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My God is Still the God of Heretics


We humans have a deep need to tell our stories, to connect with others on a meaningful level. We are sentient, affectionate and thinking beings, spoken into existence at the pleasure of our Heavenly Father, and we are bound together by His love through the free gift of salvation.

It has been spiritually exhilarating to be able to go online to read and view the experiences of women that have found joy and fulfillment serving God through the ministry. The circle of Adventism holds stories that define us as family despite our differences: stories of joy and blessings, stories of conflicts, hurts and disappointments, and even at times resolution.

Twenty-two years ago I wrote an article on the issue of women’s ordination for the Adventist Women’s Institute magazine, Ponderings, titled “My God is the God of Heretics.” I shared my spiritual experience of how the divisive conflicts of the 1970s and 80s, and especially the issue of women’s ordination, deeply affected my life, and why at the time I questioned whether there was a place in the church for me. Perhaps this can be Chapter II of my story.

I do not expect all to understand my path. I do hope that the act of sharing my self-imposed exile to a far country, and my first tentative steps back, may encourage other discouraged hearts to reach out and reclaim the promise of God’s all-inclusive love, to experience once again the utterly amazing love of Jesus Christ, the One who patiently sheltered me with His hand as I walked away.

The great controversy over women’s ordination is nothing new; the church has been divided over this issue for well over 100 years. Numerous reasons are proposed as to why women should not be ordained: it is unbiblical; it is unseemly; women are to learn in silence and not have power over men; male headship is the New Testament model for the church; it is a mere cultural issue that should not be adopted from worldly churches.

Curiously for all these years, rather than a meaningful dialogue the leaders’ proclamations have more closely resembled a carefully scripted, top-down monologue. Many members have become disheartened and depressed by delay after delay, study after study, only to be told once again, “not at this time.”

My journey has been an emotional one, experienced with all the highs and lows and glorious Technicolor of the full range of emotions God gave me. While I never personally aspired to the ordained ministry it hurt to see the calculated dismissal of the longings of my sisters in Christ that desired nothing more than to follow the calling of the Holy Spirit.

We are not solely rational beings. Real life occurs in the emotions of the heart and soul. Those who denigrate the validity of emotion in matters of faith, as well as culture, conscience and morality, insisting they are only distractions, present a stunted portrait of the divine gifts that God has given us.

Genealogical research reveals that the story of my family is inseparable from that of the Protestant Reformation and six centuries later, the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The first known historical record of my family name, Cotterel (French, meaning cottage-owning peasants in the Languedoc region of southern France) appeared in Luis Marie de Corminin’s “History of the Popes, Volume I.” In 1179 they stood condemned by Pope Alexander III, whose edict declared that “this family, together with all other heretical Albigenses, should either be converted or annihilated.” The succeeding Pope, Lucius III, embellished that decree with hellish machinations: “We order that they shall suffer the most horrid tortures, be proved by fire and sword, torn by stripes and burned alive” if they refused to deny conscience and submit to the authority of the church.1

The Albigenses and their spiritual cousins, the Waldenses, were the first Europeans to possess the Bible in their native tongue. They endeavored to follow its teachings, some observing the seventh-day Sabbath, but in the terrible crusades launched against them thousands perished. A privately published family history reveals that they were branded as heretics and martyred for their rebellion against Rome.2

A few escaped to other provinces and eventually found their way from France to England, and then to Newport, R.I., where in 1638 one Nicholas Cottrell settled in the new colony established by Roger Williams.

Through 11 successive generations of seventh-day Sabbath keepers, preachers, teachers, scientists and inventers, theologians, writers, poets, printing-press manufacturers, missionaries, evangelists, personal friends of You-Know-Who, Prayer Warriors, Pathfinders and potluck organizers the family pioneers came together to form the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Each generation has lent their talents to the cause of God and passed their blessings—and a fair amount of baggage—down to the present. If there is such a thing as Adventist Wool I have surely been dyed in it. So how could I have left the church?

Growing up as a child in the La Sierra SDA Church, and then as a young wife and mother, I could not imagine a time when I would not be in church every Sabbath morning, but the decades of the 70s and 80s were bumpy ones for this good little Adventist girl. Unexpectedly, into my comfortable cocoon intruded shocking allegations about Ellen G. White. Plagiarism? Surely this could not be true. I had been taught from childhood that she was inspired of God and that the Adventist church was “the one true church.” This scandal was literally unimaginable to me, and I was determined to hold on to my faith no matter what, but as I began to read Walter Rae’s book The White Lie I became so distraught I could not finish it.

Next I read Prophetess of Health by Ron Numbers, with more stunning revelations. Notes from the 1919 Bible Conference dropped like a stone into the pit of my stomach; Desmond Ford’s exegesis of the Investigative Judgment and the writings of other church contemporaries rocked me to my core. Into this maelstrom was stirred the continuing denials of women to the ordained ministry. Spiritually I staggered through one churchquake after another trying to find my bearings.

As a woman living in 20th century America my sense of injustice had been honed to an exquisite degree of sensitivity by firsthand experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. I was denied a good-paying job in the medical field because at the time employment regulations in California forbade requiring women to lift equipment weighing more than 40 pounds, the weight of the portable EKG machines with which I had been encouraged to work. At the time I routinely lifted and carried my 40-pound son and 50-pound daughter on a daily basis, but there was no appeal.

It was inevitable that I would become a feminist—down to the marrow of my bones—because my innate sense of right and fairness was routinely violated by the casual disdain of powerful men. With a healthy sense of outrage and in good conscience I joined other Americans in refusing to support organizations that discriminated against women. I shopped only at stores that would grant me a credit card in my own name, avoided joining groups where only men could hold title, and declined to do business with firms having ties to South Africa. Where was my place in a church that held to an official policy of gender apartheid, a church that ironically described itself as “God’s highest representative assembly and voice of authority on earth”?3

Hadn’t that title already been claimed?

To remain silent in a church that treated women as second-class members did violence to my self, and to remain a part of that church colluded in its violence toward others. Somehow my tithes and offerings were good enough for the church but I would be consigned to the role of less than and deemed unworthy by a quirk of genetics. Many times I struggled to reconcile the opposing forces that precipitated this dichotomy in my life. Discrimination of any kind is deeply offensive to me. Like my ancestors before me I had to stand up for what I believed.

I prayed and studied with other Adventist women trying to maintain their footing among these shifting sands. I spoke at length with my gentle father who wholeheartedly supported women’s ordination, as did his beloved brother Raymond. Family members, church members, ministers and teachers tried to help me make sense of it. Then in 1980 came the seismic shudder that was Glacier View. How precipitously it played out and how crushing to find out years later that many of the delegates did not even bother to read the materials provided by Desmond Ford prior to their vote to rescind his ministerial credentials. It was becoming increasingly dangerous to disagree with “the brethren,” and I struggled to sense my place in the emerging chill of church identity.

In 1994 Uncle Raymond wrote an editorial for Adventist Today in which he posed the question, “What shall a conference do when church leaders’ counsel conflicts with that of the Holy Spirit?”

Women’s ordination is a moral issue…believe it or not,
women are human, too. Like men they feel, and wonder—
Why? We require [them] to be superhuman. We accept
their selfless service and tell them we appreciate it, but
the shabby way we treat them belies our fair words.
Does that not associate us with hypocrites?

He presciently foreshadowed the current conflict by writing, “It would be immoral for the church in North America to require (other) divisions to ordain women. It is equally immoral for (other) divisions to attempt to impose their cultural mores on North Americans.”4

As a fifth generation Seventh-day Adventist I experienced gut-wrenching guilt when my grief and anger surrounding these conflicts began to drive a wedge between me and the church. In those years I was in real pain. No one I spoke with could cite a biblical injunction against women’s ordination, but the message of denial after denial was that women were simply relegated to second-class citizenship in the church. None but those who have experienced the sting of repeated rejections know how deeply that can hurt. But what right would I have to stay away when generations of family members had sacrificed everything, including their lives, for the gospel of Christ? I did not know how to give what the church required and retain my moral integrity.

It was inevitable that I would eventually read Betrayal, the story of Merikay McLeod Silver’s epic struggle for equal pay in church employment, and that sorry tale proved my ultimate undoing. After spending most of 24 hours reading her book, and quietly closing the back cover when I finished, I knew I could not go back. I was ashamed and horrified and humiliated that my church had to be dragged into court and compelled by a federal judge to comply with the law of the land that required equal pay for equal work. The weight of Merikay’s sorrow intensified my own, and it was more than I could bear. The church had broken my heart, and I had to leave before it broke my spirit.

The succeeding years away from church were busy with the challenges of college and graduate school, family, new friendships, and personal growth through exposure to a world of new ideas. My studies in literature and writing reacquainted me with the beauty of the language in the King James Version of the Bible, which many consider to be the greatest monument to the English language. It is my favorite version.

It was about this same time, as a university senior in English literature, I happened upon The Museum Store in Orange County, California, as I was shopping one afternoon. I wandered in to find among the costly items for sale an unpublished poem by Emily Dickinson, contained in a letter to her sister in 1864.

Her handwritten words struck like lightning and rooted my feet to the floor. Here was my spiritual dilemma—and that of the church—right before my eyes: “That God cannot be understood / Everyone agrees. / We cannot know his motives / Nor comprehend his deeds. / Then why should I seek solace / In what I cannot know? / Better to play in winter’s sun / Than to fear the snow.”5
For long moments I could not move or even speak. The clerk glanced up in surprise at my stunned silence, and I will forever bless her magnanimity as she allowed me to scribble those words on a scrap of paper. Why cannot my church joyfully “play in winter’s sun” rather than “fear the snow?”

About five years ago I had the privilege of visiting several times with my dear “Uncle Cal,” Calvin Osborn, the beloved pastor of my youth in the La Sierra Church, in his lovely home a few blocks from my own. He was very much like my own father, gentle, loving and patient. I spoke of the damage inflicted by endless arguments over jewelry, wedding rings, movies, clothing and other externals, Sabbath lists of do’s and don’ts, contentions on doctrine and related conundra that had destroyed my desire for the church. He listened patiently as I poured out my frustrations. One day he smiled and took my hand and said, “Patti, don’t confuse the church with God.”

Those simple words went straight to my heart and quietly exploded.

Slowly over time, despite my efforts to deny them, cracks began to appear in the carefully constructed barricades I had built around my heart. I was not yet ready to return to church attendance, but Philippians 4:13 reminded me that “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” I surely was a recovering Adventist, and one step at a time was all I could manage.

Earlier this year I downloaded the report of the 1973 “Commission on the Role of Women in the Adventist Church” and was thrilled to read their conclusion that there is no Biblical basis for denying women’s ordination.6 But I was heartsick to learn that the report had been concealed for 15 years from the members who long awaited the conclusions of its respected authors. It seems to me that secrecy, obfuscation and manipulation are not the leading of our Heavenly Father.

It would ultimately take another seismic event to capture me. This time the news was stunning, exciting and absolutely extraordinary! Reading online the accounts of the Northern German Union voting to ordain women, and watching via live stream both the Columbia Union Conference and the Pacific Union Conference votes to ordain without regard to gender, I was unexpectedly reenergized. I had no idea there were such men and women in the church. Could it be that perhaps there was one small space in the family for me?

It began to feel safe to think about the possibility of maybe coming home again, at least to a few local churches, and not even the threat of “grave consequences” would deter me from my joy. I cried with happiness as I listened to Randy Roberts, pastor of the Loma Linda University Church, explain in spiritually inclusive language why he supports the ordination of women. John Brunt, senior pastor at Azure Hills Church, spoke powerfully with tears in his voice on the blessings he receives working with the four women pastors in his church.

The prayerful and beautiful words and actions of these godly pastors, delegates and church members at the PUC meeting were spiritually electrifying. And I have to report that the hair on the back of my neck positively stood up and shouted “AMEN!” as Madalyn Palma of the Redlands Filipino Church challenged the assembled delegates with the words, “If we are a dynamic church—if this is a Movement—Move it!

So I moved.

The following Sabbath, August 25, 2012, was my first Sabbath morning in an Adventist Church in 30 years. I sat in the congregation of the Loma Linda University Church and could not stop the tears as the congregation sang the beautiful song “He Touched Me.” I truly felt the presence of God in that place. After the service I introduced myself to Pastor Roberts and told him how special that Sabbath was to me. I thanked him from the depths of my heart for the words I had longed to hear from the pulpit. It is impossible to adequately convey the overwhelming sense of joy and peace and acceptance I experienced that morning in such an atmosphere of warmth and inclusivity.

The next Sabbath I visited the Azure Hills Church and thanked John Brunt for being the kind of man who is not diminished by sharing the pulpit with his sisters in Christ. He is a living embodiment of the thought that Men of Quality are not afraid of Women for Equality. Again, my emotions made it difficult to express to him the fullness of my heart, and once again I knew I belonged.

The next Sabbath I visited my home congregation at the La Sierra University Church, the church my father helped build when I was 2 years old. I looked forward to hearing Chris Oberg speak that morning and I was not disappointed. After the service, I introduced myself and told her what a special Sabbath it was for me. I told her that my lifelong membership was held at La Sierra. She thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess that makes me your Pastor, doesn’t it,” and she threw her arms around me. My Pastor—Wow!—My Pastor, a Woman!

The sky did not fall.

Albert Einstein once observed that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. I am ready for a new relationship with church, one in which fresh, bold insights are applied, where people are not afraid to use their God-given intelligence to recognize and extrapolate the underlying principles of the Bible. I need to celebrate the Sabbath in congregations where spiritual and actual equality is a given, not a “gotcha!” Authoritarianism, secrecy and unilateral decision-making are not the ways of Jesus Christ. One contemporary author refers to that kind of entrenched leadership as “Bureausaurs…people who let policies, politics and phobias get in the way of doing what is right.”7

Intellectual honesty requires a willingness to discuss varying viewpoints and ultimately accept responsibility for differences of opinion, but General Conference leadership seems unable or unwilling to tolerate diversity of thought or practice. Are they afraid that people will renounce their membership in the wake of women’s ordination and find a Sunday-keeping church to pay tithe to? Their frantic efforts to derail women’s ordination ironically reveal the power that women hold and spiritually contribute to this church, and history demonstrates that the suppression of ideas inevitably leads to revolution.

The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 provides the perfect model by which to solve this 21st century problem. Why do our leaders continue to ignore it? Why can we not reason together and agree to disagree? It seems that the roadblocks of “culture” and “female egotism” and “male headship” are repeatedly strewn in the path of the forward movement of the church. These human imperatives against women’s ordination are neither reasonable nor compelling, and for the church to insist that Adventist culture and tradition are the word of God is an abuse of power that flies in the face of our God-given ability to reason. How can we criticize another church for elevating tradition over the Bible when we do the same thing? Like Galileo, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use.”

We dare not sever any from the everlasting love of God. We dare not continue to place church policy above the Gospel mandate and our duty to spread the good news of salvation using whomever God calls. His power is sufficient to protect and guide us through any storm. We must not stand in His way.

For me, the issue of women’s ordination is absolutely a moral issue. The Adventist church has always excelled at evangelism, but if the church in North America is to staunch the hemorrhage of current membership and regain its credibility it must be willing to surrender its mindset of exclusivity and demonstrate its faith in the promises of God.

For the future I hope that my church will actually begin to act upon the Gospel of Galatians 3:28 that says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” I challenge our leaders to dare to believe that doing so will stimulate a surge in membership, not a schism. I will visit those local churches where I feel welcomed as an equal and I will donate my time and resources where they can be most effective in revealing the love of Jesus Christ to a dying world. If that makes me a heretic, perhaps I stand in good company.

I believe in a God that loves me supremely and has promised to save me if I simply accept His free gift of salvation. Everything else is secondary. With bold new confidence I claim the promise of Isaiah 55:12: “For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace. The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

—Patti Cottrell Grant is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California. She is retired from Riverside County Superior Court where she served as a Family Court Mediator assisting families and children experiencing separation and divorce. She is happily married to Bob Grant and has two adult children, a daughter and a son.

1 de Cormenin, Louis M. (1859). History of the Popes, Vol. 1. Philadelphia: John Cotton & Co.
2 Cottrell, Roy F. (1965). A brief sketch of Cottrell family history. Published privately.
3 Adventist Review, Fifty-fifth General Conference session, July 8, 1990.
4 Adventist Today, Volume 2 Number 2, March-April, 1994.
5 Dickinson, E. (1864). Unpublished letter.
6 Commission on the Role of Women in the Adventist Church, 1973.
7 Cornwell, P. (2012). Red Mist. New York, NY. (Original work published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover edition, 2011). 

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