driven, such that they do not see any biblical obstacle to ordaining women. EGW conservatives, by contrast, do not agree with the liberal hermeneutic of criticism—at least not in any other contexts—and yet the out-sized role of Ellen White in the founding of the church effectively casts enough aspersions, in some mystical manner immune to reason, on Paul’s clear directive against female elders that they are willing to yield on the issue.
Another reason I am confident of a pro-female ordination majority in North America is because at last year’s annual counsel every North American union president, without exception, sided with the rebel unions and argued against even the prospect of future discipline for those who continue to ordain women. No one attains the office of union president without being both the protégé of seasoned politicians and a consummate politician in his own right. These guys know how to count votes and they know where their constituents are on a range of issues.
D. A Split Over Female Ordination Would be a Catastrophe
Assuming that a majority in North America favors female ordination, or at least favors a local option on female ordination, any attempt to impose meaningful discipline over ordination will be unpopular. It will be especially unpopular if it causes a split in the church.
And it is not just the percentages of those who favor or oppose female ordination that matter, but the intensity with which they hold that position. Most of those who oppose female ordination do not oppose it with sufficient intensity to risk a split in the church. This is not true of the liberal faction, who hold their position with great intensity and are more than willing to split the church over this issue. And while the pro-female ordination coalition is made up of both liberals and EGW conservatives, even the EGW conservatives seem to have at least as great an intensity of feeling on the issue as the opponents of female ordination.
Given these political facts, a split over female ordination risks a loss of nearly all the church’s infrastructure in North America—the official conference churches, the conferences, the conference buildings, the summer camps, the unions, the colleges and universities, etc. Anyone in North America who wanted to remain in the world church—the GC church—might well end up having a difficult time finding a church to worship in, and a much more difficult time finding any institutional support beyond the local church. By splitting the church over ordination, we would be putting conservative Adventists who wished to align with the world church in a terribly disadvantageous situation.
E. Why be a Prisoner of Events?
The female ordination issue has grown into the Category 5 hurricane it now is entirely by accident of history, and through no intent or planning.
Adventists have never had a special brief on gender or sexuality. The Biblical worldview on sexuality was not “present truth” unique to Adventists, but something about which all Christians agreed. Adventists drifted along with the rest of Christianity in a culture governed by a Christian sexual constitution that prevailed everywhere in Christendom until it was swept away in one momentous gale—the Sexual Revolution of 1967-1973. Suddenly, in the mid-1970s, we were living in a world that rejected the biblical worldview on sex and gender.
That was the time to decide whether patriarchy was a cultural relic of Bible times or a normative prescription for Christian life. But we did not do that. Instead of defending male-only ordination with a Scriptural rationale in the mid-1970s, we demoted it to a mere issue of “policy,” and it remains officially a policy issue to this day. Meanwhile, the culture grew ever more egalitarian with each passing decade and the theologically liberal view that ordaining women is a moral imperative of justice waxed stronger. Most church growth, however, came in the Third World, where post-Sexual Revolution egalitarian mores and cultural norms had not taken root, and Third World delegates maintained the status quo at the GC sessions in 1990, 1995, and especially in 2015.
Like the European ministers of 1914, we seem to be sleepwalking into a war that no one can win, and everyone will lose. Like the Army of Northern Virginia before Gettysburg, a battle that grew out of Confederate soldiers foraging for shoes, we seem to be about to fight an epochal contest on ground that is not advantageous to us. When General Longstreet begged Robert E. Lee not to order Pickett’s charge on Cemetery Ridge, General Lee replied, “The enemy is there, and I am going to strike him.” By contrast, the Duke of Wellington was a master at positioning his troops on vantage ground (often hiding troops on the reverse slope of a ridge), and baiting enemies into ill-advised assaults. Of his winning position at Waterloo, Wellington stated, “I saw this ground a year ago, and I’ve kept it in my pocket.” Rather than following Lee at Gettysburg, let us emulate Wellington at Waterloo, and choose wisely the ground on which we will fight. Should we not rather be the master of events than a slave to circumstances?
F. The Split Must be Over the LGBT Issue
Being the master of events means fighting on ground that is advantageous to us. Instead of fighting over female ordination, we need to fight over the LGBT issue. That is an issue on which we still have a majority.
Many liberals already support full normalization for homosexuality and transgenderism. The same hermeneutical methods they use to explain away the half-dozen texts that teach male headship in the church they also use to explain away the half-dozen “clobber texts” that proscribe homosexual sex. And the motivation is the same: they see normalization of homosexuality and transgenderism as a moral issue of justice and fairness. Although many liberal Adventists employed in the ministry would not publicly admit it, they already reject the biblical worldview on sexuality.
“WE DENY any teaching that suggests God's creative intent is limited to a gender binary or that God's desire for human romantic relationships is only to be expressed in heterosexual relationships between one man and one woman.
WE DENY that God intended human romantic relationships to be limited to one man and one woman and declare that any attempts to limit the sacred or civil rights of humans to covenant and commit to love and serve one another is an affront to God's created design.
WE DENY that the fallenness of human relationships resulted in the multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender identities.”
This statement was signed by Adventists Daneen Akers and Eliel Cruz (about whom more below), and we might be surprised if we knew the extent to which it accurately reflects liberal opinion inside the SDA Church.
But the liberals make up less than a third of the North American SDA Church at present, and EGW Conservatives do not support them on the LGBT issue. The EGW Conservatives are traditionalists on homosexuality. That means that at present there is still a strong majority opposed to the normalization of homosexuality and transgenderism in the Church. If the Church splits over LGBT normalization, it means that a decisive majority will likely want to stay with the world SDA Church, and world church Adventism should retain more of the institutional infrastructure in North America.
G. The Trademark Power
The General Conference has leverage it could use to flip the script on the coming split: its trademark. The Seventh-day Adventist Church trademarked the names “Adventist” and “Seventh-day Adventist.” As the owner of these terms, the General Conference can prevent other churches, groups, and organizations from using these terms, or any other terms “deceptively similar” to those terms. A term or mark is deemed to be “deceptively similar” to another trademark if it so nearly resembles that other mark that it is likely to deceive or cause confusion as to sponsorship.
The trademarks are owned by the General Conference Corporation. The GC Corporation’s Board of Directors is as follows:
Ted N. C. Wilson, Chair, Daisy J. F. Orion, Secretary, Timothy H. Aka, Guillermo E. Biaggi, G. Alexander Bryant, Dennis R. Carlson, George O. Egwakhe, G. Thomas Evans, Myron A. Iseminger, Daniel R. Jackson, Thomas L. Lemon, Geoffrey G. Mbwana, G. T. Ng, Juan R. Prestol-Puesan, Charles B. Simpson, John H. Thomas, J. Raymond Wahlen II.
Its administration is listed as follows:
President, Ted N. C. Wilson.
Vice Presidents, Daniel R. Jackson, Thomas L. Lemon, Juan R. Prestol-Puesan.
Secretary, Daisy J. F. Orion; Associate Secretaries, Dennis R. Carlson, Myron A. Iseminger.
Treasurer, Juan R. Prestol-Puesan; Associate Treasurers, Timothy H. Aka, George O. Egwakhe, J. Raymond Wahlen II.
Legal Counsel, Karnik Doukmetzian.
The denomination trademarked its name to try to prevent “Seventh-day Adventist Kinship,” a homosexual organization, from using the name “Seventh-day Adventist” in its title. Unfortunately, the denomination lost the ensuing lawsuit against SDA Kinship, and Kinship is still free to use the name.
Since then, the trademark power seems to have been used primarily against conservative groups. I know this from personal experience. A few years back, I was associated with a group called “Adventists United for Biblical Truth.” We were sending out emails to the constituency of La Sierra University, apprising them of the situation with Darwinism at La Sierra, and particularly that school’s vicious retaliation against a student, Louie Bishop, who had exposed what they were teaching.
A few days after sending out the first couple of emails, we received a “cease and desist” email from the General Conference legal department, asking us to stop using the name “Adventists United for Biblical Truth.” To any Adventist, our name obviously denoted a lay group, not an official branch of the Church, so the GC legal department was taking an aggressive legal position. But we did not have the money or the inclination to litigate against the General Conference, so we stopped sending out the emails.
We were far from the only conservative group to be abused by the GC legal department in this manner. A Canadian named Mark Price was associated with an Adventist anti-abortion Face Book page, called, “Adventists for Life.” The GC legal department contacted Facebook asking them to remove the page, and Face Book complied. (The letter not only wanted the Facebook page renamed, it also wanted the domain name www.adventistsforlife.org, de-registered.)
Another incident I was told about involved a conservative Adventist involved with GYC who had purchased several domain names with Adventist themes. He received cease and desist letters from the GC legal department demanding that he de-register the domain names. He donated all the domain names to the GC and took a tax deduction for their estimated value.
The most extreme case of enforcing the trade mark was against a tiny offshoot group (about a dozen members) in the town of Guy, Tennessee, who went by the name, “The Creation Seventh-day Adventist Church.” The GC filed suit against them and their pastor, Chick McGill. They subsequently changed the name to “A Creation Seventh-day & Adventist Church,” but this was deemed insufficient for the name to be non-infringing, although almost anyone would know it was not a conference Church. The GC prevailed in the litigation, but McGill refused to further change the name. Eventually McGill served 30 days in jail for contempt of court, and another member, Lucian Chartier, served 10 days of a 30-day sentence.
Meanwhile, the “Intercollegiate Adventist Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition,” a pro-gay organization founded by former Andrews student Eliel Cruz to promote gay-straight alliance groups on Adventist college campuses, has a website and 501c3 non-profit corporation both using the trademarked term “Adventist,” apparently with no interference from Karnik Doukmetzian or the General Conference Corporation. Perhaps, after losing to Kinship, the GC is leery of confronting any other gay organizations. Better to beat up on conservative groups, and sad little strays like Chick McGill. Easier, too, because religious conservatives, unlike gays, do not enjoy the support of every significant institution in contemporary Western life, including the American judiciary.
We’ve seen, in this section, that the General Conference Corporation owns the trademarks “Adventist” and “Seventh-day Adventist” and any other mark or term that could be deemed “deceptively similar.” We have also seen that the GC Corporation is very willing to use the trademark power against Adventists, and is even willing to enforce it to the point of imprisoning infringers.
H. How to Flip the Script on the Coming Split
So how do we flip the script? How do we change the subject of the coming Seventh-day Adventist schism from female ordination, where the pro-ordination coalition is in the majority, to homosexuality, where conservatives are in the majority?
We use the trademark power to provoke a split over homosexuality and transgenderism in the church.
If Eliel Cruz and Daneen Akers are not disfellowshipped by their respective local congregations, those churches receive a “cease and desist” letter forbidding them from using the term “Adventist.” If those churches continue to use the term “Adventist” and are not shut down by their conferences, those conferences receive a C&D forbidding use of the term “Adventist.” If the conferences disobey and are not dissolved by their unions, the unions receive a C&D, if the unions disobey and are not dissolved by their divisions, the divisions receive a C&D.
We repeat this process with every pro-homosexual church, including the Chico SDA Church, Todd Leonard’s Glendale City Church, Matthew Gamble’s “The Haven,” etc. (In cases such as “The Vallejo Drive Church” and “Glendale City Church”—churches that do not use the Adventist name—we go straight to the conference. If the conference does not close those churches, the conference gets a C&D.) We also send a C&D to the Hollywood SDA Church regarding their transgendered “elder.” Eventually, every church, conference, union and division that is supporting the normalization of homosexuality or transgenderism will either no longer be Adventist, or will be embroiled in litigation with the world church.
Obviously, this will take far more backbone than the board of the General Conference Corporation has ever shown, but if they can muster the courage of their convictions (or what one hopes are their convictions), the job of splitting the church on the LGBT fault line rather than ordination can be accomplished. And with the church splitting over LGBT activism, the majority even in the developed world will side with the world church.
As we litigate over the LGBT issue, the female ordination controversy will be temporarily forgotten. The GC will need to quietly change the editorial staffs at the Review and the Sabbath School Quarterly, replacing them with editors and contributors who will make it a priority to educate the church on the biblical doctrine of male leadership in the home and the church. In a decade or so, with liberals leaving the church over the LGBT issue, and a good faith attempt made to teach Bible doctrine about the relations of the sexes, a movement to add a fundamental belief about male leadership in the church might emerge.
I. An Appeal to Africa
The SDA Church in the developed world cannot save itself. Unfortunately, developed-world elites in government, business, academia, the military, media, entertainment, and even sports are in the grip of an ideology of self-hatred and suicidal ideation. This ideological sickness is manifested in almost every aspect of our declining and decaying societies, but especially in the suicidal rebellion against the divinely created sexual order. Sadly, this sickness is not limited to secular elites, but has seeped into the church and affected our church officers and bureaucracies. We cannot pull our own ox out of the hole into which it has fallen. We need Africa’s help.
If the governing board of the General Conference Corporation cannot muster the courage and will to use its potent trademark weapon against gay activists, it will be necessary for African and other third-world representatives to vote to change the composition of the governing board, and vote in those willing to use the trade mark power to save the church in the developed world.
The schism that is upon us appears to be a catastrophe, but it need not be, if GC officials can move swiftly and expeditiously to flip the script.