The Seventh-day Adventist Church began in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. Through vigorous and sacrificial missionary work, the Church experienced phenomenal world-wide growth.
Today, 155 years later, there are more than twenty million SDAs across the planet. American influence still dominates the organization despite the fact that the vast majority of members now reside outside the U. S. (According to the 2018 Annual Statistical Report, Adventists in North America represent only 6% of world Adventism but employ 20% of the ordained ministers.) There is something unseemly about this statistic. It implies a lack of missionary spirit. Why do some churches in the United States have seven or eight pastors, while many districts have one pastor covering three or four churches?
At one time the North American Division and the General Conference were essentially indistinguishable. Money and leadership came from the U. S. The world field was merely an extension of the American Church.
The reason for the dominance of American Adventism can probably be traced to two facts: (1) the prophetic role of New Englander Ellen G. White in the formation of the developing Church (2) the relative wealth of the United States compared to other nations. These two facts remain central even now. The world Church still looks to the U. S. for financial support and spiritual leadership.
But much has changed. Adventist expansion through missionary efforts began in a period of relative cultural unity in the United States. The traditional family, work, religion (Protestant), community, and education were highly valued. Especially significant were nineteenth-century assumptions about morality that no longer apply today. In the twentieth century, important changes in the social order gradually, and then rapidly, made their appearance.
During the 1960s, cultural change was especially pronounced. A so-called “counter-culture” took root in America. Old norms were challenged. Traditional institutions lost influence. Leadership was spurned. Gender roles were rejected. Traditional sexual mores looked increasingly puritanical and out of fashion. But surprisingly, after many decades, the counter-culture became mainstream. The “radicalism” of the 1960s became the new normal.
The American Adventist Church was not immune to the cultural changes that gradually overwhelmed society. Adventism absorbed at least some of the new norms in ways that are now obvious. The traditional conservatism of Bible-believing Christians became unpopular. For this reason, many Adventists rejected traditional norms and embraced secular culture as a way out of the “peculiarity” of the old ways. Many American Adventists began to live much as their neighbors did, consuming the culture that appeared on television and other media, watching the same sporting events, engaging in the same pursuits, listening to the same music, assuming the same norms, the same dress and adornments, even the same sexual mores.
Women’s issues played a prominent part in the radicalization of American culture. The role of women in American culture had been a subject of intense social action since 1848. The so-called “first wave” of feminism began in Seneca Falls, New York. The notion that men were the cause of women’s ills was born around this time. Then the “second wave” of feminism slammed American society in the 1960s. The problem for women then was the dullness of middle-class female existence. “Domesticity” became a bad word.
It was this period that was particularly important for American Adventism. Secular feminism went mainstream; consequently, it entered Adventism. Much more was heard in the Church about women’s role in ministry, but the voices were angrier now.
The actual role of women in nineteenth-century American Adventism was significantly more important at the departmental/administrative levels than it is today. The reasons were simple, and biblical. The Church saw women as vital to the mission of the church. Ellen White was especially encouraging of women in formal ministry. In the early twentieth century, women gradually lost many of their formal, paid roles in the Church.
This development was a dreadful mistake. The Bible makes a powerful case for the rights of women in marriage (to be “beloved,” The Song of Solomon), inside and outside the home (to buy and sell fields for profit, etc., Proverbs 31), in the Church (to be fellow workers with men, Romans 16), and in salvation (to be saved in the same way as men, Galatians 3:28).
The problem in the U. S. after the 1960s was that the move for women’s equality in the Church became secularized and humanistic. Adventists did not try to right past wrongs towards women workers on biblical terms, but on worldly terms. A biblical reform would involve ordination and job title. Ordination should never have been made a prerequisite for much of the leadership in the Church. There is still time for proper reform in the role of women in the Church.
Ellen White never sided with secular feminism even though she sided with other social movements such as abolitionism and temperance. The reason for Ellen White’s rejection of secular feminism was because it was anti-biblical. Evidence for this argument is found in a scholarly book by Professor Ann Braude called Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Indiana University Press, 1989.
Braude makes the following important points: (1) modern feminism and Spiritualism began in the same year at nearly the same place (1848, only miles apart in New York State) (2) both movements wanted radical change in the relationship between men and women (3) many important supporters of the feminism were Spiritualists (4) both groups rejected patriarchy and headship (5) Spiritualistic mediums were predominately women (6) Spiritualism and liberal theology both denigrated the authority of the Bible (7) Spiritualists emphasized feelings over doctrine and orthodoxy (8) Spiritualism rejected all kinds of authority—in the family, the church, and the government (9) Spiritualism dominated the women’s rights movement in the later nineteenth century (10) women came to be viewed as more pious than men.
The language and thought processes of secular feminism now dominate the case for women in ministry in the North American Division. It is critical that every Adventist in North American compare the tenets of secular feminism and the positions being advocated by NAD leadership and many pastors. Are there not obvious parallels? The main similarity is the rejection of authority, both authority in the Church and authority in the Bible.
This conclusion demonstrates the origin of the problem of unity in the Church today. Many American Adventists are unable to think outside their secular-feminist box. Most of the world Church has not be influenced by American feminism. So it is no wonder that the world Church rejects the feminist assumptions now controlling the North American Division. The issue for the NAD is basically the “sameness” of men and women. And this view will/should never have a place in Adventism. It is contradicted by nature and the Bible.
When leaders of the Church express their views as a matter of conscience, Adventists must ask, “Who or what informs your conscience? The Bible or some radical spirit?” If trends continue, the North American Division is headed for apostasy.
Is reform needed in the role of women in the Church? Are more women needed in paid positions in the Church? Yes!
Should secular feminism determine the nature of the reform? Absolutely not!
Marcus Sheffield is a Professor of English at Southern Adventist University.