Irony in the Adventist Compliance Controversy

Analogies are useful mechanisms in trying to correctly understand complex situations and determine the proper course of action. The basic idea is to investigate a particular situation to identify both its essential and non-essential characteristics. Then you try to construct a new situation – one that is easier to understand – by retaining the essentials and changing some of the non-essentials to create more (typically moral) clarity. Consequently, in the newly constructed situation, difficulty in understanding is reduced, often because the changes produce a new context that has a well-understood ethical foundation and precedent for action.

Of course, analogies can be (and often are) abused. This happens when essentials and non-essentials are not properly identified and separated. Then, the re-substitution does not clarify; it can instead create a false analogy. And many situations are sufficiently complex that the analysis and separation tasks are not easy. Further, many people, consciously or otherwise, have a vested interest in some position, rather than an ideally objective intent. Then an analogy can become weaponized in service of “spin”. Consequently, evaluating the legitimacy of the analogy is quite important, or else an invalid conclusion is reached and an under-supported position can be taken or hardened.

Well, that’s a lot of abstraction. Where am I going with this?

Consider now the controversy presently distressing many in the church – the General Conference’s (GC) “Compliance” process, voted at its October 14, 2018 Annual Council[1]. It outlines a mechanism for identifying and dealing with the non-compliance of various administrative entities, from the local church on up. It is inherently hierarchical and grounded in the idea of law. That is, a society needs to determine how to govern itself in an orderly manner, with the majority deciding a position or action and the minority recognizing the validity of a majority/minority vote, and thus submitting to that majority. This is law and order, a concept whose general legitimacy is uncontroversial.

There is no mystery concerning what has generated this perceived need for a compliance process. It is because several Union Conferences have ordained women to ministry, and leadership at the GC level considers this move inappropriate, and not in harmony with the majority opinion of the world church. Further, in some minds, the position of women’s equality in ministry is not biblical. Such a view considers that the Bible teaches the idea of “male headship”, a doctrine not presently accepted as an orthodox Adventist belief[2]. Conversely, the non-compliant Unions have dissented on the basis of conscience, undergirded by perceived biblical support. World history demonstrates a consistent pattern of male dominance, and that is reflected in the cultures in which the Bible’s material was generated. But such biblical descriptive material, so the argument goes, does not indicate a normative position favoring headship. Indeed, the Bible is clear about human equality. And this concept of foundational equality does not really need revelatory text to be recognizable. An appeal to any reasonably functional conscience is sufficient.

Thus I contend, in the compliance controversy, the two essential components present are: 1) the legitimate rule of law, and 2) the primacy of conscience. Other details, like the characteristics of the law-issuing organization (the GC) and the “law disobeying” organizations (the Unions) – are incidental.

Now for my analogy – which I am sure will be repugnant for some. Instead of the GC on the “law” side, let us replace it with a secular government. Instead of the Unions representing the “conscience” side, let us replace it with Adventist Sabbath-keepers. Then, for the role of the specific law in question, let us replace the compliance voted action with a governmental legislative action instituting a National Sunday Law. Historically, the importance of choosing conscience over law if/when a secular government instituted some Sunday law is practically baked into the Adventist DNA. Consider, for example, some commentary from Ellen White:

“even in free America, rulers and legislators, in order to secure public favor, will yield to the popular demand for a law enforcing Sunday observance. Liberty of conscience, which has cost so great a sacrifice, will no longer be respected.” —Great Controversy, p. 592.

“When our nation, in its legislative councils, shall enact laws to bind the consciences of men in regard to their religious privileges, enforcing Sunday observance, and bringing oppressive power to bear against those who keep the seventh-day Sabbath, the law of God will, to all intents and purposes, be made void in our land; and national apostasy will be followed by national ruin.” RH DEC.18, 1888.

Now there are obvious differences in these two situations – the two sides of my proposed analogy. Degree of punishment is one – but the fact of prospective punishment is found in both contexts. The motives of the “legislators” (“to secure public favor”) are not evidently the same, but I would argue that both these details are non-essential components.

Certainly the GC does not self-identify as an “oppressive power”. However, I suspect the most significant reason some readers would find this proposed analogy to be repugnant is that it is 180 degrees from how Adventists want to view their church. We’re supposed to be the good guys. But I would respond by asking each reader to be rigorous in trying to differentiate between essential and non-essential components in the situation. Some discomfort is more likely a consequence of Adventist “patriotism” rather than being able to demonstrate that a false analogy has been created.

It may be that some in leadership – perhaps Ted Wilson – have personal views favoring headship. But until that becomes a normative doctrine the GC position cannot be wrapped in such theology. It is presently being articulated as a call to unity – because the majority has spoken. But the traditional Adventist scenario concerning Sunday Laws has also sometimes suggested that those law proponents might use unity as an argument to justify their actions.

In the current controversy the GC is acting in the capacity of a government entity, with the expectation that a minority should submit to a legitimate voted action. On the other side, the dissenters consistently argue that their unwillingness to comply is based on conscience. These two components are the essentials. Seriously altering the non-essentials to create a new situation, one perhaps surprising or even disturbing, can be part of the value of an analogy. It can make the essentials stand out in greater clarity. And it’s difficult to find a more well-understood conscience vs. law example for Adventists, than the expected Sunday Law scenario.

Now, to the extent that the analogy is valid (and I obviously wouldn’t write this essay if I thought it was invalid) – it is also incredibly ironic that a story Adventists have told about themselves forever – that we conscience-driven people will someday need to stand firm against a law-giving, legitimate government majority – could be turned on its head with this compliance controversy.

It all comes down to whether you think the analogy is a fair one. And that, crucially, involves you judging between essential and non-essential components in the two situations. Think about it carefully. Try to set aside any positioning you might have – pro or con. The greater the extent to which the analogy holds – the greater the irony. And the more we ought to pause, as a church, and ask ourselves: how far off-track from our core mission have we gotten in all this.

[1] The document is entitled: “Regard for and Practice of General Conference Session and General Conference Executive Committee Actions” and the complete text is found here:

[2] In fact, the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) demonstrated in its final report that headship had not won majority support. Also, the SDA Theological Seminary released a 2014 statement that argued against the headship doctrine. See:

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for

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I think your analogy is a good one, given the way you present the “facts.” I think, however, that the president of the NAD, defending the action taken by two of its unions, makes it clear that they are in no way transgressing a “law”. His defense is not based on “conscience” but on “law.”


excellent anslogy. Ted views himself as the chief priest of the new World Sanhedrin. His ego has distorted common sense let alone Christain ethos.


Fascinating. the part that you look at as incidental end up being the repugnant part of your analogy yet you have said they are the incidental nonimportant parts)/

You quote:

The forcing of the law (which above you cite as incidental) is the thing that goes against the conscience. Of course, the analogy cannot work with the US since we have a constitution which determines the legitimacy of laws, so your analogy has to assume no constitution for your government and further has to assume that the denomination does not have a constitution which orders its laws as well. In total a completely useless analogy in my opinion

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A fascinating analogy!

I believe that many may reject the analogy because they may believe that only a conscience that has arrived at their biblical understanding is to be yielded to.

But Adventist practice of religious liberty tells us otherwise.

Adventists have always sought to uphold the conscience of any who are maintaining their conscientious convictions whether we personally believe them or not.


It’s an interesting analogy, but I think this is complicated by the odd quirks of Christian epistemology. Most seem to believe that we have access to special revelation through the Bible, which gives us God’s law and wishes for our behavior. We also have a conscience, which Christians believe is a form of general moral revelation available to all. The problem is that those two forms of moral revelation may not always be in harmony.

In fact, throughout the Hebrew Bible we see many examples of conflicts between God’s command or law, and the moral instincts of humans. The binding of Isaac is a great example of this tension. But the moral of that story, as I understand it, is that when God’s command conflicts with human conscience, it is NOT human conscience and empathy that has primacy. God’s law or commands are to be followed, even when they appear obviously immoral and conflict with our conscience (to the point of ritually murdering one’s own son).

I think modern liberal Christians have a hard time with this view, because as you point out we in the post-enlightenment west are conditioned to value the instincts of our consciences very highly. I actually agree with this instinct from the point of view of moral philosophy, but I don’t believe it’s Biblical. Theologically and historically, I think the authoritarian views expressed in that awful GC-endorsed video last week are pretty much on point.

Moses did not allow the Israelites to follow the instincts of their conscience. He killed people at the direct command of Yahweh for non-compliance! Even non-believers who didn’t conform to the laws of their society were executed. There’s a complex tension here that is deeper than I think is often admitted, perhaps because to examine it honestly would require us to admit the massive moral differences between Jesus and Yahweh. And that’s simply something we’re not prepared to do.


I plan to spend a “thoughtful hour” in contemplation of this analogy. I’m convinced that God would not have us place in motion any mechanism that would force the conscience of His people.


You write: “when God’s command conflicts with human conscience, it is NOT human conscience and empathy that has primacy. God’s law or commands are to be followed, even when they appear obviously immoral and conflict with our conscience”

This viewpoint is sometimes called Divine Command Theory. While I believe the majority of Christians lean in this direction - especially fundamentalists - I think it is philosophically incoherent. And the case to back up that opinion is not complicated IMO. But getting into that is outside the scope of the article and even the typical commentary drift. If you are unfamiliar with this, google it. This whole problem is foundational and Plato got at it via the Euthyphro dialog.


There seems to be confusion between conscience and conviction. Conscience is the work of the Holy Spirit and requires being grounded in the word of God, which rejects a spirit of divisiveness and refusal to comply with the work of God in His church through the process that God has set up in His wisdom. As pointed out by Matt above, the Bible records an expectation of compliance in view of God’s revealed will, whether through a prophet, through written Scripture, or through the leadership God has set in place. Read Rom 13:1-2. It is clear that this is the divine expectation, aside from issues that directly and clearly conflict with the commands of God (Acts 5:19-20, 29). Conscience will lead a person to do the revealed will of God, avoiding issues which are debatable or unclear (Rom 14:1,23). Conviction, on the other hand, is based on one’s personal beliefs and opinions about what is right, even if it is not right. I can have a conviction while being wrong, but my conscience will be enlightened if I permit the Holy Spirit to speak through God’s word and the community of faith as guided by its Head in harmony with Scripture.

This is not about the GC president or ExeComm or other small body. It is a standing policy of the world church that decisions made by the world church either in GC Session or in Annual Council are to be enforced by the elected leaders at all church levels. The decisions which are not being complied with have been voted three times by the GC in Session, and the compliance process has been based on a worldwide survey of 100% of Union presidents and voted by the 2018 Annual Council. Those who still refuse to comply should be honest and step down if unwilling to comply, even if they claim it to be a matter of conscience. It is merely a matter of conviction, and the policies still apply.

The analogy fails to address the real issues here.

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That is exactly right, but the rest of this l-o-n-g definition of conscience does not belong in the same sentence.

"and requires being grounded in the word of God, which rejects a spirit of divisiveness and refusal to comply with the work of God in His church through the process that God has set up in His wisdom._"

Isn’t this pretty much the RCC position versus Martin Luther?


I accept that your response is a serious one, but it’s as if you didn’t read it or understand the author’s main point. It is a natural law that we become like the god (God?) we worship. If we believe God runs his universe as an imperial ruler and that his laws are arbitrary and imposed, then it would be consistent to organize authority in our church structure according to a similar design where majority votes can determine everything, such as “Truth,” and how we should think, etc. If one takes your final paragraph and runs it through the proposed analogy, it seems to demonstrate what the author is saying. If anyone should be “honest” and step down, it is the group thinkers at the GC who are determined to risk dividing our church in their misguided quest to bring enforced “unity” at almost any cost.


A long way off-track. Of course, the opponents of the ordination of women will claim that their ordination is trying to get the church back on to “the right track.” But, when was it “off-track?” If the slow growth rate in North America and even negative growth in some places is any indication, much more important topics have been around for decades and the ordination of women is like being a violinist playing to distract attention from the fact that the ship isn’t moving forward and is taking-on water.


i think this analogy is more than fair…in fact i think it’s an exact match…rulers and legislators at the end of time, like our GC, if they are to be believed, won’t be acting from their own volition…they’ll be enforcing the will of the majority of their constituents for the perceived good of all…

as it seems now, end time sunday laws will be enforced in order to combat global warming and what are believed to be accompanying effects, like droughts, monster fires, killer hurricanes and rising sea levels…clearly the rule of law, developed for the prosperity of the state, will depend on everyone cooperating…and no doubt the unity of the world will be the mantra, as will bible texts that teach obedience to secular authority…

i think it’s an accurate implication that adventist eschatology theory is not much more than a blow up of what we’re witnessing now…the essential components between what we believe will be secular enforcement in the future and what the GC is setting up now seem identical…that is, the GC’s conflation of policy and doctrine, where both are punished in the same way, aligns well with what we expect will be a blurring of truth and error in the future…it’s even the case that the side acting from conscience is in the minority…

Thank you for participating in this discussion with your thoughtful comment.

The first problem with your proposal is that it is under-inclusive, because those who are refusing to comply are not just a few leaders but all of their constituents. Constituents elect their leaders and make policy. Consequently, ordinations of women will not stop by removing certain leaders. You would have to disfellowship roughly 40 percent of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

But we are fine with being forced out of the Church if that is the desire of the 60 percent. Here we stand, to paraphrase Martin Luther. But this brings us to the second problem with your proposal. Opposition to women’s ordination of the 60 percent is soft and in decline. In other words, the salience of opposition to women’s ordination is too low for the 60 percent to muster the gumption requisite to splitting the Church.

And there is a third problem with your proposal. The Fundamental Beliefs do not countenance male headship theory, which undergirds opposition to women’s ordination. Ironically, the 60 percent, who have wittingly and unwittingly embraced male headship theory, are out of compliance. Let’s list all of these doctrinal differences between WE (the 40 percent) and THEY (the 60 percent):

  1. Whereas WE believe in the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, THEY advocate the anti-Trinitarian heresy of Eternal Functional Subordinationism, which implies that the Son does not have all of the essential attributes of divinity that the Father has and is, therefore, not divine.
  2. Whereas WE believe that Christ is the Head of the church, THEY believe that at best He is a figurehead because He has delegated all of His authority to ordained male ministers, who “act in His stead and with His authority.”
  3. Whereas WE believe that Christ is the sole typological fulfillment of the OT priesthood, THEY universally argue that the OT priesthood also points to an exclusively-male church pastorate.
  4. Whereas WE believe that men and women are equal, THEY advocate the oxymoron that women are equal to men but subordinate.
  5. Whereas WE note that Ellen White, who possessed ordination credentials as a minister, exercised authority over men, THEY refuse to fully recognize and acknowledge her authority.
  6. Whereas WE believe that leadership is based on spiritual giftedness, THEY believe that leadership is based on gender.
  7. Whereas WE believe in justification solely by grace through faith alone, THEY advocate an unbiblical works-based soteriology that has its origins in Arius and is complementary to his low Christology.
  8. Whereas WE believe that any Christian can lead in the communion service, THEY believe that only ordained males can do so.
  9. Whereas WE are beginning to realize that a major issue in the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan is the nature of the Trinity, THEY refuse to acknowledge that the counterfeit trinity’s effort to corrupt our understanding of the Trinity is an end-time deception.
  10. Whereas WE believe that Jesus did not possess a sinful human nature, THEY insist that He did.
  11. Whereas WE value scholarship and the importance of understanding hermeneutics, THEY disrespect our biblical scholars, advocate the “plain meaning” approach to interpreting the biblical text, and celebrate a fundamentalist know-nothingness.
  12. Whereas WE value the inalienable right to personal conscience, as evidenced by our unwillingness to insist that women’s ordination be implemented in those parts of the world that are not ready, THEY are eager to trample upon this inalienable right.
  13. Whereas WE are willing to be patient and long-suffering to those whom we perceive are relatively weak in the faith, THEY are not willing to do likewise to those they perceive are relatively weak in the faith.
  14. Whereas WE believe in the priesthood of all believers, THEY believe that an ordained male minister is representative of God in a unique way that clearly differentiates the ordained male minister from an ordinary church member.
    I have offered this kind of list in past comments. We are all familiar with the “There is no Middle Ground” genre of SDA writings that demonstrate that theistic evolution is incompatible with our FBs. I am surprised that we have not seen a lot of writings that demonstrate that there is no middle ground with respect to male headship theory. At least there is the Sabbath, which is a high point of agreement for all of us.

I do so very much agree with you.
I think that in pointing at things we don’t agree we are diminishing the meaning of our very message and mission. As you mentioned the Sabbath, I would like to add the Second Coming and the proclaiming of the Everlasting Gospel, which are the things with a high rate of agreement among all Adventists. I think that the preoccupation with things which by nature are divisive and not comprehensive to everyone alike is the best way for killing the Church. After all the Church is Christ’s body of which He is the Head. In today’s medicine the only part you can’t transplant or change is the head. The Head will remain, the body can be changed if it does not fulfill its function.


This controversy could be easily solved if the GC could take a difference position:
“We wish all church leaders and members to support the GC world sessions majority vote and refrain from WO. Yet we understand that sincere individuals hold to equality of men and women as a fundamental Biblical truth, while others hold to male headship with the same fervor. We should not and cannot oppress each others sincere conscience. We wish all could support the GC delegate vote which opposes WO, but we will not judge those who act on their conscience. We will continue to provide open forums for members to understand this issue and express their voice with tolerance and love for each other, ‘until we all come to the unity of the faith’ (Eph 4:13). We believe that the Spirit will ‘guide us into all truth’ in this resolution process as we embrace each other in the numerous areas we hold in common."

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But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Heb 12:8 KJV

What does Heb. 12:8 reference to???

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Loved your analogy, Rick Hanson!

Of course the whole “National Sunday Law “ futuristic projection is really religious liberty gone awry — FOISTING religious views on others by LEGAL EDICT. In this case, impacting not only Adventists and Jews, but also Muslims who worship on Friday, and Hindus and Buddhists, who find no religious significance in Sunday.

Of course “the brethren” have been overly guilty of this very religious liberty infringement.

In every country where same sex marriage has been legally proposed, most recently in Australia, “ the brethren “ have been vociferous in the denial of all the legal / estate / inheritance / taxation / adoption of children benefits that marriage confers on married couples .

It was not enough that they did not want their own gay/ lesbian Adventist offspring to marry. They wished to legally impose their same sex marriage ban on Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists and yes even other Christians, who had a more tolerant attitude to their gay children finding a loving companion.

The incongruity of a denomination which prides itself on the promulgation of religious liberty, imposing its religious views on others seemed to escape them.

As to a National Sunday Law this appears increasingly remote as society becomes more secular, and church attendance wanes. Most modern millennials would be hard pressed to explain .”blue laws”.

I am currently in my home in France, where Sunday closings were de rigueur — widespread and mandatory.

Now increasingly shopping malls and super markets are open Sunday mornings. Also weekend symphony concerts are increasingly timed for eleven AM Sunday morning, which would tend to inhibit church going!


With this GC?.. Good luck on your wishes… :wink:

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