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Hosting of Stephen Bohr Creates Chaos in Potomac Conference Churches

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After preaching for a January Sabbath service at the Roanoke Seventh-day Adventist Church, Steve Leddy, the Potomac Conference associate director of pastoral ministries, was speaking with one of the church’s elders. As the Roanoke Church is currently without a pastor, such conversations have been routine. This one, however, was different. In passing, Leddy was informed that Stephen Bohr had been invited to speak at the church on May 5–6.

A retired pastor from Fresno, California, Bohr holds an emeritus ministerial credential from the Pacific Union Conference. For more than a decade, Bohr’s televangelism ministry, Secrets Unsealed, has streamed programming on the internet and appeared on the Three Angels Broadcasting Network. Bohr has twice been a speaker at the Michigan Conference Camp Meeting and presented at several GYC (Generation. Youth. Christ.) conventions.

Even more than his outspoken condemnation of women’s ordination, it’s his central role in promoting last generation theology that draws attention. The Secrets Unsealed website sells Last Generation magazine and a two-volume, 16-DVD set of 32 presentations titled Last Generation Theology Symposium: Anti-Gospel Heresy or Bible Truth? The secrets he unseals often have to do with interpreting Daniel and Revelation. Seven out of the 18 covers of his ministry’s newsletter, visible on his website, feature Roman Catholic imagery—mostly the pope—with titles like “Papal Antichrist” or “Jesuit Conspiracies: Francis the Socialist.” 

His views have put him at odds with multiple conferences in the North American Division, leading them to effectively prohibit Bohr from speaking at churches within their territory. In 2019, the Illinois Conference allegedly blocked Bohr from having a two-day seminar at the Downers Grove Church. In 2022, the Rocky Mountain Conference stopped Bohr from holding a seminar at the Golden Church in Colorado.  

According to Rick Labate, the Potomac Conference vice president for pastoral ministries, Bohr is on the conference’s “do not fly list.” “He’s not allowed to speak in our conference,” Labate said in an interview with Spectrum

After hearing about the Roanoke Church’s invitation, Leddy notified Heather Crews, the associate director of pastoral ministries for the Potomac Conference. In her role, Crews oversees all the conference’s churches in Virginia, and she contacted the Roanoke Church’s head elder to discuss the invitation further.

“Immediately, there was pushback,” Labate said of that conversation. “They really wanted Stephen Bohr to come.”

In a statement to Spectrum, the Roanoke Church’s board of elders declined to comment or participate in an interview for this story.

Over the coming months, the conference and the most vocal Roanoke Church members would continue going back and forth about what values an Adventist church should be publicly emphasizing through its choice of speakers. A similar conflict would soon emerge in another Potomac Conference church, threatening to further test conference processes and congregational cohesion. The conflicts reflect tensions that have surfaced repeatedly in recent years throughout the Seventh-day Adventist Church as independent ministries have found themselves simultaneously in or out of favor relative to the regions and levels of the denominational structure. 

The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual gives local conferences wide discretion in deciding who can occupy the pulpits of local churches. “Only speakers worthy of confidence will be invited to the pulpit by the local church pastor, in harmony with guidelines given by the conference,” the manual says. Local elders or the church board may also invite speakers, but only in consultation with the pastor and in harmony with conference guidelines. 

These reasons were relayed to the Roanoke Church’s elders. According to a timeline provided to Spectrum by the Potomac Conference, the elders responded that “they met and do not agree with the conference reasons for excluding Stephen Bohr from Potomac Conference.” 

Heather Crews emphasized in further communication with the Roanoke Church that conference policy provides criteria for independent speakers. This includes, “Do they support the role of women in ministry and ordination of women to the gospel ministry?” and “What has been the track record of the result of their messages? Does it create division or bring unity?” Given his public record, Bohr, according to the conference, does not meet those criteria. 

The Roanoke Church persisted. More emails from Roanoke’s elders arrived in Crews’s inbox telling her they “did not understand, agree with, or accept why the Potomac Conference believes Stephen Bohr’s theological issues are out of line with Potomac Conference policy.” Crews informed them that “the only decision at this time is if Roanoke would disinvite [Bohr] or would she.” 

Seeking to bypass the elders’ resistance, the Potomac Conference Administrative Committee sent Bohr a letter, reciting the conference policies. “The Potomac Conference does not have confidence in your ministry, therefore our conference guidelines do not allow for you to come into any of our churches,” the letter said. The conference told Bohr it was revoking his invitation to the Roanoke Church and all other conference churches. 

Bohr did not reply, though he does remember receiving the letter. “They did not request a reply,” he said in an interview with Spectrum.

Several days later, the Roanoke Church elders wrote their own letter to the Potomac Conference. “We find ourselves perplexed and confused with your responses regarding Pastor Bohr,” the email said. The elders rejected the conference’s assertion that Bohr’s ministry is divisive. “Clearly there are many here at the Roanoke Church who don’t share that opinion.”

According to Potomac Conference President Charles Tapp, the conference gave the church the option to host Bohr at a non-conference-owned site. “We even said to Roanoke, if you are persistent about inviting him, you can do it, but not on church property,” Tapp said. “They refused.”

Division within the Roanoke Church also soon appeared. On March 27, one church member wrote to the Potomac Conference to say that not all members supported the stance of the elders. In the email, shared with Spectrum on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retribution, the church member said that some members of the church board had concerns about Bohr that were ignored by the church elders. 

Another church member wrote to the conference to say that they felt the Roanoke elders were forcing their will on the entire church. “We have one elder in particular that will not accept no as an answer,” the member wrote.  

By April, the issue was still at a standstill, and conference leaders traveled to Roanoke for a business meeting with church members. Held on April 22, the meeting was laden with procedural difficulties from the start, according to the Potomac Conference officers who attended. Individuals who were not church members refused to leave, and it took 15 minutes to call the meeting to order.

The Potomac Conference officers said they didn’t want hostility or arguments. According to a slideshow from the meeting provided to Spectrum by the conference, they were only there to share the official policies. 

The presentation also defended the Potomac Conference’s policy on women clergy, citing the General Conference Working Policy, which states that decisions regarding the ordination of ministers are held at the union level. The conference administrators asked the members to vote on whether the church should follow conference policy and rescind Bohr’s invitation. But the members refused to hold a vote, saying that they needed more time to process the presentation.

Potomac Conference Finds Bohr’s Focus on Male Headship and Perfectionism Unbiblical 

Bohr frames his gender hierarchy on the concept of “complementarianism,” according to an article published by Spectrum in 2014. Christian historians, such as Beth Allison Barr, say this idea that women must hold different jobs and roles than men in order to complement them is a recent creation. The “biblical womanhood” movement emerged in the decades after World War II as women achieved a series of freedoms around sex, work, legal pregnancy choices, and more equal divorce options, which the political right experienced as existential challenges.

As the official North American Division Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report shows, those who argue for male headship—in the home and in church power—believe that the biblical ideal not only precludes equality but also calls for a church structure to enforce female submission. As Kendra Haloviak Valentine writes in her section on headship theology for the report, “The language of headship is a cultural construct that we impose on the texts.”

In a recent interview with Spectrum, Bohr reaffirmed that he believes that God has established males to be the “head in the home” and the “leader in the church.”  In publicly preaching this concept, Stephen Bohr focuses on portions of the Genesis 1 creation narrative to determine gender authority, saying that the male was taller and created first, and the woman sinned first.

In contrast, the Potomac Conference holds that headship theology is “dangerous” and can potentially lead to the abuse of women, Labate told Spectrum. “We are also a conference that has 15 female pastors” he said, and the conference “very much supports and appreciates our female pastors.” Having Bohr speak not only runs counter to the conference’s beliefs on a number of issues, but his polemical approach undermines support for the conference’s ministers—female and male. 

Even more central than headship to Bohr’s influence lies last generation theology, which is the idea that Christ will not return until there is a generation of Adventists who are perfect and sinless. 

Despite its draw among conservative Adventists, like Bohr’s complementarianism last generation theology is rooted outside of Adventism. 

Movements for “entire sanctification” or Christian perfection have appeared on the fringes of Christianity for millennia and modern Protestant versions have emerged, particularly in the mid-19th century in movements such as The Higher Life, and in the early 20th century, The Victorious Life. This perfectionist language was adopted by Adventists, justifying it with various out-of-context quotes from the Bible and Ellen White. 

In the interview, Bohr confirmed his support for Last Generation Theology and dismissed concerns that the belief is legalistic.

Labate said last generation theology is also inconsistent with the values of the Potomac Conference because it is “un-Christian” and “focuses on the individual rather than on the grace of Jesus.” “It’s a perfectionism kind of approach to living that puts all the onus on the individual rather than on trusting Jesus,” he added. 

* * *

Four days after the Potomac Conference met with the Roanoke board, a church member circulated a letter within the church stating his opposition to the Potomac Conference’s speaker policy. The letter called Potomac administrators “liars” 11 times, “evil” five times, and “being against the gospel” 13 times. 

“I would give my life for the right of Pastor Bohr (a man I’ve never met) and for others to have the freedom and right to share the gospel in our churches,” the letter said. “If Bohr or anybody else in good standing is willing to stand for the gospel, I will stand for you.”

Potomac Conference leaders weren’t clear about the kind of consequences the Roanoke Church would face if it hosted Bohr, the letter further claimed. “They appeared to come in expecting we would cower and fold to the bark of policy. Nevertheless, we should never compromise on truth and the sharing of the gospel, even if the stakes are high.” 

On April 29, Roanoke Church members voted 47 to13 during their worship service to maintain their plans. Disregarding the Potomac conference letter’s request, Bohr came the following week and spoke on May 5 and 6. 

Potomac Conference Executive Committee Warns Roanoke Church

Although the efforts to stop Bohr from speaking failed, the Potomac Conference persisted in addressing the issue. On June 27, the conference executive committee voted to send a warning letter to the Roanoke Church. “Any further disregard or violation of speaker policy demonstrates that the Roanoke SDA Church wishes not to be a part of the sisterhood of churches of the Potomac Conference and may be removed from such affiliation,” the letter said.

Still, many executive committee members felt that the response was not firm enough, according to conference president Charles Tapp. “They thought we should be much more stringent in our approach,” he said. “Most of them felt this way, especially many of the pastors who were more abreast on those kinds of issues.”

A Roanoke member again sent a letter, this time to Tapp, pushing back on the Potomac Conference’s warning. It claimed that the church followed the proper procedures when they invited Bohr to speak. “To flex your administrative muscles in order to silence those who disagree with you is appalling,” it said.

The letter also alleged that the conference’s reasons were illegitimate, claiming, “As of now, all we have received is that you simply don't like the man.” It further alleged that the conference is “trying to force the issue of women's ordination into each and every church until you have squashed any opposition.”

“It wasn’t a rash decision on our part,” Tapp said. “We decided to take a milder approach, a more grace-oriented approach, because these are people. These are our members, and our number one job is to shepherd them.” 

If the Roanoke Church violates Potomac Conference policy again, the ramifications are unclear. Tapp said they purposely haven’t considered further actions yet because the executive committee doesn’t want to seem heavy-handed. “We would have to take it back, first of all, to the executive committee and give our reason for disbanding this congregation,” he said. “There's so many parts of that—the church, the property, all of that.” 

On July 5, over five months after the Potomac Conference sent an initial letter to Bohr revoking his invitation to speak at the Roanoke Church, the Potomac Conference Administrative Committee sent a follow-up letter to Bohr. In the letter, the committee told Bohr that they did not “appreciate such disrespect” to the Potomac Conference and its policies.

“We do not believe that there is ever a place or time for someone to force his or her presence into a conference or church,” the letter stated. “This applies even if it is at the request of the local church, because Roanoke is a member of the sisterhood of churches of Potomac Conference and not an independent church such as one may find in a congregational system.”

The letter concluded by reiterating that Bohr was not welcome to speak in the Potomac Conference.

In reference to the letter, Bohr told Spectrum that he believes there’s no reason the conference should prevent him from speaking in a local church. “If the board of the local church overwhelmingly votes for someone to come and speak, and the church is in favor, there’s really no reason why [not],” he said.

Gaithersburg Spanish Church Splits Over Bohr Invite

Soon after the Roanoke event, another Potomac Conference church scheduled Stephen Bohr to come for a speaking series. 

While the first advertisement didn’t appear until July 25, the Gaithersburg Spanish Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, had invited Stephen Bohr to speak back in June, according to Rafael Soto, the director of Hispanic ministries for the Potomac Conference. Bohr was set to come on August 16–19.

The invitation was discussed at multiple church business meetings. Multiple sources, including the Potomac Conference, have confirmed that Gaithersburg Spanish Church Pastor Jonas Baca was against holding the event, knowing the conference’s policy regarding Bohr. Baca was present at the first business meeting in June. However, Soto alleges that the church members didn’t allow Baca to chair the business meeting, as is normal policy. 

According to Soto, the pastor told members they were making the wrong decision, and in response, the head elder “asked the pastor to sit.”

“These people are really aggressive,” Soto said of the meeting.

Two more business meetings were held without Baca present, though the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual does not allow the church board to call a business meeting by its own authority. 

Potomac Conference Vice President of Administration Jose Vasquez told Spectrum in an interview that Bohr was initially scheduled to hold meetings in the Gaithersburg Spanish Church. When Baca contacted Bohr to ask him to not come, Bohr deferred to the church’s elders and their wishes, saying they would need to discuss it further. 

The Gaithersburg Spanish Church elders moved Bohr’s presentations to the gymnasium of another Spanish church within the Potomac Conference, the Goshen Spanish Church, also located in Gaithersburg. 

When the pastor of the Goshen Spanish Church found out, he too asked Bohr not to come. Eventually, according to Vazquez, the event was moved to the Washington Grove Spanish Church. The Washington Grove Spanish Church is under the jurisdiction of the Allegheny East Conference. 

On the morning of July 29, prior to the final business meeting, Soto recounted, the Gaithersburg Spanish Church elders handed out forms for people to transfer their church membership to a church within the Allegheny East Conference and told church members that a church with capacity for 350 members was ready to receive them as members.

According to a Potomac Conference official and an Adventist Today Latino report, the presentation about membership transfer was slightly misleading in its effect. 

Because membership transfer requests involve official acknowledgment by both the sending and receiving bodies, they do not happen quickly. The transfer process includes an opportunity for the sending and receiving bodies to consult with each other in the rare case that there are questions about the transferring members. 

Despite assurances from elders about the Allegheny Conference church ready to welcome them, as of an August 23 Adventist Today Latino story, neither the conference nor the receiving congregation had yet voted to approve the membership transfers.

The final business meeting on July 29 was live-streamed on Facebook but later removed. According to Soto, Baca told the 386-member congregation that those who had filled out a membership transfer form were welcome to leave the meeting and invited those who wished to remain members of the Gaithersburg Spanish Church to stay for further conversation. Everyone except for one person walked out of the gathering.

An August 2 story on Fulcrum7, an independent Adventist website, alleged that Baca told church members to “join him or they should leave the building and abandon the ‘official Gaithersburg’ church.” According to Soto, Baca never ejected members from the church or “fired” leaders.  

Following this business meeting, the owner of the building the Gaithersburg Spanish Church was renting informed the Potomac Conference that they wished to terminate the lease and rent to another tenant. The conference would later learn that the other tenant was the group splitting from the official Gaithersburg Church, an apparent shift from the departing group’s plan to join the Allegheny Conference congregation. 

The new group calls themselves the “Gaithersburg Spanish Renewed Seventh-day Adventist Church,” although the church is not part of the official Seventh-day Adventist denomination and is using the Seventh-day Adventist name improperly, according to Vazquez and Tapp.

After the exit of most of the congregation’s membership and the termination of the building’s lease, Baca packed up the audio-visual equipment and other property that congregations renting space from others typically own for themselves. 

Since the members responsible for the congregation’s finances had left, the Potomac Conference froze the Gaithersburg Spanish Church’s bank account. “The money is still in the bank account,” said Karen Senecal, the Potomac Conference vice president for finance. “The bank account has been frozen, and the members who have left the Gaithersburg Spanish Church do not have access to it any longer. It has not been taken anywhere.”

In a now-deleted Facebook comment, the Gaithersburg Spanish Church alleged that Baca had been sent by the Potomac Conference to “steal and loot the church on the Lord’s day.”

In a statement released on August 14, the Potomac Conference denied taking any punitive action against the Gaithersburg Spanish congregation. “We have acted as responsible stewards by ensuring that any congregational resources are managed per customary church policy and processes. We categorically state and affirm that the Potomac Conference Administration has taken no unilateral actions regarding any membership within the conference,” the statement said. “Furthermore, we certify that no equipment or church funds have been appropriated or absorbed by the Conference Treasury.” 

Multiple attempts by Spectrum to reach Pastor Jonas Baca and the Gaithersburg Spanish Church head elder were unsuccessful. 

* * *

Soto said the Gaithersburg Spanish Church is working to regroup and worship together with a smaller group of believers, while 85 percent of the church members are in the process of transferring their membership out of the Gaithersburg Spanish Church.

In the aftermath of the conflicts at both the Roanoke and Gaithersburg Spanish churches, Stephen Bohr pins the blame on the Potomac Conference. “The church gets mad at the conference, and then the conference blames me for causing division,” he said. “If they had allowed me to go to Roanoke and preach, everybody would be okay.” He did not address, however, any consequences of his showing up to speak in spite of being disinvited by the conference.

According to the Potomac Conference, Bohr’s approach on hot-button issues hurts Adventist communities. “His track record is one of divisiveness,” Labate said. “He does have a history of when he goes places, he comes in, he does his ‘drive-by shooting,’ so to speak, and then leaves. There are often split arguments and bad things that happen in his wake.” 

Alexander Carpenter contributed to this report.

 


Samuel Girven, a Special Projects Correspondent for Spectrum, is a journalist based in Timberville, Virginia.

Title image by Spectrum.

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