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Dennis Priebe

Was Desmond Ford a Liberal?

Religious Liberty

Let us start with a story about religious freedom:

I’m a Seventh-day Adventist Christian.  That means, among other things, that I keep the Bible Sabbath….I’d hired (a man) to trim my fields….I never asked him to work during what I consider to be God’s Sabbath hours….As I was driving my van to pick up my friend, I got to thinking about the situation….We are not of the same faith.  Our worldviews are dissimilar in several areas.  But what if I want him to believe as I do?  What if I could make hard-and-fast rules that would force him to observe my Bible Sabbath?  Some well-meaning Christians promote just such a concept.  They want their government to stand behind their Christian dogmas, saying that to make our country great once more, we need to add political punch to religious beliefs….

I turned to my friend and said, “Let me ask you something.  This Sabbath thing that I’m so focused on.  What if I could get enough people in Washington, D.C., to see things my way; to convinced them that doing work on God’s holy Sabbath—work that could easily be accomplished on any other day of the week—not only goes against Bible teaching, but is a criminal activity?  What if I could make the Sabbath doctrine the law of the land and have the power to dictate what you can and can’t do on Saturdays?  Would you be OK with that?  He thought for just a moment, and then shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “That wouldn’t be right.”….

“And,” I pressed, “what if, because of what Scripture says to me concerning how I’m supposed to live my life, I convinced lawmakers to ignore whatever civil rights you might have once had and require you to behave the way I practice my faith?  Would that be OK?”  Again, my friend thought for a long moment.  “No,” he said, “that wouldn’t be right either.  Religion is personal.”

On that we could agree 100 percent.  And on that concept we must hang our every belief and every dogma.  Religious practice is personal, not corporate.  Religious convictions must derive from personal conviction….

Look at the world in general.  At last count, there were around 4,200 religions, and about a third of them were Christian.  This group bases their beliefs on the very same Bible we hold in our hands as we march into church on whichever day we’re convinced is the Sabbath.  Yet our religions can be strikingly different, promoting worldviews that vary greatly.  To those who desire to make adherence to religion-based principles the law of the land, the question must be addressed as to whose religion and which interpretation of doctrine is the one on which we should construct those laws….A TV preacher’s?  A pious politician’s?...

The country in which I live—the United States of America—has done a pretty good job of keeping church and state separate….And those who don’t call themselves Christian are free to work out their own salvation without government intervention.  Religion is, and always should be, personal….That’s the very essence of religious liberty.  (Charles Mills, Liberty, March/April, 2019, pp. 21-23)

Religious liberty is a great principle to live by in normal, peaceful times, but the reality is that we don’t live in normal, peaceful times.

Since 1947, just after the dawn of the atomic age, members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have put out the Doomsday Clock, which shows what they believe is just how close humanity is to destroying itself….Since 1947 it has been changed 23 times, with the clock’s recent resetting at two minutes to midnight, which represents a high threat level.  Says the organization: “In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago.”…

Some say that drastic steps need to be taken—or else….If that weren’t frightening enough, what about asteroids?...Astronomers have warned that the earth can face potentially devastating consequences from an asteroid hit….Even worse, in a world today where travel across continents is so common, the ability to spread disease is easier than ever….Dangerous disease outbreaks are a part of our daily existence and, given the right circumstances, could threaten our existence.  Time magazine ran a cover article (May, 2017) titled: “WARNING: We Are Not Ready for the Next Pandemic.”  And if natural pathogens are not terrifying enough, humans can do a pretty nasty job themselves….Gram for gram, biological weapons are the deadliest weapons ever produced….Rapidly producing and weaponizing biological agents is surprisingly easy….

The real issue isn’t whether or not any of these are credible threats.  What matters only is the perception that any one might me.  Let people fear these potentialities,…and…the masses will acquiesce to whatever power promises to save them from impending doom….Who, faced with the prospect of nuclear annihilation,…wouldn’t opt for safety over liberty?...In the event of an emergency, freedom takes a back seat, and the greater the emergency the farther back it gets seated….

And, in anticipation of whatever awaits us, the United States government has, believe it or not, a plan for what to do in case of, among other things, a zombie apocalypse….”From responses to natural disasters to a catastrophic attack on the homeland, the U.S. military has a plan of attack ready to go if either incident occurs,” says a CNN report.  It has also devised an elaborate plan should a zombie apocalypse befall the country.”

The unclassified document, titled “CONOP 8888-11 COUNTER- ZOMBIE DOMINANCE,” was put together in 2011 as part of a larger program for general training in regard to any kind of natural emergency.  The report said it found that “the hyperbole involved in writing ‘a zombie survival plan’ actually provided a very useful and effective training tool.”  In other words, it was deemed an entertaining way to deal with what would need to be done in case of any kind of emergency.  However, said the report in one place: “Domestic law enforcement agencies will address any…attacks involving zombies until martial law is declared.”   Until martial law is declared?  That’s the point.  Under a dire enough emergency,…a new set of law comes into play, and freedom will be among the first casualties.   (Clifford Goldstein, Liberty, March/April, 2019, pp. 15-16)

The Supreme Court

Significantly, groundwork is being laid in this time of relative peace for new sets of laws.

During the past few decades a religious movement has gained widespread political power with a clearly stated agenda—to dismantle the establishment clause, which arguably requires separation of church and state.  This foundational constitutional protection, which has guaranteed the right to equal treatment of all Americans regardless of religious belief has never been in greater danger.  Since the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for the first time in history proponents of this movement have a majority weight on the Supreme Court….

The most open and vocal proponent of this anti-establishment clause agenda on the Supreme Court has been, since the death of Antonin Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas.  Thomas is unapologetic about his views.  He joined Scalia in dissenting opinions that explicitly rejected the well-established legal doctrine that the government must be neutral, not favoring one religious position over another.  Justice Thomas believes that it is not a violation of the Constitution for government to favor “religion over irreligion” and “monotheistic religions” over others….

This rejection of the principle of governmental neutrality toward all religions blatantly violates nearly 200 years of American political philosophy….If Thomas’ stated position were to become the law, it would again place all nontheistic and polytheistic religions—Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and others—at an official legal disadvantage.  It would, in essence, make them second-class citizens in American national life….He has explicitly stated that in his view the Constitution does not prohibit a state government from establishing an official state religion…He believes the establishment clause gives state governments official constitutional license  to establish their own state churches….

Thomas has become one of a majority of five with apparently similar views….A careful look at the expressed positions of the conservative members of the Court forces the conclusion that they have the same basic objectives—to increase the rights of a select group of Christians to control the religious discourse in this country, and to promote the rights of that group to religious practice at the expense of all others….History also demonstrates that state establishment inevitably destroys the right to free exercise for all people, even for members of the majority.  (Sonja DeWitt, Liberty, March/April, 2019, pp. 26-31)

Recent Developments

Now let us move away from legal interpretations of the Constitution to the grassroots, the attitudes of ordinary people in our society, because, believe it or not, that is where the impetus to deny religious freedom will come from—not from the Supreme Court or a Republican or Democrat president.  The following is a very revealing article:

The waters are stirring more than ever throughout American communities.  They have been for quite a while.  One afternoon way back in the mid-1980s I was startled to see curious brochures placed beside weekly service bulletins on the welcoming table at my local church.  As I flipped through the pamphlet, it was apparent to me that some zealous individuals had taken upon themselves to judge the spiritual merits of all the hopeful candidates running for a variety of municipal and state offices.

Candidates were graded on how they were perceived to align with a particular religious checklist.  Some candidates were summarily dismissed, the not-so-subtle implication being that no conscientious Christian could possibly vote for them.  Others were praised and heartily recommended….

Yes, the signs that something uncomfortably powerful was already in motion were resonating in society back then and have not abated.  Such phrases as the “moral majority,” “Christian coalition,” and “the Religious Right” have become increasingly familiar terms in the public lexicon….Shrewd politicians and campaign strategists were quick to see the benefits of courting churches and communities of faith.  In turn, some faith leaders and laypeople became vulnerable to the lure of political power and influence.

And so began the dance: a romance of compromise, labeling, and polarization that would eventually stain all participants.  Good intentions snowed under by human weakness and temptations of temporal power….The fusion of a nationalistic agenda of faith and identity politics was emerging while a considerable section of the faith community and astute politicians played each other like fiddles….

What is wrong with this picture?...Standing before Pontius Pilate, Jesus had said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Regardless, fueled by talk media, whose hosts can seem as much entertainers as political pundits, a curious hybrid of political conservatism and religion has evolved to keep the airwaves humming in a puzzling dialogue of alarm, frustration, anger, and pet mantras.  Individuals are labeled and demonized while the devoted audiences are kept on edge in a constant state of irritation and angst.  One thing is certain: such broadcasters know their demographic and which hot-button issues to push….

By 2004 the country was in the throes of another election; and I remember casually running into friends…at a local shopping mart….The wife suddenly and pleasantly said out of the blue, “I don’t know how any Christian could vote for a Democrat.”  Rather stunned by the statement, and knowing full well that for decades Christians freely voted Democrat or Republican, I said nothing….The courtship between political conservatism and wide strains of the faith community, charged by talk radio/media rhetoric, had morphed into its own type of religion….

Myriads of young people have grown up in this unsteady climate, with the perception that Christianity and a particular strain of political conservatism are one and the same….In a 1996…article: “If God blesses us only as Republicans or Democrats, both politics and religion are in trouble.”  In America, somehow many have forgotten that Christianity is neither Republican nor Democrat: there are believers on both sides of the political spectrum….

In a recent…article: “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment….Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way.”…The hypocrisy, polarization, hate speech, shameless pandering for political influence, and compromised principles have dragged the name of Christ through the mud.  For what?  Dominance, temporal power, a place in government, seats on the Supreme Court, an effort to create one’s own kingdom….

Almost flying under the radar in this tense contemporary climate are the influential objectives of dominionism—the theocratic idea that regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political institutions.  This school of thought emerged in the 2000s and is essentially seeking through religious/political influence to build their version of a Christian civilization in America.

The theological basis for this is the evangelical dispensational belief that our job is to prepare the world for Christ to set up His millennial reign on earth, and America and Israel are the major players in this distorted view of the great controversy.

Consider colonial New England in the 1600s and the unfortunate pilloried citizens locked into wooden stocks in the town square as punishment for lapsed church attendance.  Perhaps this was a fortunate embarrassment; not so the individual who could have their tongue punctured by a metal auger for repeated transgressions of profanity.  This was a curious sense of piety and justice dished out by early colonists who themselves had fled religious intolerance in Europe.

Or consider an ailing Roger Williams escaping through the winter woods, laden with drifting New England snow….He respected individual conscience.  To Williams, a forced religion was no religion at all.

The tragedies that occur when religion and political power unite stain the pages of history.  All people, no matter their belief systems, race, or political persuasions, bleed the same.  The humanity toward others is trampled when mortals play God.  I do not recognize the Christ infused into today’s political/religious quagmire.  He bears no resemblance to the Christ of the New Testament….That Jesus is obscured by today’s religious/political power struggles….

My point here is not to tear down individuals or political parties, but to caution that in attempting to establish moral ground in our nation we may actually be driving people away from God….It’s almost like this modern offshoot has scarred the name of Christ and Christianity to the point that many followers of Jesus have suggested believers use terms other than “Christian” or “Evangelical.”…

“Political partisanship has hamstrung evangelicalism’s ability to pursue what is supposed to be the core of its mission: to share the good news of the gospel,”…in a 2018 Religion News Service article….One young believer stated, “I feel that I am in a constant battle with my dad to simply remind him that poor Black people are people.  Muslims escaping Syria are people.  And they have inherent value and dignity as children of God.”

In April of 2017 the prominent Egyptian talk show host Amr Adib sat speechless after he watched a colleague interview a Coptic Christian widow whose husband had just been killed in a terrorist attack….The grieving woman spoke of the attacker in words that stunned the host and millions across the airwaves: “I’m telling him, may God forgive you, and we also forgive you.”…It is hard to hate at the foot of the cross.  I recognize that Jesus.  Please, give me my religion back.  (Ed Guthero, Liberty, Sept/Oct, 2019, pp. 10-13)

Evangelicals Today

But to understand this movement we must go back 150 years.  Another important religious event was unfolding as we were becoming a legal denominational entity during the Civil War, the development and formation of the National Reform Association.  Their stated mission was to make Christianity the legal religion of the land, through a Constitutional amendment.  Those forming the National Reform Association said that the sin of the nation was leaving God out of the Constitution.  They said that this sin made allowance for slavery, and God was punishing the nation through the Civil War for not including Him in the Constitution.

This movement gained strength during the next decades, and they began promoting Sunday legislation.  It is very significant that Ellen White devoted a whole chapter in Fundamentals of Christian Education to the danger of political involvement.  A. T. Jones had to go to Congress to speak against the adoption of a Sunday law.  A century later this movement has revived and has captured the loyalty of many sincere Christians.

Now, how has all this impacted the Seventh-day Adventist Church?  There is a fascinating story in the book of Ezra.  The Israelites were rebuilding the temple after the Babylonian captivity.  Near them were the Samaritans, a product of the intermarriage of heathen colonists with the remnant of the ten tribes left in Galilee.  They claimed to worship the true God by using idols to depict God.  The story is told in Ezra 4:1-3.  “Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the Lord God of Israel; Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither.  But Zerubbabel , and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the Lord God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us.”

So their nearest neighbors offered help and were refused.  Why?  The reason for this refusal is found in Deut. 7:2-4.  “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.  For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.”  This is reemphasized in Deut. 14:2.  “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth.”

Zerubbabel knew these warnings, and he knew that they had just returned from captivity which was caused by ignoring these warnings.  This would have brought idolatry back into Israel.  So they had to choose between a very helpful alliance and obedience to God.  Their choice was to refuse to enter into a covenant with idolaters.

In the 1950s our leaders were approached by our theological neighbors, who also believed in the authority of Scripture and the second coming of Christ, but who rejected the claims of the fourth commandment.  These neighbors told our leaders that Christians had misjudged Adventists by calling them a cult, and they offered to help us prove that we were genuine Christians.  They stood by our side as friends and brothers.

Just as in Israel’s case, we were given specific inspired counsel about how to deal with this request.  “It is not the open and avowed enemies of the cause of God that are most to be feared.  Those who…come with smooth words and fair speeches, apparently seeking for friendly alliance with God’s children, have greater power to deceive….And especially today, while earth’s history is closing, the Lord requires of His children a vigilance that knows no relaxation.”  (PK 570, 571)

But apparently our leaders did not read Ezra 4, Deut. 7, and PK 570.  We gratefully accepted the help of these evangelical friends.  We adjusted some of our teachings to meet their requirements, and we were no longer labeled as a cult.  Instead of rejecting their offer as Zerubbabel did, we joined hands with the evangelicals and have endured controversies and chaos ever since.

But what does this have to do with Desmond Ford being a liberal?

After the 1950s there was much debate about whether we had done the right thing.  Some leaders opposed Questions on Doctrine, and it was eventually not reprinted.  Then in the late 1970s a respected professor from Australia came on the scene in the United States and became a sought-after scholar in seminars and camp meetings.  Desmond Ford was making a major impact on our understanding of righteousness by faith.

The reality is that Desmond Ford was not a liberal.  He believed in the full authority of Scripture; he quoted from Ellen White often; he was a defender of the Sabbath; he was a strong health reformer; he had high standards; he was a role model for sanctified living.  Desmond Ford was a conservative evangelical, building on the foundation of our compromises in the 1950s.  He expressed better than anyone before him in Adventism the essential hallmarks of the evangelical gospel: we are born sinners; Christ had an unfallen nature; justification is the only requirement for salvation; no one can be sinless before the second coming of Christ.

If there is any one thing we need to learn from his experience, it is that we have much more to fear from evangelicals than from liberals.  Liberals or progressives can be easily identified: some deny a six-day creation; some relegate Ellen White’s counsel to the nineteenth century; some promote gay rights.  But evangelicals are so much like us and share many of our values.

The evangelical Christians who share our values are the ones joining hands with Catholics; the ones who would like to legislate morality; the ones who would break down the separation of church and state.

The evangelical gospel appeals to the more liberal side of Adventism: sanctification is not important for salvation; sinlessness is impossible; we do not vindicate God or hasten Christ’s coming; standards are based on culture.

Evangelical politics appeals to the conservative side of Adventism: they are opposed to abortion and homosexuality; they emphasize the ten commandments; they are getting Christians elected to public office; they like conservative radio and media.

Desmond Ford was a conservative evangelical, and his beliefs are now being advanced at the highest levels of Adventist scholarship, as witnessed by the four books published in 2018.  Ford is having much more impact on Adventism now than when he was alive.  Evangelical theology and evangelical politics are destroying the very purpose and mission of Adventism for which we were called into existence as the remnant which will produce the 144,000 sealed ones who will be translated.