The Seventh-day Adventist Church has never been on the right side of history.
We’ve had many opportunities to get things right and to redeem ourselves, to be world leaders and stalwarts of progress, morality and equality, especially in the matter of women’s ordination, but the church seems intent on being wrong.
This insistence on being embarrassingly backwards is consistent with a trend that spans decades. I had written about this before, but allow me to recap. I call this “A Brief History of Discrimination in the Adventist Church”:
- In 1943, Mrs. Lucille Byard (1877-1943) had taken ill and sought treatment at the Washington Missionary Sanitarium. The Adventist church owned many sanitariums (aka hospitals) in those days, and still operates the second largest network of hospitals in the world. Hospital attendants saw that Mrs. Byard and her husband were Black and subsequently refused them admittance, directing them instead to the colored hospital across town — Freedman’s Hospital at Howard University. Mrs. Byard died shortly thereafter.
- Shortly after this incident, Black-administered conferences were instituted [a conference is similar to a diocese or an administrative region]. To this God-given day, in 2018, the Adventist church has conferences in the United States that are divided along racial lines. Each regional/”black” conference has its own churches, schools, and camp meetings (separate from the “white” conferences), according to an article in Spectrum magazine. Each functions as a unit on its own with hardly any interactions between the two regardless of their proximity (I have heard stories of Black church members showing up to white congregations and being re-directed to the nearest Black church). The churches of other races (Hispanic, Asian, etc.) are evenly distributed between the two conferences.
- The cafeteria at the General Conference (the world headquarters of the SDA church) was racially segregated. Yes — men who professed the gospel refused to sit beside their Black brethren even though we believe that we are all going to the same heaven.
- The General Conference had a Negro Department. The Negro Department was at first directed by white men.
- Racial segregation was practised at one of the church’s post-secondary institutions, Union College.
- In his book, The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics, Dr Zdravko Plantak suggests that the church was all but complicit with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust (see also the paper “Fatal Flirting: The Nazi State and the Seventh-day Adventist Church”).
- Although the whole church shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for the action of a few, it is chilling to know that an Adventist pastor/church administrator and his son, who was also the head of the Adventist hospital, gathered desperate and scared Tutsis into an Adventist church and co-opted the massacre of 3000 Tutsis on a Sabbath during the Rwandan genocide (you can read more about it here and here). And this all a product of the remnant church, a church that preaches that we are all part of one body, the body of Christ.
- And then there is the shameful way we have treated LGBTQ2+ members in our churches (the movie Seventh-Gay Adventists and Enough Room at the Table are good places to start).
Now we have a situation in which senior leadership positions in the church are effectively off limits to women, because those positions are reserved for ordained pastors and quizzically-enough only men can be ordained as pastors in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination (commissioned pastors — the designation given to female pastors — are ineligible for this positions, positions such as conference president, union president, division president, executive vice president, etc.).
We had a chance to right history in San Antonio and at several General Conference meetings before then, but instead, at our most recent Annual Council, we as a church insisted on forcing Spirit-lead divisions into adherence with voted church policy with the threat of discipline for non-compliance.
The policy with which I take issue was most recently explained by Dan Jackson, President of the North American Division, at the NAD Year End Meetings:
I am not talking about—you know, people have different opinions, and I want the folks who think right now I’m an absolute raging lunatic, that I support your right to believe that women should not be ordained. I support your right. You are a member of God’s church, you are brothers and sisters, and I’m not talking about that. I am talking about words entrenched in policies that beg credulity. You can’t tell people today, “We love everybody, and everybody can do everything, except those positions that require ordination”—get that policy out of there! Just come out and say “We do not believe in ordination for women.” That’s all you have to say. But that nonsense, that hooey, in the B60 policy that allows us to put a noose around the neck of women is garbage. […] Don’t say three times “We love everybody and everybody’s acceptable, and you can do anything—except if there’s ordination requirements—and then come to the end of the policy and say, all of these, except these statements in parentheses, do not apply them to women who have been ordained as elders and have been voted by the General Conference.” I’m sorry, it begs credulity.
There are some that will allege that I am giving into “culture,” and that I’m advocating that the church conforms to “the world” and “social trends.”
It’s not about being “feminist” (even though “feminist” is not a bad word). It’s about fairness. It’s not about women who are “blood-thirsty” for power and self-aggrandizement. It’s about creating avenues for women to be involved at all levels. It’s about not hindering the work of God and frustrating the Holy Spirit. It’s about employment law. It’s about equality. It’s about representation. Representation matters.
My argument is more a logical and legal one than it is a cultural one.
First, logic. I have read and long believed that any organization or group or decision-making body that does not have equal representation of women (aka gender diversity or gender equality) will necessarily come to the wrong decision — no matter how wonderfully woke the men are. Why? Because you are missing half of the necessary voices and viewpoints. Polling shows that women care about different issues. In the world of politics, the United Nations says that a critical mass of at least 30% women is needed before legislatures produce public policy representing women’s concerns and before political institutions begin to change the way they do business. We may not want to admit it, but the church is a business (or at least business-like). Having gender equality, let alone women in leadership positions, makes good business sense. It helps maximize an organization’s potential allowing one to capitalize on the gifts (and leadership abilities) of all of its members, without regard to gender.
Second, legality. Arguably, what the church has allowed is not legal. Constructive (or adverse impact) discrimination is when a rule or practice unintentionally singles out particular people and results in unequal treatment, and yet, here we have a situation in which the church outright and unabashedly and intentionally excludes women using an employment requirement, resulting in unequal treatment and denial of employment. The Business Dictionary says that an adverse impact refers to a disparity in selection for hiring or promotion that disadvantages individuals of a particular race, ethnicity or sex. In no other organization would this be legal, let alone acceptable. I can see a possible human rights or Charter right complaint based on this alone. The church should consider itself lucky that no one has sought (read: is brave enough) to challenge this provision in a court of law.
My hope and expectation had always been to be a part of a church — a movement — that stood tall when others backed down, that was the lone quiet but sure voice in a cacophony of moral decay, that advocated for the marginalized and the vulnerable, that was forward-thinking and progressive, that was considered a leader in morality, that championed the most pressing social issues of its day and stood for truth and justice even if the heavens fall.
To my chagrin, I have found that the Adventist church is not that church.
What incentive do I have to stay in this church? How does one defend or even begin to introduce this church to others when it has historically shown no moral backbone? If it were any other organization I would have distanced myself a long time ago. Supporting any discriminatory organization goes against my personal ethics. Why should the Adventist church get a pass? Do I want to even be affiliated with such a backwards denomination?
I love this church. It is the church of my family and my youth. It is my parents’ church and my grandparents’ church and I’ve always considered it to be my church. “Growing up Adventist means knowing you belong. And being Adventist is about much more than a set of beliefs–it’s a close-knit community not easily left.” Truth is, it’s easier to stay within this denomination than to search for another one. And while its moral compass is askew, its theology has always been compelling and true and grounded.
I will return my tithe because it is a Biblical, and not liturgical, edict. I will continue to try to find an Adventist congregation that is warm and friendly and feels like home. But I will not try to defend this church. Christ will have to do that.
Like I have written before, one of the aims I have in my life is to make God look good. My prayer is to not embarrass Him. I’ve never had a similar goal as far as the church is concerned. It has done a very good job of embarrassing itself. If, after getting to know my God, you still want to belong to my church, so be it. That’s great. If you feel like belonging to another church, I couldn’t blame you or hold it against you. I certainly will not invite you. I have a policy of not inviting people to a messy home or an unsafe place.
I cannot support a church that continues to be complicit in discrimination.