It’s fascinating to watch what is essentially a game of high stakes poker taking place at the upper levels of the Seventh-day Adventist church right now. The issue of women’s ordination, which is not been settled, despite what some think, is continuing to stir discontent.

Recently the annual Council of the General Conference (GC) voted a document on unity as the church. This document provides a disciplinary mechanism for lower organizational units–divisions, unions, conferences–which do not conform to policy, specifically, those who continue to ordain women.

Now we see the North American Division (NAD) has essentially said, “We will see your unity resolution, and raise you another resolution.” Several years ago, the Southeastern California Conference (SECC), elected a woman, Sandra Roberts, as conference president. I do not know her, though I have heard positive things about her. If you asked me whether I approve of the action, my response would be, “I’m not a member of that conference. Whether I approve or not is irrelevant.”

The General Conference has responded, in a passive aggressive fashion, by not printing her name in the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. This may seem trivial, but it is quite unusual. Everybody that works for the church is listed in this book. And I do mean everybody. If you go back to the 1971 yearbook, you’ll see the name of an obscure, wet-behind-the-ears 21 year-old school teacher, one “Edgar Dickerson.” But if you look at the 2015 yearbook, the SECC President is listed as “_____” The GC, which prints the Yearbook, essentially refuses to recognize her election.

The two lines of thought have so  hardened, that it is difficult for me to see a way out of this impasse without damage. Those who oppose women’s ordination are angry and muttering about rebellion; those who favor women’s ordination are angry and are talking about Equality.

I have been saying for some time that women’s ordination is not the issue; it is an issue, but not the real issue, and have discussed what I believe the issue to be elsewhere.

What this dispute about women’s ordination does is reveal fault lines that run far deeper within the church. One which is never talked about, because few even perceive it, is a deep philosophical divide. It breaks down this way:

Those who are opposed to women’s ordination, are speaking about unity and rebellion, and urge the world church to discipline those units of the church which are out of policy. Those who favor women’s ordination, are talking about coercion — being forced to come into line or suffer punishment.

I believe coercion is inherently evil, and that liberty is inherently good. But too many involved in this debate favor coercion in some cases, and oppose it in others. And that is a problem.

Let me explain it this way. Those who favor using authority to force the lower divisions of the church into line, are those generally who oppose government use of coercion to accomplish policy objectives. Not to be outdone, those who oppose coercion by the General Conference against the lower units of the church in order to accomplish a policy objective, are the same ones who generally favor things like the affordable care act, which coerces people to buy insurance, or suffer a penalty. If coercion is wrong, it is wrong in both cases.*

That fault line, the willingness by all to coerce when they favor the outcome, and unwillingness to locate, identify, and stand on principle will simply manifest itself in another divisive issue, even should women’s ordination be peacefully resolved. And if, heaven forbid, the church should in fact split over this issue, those in each split will find this fault runs within each fragment, and will only arise to cause trouble later on.

As Adventists, we anticipate a time when the devil will attempt to coerce worship, and see this as the ultimate expression of evil. And surely it is. But if we oppose it, as we certainly should, then we should oppose it in all its forms, especially when it is employed to achieve “good” or “righteous” ends. Because that is how–if it were possible–the very elect will be deceived.

The question we each must face is, “Am I willing to coerce, to use force, in order to accomplish something very good?”


*Note: it is a mistake to confuse all penalties under law as coercive. A speeding ticket, for example, is not coercion. No one forces you either to drive, or to drive recklessly. Neither is the law that requires car insurance, since no one has to buy a car. Forcing everyone to buy an SUV, or forbidding the purchase of a pickup truck would be coercive.