A Troubling Disconnect

I have been a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for some 70 years. For more than 50 of those years I served as a minister, an employee of the church. The responsibilities with which I was entrusted embraced various avenues of service that entailed travel throughout the world church.

It has been a wonderful ride. I feel privileged and grateful to have been afforded such a position. To a large extent the Adventist Church has made me what I am, and I have been, and remain, a very happy person. But now, no longer on the front line but a loyal layperson, not wishing to involve myself in decisions of the church — I had a long inning at bat — I find myself increasingly troubled over certain developments in this fellowship that I love. My dilemma is this: I cannot reconcile some church actions with what the Holy Spirit seems to me to clearly be telling us as a body.

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Revelation 2:7). That dictum guided the church of the first century when it faced the issue of the inclusion of Gentiles who had accepted Jesus. The particular point of dispute was circumcision, the sign of the covenant people given to Abram by Yahweh. Paul and Barnabas, pioneers in the Gentile mission, instructed converts that circumcision was no longer a requirement for salvation. Their position was, to say the least, extraordinary: nowhere in the Old Testament or the teachings of Jesus can one find warrant for it. So the first ecumenical council of the church was convened. We read Luke’s account of it in Acts chapter 15.

Several leaders among the first Christians expressed their views, with some drawing upon Old Testament scriptures. But what eventually won the day in support of Paul and Barnabas was not argument from the Word but the recounting of what the Spirit was saying by His activity among non-Jewish believers. Thus, when at its conclusion the council drafted a letter for the Gentile churches, it stated that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” rather than listing scriptural passages (verse 28).

Throughout my many years of service in our church, I cannot recall any instance when official actions appeared to me to be at odds with what I deemed the Spirit to be saying.

Until now.

In two matters I find a glaring disconnect between official position and what I personally witness of the Spirit’s activity. For me, this is deeply troubling; I don’t know how to handle it.

The first matter concerns The One Project, a revival movement initiated and led by a small group of church pastors and chaplains. Its stated aim, arrived at after days of prayer and study, was to place Jesus at the center and head of all our activities, including preaching and teaching. Who can argue with that?

Sadly, it turned out, a lot of people, including some GC leaders. The pastors found themselves subjected to criticism and vilification; in despicable fashion even their kids were attacked through social media. Incredible!

The One Project ran for about seven years. It organized gatherings in the United States, Europe, and Australia where Jesus was exalted in preaching and music as All. I was not witness to its early years, but over the course of the final four years I became drawn into its activities, speaking six times at gatherings in the U.S. and in Australia. What I saw and heard during those years, not only in public but as I had opportunity to observe the lives of these pastors, made a deep impression. Noelene was with me in everything; she along with me could only praise the Lord for what He was doing through The One Project. We, together with countless others, were renewed spiritually. It seemed to us that the Lord was answering the prayers of many Adventists for a revival, a renewing through the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was speaking to our church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, instructing us to make Jesus first and last and best in everything, just as Ellen White urged us to do many years ago.

Noelene and I thought that church leadership would have rejoiced with us at The One Project and encouraged it. They didn’t; just the opposite. The pastors had to battle under a pall of suspicion. I learned about the cloud over The One Project and tried hard to find out what the problems were all about. In an article I begged critics to let me know what was wrong. To this day no one has been able to tell me. All I got was smoke and rumor, instructions to view such-and-such DVD, and so on. It became apparent that the criticisms were originating with people who hadn’t actually been to a gathering of The One Project.

Sad to say, that observation extended to GC leaders who called the pastors in for an examination of their views. None of those doing the interrogating had attended a gathering. I saw a list — and it was long — of the items on which they were cross-examined. Under the terms of this list Ellen White would have failed in a book like Steps to Christ because she made no mention of “the little horn”!

I cannot support, far less defend, the stance adopted by the GC toward The One Project. I think it is indefensible. And ironic: these same leaders had encouraged the worldwide church to pray for revival!

If any reader of this article wants to find out what was actually preached at the TOP gatherings, they can find a large selection of messages in the book For the One: Voices from The One Project (Signs Publishing, 2014).

You find there penetrating presentations dealing with Adventist history, theology, and practice. For me, church leaders’ rejection of TOP signals a massive, troubling disconnect with experience.

The second matter concerns the ordination of women to the Adventist ministry. We have had this question before us since the GC Session of 1881 voted that qualified women may be set aside for the ministry by ordination. The item was referred to the GC committee, where it died. But already the Spirit was speaking to the church: many women were serving in ministry and one in particular, Ellen White, occupied a prophetic role in which at times she felt divinely led to issue sharp rebukes to even the GC President.

In our times hundreds, probably thousands, of women are serving in Adventist ministry, in at least seven of the 13 divisions of the world church. Most are commissioned rather than ordained — although on a biblical basis there is not one scintilla of difference. In China, however, large numbers of women serve as ordained ministers. Some lead congregations of many thousands.

During the past 40 years we have debated endlessly the issue of women in ministry. After all this expenditure of money and time, I have to ask: Have we been listening to what the Spirit has been saying to our church?

I find it incredible that at the recent San Antonio GC Session, when the women’s ministry question was the main item on the agenda, no report was sought from the women pastors in China — those who evangelize, shepherd and lead the church. How could that be? It’s as though at the Jerusalem Council Paul and Barnabas were forbidden to relate how the Spirit blessed their work.

Am I troubled? You’d better believe it. This is not right. This is not authentic Adventism. This is a spiritual disconnect of grave consequence. If, as I am convinced, the Lord is calling and empowering women, who are we to say that He may not? This is dangerous stuff. Someone needs to say it, so I will, albeit with reluctance and heartbreaking sadness. I am appalled that GC leaders seem embarked on a course to shut down women in ministry by hook or by crook — and more by crook than by hook.

But this personal sharing cannot and must not end on a note of gloom. The divine reality is that Jesus, not man, gets the last and decisive word.

Not our words, the Word. Jesus is the Head of the church and no one else. We are safe in His hands as we listen to Him.

William G. Johnsson is the retired Editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines, and the author of numerous books including Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio.

Photo Grant Whitty / Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8909
9 Likes

Terrific article! Thank you so much, Dr. Johnson. You have highlighted two issues that trouble many of us; two issues that have done considerable harm to church unity.

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If you don’t know what people saw wrong with the One Project you just have been living under a rock for the past few years. It’s well documented. Their recommended reading lists containing books by “emergents”, their invitation to “emergents” to speak at some of the gatherings, and their thinly-veiled criticism of the church, especially it’s doctrines. Examples abound on the internet, including videos. Sounds like you weren’t willing to dig deep enough to find any of these criticisms.

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I think you are right. Jesus set this new standard of letting the Spirit not Scripture speak. This became the standard for the early church leaders. Jesus openly set aside Mosaic laws, giving no Biblical proof text for his actions. Jesus touched bleeding women and gentiles, worked on the Sabbath, declared foods do not create a state uncleanness but words make one unclean, touched the dead and sick and allowed women ready access to his presence even if they might be unclean. Whereas Moses taught that God demands obedience, Jesus taught that that love fulfills the law.

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A well written real concern for the present state of the SDA Church. First lesson don’t give a Project a name that hasn’t been vetted by the GC. second lesson, in a denomination in which the women member out number the men don’t give men the voice in session. It seems that losing a rib man lost a balanced view of humanity. Tell women to go into medicine or law and they will soon own the GC.

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To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you. Gen 3:16

To Elder Johnsson,

Do you know what that word “desire” means?

Thank you so much for writing this timely piece. Your voice of reason, which lacks hubris, is very refreshing.

As in the late 19th century Adventist church, many still oppose the call to come out of the traditions of men. There is no prophet to admonish those who stubbornly refuse to open their hearts to hear and act on the calling of the Holy Spirit. I fear though that even if there was one that many who cling to tradition would still refuse to be swayed by the direct message of God Himself. The calamity of our forefathers in the Church which caused a delay in Jesus return is repeated yet again.

How long will God be willing to put up with his chosen people refusing to come out of the traditions of men and false piety (Babylon)? What will be his answer to a people who stubbornly refuse to build higher on the foundation of truth to reach ever greater heights of faith and understanding and thus fail to fulfill their high calling?

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I viewed videos of the the One Project meetings. I saw nothing offensive in them.
The ONLY thing I saw offensive in them is that they were NOT promoted by the
Adventist Services and Industries [ASI money folks]. And of course the ASI have a lot
of influence with the Staff of the General Conference.
they were NOT promoting “PERFECTION” so that Christ could come.
All they were promoting is, like in the song, “I would be like Jesus”, and exploring
How to Live the Life of Jesus in this Earthly Kingdom that seems to be run by
a different Power.
It was a simple, uncomplicated Message. Only ONE message. JESUS.
It was “JESUS” that got them in trouble and rejected.
Remember “Jesus” was rejected when He said, “I am the BREAD come down
from the Father in heaven. EAT this bread, DRINK this cup-- My blood which is
shed for you.”
You will recall that ONLY the 12 were left standing there. All others left.
Remember, they shouted at Jesus – this is a hard saying. Turned and left.
Perhaps our SDA Leadership is saying the same thing, and have Turned and Left.
Perhaps rejecting Jesus is what will fulfill – the greatest Lights will go out. The GC?

FEAR is the problem with Men accepting Women since the 1880’s. THAT is why it was
“tabled” and never brought to light again. FEAR keeps it STILL being hidden.
If one reads the reports way back in the 1880s and 1890s one will find WOMEN praised
for their activities of beginning church groups. Actually, it announces that WOMEN were
MORE Successful than their MALE counterparts.
I say FEAR is the reigning Emotion in the Male Leadership. And they will DO ANYTHING to
Prove from Paul that Women should shut their mouths, and only meekly talk when they are
at home, in the house, asking questions about Spiritual Topics.
However, SDA MALES also preach that Women of the church should be “Servants” - or as
Paul calls it – Slaves [unpaid servants]. And put them on a guilt trip if they don’t follow Male
instructions.
It was FEAR in the 1880s, it is FEAR in 2018.
One CAN’T Overcome the FEAR in others. Overcoming FEAR has to come from within the
person who has the FEAR.
It was FEAR by the 10 spies that kept the Israelites [over a million people] wandering in the
Wilderness for another 38 years – untill all but 2 [Caleb and Joshua] had died. Even Moses,
Aaron, Miriam had to die.

20 Likes

Desire in context is in a marital relationship as it mentions husband, it implies nothing else.

Perhaps you could make your point more clear:
a) Are you suggesting that we should not act to restore and practice what God put into place in the beginning (prior to the fall)?
b) Are you also suggesting that women should endure severe pain of child birth without the respite of modern medicine (i.e. epidural)?
c) Should we live under the curse or aspire to live as God originally desired?
d) Are you suggesting that all women must be married?
e) Are you suggesting that all women should be confined in their activities in life to the marriage and by extension have no other role in society, business, education, etc.?

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Some like myself could benefit from an explanation of what “emergents” is as I have not heard of that before.

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Near as i can determine, such a one is he who has dared to escape the concretion of his self-hewn cistern, er, cocoon. Otoh,butterflies are free!

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David –
The term “emergent” is bandied about among SDAs to cause Fear and Rejection of
investigating what it “actually” means.
I would say that persons like Pago Probably Do Not know what it means – probably
only by “hearsay” from others.

Persons like Marcus Borg [no longer with us] was one who spent his WHOLE adult life-time
trying to discover Jesus, as he wanted to live like Jesus. The majority of his books was in
pursuit of WHO the REAL Jesus was, and WHAT made Him “Jesus” – in side the mind of
“Jesus”. “Jesus” was a REAL HUMAN, only Human Powers. He depended on His Father
for everything. And what amazing things He did, The Father did through Him. Gave Him
Instructions, and “Jesus” carried them out – even to the going through that 36 hours of
Torture and finally the 6 hours of hanging naked on the cross, and ONLY His Father to
talk to and to recite the Psalms in His mind. He only had the energy to speak out loud
that ONE VERSE of the Psalm – and got jeered at for that. But the Religious Leaders
who were there KNEW that Psalm and KNEW what He was reciting in His mind.
He also had only enough breath to tell one “thief”, I will see you at home. And He also
forgave the other “thief” and the Jews and Romans for doing what they did, because
they were ignorant of what they had just done.
There are others in search of the REAL Christ, the REAL Father, write about their
journey, and are finding the REAL Christ, the REAL Father outside of their “Religion”
and are excited about it.
A.J. Swoboda. Has a much better reason to be promoting The Sabbath, than we SDAs
do. See “the dusty ones --how wandering deepens your faith”. See “subversive sabbath -
the surprising power of rest in a non-stop world.”
I have 5 other books in my library on the Sabbath, not written by SDAs who have promoted
it…

Timo – Liked your picture of the Caterpillar – munching on the Word all Summer –
going into the Cocoon, studying – What does this all mean? In the process not
realizing, that because of the Word nourishing it, it is changing in to a beautiful butterfly.

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Thank you, William Johnson.

When starting my ministry, some 36 years back, WO was delayed, not questioned, due to cultural reasons.
Patience of the saints might do it - I was wrong.

Later in my ministry “headship ideology” was introduced into the debate.
Never did I think this would become a serious argument in my church - I was wrong.

Currently headship ideology is becoming more and more anti-trinitarian.
Never would my church turn anti-trinitarian - I might be wrong again.

The ONE project and the WO issue are the tip of an iceberg … and we are heading towards it with triumphant assurance…

33 Likes

I could reiterate my statement about living under a rock.

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This response is neither helpful nor in the Spirit of Christ between brothers. It is simply my desire to understand what you mean as I don’t know.

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David–
As I reported earlier – Pago probably only heard it bandied about himself, and doesn’t
really know. So it is IMPOSSIBLE for him to answer your question.

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Thank you for your candor, it is most insightful. If Pago is representative of level of thinking and approach to understanding/expanding Bible truth of Adventists at large it is very troubling.

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Thank you, Bill! One specific comment and then a general one.

  1. I think that we should not cooperate with the administrative malpractice which occurs when an “above” leader does not work through the proper process to reach a “below” one. For instance, although I have been “given the opportunity,” I do not directly answer questions from General Conference people. I answer my Dean after the GC questions have come to him through the Board Chair, President and Provost. We have a good system of checks and balances and we should use it.

  2. There is a difference between trying to do the will of God and trying to take the place of God. It seems to me that some of our leaders----not many, actually---- come too close to crossing this line. But why? My impression is that they are afraid that if they do not exercise what they call “strong leadership” the church will lose its way or fall apart. It won’t!

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3 likes to your reply and I wonder if any of the 3 understand what “desire” means.

By all means elucidate us then…as one brother to another please explain

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