In November 2017, the North Pacific Union mailed all Seventh-day Adventist pastors across the six conferences (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Upper Columbia, Idaho, Montana) a copy of William Johnsson’s startling book, Where are We Headed? Adventism After San Antonio (Oak & Acorn Publishing, Westlake Village, California, 2017). Don’t be confused; the book is actually published by the Pacific Union. The Pacific union is out of compliance with 2015 San Antonio General Conference Session world church decision not to permit subsections of the church to unilaterally ordain women to the gospel ministry.
Is it fair to describe Johnsson’s book as literally shocking? The current NPUC leadership wanted its entire pastoral staff of six conferences to read content like this:
“The General Conference Session of 2015 exposed and widened fault lines that had been developing for a long time. In later years the Session will be seen as a moment comparable to the 1888 Minneapolis convocation, when two views of the church, two possibilities, met face to face. . . . As major as was the discussion concerning the role of women, that issue was but part of something far larger. Adventism is split down the middle. The split is not merely geographical between the North and the global South—it is more complicated. Like the two babies struggling in Rebekah’s womb, two Adventist churches are aborning” (pp. 1, 2).
It is one thing to acknowledge there is a substantial split within the Church, but another to intentionally transmit a throughly one-sided volume attacking the validity of a General Conference Session decision to your pastoral staff!
Johnsson places the “two churches” in sharp contrast: “a church that adopts a principled interpretation of scripture with a church that comes to the Word in a flat, literalistic manner,” “a church with ordained women clergy struggling with a church that limits the ministry to males,” “a church that downsizes the upper echelons and focuses on the grassroots with a church increasingly bureaucratic and autocratic” (all on p. 2). “two radically different versions of Adventism are competing for the future” (p. 3). Twenty or so years earlier, Johnsson had been just as explicit:
“At three General Conference sessions in a row—New Orleans in 1985, Indianapolis in 1990, and now Utrecht yesterday—the church debated the role of women in ministry. How far have we come in resolving this issue?. . . Yesterday we saw two respected Adventist scholars approach the Scriptures in different ways. One based his case on specific verses and statements of Ellen White, arguing from a literalistic basis. The other also appealed to Scripture and Ellen White, but in terms of the principles behind the statements. The differences are striking and important. They impact not only the women’s issue but many others. We have not heard the last of this matter. Adventists will have to wrestle with this most basic concern: How shall we interpret Scripture” (Adventist Review, July 7, 1995, p. 3).
But the truth is that the two differing viewpoints in the church with reference to women’s ordination both follow a principled set of interpretive approaches; the principles of interpretation are just different. The truth is that Both viewpoints favor the ministry of men and women while differing on whether congregational male leadership is biblically open to females. The truth is that mostly the grassroots of the church strongly oppose women’s ordination, while many in NAD administrative leadership and ordained pastoral ministry favor it. The truth is that the General Conference leadership is attempting to faithfully implement the decision the world body made in San Antonio in 2015, while some NAD leaders have operated autocratically and have sometimes run over church members beliefs in this area.
Johnsson’s book pounds away, attempting to destroy the authority of the General Conference and validity of the 2015 GC decision. Johnsson calls the WO debate at the session “a circus” (p. 11). He complains about how Jan Paulson was treated, but Paulson alone was given four and a half minutes to speak—almost twice as much as the other delegates. But Johnsson is not content only to hint he is undermining the 2015 GC session vote. He states his position plainly:
“[I]t was a war and . . . the war is over and that now women’s ordination will spread rapidly through the church” (p. 12). He seems to favor every irregularity in credentialing he can name (he lists several). Johnsson proceeds to write the narrative of anti-WO arguments the way he sees fit, attacking what he sees as main arguments. From page 16 and following he pushes back against them. For Johnsson, “The present situation is intolerable. Women’s ordination will come and must come” (p. 19).
What do NPUC administrators want for this Union?
Especially important is this book’s treatment of hermeneutics. Johnsson labors for several pages (pp. 115-130) attacking the allegedly “flat” hermeneutics of those who oppose WO—“flat” surely representing the church’s longstanding method of Bible study, historical-grammatical methodology. Meanwhile he supports what he views as the “principled” hermeneutics of those favoring WO. Several pages are penned favoring Adventist scholar Sakae Kubo (mentioned five times), whom he regards as “one of the church’s finest biblical exegetes” (p. 121). We wonder if the leaders who sent this book to their pastors agree with Sakae Kubo’s views regarding LGBT in his article, “Viewpoint: How Our Understanding of Homosexuality Has Changed,” (April 24, 2014).
“Second, if the church recognizes that some people are born with an alternative sexual orientation, and since the Bible, as we have shown above, is not condemning them but heterosexuals who are committing the perverted act of engaging in sexual activity with a non-consenting heterosexual, it is normal—not abnormal—for a gay or lesbian person to wish to marry another gay or lesbian person, just as it is normal for a heterosexual person to marry a person of the opposite sex. How can we say that we will not allow someone who is gay or lesbian to do the natural thing—and yet not say the same thing to the heterosexual?” (https://spectrummagazine.org/article/news/2014/04/05/viewpoint-how-our-understanding-homosexuality-has-changed).
Kubo’s article concludes thus:
“The Church then should get rid of the statement, ‘We hate the sin but love the sinner,’ with respect to alternative sexualities and should treat everyone the same. The church must let people do what is natural for them—even if that means marrying someone of the same sex. And we should expect the same of all couples, no matter their gender: that they be committed to their partners and not engage in extramarital affairs” (Ibid.).
Interesting, especially if Johnsson’s propheying pans out: “the five years following it [the 2015 San Antonio General Conference Session] will be focused on issues of interpreting the Bible” (Where Are We headed?, p. 115).
What exactly is practiced today in the congregation where Kubo worships?
Johnsson is glad, he says, that our Adventist Fundamental Belief statement has a Preamble. “It positions Adventists for the possibility of change—even major change—in beliefs and practice” (p. 118).
We cannot help but notice that the reason so many favor WO is because of their hermeneutics. Kubo is a staunch supporter of women’s ordination. Even a cursory search of Spectrum magazine will locate numerous Kubo articles promoting the ordination of women.
But the worst parts of Johnsson’s book are actually at the close. There, the author openly attacks current General Conference leaders. The very worst feature of the book is his attack on the validity of the 2015 vote:
“[T]he manner in which the San Antonio Session handled the women’s ordination issue leaves in doubt the accuracy of the vote” (p. 148).
Johnsson wildly claims that TOSC Report findings were withheld (p. 149), and raises other absurd objections, concluding, “In view of this background, I cannot accept that the vote in San Antonio settled the issue of the ordination of women” (p. 149).
Possibly the wildest view in the book is Johnsson chorusing the myth propounded by George Knight and others that the Unions were essentially intended to be immune to the authority of the world church, and that the General Conference vote in San Antonio was actually somehow a misuse of Church authority.
And so, says Johnsson, for the General Conference to simply endeavor to secure united action in the world church in a mattter that has been decided by the General Conference in session, is—our pastors are told—“Wrong from any angle you look at it. Wrong in its theology. Wrong in its history. Wrong in its policy. Wrong in its spirit. It is more papal than Seventh-day Adventist. It runs directly counter to the life and teachings of Jesus” (p 145).
Adventist pastors and members deserve better. The North Pacific Union erred in intentionally sending this book to its pastors, and promoting divisive, unwarranted doubts about world church leaders who are seeking to be faithful against all odds.