Will Loyalty Oaths for Religion Teachers Bite the Dust?

A much-maligned General Conference “endorsement initiative” concerning religion teachers at Adventist colleges and universities—it would, in effect, require a signed loyalty oath from each teacher—has motivated the North American Division leaders and educators to circulate a draft alternative proposal. That proposal has been presented to the International Board of Ministerial Training and Education (IBMTE) for approval. Depending on the methods adopted by each institution it would mean educators would not be asked to sign “loyalty oaths.” No one knows what the IBMTE Board’s response might be.

The conversation that follows continues reflection on both the substance of, and reaction to, the proposed endorsement initiative. Daryll Ward is professor of Theology and Ethics at Kettering College, and Charles Scriven, former pastor and educator, is now chair of the Adventist Forum Board.

Charles Scriven: The philosopher Richard Rorty said that religion “is a conversation-stopper.” The remark’s context was somewhat different from ours, but it still rings all too true, I'm afraid, in our own setting.

You are the only theologian who has published a written analysis of the 35 pages of text that our church bureaucracy has proposed as a criterion of legitimacy for religion teachers in Adventist colleges and universities. To be “endorsed,” these teachers would have to sign a pledge of support for these (often controversial) pages on doctrinal, hermeneutical, and other themes.

You argued that all this is papal, not Protestant, and in August we together published, on this site, a dialogue—a double-barreled jeremiad—concerning these developments. By email, we shared a draft with more than 25 Adventist educators and religion teachers, and asked for comment. At the point of actual publication, we notified not only them but also ten other well-known church leaders, knowing from many conversations that the endorsement initiative foments both anxiety and anger. Still, just five of the 25 educators even replied to our emails, and just three included substantive comment. Not one of the 10 church leaders even replied.

What goes?

Daryll Ward: Smothered under this pillow of silence, I am truly baffled. Really, what is going on? I don’t know. Can it be that the contacted church leaders and academics just don’t care? I have this sickening feeling that may be it. Nobody in the administration or the academy of the church cares about this. They just don’t care. Is their basic posture, “so what?”

Just how paralyzing that thought is for me sticks out when my first reaction to the possibility of indifference is, “But if they don’t care, why are they implementing this plan?” I guess indifference could explain collaboration by academics. But indifference doesn’t explain creation of the endorsement demands. If you don’t care about the truth of your convictions you don’t set up a process to insist on the truth of your convictions. And if you care about the truth of your convictions and one of your fellow believers raises questions about them, you don’t just ignore the questions. You don’t ignore the questions because you care about the truth of your convictions. We’re ignored so it would seem to follow they don’t care.

Perhaps our questions are stupid, unfair, trivial, ignorant, and deserve to be ignored? Maybe. If so, wouldn’t it be easy to expose their uselessness?

Or is the problem even more appalling? We know our convictions are dubious and so we substitute enforcement for consent. The logic of conviction should require you to care. But who cares about logic if you have power.

Maybe it is just personal. It’s not that the powers don’t care about the substance of their assertions, it’s that they don’t care about anyone who can’t mobilize power. I didn’t need this little exercise in rhetoric to inform me that I do not have influence. If I were a Union Conference President and I opposed endorsement maybe I’d get attention. Since I have no power, is there no point in conversation? Maybe that’s it.

Beats me.

CS: Self-comprehension is elusive and hard; self-deception is easy. Perhaps none of us fully understands what we are up to. Still, your reference to power intrigues me. The administrators who want the endorsement initiative know, or at least think, that they can reign in the scary idea-trafficking they associate with religion teachers. These teachers, on the other hand, know, or at least think, that the church’s bureaucracy can take away their vocations, their livelihoods. So no one talks. The administrators don’t think they have to; the academics don’t think they dare to.

DW: Maybe that’s part of it. It is certainly the case that church managers can and have fired religion teachers for what has been perceived as deviance from denominational doctrinal commitments. As for administrators’ capacity to “rein in” intellectual labor, that is far more restricted than it may be tempting for them to think. Hierarchs don’t have a good track record suppressing thought. Nevertheless, it would be unfair and uninformed not to recognize that the endorsement initiative does come out of a thoroughly commendable concern to protect the church from doctrinal error. I support that concern, but not the means being proposed to address it.

It is humbling for people like us who have devoted our entire lives to persistent study of our faith to face up to the fact that most Adventists just don’t care that much about doctrine (and their grasp of it is correspondingly sketchy). And as far as people under the age of 40 are concerned, it would be difficult to find any who order their lives according to doctrinal formulations of the faith. As a rule, people don’t abandon the church because they conclude its teachings are erroneous. So, if the motivating concern driving the endorsement process is nurturing the health of the church, we’re on the wrong fitness regimen.

More specifically still, I’d love for the promoters of the endorsement ideology to spend a few days with me in my classrooms. They would discover my students don’t accept me as an authority in part because they have no time for authority per se. They are so thoroughly formed by our American culture that they really don’t care what I think beyond whatever curiosity I may evoke because my beliefs are mine, not theirs. Oh, theirs and mine may overlap here and there, but beliefs are private possessions and no one has a right to push their beliefs on anyone else. I can’t corrupt the youth because the youth consider themselves infallibly authoritative with regard to their own convictions. There is nothing to fear about my imparting error because there is no hope for my imparting truth.

I point these things out by way of saying that this process is doomed to failure while at the same time being virtually certain to erode the integrity of Adventist higher education. How sad is that? It won’t guard against heresy. It won’t hold a new generation in the church. But it will produce dishonesty. It is a fact that large numbers of Adventist religion teachers in North America do not support, never mind believe, the things asserted in the IBMTE Statements. The very existence of the Adventist Theological Society proves it. The Statements are an expression of a disposition toward biblical studies that motivated the founding members of the ATS to separate themselves from their fellow Adventist academics. The differences remain. The Statements are, in effect, the charter of the ATS.

The saintly Alden Thompson is in print and on record that the Adventist Society of Religious Studies and the Adventist Theological Society “need each other.” (I would use Alden’s terms “liberals” and “conservatives,” but I’m an ASRS member and I’m no liberal.) We are fallible. We do need each other. One reason the wisdom of Plato has endured to this day is that he acquired it and expressed it in dialogue. But then fallibility is more than likely the phenomenon about which our disagreements are the deepest.

CS: Yes, we need everyone—the different stripes of scholar, along with administrators and every church member—to participate in the give-and-take. We need everyone to see the need for both correction and support from others. This goes especially, I think, for academics, who may be tempted into undue self-assurance by their fancy training. I have repeatedly told a story from the dark night of Adolf Hitler’s crimes against humanity. In 1942, he convened his best-and-brightest strategic planners for what came to be known as the Wannsee Conference. Their assignment was to develop a plan for eliminating the Jews. Eight out of the fourteen persons who met there had doctorates. My point, a reminder to myself above all, is that educational advantage confers no necessary moral advantage. We all need the help that conversation affords.

But conversation thrives on trust. Exacting what amounts to a loyalty oath from every religion teacher would further stifle efforts to assure faithfulness through the exchange of ideas. During discussions about church unity at Annual Council in early October, we learned that many administrators realize that lack of trust is deadening. With the controversy over women’s ordination in the background, a segment of top leadership was proposing approval of a document called “Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance.” Passage would have required every member of the General Conference Executive Committee to sign a personal declaration of loyalty to, and compliance with, General Conference policy. The proposal went down to defeat, not least because several speakers, including a former General Conference president, objected to signing a loyalty oath. So now we have a new reason to stand firm against forcing signatures from religion teachers: if administrators know better than this for themselves, they can surely understand why religion teachers feel so betrayed and disheartened by this part of the endorsement proposal.

DW: As you know from the draft proposal of an alternative process for endorsement generated by the North American Division, there is reason to hope that the IBMTE approach of “exacting loyalty oaths” will be replaced by a process of discernment carried out on an institution by institution basis. This very recent development surely gives the lie to my speculations that silence in response to our requests for dialogue augers indifference. Apparently, some people care enough to formulate a manifestly different plan that, depending on its implementation, we could support. So to repeat myself from our last conversation on this site, given the near impossibility of formulating creedal statements that can or should enjoy widespread assent, a process of discernment is the best option for fostering the integrity of our faith, and, not coincidentally, the integrity of our religion teachers. I shall pray that both administrators and my fellow teachers will insist on this alternative. But I think we must be clear. The threat of corruption has not yet been turned aside and it may yet be necessary to reject demands that, if met, would amount to a squandering of integrity.

Daryll Ward attended Andrews University, Tübingen University, and the University of Chicago (where he earned his PhD) and spent many years working in the field of addiction treatment, business ethics, and pastoring. He currently serves as Professor of Theology and Ethics at Kettering College.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Image Credit: Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8383

I wonder how Jesus would have survived if He had to sign a loyalty statement to the Church authorities of His day? Clearly He was not going to compromise His belief and view of God to be seen as kosher to Judaism. He taught using stories. He challenged the status quo. He was beholden to no man. But He was also God.

Our church seems to have moved into a fascination with control and orthodoxy. We seem to have become more concerns with Being Right than Doing Right. We seem to claim we are Bible based, but realistically the GC president quotes far more of Ellen White than he ever does of the Bible. I believe firmly in Ellen White - but in her place as the lesser light.

I have been a Bible teacher in Adventist education for over 30 years. I have seen students lives changed remarkably by the Spirit of God. This loyalty oath seems more about control than conversion. Shouldn’t we be asking about my personal relationship with God? Shouldn’t we be more concerned that I spend time with my Bible every day? Shouldn’t the focus be on Kingdom growth and abiding in Christ?

It does seem to me that interest groups with money guide the pulling of strings at the very top, and trust and integrity are less valued than compliance and uniformity. What would Jesus do?

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Iwas a Professor at Marquette University while an Elder of the Milwaukee Adventist Church. when I had a final session with the President prior to joining the faculty at Loma Linda He said Tom, we will miss you. if you ever wish to return the red carpet will be out for you.

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Modern youth have been lied to by their parents, their politicians, their pastors, and their teachers all their lives.

They have enough resources available to know that they have been lied to, but not enough to be able to determine the truth

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Spectrum stopped trusting in conversation brief weeks after San Antonio 2015.

How can Spectrum expect more trust in conversation from the General Conference than it possesses itself?

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Trust in all these institutions are a matter of degree. How close to the edge (whatever that edge may be) do we dare the conversation to take us. It’s all about the parameters we place on truth and freedom to find it. I had thought that when we take the initial plunge, we have committed to seeking truth - in unison with the institution we join. In reality, we place ourselves within a walled community. This is all a far cry from what Jesus was calling us to. The initial call was “come, follow me” and it echoes to the end of history when only a handful is responding to that call, “following the Lamb wheresoever He goes” (Rev. 14) - even if it takes us beyond the wall. Institutional religion is not a response to that call. Institutions are man-made to sustain the institution.

Signatures on paper are legal instruments. We have to wonder what is the shelf life for a signature?

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It is interesting to note
the Nicene Creed has approximately 130 English words. It has been with us for over a 1000 years [ONE THOUSAND YEARS]. Not needed any explanation of its meaning.

To UNDERSTAND the Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs takes a book of 200 pages.

I would be comfortable signing the Nicene Creed. BUT signing and OATH to a 200 PAGE BOOK? I DON’T THINK SO.

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This was Protestantism’s dangerous idea. The idea that each individual can determine truth for himself and is under the authority of no teacher, no episcopate - free. It is no wonder that in short order Protestantism has been fractured into thousands of sects, from the rationalists (who all but denied the supernatural) to the Pentacostals. And no individual sect or denomination imbued with the Protestant ethos and tradition can establish ecclesiastical authority without denying the “let each man be convinced in his own mind” principle.

The struggle and tension between authority and freedom have existed throughout the duration of human history, in both the secular and religious realms. It will not be definitively resolved on earth.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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So I’m not a higher ed teacher, but I teach Bible at the academy level. As far as your question to why you didn’t get responses, I think you may be reading too much into it. I get all sorts of surveys sent to me asking for my feedback, mostly from people I don’t know. I try and respond but sometimes I don’t have time, sometimes I miss the email, sometimes I set it aside and forget, sometimes I don’t know enough about the topic to feel like I’m contributing, sometimes it goes to my spam filter. Unless you know all these people you contacted really well, those seem like more likely explanations than what was shared.

“Loyalty Oaths” correct definition of the word applies to the first European Colonists of North America carrying themselves heavy sticks in insolent supercilious rules of conducts …bad manners. In short folks: the term connotes that “Loyalty Oaths” is displaying dominance exacting subservient nailed to obedience as if they the demanding subjects the natives or college instructors are your inferiors.

Demanding this and demanding that. With that “do it or else” unfaded legalism.

Did you ever notice that you blow in a dog’s face he gets mad at you, but when you take him for a car ride, he sticks his head his head out of the window.

There is a place for everything.

High 5 Pierrepaul!

Let each dog each man be convinced in his own mind.

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Loyalty oaths are always a sign of weakness, as are all other coercive methods, and the methods employed at the recent Annual Council to pass the loyalty oaths referenced above. Attacking someone who is already feeling weak will make them more defensive and aggressive. As with all other feeling-based positions that are unhealthy (meaning all unhealthy positions) the only way to deal with them effectively is to address them directly. Following the New Testament counsel to go one-to-one, and then in a group if the one-to-one approach is rejected, to share with such a person that they seem to have their ego tied up in the issue, and that getting their way is more important than letting God have His way, may reach them. If not, nothing will that humans can do. As the end of the world approaches the division between people who are following God as free moral agents and those who are looking for an authority figure to put their faith in will grow deeper and more strident, at least from those who feel threatened if their authority figure faces disagreement or challenge. Each of us needs to examine our conscience and ask God to reveal to us any area where we are putting our faith in a person other than Jesus.

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Perhaps what bothers me the most about this drive towards loyalty oaths is the dishonesty and corruption it will encourage. We had a saying in business: be careful using metrics, for you might get what you ask for. With a loyalty oath, I suspect a lot of honest people will refuse to sign. Others, under financial pressure, might rationalize. Others, without much knowledge of the details of the beliefs, might sign in ignorance or apathy. Still others, might sign cynically. And then there will be those (few) who believe every one of the 28 FBs in detail, and fully support the church leadership, and sign enthusiastically. Administrators at local institutions (universities, etc.) may be encouraged to fudge the metric to ensure smooth operations (“100% compliance with oath requirements” even if some “signers” included a caveat or “signed under duress” modifier).

The denominational leadership is dishonest in thinking that the oath will solve the problems they perceive in the church (that perception itself being based on dishonesty with scriptures, etc., but I won’t go there now). They will be dishonest in saying the oath is for Purpose X and really it is for Purpose Y. They will be dishonest in targeting specific issues and people, rather than uniformly enforcing it (witness the recent discussions on women’s ordination vs. other policy compliance).

Remember what happened at Wells Fargo recently when branch managers were held to a quota on new accounts? Metrics applied under threat have a way of producing dishonesty and corruption. The exception is if the metrics measure things employees believe in and support, and the employees support the metrics. Not when the metrics are a top-down enforcement of things employees don’t agree with.

Please read these two articles:


The sobering idea from the second idea is that corruption spreads as we perceive corruption around us. In this way, all of us are likely to be affected (become more dishonest) as the leadership of the church institutes corrupting policies. This is disheartening in an enterprise supposedly focused on “present truth”.

Sirje nailed it in his comments above. Following Jesus should not fossilize beliefs.

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“They don’t care!?!?!?”

That either of these conversationists finds this amazing is amazing to me.

Gentlemen, you’ve spent your lives working for an organization that prides itself on not caring about what other people think or say about them.

Has your education and educating made you as blind as the Nazi Doctors who helped implement The Final Solution?

The conversation should have stopped when Chuck said religion is a conversation killer.

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In the light of that one wonders why you felt the need to contribute. Probably the same reason everyone else did: They have an opinion. I think this is the biggest reason this whole concept of a loyalty oath is bogus, because everyone DOES have an opinion. Once you codify an expectation of this sort, every opinion expressed then becomes suspect. The natural result is oppression of thought.

“Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.” - Justice Robert Jackson

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It seems to me, a mere lay person, but also a teacher, that the only thing needed is understanding that radical departure from teaching scripture as established by Adventist doctrine can be qualified as a condition of not retaining one’s job. Then you say to me what is radical? Is perhaps discussion of women’s ordination too radical or the proposal that the Bible has proof that sexual behavior is of no importance in Christian behavior? I maintain that one is valid and one is sin. Is teaching theistic evolution as a valid idea rational if one is a church employee? Discussion is healthy and can make one think, but teaching against your employer’s concerns is not honest. Then again one’s employer should not demand an oath of loyalty that restricts honest discussion.

Illustration: A few years ago just mentioning cannabis as having useful qualities would having gotten one fired. Never mind the truth, and it was the truth. Parents and educational officials among others would have been outraged. But an honest discussion and exanimation of history of this plant might have opened more eyes to the true. Not that it is useful and beneficial as a recreation device, but that it has thousands of other much more important benefits than as a drug for pleasure. Honest discussion and study of a “forbidden” subject can bring enlightenment as to it’s truth or its fallacy.

I believe that our doctrines are basically sound, but in a few ways expansional of understanding and areas of behavior may need discussion. A oath of loyally to the corporation is not democratic and we’ve all seen where
that can lead. Would Adventist even exist today if not for democratic processes.

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In a university setting, where researchers search for truth and facts, it is dishonest to conduct empirical research with an a priori pre-determined finding. This creates a difficult tension for scholars in pursuit for truth.

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Indeed I was horrified! I read the word cannabis as cannibals… What can I say? :open_mouth: