Part 2: How the Church Changed Because of Desmond Ford
by Loren Seibold | 20 March 2019 |
Des, with the help of friends, set up an independent gospel ministry called Good News Unlimited. Though Des never regained the audience he’d had before, yet the church was changed because of Des and the questions he raised.
Adventist theology went underground. When I first started ministry pastors gathered for meetings or work bees would discuss theology. But because candidly discussing points of theology became potentially so disastrous for a pastor’s career (for most of us, ministry was a calling from God to serve people, not merely an expression of Adventist prophetic interpretation) such conversations went silent.
I remember this most markedly when I moved to Central California Conference soon after its president, Charles Cook, had carried out a purge of “Fordist” pastors. If someone at camp meeting work bee started a discussion of any of these topics, the other pastors would rub their chins and have somewhere else they had to be. Even if you were true blue, you weren’t going to get sucked into that quicksand.
That doesn’t mean we weren’t talked at. Speakers came to meetings to tell us over and over again how wrong Des Ford was, how right the traditional position. It was intended to be apologetics, but it had an element of threat, of browbeating. It was clear that if you had any different shading of opinion about Adventist theology, you had better shut up.
I know many pastors, teachers, professors, conference and union presidents, and even a few folks in Silver Spring, who would be reticent to converse with you about these topics even 40 years later. A university theology professor told me, “Many of my colleagues just turn quiet if Des Ford is mentioned.”
Most pastors’ meetings now are about church policies, spiritual matters, or conflict management. We risk open theological discussion less than we once did.
One result has been an increasingly individualistic approach to Adventist theology. Good theological thinkers keep their thoughts about 1844 to themselves. They’ve moved into new and more creative areas rather than just rehearsing the Adventist teachings of old.
This may be why we are, happily, a church that is a bit less doctrinal and a bit more spiritual than we were. You could survive many spiritual faults back then, as long as you believed the right things. Back then, doctrines, prophecy, and a list of Adventist do-ables were mostly what we cared about. Jesus was sung about, but you didn’t necessarily have to rely on Him for salvation. As for our message, we invoked Roman Catholicism constantly—as often as we did Jesus—as though if we didn’t have that enemy to set ourselves against we’d have no message.
We have, in recent years, seen a revival of prayer, going beyond praying for denominational success to praying for one another and for spiritual growth. We have at least opened conversations about how to include people we once excluded. We allow (though still under threat of criticism) churches to worship in culturally-relevant styles. We occasionally think ethically rather than just doctrinally. And I hope we are generally more concerned about good behavior (though bad behavior can still be overlooked if the person with the fake graduate degree is a theological ally). We are also, it seems to me, less likely to scold about Roman Catholics and tell frightening stories of the end times than we used to be.
Prophetic sermons dropped off. When I took a preaching class in college, we were assigned to write out a one-year speaking schedule. Mine was preaching through Daniel, and then Revelation. It was our special message—what else would I preach about?
But in the years since Des, prophetic sermons have faded as weekly fare. Can you remember the last time you heard a Sabbath sermon about the 2300 day/year prophecy? Or the close of probation? Or the Time of Jacob’s trouble? They’ve not entirely disappeared, but the emphasis has shifted, and you will hear, even in conservative churches, a more balanced presentation of Christ and salvation than you did 40 years ago.
Please understand—and this is important—that sermons on prophecy diminished not because people quit believing in prophecy. They diminished because the center of the conversation shifted, so that even among those who are committed to the historical Adventist message, we are less obsessed with prophecy and our defense of Adventism, and hungrier for God’s grace.
At the same time, among those for whom it still matters there is now a greater diversity of prophetic interpretation. Although the key passages we have always relied on for evangelism are still there, Des’s challenge to the faulty evidence for some of our historicist interpretations of Revelation has led many pastors and professors to no longer be mired in the old ideas. An idealist and cosmic conflict interpretation of Revelation is gaining traction. For that, we can thank Des Ford.
While we may not talk about the sanctuary as much as we used to, when we do it is vastly reinterpreted. It was in defending the church against Des that people like C. Mervyn Maxwell and others finally managed to voice a kinder, more grace-filled explanation than the one in The Great Controversy. The view Des challenged had instilled fear in the hearts of faithful Adventists, because they could never have the assurance of being good enough to stand in the investigative judgment. Putting the emphasis on Jesus’ standing for us in judgment changed the optic of how the doctrine of the sanctuary was received. God was vindicating the saints and His own character—a hopeful scenario, rather than a threatening one.
Ellen White is less likely to be the source of our message. I remember a time when entire sermons would be preached from Ellen White’s writings, without a single Bible passage. It wasn’t only Des who brought about this change—he was personally a strong advocate of Ellen White, and testified that his understanding of righteousness by faith was shaped by a few pages in Selected Messages—but it occurred to a lot of us in the unfolding of these truths that Ellen White wasn’t our scripture, our savior, as she’d been treated.
Righteousness by faith was revived. Before the 1970s, Adventist soteriology was straightforwardly about earning your way to heaven by keeping the Sabbath perfectly, eating perfectly, attending church always, paying tithe and subscribing fully to every Adventist doctrine. Being a good, kind person wasn’t nearly as important as performing every distinctively Adventist action and eschewing Adventist taboos. I don’t remember the phrase “righteousness by faith” even mentioned in my youth, except perhaps in a Bible class as a technical explanation for how God might let us into heaven if we achieved something very near perfection.
Des wasn’t the only one who preached righteousness by faith. Morris Venden, Smuts van Rooyen, Norval Pease, Ray Cottrell, and others had big influences. But from whomever it came, it was received by many of us with gladness and hope after decades of futile efforts to earn God’s love and find assurance of salvation through rule-keeping.
This last, more than anything else, shifted the conversation: today you have at least to pay homage to righteousness by faith, even if you are inclined toward perfectionism.
Yet It Persists
Des was a strong advocate for our message, a follower of Jesus, and a man of honesty, kindness and grace. He was kicked out not because he wasn’t a good Seventh-day Adventist, but because church leaders felt threatened when asked to honestly reassess a legacy doctrine.
Sadly, our current leaders have renewed the old battles over perfectionism, over the authority of Ellen White, and now over the authority of the General Conference (GC). Right now it appears that some, even in Silver Spring, embrace a vile end-time perfectionism, perpetrated under the cover of Ellen White quotes about the last generation before Jesus returns. Our leaders demand an almost papal authority over what the gospel is and who gets to preach it; the Ellen White quotes about the General Conference being God’s highest authority on earth are an obsession at any GC meeting, repeated a disturbing number of times from the lectern.
And they have, just like 40 years ago, circled back to the claim that the message as they define it must be accepted completely, or all of Seventh-day Adventism disintegrates before our eyes.
A recent Adventist Review article is subtitled, “Many who profess to be Seventh-day Adventists promulgate views that, if correct, make a mockery of our faith.” Some of Des’s ideas are alluded to here, along with a few that the author has had the privilege of assigning his own Trumpian nicknames, such as “Seventh-day Darwinist.” “If they’re right,” he says, “then our prophetic message crumbles into ashes drifting on lies, and The Great Controversy would be better for kindling than for finding truth.”
I reject this on three counts. First, that the Adventist message is so fragile that it requires every jot and tittle of Ellen White’s and Uriah Smith’s interpretations to be preserved, like marine creatures in jars of formaldehyde: whole, but dead. Second, that an organization’s survival (or at least its leaders’ claims of what it needs to survive) should ever dictate our interpretation of Scripture—surely not a Reformational understanding. And third, that an administrator or columnist in Silver Spring (especially one who has never worked anywhere except in the GC building) gets to define what constitutes Seventh-day Adventism, and to label you a heretic, ungodly, a false prophet, or otherwise vilify you if you don’t subscribe to his definition of truth.
Why are we back to where we were 40 years ago? Why do we keep circling around? I suspect the problem is in the same place it was 40 years ago when Des was name-called and vilified and condemned: at the top. We have the same sort of people still provoking crises in the name of preserving the authority of the church, rather than the authority of the Bible, and faith in God’s goodness and guidance. When will they learn?
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.