by Loren Seibold | 26 March 2023 |
This piece was originally published on 19 March 2019, at the time of Des Ford’s death.
It was my first year after seminary, and we pastors were working at the campground, replacing broken underground plumbing in the RV park. (I remember this detail, because as one of the young cohort, I was always put on the handle end of a shovel, while the older, fatter pastors did the “skilled” labor.) This was back when pastors still talked about theology when they gathered, and as we were working one pastor began stumbling about in a blizzard of his own verbiage, storming on about the evil Desmond Ford and how he was destroying the true church of God. He went into particular detail on the investigative judgment, how virtually everything we believed stood or fell on that doctrine. “And he’s wrong. Dead wrong. Clearly wrong,” he said.Another pastor, whose head was down in the hole I’d dug, muttered, “I don’t know. I’m not sure he’s wrong.” I don’t know if he intended to be heard, but he was. The pompous apologist lost his cool. “How can you even say that? Are you a Fordite?” He spat that last word like a curse, as though it was the most vile, scatological accusation he could make. Which to him, at that time, it probably was.
I don’t remember the end of the story. Probably we were interrupted, or the job was finished, or the lunch bell rang, or someone wiser changed the subject.
I do remember that the pastor in the hole, like others from that era, didn’t stay in Adventist ministry long after that. The response to Des Ford cost the Adventist ministry much. Some of us left. Many of us just shut up and kept pastoring, but with diminished dedication to traditional Seventh-day Adventism.
Yet thanks to Des Ford, we are probably a better church than we used to be, though not everyone realizes it yet.
Angwin Adventist Forum
It started with an Adventist Forum meeting on October 27, 1979, at Pacific Union College, where Des was teaching. It is necessary to say that Des did not come to this meeting to rattle cages about the investigative judgment; he had been asked to respond to questions about 1844 raised by Australian agitator Robert Brinsmead.
The Forum was intended as a place for open exploration of ideas. But that didn’t excuse a respected teacher and charismatic communicator for admitting publicly that the investigative judgment and its algebra was pretty weak stuff.
It didn’t matter that Des was in every other way a conservative Adventist, a lover of Ellen White, deeply devoted to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He had already raised the ire of the brethren by relying heavily on the passage, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” Yes, it’s in the Bible, they said, but it’s cheap grace.
But to question the investigative judgment? That went too far. One of my professors explained that, like a tower of Jenga blocks, if you remove that one item the entire tower falls. Ellen White, who endorsed the official view, becomes useless. This denomination as the repository of God’s only truth is gutted. Our whole structure, our whole reason for being disappears and we are useless, like an emptied banana peel.
And since it is inconceivable that the church is wrong, then Des is wrong, and he must go.
The initial response to the Forum meeting was that Des went to Takoma Park and, still on salary, wrote up his controversial views. When it was finished, he would meet with the brethren to defend himself. That meeting was the Sanctuary Review Committee at Glacier View Ranch in August of 1980.
Glacier View is not a moment for our denomination to be proud of. I renew a notion I have expressed many times: that after a movement becomes an organization, with property, employees, investments, belief statements, policies, and self-important leaders, it begins to lose its spiritual center. It can no longer innovate, and may not even act kindly or rationally. Changing direction at the prompting of the Holy Spirit becomes impossible. The bigger and more top-heavy, the more everything else becomes secondary to one goal: to preserve the organization and its leadership.
Glacier View was a Caiaphas moment for the church: “It is better that one man be kicked out than that the whole church fall apart.” Des was indicted before he ever stepped foot on Colorado soil. Des often said, and others have confirmed, that many of the attendees never even read his 991-page study. He lost his ministerial credentials, and for years afterward had to defend even his church membership.
Why Des Had to Go
What was Des’s final, fatal sin? His rejection of the traditional view of the investigative judgment? Not acknowledging Ellen White as the final authority in prophetic interpretation? A sanctuary teaching different from the pioneers’? Justification by faith in Christ alone? Partial preterism? Not bowing to the authority of the General Conference? Or simply defending himself rather than acting contrite?
All of these things, but none of them. Looking back at it from this distance, I believe this was an inevitable conflict for a denomination that had never really understood a gracious, loving God who was bigger than Seventh-day Adventism. Our almost-cultic perfectionism hadn’t made us happy or secure in our salvation—just the opposite. It had been 150 years since we first said Jesus would return, and we were still waiting. We were collectively in a state of deep anxiety about our relationship with God, and something had to give.
I have a theory that what communities are doing when they kick out of their fellowship people they disagree with, is making a sacrifice to the gods of their anxiety. There were others in the church just as unorthodox as Des was. But Des was among the best of our thinkers and teachers. He had a compelling message, personal charm and passion. A sacrifice had to be made, a scapegoat found, and Des stood to his feet at just the right moment.
He accepted the role with astonishing grace, like the martyrs singing in the flames. Because of Des, the rest of us went on to preach the gospel he’d taught, even as he faded into semi-obscurity.
Yet I believe that even if there hadn’t been a Des Ford, it would still have come to a head somewhere, with someone else. This was a fire waiting to be kindled, an explosion waiting to be set off.
Sadly, sacrificing Des didn’t solve the problem.
In the wake of Glacier View, anyone who was openly in support of Des Ford became unwelcome as a church employee, and in some places even as a member. A third of the pastors in Australia, many students of Des’s from Avondale, were gone. Many here in the North American Division were out, too. No one could have damaged the Seventh-day Adventist Church as effectively as Neal Wilson and his friends did in their zeal to purge the church of “Fordism.”
Des became the designated enemy, the blamee. It didn’t hurt that it was an effective distraction from mismanagement and scandals, such as the Ponzi scheme with Dr. Davenport that cost the church millions, or the embarrassing defense of the Pacific Press equal pay lawsuit: saying “Des Ford” was like shouting “squirrel” to a park full of dogs, or “immigrant” at a Trump rally.
Des set up near Auburn, California, with an organization called Good News Unlimited. He had some faithful contributors and followers, but he never regained the influence he had before, mostly because he could never again be invited to Adventist events.
One younger evangelist responded to Des’s death thus: “A ‘powerful Gospel preacher’ leads dozens of pastors and thousands of members away globally from Adventism only to be celebrated and honored in memoriam? Adventism’s sole college in Australia publishes an effusive blog highlighting his many accomplishments and virtues? Mercy.”
He probably could be forgiven his ignorance. Des is, after all, not well known to the younger generations. Perhaps he doesn’t know that Des urged people to stay in the church; that to the end of his life he would tear up when recalling those that left; that he remained loyal to the church to his death; nor that most of the pastors who left did so under the heavy hand of church leaders determined to purify the denomination at any cost.
It is harder to forgive his impertinence. This young preacher takes for granted that the church he’s working for now is the church it’s always been; that he would always have had the freedom he has now—in this case, the freedom to judge with effrontery a man of incalculably superior intellect and Christian grace to his own.
In fact, the Seventh-day Adventist Church became a better church because of Des—more than most people realize.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.