Adventist Problems in the 1980s: Part 1
It was the simplest directions for cooking a meal. I figured even I, as a pre-teen, could prepare it. “Why wait for my mom when I had a kitchen and a recipe and a hunger to fill!”
My kind of meal. Quick and Easy.
The directions: Put all the ingredients in one bowl, stir well, stew on low heat, chill and then serve.
As I started to put it together, an idea popped into my mind. I could eat even sooner. The authors of this recipe obviously didn’t hear Mr. Yoshikawa’s 6th grade science lecture on the law of compression. One could squeeze more stuff or experiences into the same time or space with the proper use of energy!
Ahhh, the fresh perspectives of a young bright mind unburdened by cooking tradition.
Why be fettered by the rules of the chefs?
I saw two ways to compress. I could stir while stewing, and then start eating the top of the dish as it cooled while the bottom stewed a little bit longer.
What a brilliant idea!
What a bad outcome!
Only pride and an empty stomach pushed me to down the stuff. Days later, my body was still “expressing” concern.
This lesson of stirring well and stewing on low heat and taking time to chill and serve would be a lesson I would have to learn repeatedly over the years. Some things can’t be rushed.
It was a lesson I wish my church in Northern California would have learned a few years later when in the late 1970s and early 1980s a controversy ripped through our denomination.
Des Ford was “let go” from Pacific Union College, a college two hours from my home. Oddly, he settled a couple of miles from our house in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. He started Good News Unlimited.
Most readers will know who Ford and Good News Unlimited is. But for those who are too young to know, Dr. Ford was (is) a talented preacher and theologian who agreed with most Adventist ideas but didn’t agree with the SDA teaching, timing and purpose of God’s judgment. Church leaders felt Ford was not being faithful to the hard-fought theological understanding of 1844, the sanctuary in type and anti-type, and the centrality of the pre-Advent judgment (see Revelation 10-14 and Daniel 8).
Ford felt they we had a shaking biblical foundation for the pre-Adventist judgment, were undoing the work of Luther and the gospel and were robbing people of assurance.
I was a teen struggling to understand God, Jesus and the church. I had started to study my bible tenaciously. I was already fairly confused when the Adventist theological fight over the judgment settled in the area, into my conscience, and into congregation. Theological differences became sharp and the church became socially dysfunctional.
Ford parted ways. And the earth shook in Adventism.
A number of pastors left SDA employment and thousands of members went with them. Most seemed tired of legalism and this was apparently the last straw for many.
As with all splits, I am sure there was theological, financial and organizational fallout, but as a teen, I just felt the emotional drama.
Already, spiritually mucking around trying to get clear about what to believe and how to behave, I was a bit obsessed with figuring out what God wanted and “getting things right.”
As things got more antagonistic, I soon realized I wasn’t the only paranoid person in my church. The fear and nastiness became more evident as members become more and more defensive of their ideas. The hyper religious got more so and the anti-religious even more so. It was what sociologists and psychologist would describe as a classic polarization: cognitive and social.
So much for putting everything in one bowl, mixing well, letting it simmer and chilling it enough to serve.
It was a compressed time for me and for others in the Roseville and Auburn California area especially in small churches.
Sides and local ministries soon formed, each championing “the faithful way.” Some focused on hardline traditional views and supported groups like Weimar College and Amazing Facts. Others enjoyed the sweetness of the gospel and drifted toward Good News Unlimited or stayed in the church but fostered a counter-cultural agenda, preferring the Adventist Forum gospel.
All this noise in my “neighborhood” mixed with my hormones made me very confused. As a public high school student, I felt I was “out of the loop” of knowing how to respond because I needed more learning, so I studied my bible and took many SDA bible correspondence courses to see if I could catch myself up on what I should do.
I had started thinking about becoming a pastor. However, watching both sides pester our young pastor made me wonder if I was able to handle such “beatings.” I was a basket case emotionally and nobody was even scolding me. In fact, the main actors on both sides just saw me as the skinny kid who wanted to learn more about God and follow the Bible.
Adding to this turmoil was the fact that my dad had not yet come back to church. A decade earlier he left SDA school teaching and the church for public school teaching. By this time, mom and we boys went to church without him. Dad was never antagonistic to church nor to our going, but he wasn’t in the fray to help me figure out the theological clutter at church.
But he was good to talk to. It may have been the fact he had lots of bible in college or because he was a sixth grade teacher with an ability to explain things, that we often went to him for things troubling us philosophically.
This was when our story thickened.
A 6th grade teacher teaching next to my father at his public school was a Baptist. He talked to my dad. He would edge in topics about Christ. I think he knew my dad was a vegetarian and had been an SDA. Looking back, I wonder if this was Baptist evangelism.
One day he asked my dad a key question (a method we could all learn from). “What is happening to your church? The newspapers say the SDA denomination is splintering.”
My dad was drawn in by the question. It wasn’t his church—or was it? He would at least have to check this out. Dad and I started to go together to hear Des Ford. We were warmed by the good news Ford preached.
Dad recommitted his life to Christ and was re-baptized into the local SDA church. I knew this was a deeply authentic experience as I could see my dad weep over his deep understanding of God’s rich love toward him. I knew God had used Des Ford to help my dad back to Christ and oddly, back to the very church Ford was leaving. Dad didn’t agree with Ford’s sanctuary and judgment view but he got and accepted the gospel stuff. At the time of this writing, decades later, my dad remains committed to Christ, the SDA church and especially Ellen White’s ministry as a prophet.
I was also moved by Des Ford but “torn between two lovers” and “feeling like a fool.” My mentors had been very helpful in discipling me into Bible study and how to share my faith. One taught me how to talk to others and share faith stories. The other had a weekly youth bible study I invited friends to. They believed Ford was wrong.
I felt polarized and without spiritual maturity; I felt I had to select a side. I knew Ford and one of his sons and could tell that something about that silver tongue had a sharp edge. I went the “historical Adventism” route and sadly, because of my teenage imbalance, quickly became extreme in many of my actions and views.
I eventually went and finished my BA in Religion from Weimar College. Weimar was good to me, better than I was to myself. By then, my legalism was deeply self-focusing, and Weimar helped me get out of some of that. Thankfully, the teaching and writing of Dick Winn, our chaplain and later President, was helpful. Years later, marriage to a balanced and loving wife, further training for an MA in Religion from Loma Linda University and pastoral guidance from Doug Volmer, Morris Venden, and Dwight Nelson has helped me form a third way—the gospel that loves the law and seeks the judgment.
In looking back over 30+ years, I can see better where I went wrong but alas, I see God worked through the pains and scars and poor choices to mature my understanding of His way and will.
Regret has been a purging source of healing. Social psychologists tell us that regret can be an amazing moral tool for growth. With it, we can journey back and rethink a decision and map out a different direction. We can think through better options that we didn’t see before.
I regret I didn’t mix the gospel into the fabric of my Adventism, and into my behaviorism and my focus on the judgment.
I wish such a regret would bring a deep gift of healing to my church. What would Adventism in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas have been like if Adventists worked harder together to stay together and develop a “third way”? What kind of Adventism would have been reborn if Amazing Facts, Adventist Forum, GoodNews Unlimited, and Weimar College shortened the 10 or so miles on Interstate 80 to create a better outcome for the 1980s? What if they had crossed the huge divide THEY created to form a united Adventism?
What a missed opportunity!
Those of you who think I am naïve should reread John 17. It is clear that Unity, not just Black and White, Male and Female, but also progressive and conservative, is what Our Leader envisioned.
Now, when asked to select between the gospel and judgment, I have a different mindset. I realize the person asking me to make this choice understands neither of those. The gospel is the judgment and the judgment is the gospel. Adventism has a significant role to play in clarifying that. Can we do it?
Will we follow the recipe? In the next blog on Acts 15, I look at how that recipe would apply today.