Sources of the Current Crisis in the World Church

Facing Doubt banner: Click for Reinder book


Written by: 

Much has been written already about the crisis the Adventist Church has been experiencing since the North American Division voted overwhelmingly in early November 2018 to reject the controversial decision that was voted by the Annual Council of the General Conference in the previous month. This article explores demographic, regional, and cultural factors that have contributed considerably to the emergence of this crisis.

The “Southerning” of Adventism

Europe was the center of Christianity for many centuries. Later, as Europeans became numerically dominant in such countries as the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, these also became predominantly Christian nations. As various countries in Western Europe colonized portions of other regions, such as the Indian sub-continent, Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the islands of the Pacific, and, as a result of its economic rather than political colonization, China also, various churches and societies sent missionaries there also. The colonial powers often encouraged this, for if the missions could help provide education, medicine, and social control to the indigenous peoples this allowed the powers to concentrate on their prime interest there — extracting wealth.

In spite of the energy and resources poured into Christian missions over many decades, they made relatively slow progress during the colonial period compared to what has been achieved since the colonies gained independence. The recent decades have consequently wrought dramatic changes in the global distribution of Christians. Two publications by Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (2002), and "The Next Christianity," an article published in the Atlantic Monthly in October 2002 summarizing the thesis of his book, were important in drawing attention to the extent and significance of these changes. During this period Christianity has experienced rapid growth in the Developing World, which includes most of the former colonies. Jenkins refers to these countries collectively as the “Global South,” and describes the dramatic changes there in recent decades as “the Southerning of Christianity.” In contrast, he refers to the Christian countries from which most of the missionaries used to come as “the Global North.” However, because this group includes Australia, New Zealand, and, for a time, South Africa, in addition to Western Europe, the USA, and Canada, that term becomes rather confusing. This article uses “Developed World” rather than “Global North” and “Developing World” rather than “Global South.”  

Table 1: Distribution of Christians, 2000 and 2025 (Jenkins)

The crux of Jenkins’ case is that the dramatic redistribution of Christians since about 1960 has changed the face of Christianity, making in now predominantly "Southern" (see Table 1). The blue bars in Table 1 show the distribution of nominal Christians in 2000: 480 million in Latin America, 360 million in Africa, 313 million in Asia — a total of 1.153 billion, or about 57.7% of all Christians were already located in the Developing World [Jenkins, 2002, The Next Christendom, 2-3, 223, extrapolated from David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., 2001]. Although Jenkins shows that the largest single bloc of nominal Christians (560 million) was still located in Europe, in stating this the word "nominal" must be emphasized, for church attendance there is extraordinarily low. This in turn highlights another difference: the vitality of Christianity in the Global South is, in general, much greater than in the Western World. The red bars show Jenkins’ estimate of what the distribution will be in 2025. He expects that by that time 66.7% of Christians will be located in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. That is, he expects that Christianity will continue to grow rapidly in the Developing World, and that the center of gravity among Christians will continue to shift sharply in that direction. Since his estimate is based only on expected changes in population and does not count gains or losses through conversions, the actual figures in 2025 are likely to show an even more dramatic shift. 

In his research, Jenkins focused his attention on Mainline Protestants and Catholics: he ignored Adventists. Nevertheless, his data and thesis reflect Adventist trends also. To what extent does his analysis of the significance of those statistics also describe the trajectory of our denomination? When Adventist statistics are examined, it becomes evident that its center of gravity has been shifting Southward even more rapidly than for the Mainline Denominations. That is, Adventism has been impacted considerably by the process described by Jenkins. Indeed, its growth and membership have become more highly concentrated in the Developing World than any other Christian religious group that I can think of.

Adventism originated in the U.S., and until 1870 all its members were in North America, for no missionaries had yet been sent abroad. However, by 1921 the number of members in the USA and Canada was surpassed by those elsewhere, and thereafter the home region’s proportion of the total membership continued to drop steadily, to only 8.0% in 2000 and 6.0% in 2017 (see Table 2). 

Table 2: Proportion of World Adventist Membership in the US and Canada, 1870-2017

Table 3 shows the extent to which the Adventist membership became concentrated in the Developing World between 1960 and 2000: by the year 2000 only 11.9% of the total was located in the Developed World. This process has continued: by 2017 this figure had dropped to 7.6%. (In this study the Developed World includes the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. The latter includes Western and Eastern Europe and the portion of the former Soviet Union west of the Caucasus Mountains. The Developing World includes all other countries.)

Table 3: Adventist Membership, Developed vs. Developing Worlds, 1960-2017

Table 4i compares the membership by continental groupings in 1960 and 2000: in 1960 North America still contained over one-quarter (26.6%) of the membership, which was still the largest concentration of Adventists; Latin America and the Caribbean had 20.5%, Africa 18.4%, Europe 15.2%, Asia 13.4%, Australia and New Zealand 2.4%, and the South Pacific Islands 2.1%. However, by 2000 34.3% of Adventists were in Africa, 33.3% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 18.3% in Asia, and 2.5% in the South Pacific islands. In contrast, only 8.0% were located in the USA and Canada, 3.1% in Europe, and 0.5% in Australia and New Zealand. This trend has continued since: in 2017, 41.0% of Adventists were in Africa, 30.2% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 18.4% in Asia, and 2.1% in the South Pacific Islands. However, only 6.0% were in the USA and Canada, 1.6% in Europe, and 0.4% in Australasia (see Table 4).

Table 4: Adventist Membership, Continental Groupings, 1960, 1980, 2000, 2017

Table 5 compares the large gains in the global “South” between 1960 and 2000 (1,748% in Africa, 1527% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1280% in Asia, and 1095% in the Pacific Islands) with the much more modest gains in Europe (88%), Australasia (107%), and the USA and Canada (181%) in the same period. This trend continues: between 2000 and 2017 the Adventist membership in Africa more than doubled (an increase of 112.0%), Asia increased by 78.7%, Latin America and the Caribbean by 60.8, and the South Pacific Islands by 52.7%. However, North America increased by only 33.3%, Australia and New Zealand by 20.4%, while Europe actually declined by 9.4% (see Table 5).

Table 5: Percentage Increase, 1960-2016, Adventist Continental Groupings

It should be mentioned here as a significant aside that the recent rapid growth of Christianity, and indeed of Adventism also, has not occurred among all predominantly non-Christian nations: it has not occurred in most of what has become known as the 10-40 degrees North window. This window, which extends from North Africa through the Middle East, Southern Asia, the former Soviet Republics in Asia, to China, Japan, and a good deal of Southeast Asia, has seen little Christian success at all in most Muslim areas, and little more in most of the rest of the region. A goodly part of this area is the most densely populated region of the world.  Beginning in the 1980s Adventists increased the funding designed to evangelize the inhabitants of this window, but these efforts have produced disappointing growth there.

Marked Differences between Adventism in the Developed and Developing Worlds

Jenkins declared that because there are striking differences between Christianity in the Developing and the Developed Worlds, the dramatic change in the demographic balance between those two worlds has created “a moment as epochal as the Reformation itself” (Atlantic Monthly, 2002, 56). In general, Mainline Christians in the Developing World are much more traditional in their norms and conservative in their theology than those in the Developed World. He notes that there is also widespread enculturation and syncretism among “Southern” Christians. Moreover, they are not as inclined towards the openness and tolerance that many “Northern” Christians have adopted towards a variety of social issues. Consequently,

There is increasing tension between what one might call a liberal Northern Reformation and the surging Southern religious revolution, which one might equate with the Counter-Reformation... (A)n enormous rift seems inevitable. —Jenkins, Atlantic Monthly, 2002, p.56

Jenkins argues that it is the "Southern" version of Christianity, already numerically predominant, that is likely to take over. The rift within the Anglican Communion since the American Episcopal Church approved the appointment of Bishop Robinson, its first openly gay bishop, in New Hampshire, in 2003 —that is, after Jenkins published his two pieces--well illustrates the forces he described at work. The bishops of the African Anglican Church have strongly opposed the decision of the American Episcopal Church.

Adventism reflects this process, both in its growth in the Developing World and in the sharply differing attitudes between Adventists in the two worlds. This was shown starkly in the votes on women’s ordination at the General Conference sessions in 1990, 1995, and 2015. Dr. Jan Paulson was the first President of the General Conference to express the significance of these differing attitudes: at a press conference following the 2004 Annual Council, he stated that "the question of how to reconcile more conservative forms of Christianity found in some nations versus the 'Northern Christianity' of many Western lands, is a 'big issue.'" Indeed, the differences within Adventism and the potential for conflict there are greater than in other denominations.

There are multiple reasons for such differences among Adventists. Adventist missionaries were often drawn from the more conservative and legalistic members in the USA and other parts of the Western World: the version of the beliefs and behavioral norms that they taught their converts was akin to what had been believed and practiced decades earlier in the USA.

They also embraced a colonial mindset, imposing foreign leaders there who identified with the political leaders who acted on behalf of the British, French, Dutch and Belgian governments. The colonies with non-white populations continued to have foreign church leadership at the local level until the locals seized political independence, and foreigners continued to be the leaders at the Division level for longer still. Consequently, few of the delegates to Sessions of the General Conference and to its councils in the earlier years were indigenous to the Developing World.

Adventists were caught unprepared when the African colonies achieved independence from their colonial powers. When the new governments insisted that active religious groups appoint indigenous leaders in order to continue to function, Adventists were forced to create emergency training programs for likely leaders because they had not previously prepared indigenous members for such roles. The initial indigenous leaders were consequently inexperienced and much more conservative Adventists than the leaders in much of the Developed World. However, the growth-rate in the Developing World usually increased greatly under the indigenous leadership.

Most of the converts to Adventism there were poor with only elementary education. Only a small minority actually received higher education, especially in Africa, because there were few Adventist universities there. While Adventist missionaries often founded elementary schools, they were slow to create institutions of higher education. For example, mission leaders in Africa often expressed the view that “the only B.A. needed by an African is ‘born again.’” In many countries Adventist missions were often concentrated in villages in particular rural areas — e.g., Adventists in Kenya are concentrated among the tribes located near Lake Victoria, in the western region of the country, far from Nairobi. Consequently, most Adventists in such countries were poor and slow to experience upward mobility.  Although a high proportion of the church members were young, few could afford to pay tuition or to live away from their home villages.

Nevertheless, a major motivation for paying attention to the Adventist preachers was the hope for upward mobility or at least the miraculous acquisition of “cargo.” In the Highlands of Papua-New Guinea I was told many times that “Adventists get rich.” This had earlier been a very isolated area, with no access roads, where wealth was measured in terms of the number of pigs owned. However, it was difficult to retain such wealth, for once a man possessed several pigs, he was expected to throw a feast that featured the eating of pork, the drinking of alcohol, and the presence and reverence towards the spirits of the ancestors. The Adventist missionaries, who taught their converts to refrain from the consumption of such meat or drink and from showing respect for the spirits, therefore forbade them from participating in such feasts. In this manner they unwittingly prepared their members to be among the first to participate in the money-based economy that the Australian authorities soon introduced. That is, Adventism prepared them to flourish. Another reason why Adventists there “got rich” was that their church established the first high school — a boarding academy — in that region.

Differences in Beliefs and Practices

Adventists in the Developing World, like the Mainline Protestants and Catholics there, are more conservative in their beliefs and practices, clinging to their understanding of what they were taught initially by missionaries. Adventism suffered, for example in comparison with Pentecostalism, from its failure to shape its beliefs, worship styles, and practices in ways that are directly relevant to local cultures. Adventist missionaries typically rejected indigenous music styles: almost everywhere I traveled I found Adventists singing translations of nineteenth century American hymns. They also chose to build hospitals and clinics rather than to embrace faith-healing; and while they taught about Ellen White's visions and dreams, they nervously rejected the validity of other visionary experiences.

For example, I attended the early service at the English-speaking church at the mission headquarters in Nairobi on the Sabbath before Christmas. I found the church building prepared for the filming and recording of the later service, for their service had been chosen for broadcast the following day. The congregation was using the Church Hymnal, which had earlier been the authorized hymnal in general use in American churches, and it sang the appointed hymns at a plodding pace. After that service, I was whisked to another service in a rented meeting space where a poor group of Adventists worshipped regularly. We arrived while they were singing their opening hymn — a Swahili translation of an American hymn, and once again sung slowly and without enthusiasm.  I was told that the choir director was away that day, so there would be no choral music. However, near the end of the service it was decided that the choir should sing for the benefit of their visitor. This time they sang an indigenous Christian song and with great enthusiasm. The contrast between that and all the other music I had heard that day was striking.

The sermon I had heard earlier by the church pastor at the Mission headquarters focused on why Adventists did not observe Christmas: he explained that there was no biblical mention of Christmas and no injunction to observe it, making it seem as if it was sinful to do so. Since this same sermon would be recorded at the later service and then broadcast on Christmas Eve, it was likely to ignite criticism among those who watched it when it was broadcast the following day. I found it ironic when I was invited the next day to a Christmas celebration organized by the American and European missionaries who lived on the campus: celebrating Christmas has become common among Adventists in the Western World in recent decades.

When I arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, the headquarters of the Nigerian Union, I was told in my initial interview with the Union Secretary that a major issue at that time was whether or not to permit the playing of drums as part of church music. The early missionaries had banned drums because they were used in ceremonies related to the celebration of the spirits of the ancestors. However, recently the youth and pressed to change this rule because drums were integral to indigenous music. The union had decided to allow their use under certain conditions, but when many older members complained bitterly, the church leaders had reversed their decision, and had again banned the drums. The Union Secretary added that some of the university students were attending Pentecostal services on campus because they enjoyed their music so much.

I made it my practice wherever I traveled for research interviews to arrange a meeting with the Adventist university students. The Lagos meeting was held in a massive clover-shaped chapel on the campus of the University of Lagos. In the midst of the meeting we were suddenly interrupted by amazing music sung a cappella in harmony, with hand-clapping emphasizing the rhythm — it was the beginning of the daily Pentecostal service. I wished I could stay in order to hear the music, but we had to move outside under a tree in order to hear one another. One of the questions I asked the students was whether any of them ever attended the Pentecostal services. Most replied affirmatively, and explained that this was for two reasons: they had originally been attracted by the music, but they now attended because they had learned there about salvation by grace, which was very different from the legalistic preaching they heard at Adventist services. They were careful to explain further that they regarded themselves as Adventists, and did not want to become Pentecostals, but they had been eager to share their new understanding of Jesus and salvation with their fellow Adventists. However, when they spoke about this in their Adventist churches, their pastors and elders accused them of not being true Adventists, but Pentecostals.

In many countries in the Developing World, especially in Africa and Latin America, there are insufficient pastors. Consequently, each pastor can be responsible for as many as 20 churches and companies. The pastors typically live in a house in a town while supervising congregations scattered among villages. Therefore, the churches are essentially run by the lay elders, and other lay persons, often women, are the main evangelists. The pastor visits perhaps twice per year — primarily to baptize those who are ready. This means that members and converts typically have only a limited understanding of Adventist beliefs — some key doctrines, prophecies, and behavioral norms are emphasized. There is little concern expressed for social issues there, unlike much of the Developed World.

The General Conference and the Divisions have long encouraged competition between the various divisions in the Developing World concerning the number of baptisms reported. A major result of this is that both pastors and laity feel considerable pressure to baptize newcomers. I found that in many parts pastors spent an inordinate amount of time traveling from church to church within their huge parishes on foot. Some Missions or Conferences offered rewards to the pastors who baptized the most converts. In some countries these were a bicycle, which could cut travel times considerably. The pastors were also aware that when there was a vacancy for a department head at the Mission, the pastor recognized as the most successful “soul-winner” was likely to be chosen. That pastor would then likely be rewarded with a motor vehicle and accommodation in the city. Given the extent of pressure on pastors to evangelize and train laypersons to do the same, the whole focus is on making converts: many pastors complained bitterly to me that there was no time after baptisms for nurture, for they then had to focus on recruiting the next batch of converts.

Such pressure is felt in all the divisions of the Developing World. It is so severe, that some pastors bribe people to participate in baptisms organized by visiting evangelists. For example, when an American evangelist came to a city in India for a “reaping campaign,” all pastors in the region were told to bring candidates who were ready to be baptized. One pastor who cared for a group of rural churches rented a minibus in order to bring the people whom he had listed as ready for baptism to the city; these were housed at an Adventist academy there. On the night before the baptism, which was scheduled for a Sabbath, a school administrator was surprised to see the group returning from a movie theater, smoking cigarettes. The baptismal candidates had supposedly been tutored concerning correct Sabbath observance, and that movie attendance and smoking were not accepted by Adventists. The next day, after the baptism, there were loudly voiced complaints when some of those who had been baptized made a fuss because they had not been driven around the city sights, which had been promised them in return for agreeing to be baptized. Various other studies, such as some in Central America and Africa, have found that some of those baptized as a result of Adventist evangelism are baptized again when a Pentecostal evangelist comes around. This was interpreted as an instance of taking out multiple religious insurance policies.

There has been almost no innovative theology among Adventists in the Developing World, and there is remarkably little questioning, even in the theology departments of the colleges and universities there. One result of this is that the preaching there often seems irrelevant to the needs of the members. Nevertheless, because cultural differences inevitably effect understandings, there is much less uniformity of belief than the General Conference leadership hopes.

I found, when I asked Adventist students at both Adventist and public universities in every Division of the world church what they saw as the “core of Adventism,” that what was chosen differed greatly from continent to continent. For example, while European Adventists placed emphasis on salvation by grace and social issues, in Africa it was most often on the observance of rules, especially Sabbath observance, and also on stewardship, since the General Conference was campaigning to make the African church more self-supporting. However, there was one other cultural and theological issue that really helped to distinguish the church in many parts of the Developing World, and especially in Africa and Papua New Guinea, from the church in the Developed World. This involved the spirits of ancestors.

The Fear and Use of Sorcery

The Adventist belief system is not nearly as unified as church leaders wish — and to the extent that it is more unified, it is then often less relevant to the members in their differing cultures. For example, before I traveled to animist cultures such as much of Africa and Papua-New Guinea, I had been under the impression, from my reading of Adventist missionary books and stories in the Adventist Review and other church magazines, that spirit-possession was relatively rare and that it was most likely to appear at baptisms, when invoking the name of Jesus would certainly cause the evil spirit to flee. However, when I arrived at Solusi University in Zimbabwe, my first African college, I was told that the administrators and faculty members were grappling with what had become a huge problem:  two students there had been possessed for three weeks, and no amount of praying and invoking the name of Jesus seemed able to drive the spirits out. 

Interviewees then revealed, over and over again as I traveled first in Africa and then in New Guinea, that many of them lived in fear of the spirits of the ancestors, but also used those spirits for their own purposes. Such interviewees included pastors, students, and laity. For example, a pastor in Africa whose large parish with many congregations obliged him to leave his home and family in order to visit them all, set up a shrine to the spirits each time he left home in order to secure their protection of his home and loved ones while he was absent. A poorly educated Mission president in East Africa who was worrying that the Union leaders might replace him with a better-educated younger pastor, sought help from a witch doctor, and was then chosen to continue in his post for a new term. Many Adventists in Africa made it a practice when ill to visit a witch doctor when en route to an Adventist hospital for help — an excellent case of seeking the protection of multiple insurance policies.

In Papua New Guinea I attended a conference sponsored by the Division for the many Adventist elected officials, where I met them all and took advantage of the opportunity to interview them. Later, when visiting the Southern Highlands, one of the churches I attended was in the village of Kabiufu, the location of the academy and a village that had been Adventist for several generations. I was pleased there to meet again one of the politicians I had met earlier at the conference. Later than evening, when the Mission president and I returned to his home, he received a long phone call from which he returned obviously disturbed. He had been told that the politician had died from what we would identify as a heart attack that afternoon. However, the village elders were convinced that this had been the work of the ancestral spirits from a neighboring clan, and were meeting at that time to decide how to retaliate. The president expected that the Adventist village would make war on the neighboring village, and that it was probable that some participants would be killed.

This information caused me to wonder how pastors addressed problems related to the spirits of ancestors in their sermons, and I included this question in many interviews. I was amazed when almost all the pastors I asked insisted that they never addressed such issues, but instead focused on "Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome" — that is, on the prophecies of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. When I visited Sonoma College, which was at that time the senior Adventist college in New Guinea, I made sure to ask an indigenous Bible teacher there what he taught about the ancestral spirits. He became serious immediately, pointed to a map where he showed me the location of his home village and also the various places where he had lived while pursuing his education and as a pastor and ultimately a college teacher. He confessed that he did not understand the spirits in any of the places apart from his home village, and consequently he too ignored that topic in his classes and focused his attention on the prophecies. Babylon and Medo-Persia are far from New Guinea and the concerns of its people!      

At a conference in 2013 that brought together church-funded researchers world-wide to report on their research designs and findings, a professor at the University of Eastern Africa in Kenya reported on the findings of a mammoth survey of Adventists from all over Africa. About 23% of respondents reported that they felt safe, as Christians, using witchcraft. That is, syncretism is widely practiced by Adventists with an animist background.

Church leaders became so concerned about this problem that they added a new point to the Adventist list of fundamental beliefs in 2005 that endeavored to address it. However, the wording of the new statement was so lacking in specificity that most Adventists in the Global South had no idea of its concern and purpose. The belief reads thus:

Growing in Christ.

By His death on the cross Jesus triumphed over the forces of evil. He who subjugated the demonic spirits during His earthly ministry has broken their power and made certain their ultimate doom. Jesus’ victory gives us victory over the evil forces that still seek to control us, as we walk with Him in peace, joy, and assurance of His love. Now the Holy Spirit dwells within us and empowers us. Continually committed to Jesus as our Savior and Lord, we are set free from the burden of our past deeds. No longer do we live in the darkness, fear of evil powers, ignorance, and meaninglessness of our former way of life. In this new freedom in Jesus, we are called to grow into the likeness of His character, communing with Him daily in prayer, feeding on His Word, meditating on it and on His providence, singing His praises, gathering together for worship, and participating in the mission of the Church. We are also called to follow Christ’s example by compassionately ministering to the physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of humanity. As we give ourselves in loving service to those around us and in witnessing to His salvation, His constant presence with us through the Spirit transforms every moment and every task into a spiritual experience.

However, during a public discussion during the conference of researchers eight years later, Barry Gane, from the South Pacific Division, commented that it seemed that the new point added to the statements of belief in 2005 had had little impact on the fear and use of ancestral spirits. He was aware that many students at Pacific Adventist University, now the flagship Adventist educational institution in Papua New Guinea, have bones, finger nails, etc., from ancestors in their rooms that can supposedly protect them or be used in various ways. I had also been shown some such things, such as a spike from the tail of a death adder, which a student swore could take him miraculously to his home village, which was really several days travel away, and bring him back to the college before classes next day. He also claimed that it had given him access to the locked girl’s dormitory at night and had prevented a student from crying for help while he molested her. Gane added that during the annual Week of Prayer revivals the preachers regularly call on students to cast these articles into a fierce fire alight in a barrel, and many they do that; but then these items “fly” immediately back to their rooms, where they remain available for them to use. The indigenous Under Secretary of the Papua New Guinea Union Mission confirmed that many Adventists there practice syncretism, both using and fearing the spirits. He had known many instances of spirit-possession among Adventists, and in some cases it had proved difficult to cast them out, for they returned again after apparent success, as they had many times to the two students at Solusi University.

Differing Responses to Social Issues

With Mainline Protestants leading the way, but with movements pressing for similar changes within Catholicism, churches in the Western World are pressing forward in a new Reformation which is making them more inclusive and tolerant, as seen for example in changes in gender roles and issues related to sexuality. Although North American Adventists have lagged behind the Mainline Protestants, we too are becoming part of this Reformation, as we have embraced major changes in the roles of women clergy, greater acceptance of members who have divorced and remarried, etc. As Jenkins would expect, Adventists in the Developing World have been much slower than Mainline Protestants to view many social issues as significant. Part of the dynamic among Adventists has been the role of an activist conservative minority in the Developed World which has realized the potential of the Southern conservatism, and cultivated it. This alliance has been important in the defeat of North American initiatives to allow the ordination of women and in the truncation of its attempts to update the rules concerning divorce and remarriage at the General Conference Session in 2000. Nevertheless, attitudes towards social issues among Adventists in the Global South are more diverse and complex than is usually realized.

The Position of Women

The most fraught issue within Adventism is that of the position of women, which has been fought out mostly in terms of whether women pastors are eligible to be ordained and therefore also to hold positions of leadership at the various levels of the church structure. Since moves to allow the ordination of women pastors have been studied at length and then voted down at three different General Conference Sessions, where the bulk of the negative votes came from delegates from the Developing World and most of the positive votes from delegates from the Developed World, this is widely seen as an issue where these two sectors differ radically in their attitudes. However, while this assessment is generally true, the issue is more complex than at first appears. None of the General Conference presidents in 1990 (Neal Wilson), 1995 (Robert Folkenberg) or 2015 (Ted Wilson) came out in favor of the proposition concerning the ordination of women. It seems likely that because of the respect for authority in the Developing World, the results of the votes could well have been different if this had occurred. In both 1990 and 1995 the presidents preferred to appear neutral on the issue. However, Ted Wilson, who was known as an opponent of women’s ordination, used that stance when traveling in the Developing World in advance of the 2010 General Conference Session, when he hoped to be elected president, to seek support from likely delegates. His hope was realized when most of his votes on the Nominating Committee came from such delegates. In 2015, when another vote proposing that divisions be authorized to decide whether women could be ordained as pastors in their territory was scheduled, Wilson announced his opposition to it, and withheld information from the delegates that could have changed the outcome of the vote. This was that a majority of the members of the TOSC Commission, which had studied the issue for the previous three years, had concluded that there was no biblical reason why women pastors should not be ordained.

I found that the attitudes expressed in various parts of the Developing World were more complex, and potentially less opposed to women’s ordination, than is generally believed among Adventists. For example, when I visited the South Pacific Division in the late 1990s to conduct interviews I was told at the Division headquarters in Sydney that although they were aware of considerable support for the ordination of women in Australia and New Zealand, the Division leaders felt they could not come out strongly in favor of it because the members in the Pacific Islands, and notably in Papua New Guinea, were opposed to it. However, when I went on to Papua New Guinea and asked about this matter I was told clearly that their point of view was that they would follow happily whatever the Division and Church in general decided. Indeed, some administrators and pastors there were clearly in favor of ordaining women as pastors. Eventually, as the issue became more heated in the World Church, the SPD joined together with several other parts of the Developing World in expressing support for the ordination of women. More recently, the church in Papua New Guinea itself announced its support for the issue; it has been appointing women pastors since that time.

As I traveled the world interviewing Adventists, I found women pastors and department heads in surprising countries as early as the 1980s: for example, a woman was the Director of Education in El Salvador at that time, and there were women pastors serving in such diverse countries as Peru and Zimbabwe. I was also fascinated to realize that many of the lay evangelists, and indeed, many of the most successful ones, were women. This was true throughout the Developing World, but perhaps most developed in Latin America and Africa, the continents where I would have least expected it. However, as the issue of women’s ordination became more politicized within the World Church, the women pastors in both Zimbabwe and Peru were moved on to non-pastoral positions. Nevertheless, women all over the Adventist world increasingly studied theology and thus prepared to pastor, and an ever more diverse pool of them applied to an independent organization in the USA for scholarships that would allow them to pursue graduate degrees.

Polygamous Converts

Early Adventist missionaries to Africa were unique in agreeing to baptize polygamous converts on condition that no more wives could be added. This was because of their realization that forcing the breakup of polygamous families could have a disastrous impact on the abandoned wives. However, the Adventist Church later flip-flopped on the issue because of criticism from other churches. The rules adopted at that point were (and still are) absurdly legalistic: if a polygamous man follows the church teaching, and puts away all but one wife, sending the others away from their children (since the children belong to the father’s clan in a patrilineal society), the father can then be baptized and is likely because of his high standing in the society to eventually become an elder of his church. However, if he refuses to put his wives away because he realizes that they would then be without support and that often in such circumstances they are forced into prostitution, he is then ineligible for baptism, but is invited to attend as a Sabbath School member; however, because his wives have only one husband and are therefore technically not personally polygamous, they are eligible for baptism! Since having multiple wives is a sign of affluence, this rule can have a strong negative impact on church finances, for such men have no obligation to tithe if they are refused baptism.  

The small minority of African Adventists who have received a higher education, often in order to become a teacher, pastor, or a member of the civil service, now frequently come to the conclusion that the church’s rules concerning polygamous members do not express Christian principles. However, the church leaders and older pastors there usually express support for breaking up polygamous families when the men are converted, insisting on that because they had been obliged to forgo the prestige that comes from having multiple wives. The younger educated pastors and members often told me that they hoped to change such church positions, and also those that limited the roles available to church women. However, the prevailing respect for those in authority has so far left Adventists in the role of breaking up such families.

Sexual and Physical Abuse          

Three different kinds of abuse are found frequently among Adventists: sexual abuse of both male and female children and youth by persons (usually males) in authority positions in churches and church schools; physical abuse of children by their parents; and both physical and sexual abuse by spouses of their partners. I received the greatest number of complaints about sexual abuse, usually from young women, in Rwanda, Africa. School principals abused students, doctors and hospital administrators abused nurses. This may have been intensified by the widespread antagonism and distrust between Hutu and Tutsi tribe members in the church as in society in general. This was so great that even in the later 1980s the church could not find an indigenous member who could be trusted to lead the Rwanda Union of the Church. It may also have been heightened by the widespread drinking of banana beer among church members, a problem that was so severe that one missionary told me that the church there needed its own chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous. The extent of such stories surprised me given the fact that Adventism was second only to Catholicism in size among all the religious groups active in the country, and that its strong roots there went back until the time of World War I. This was before the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994, when many Adventists killed and betrayed one another. Given what I had learned about the condition of the church there in 1989, I was not so amazed by the horrifying stories that emerged in 1994.

However, abuse among Adventists is not confined to countries in the Global South. It has been shown to be a severe problem in countries like the USA and Australia also. The physical abuse of wives is also common among Adventists in many countries. It seems to be related to a widespread belief in male headship and to cultural understandings that husbands have authority over their wives.

Missionaries have often taught converts in the Global South that it is the responsibility of parents to discipline their children, for the Bible teaches “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Consequently, following an influx of immigrants from Latin America to New York, I heard many complaints when I interviewed Spanish-speaking pastors of being called by members to come to their homes to explain to policemen that beating children was a belief of the Adventist church. This occurred frequently because the children of members saw notices in their public schools instructing them to call 911 if anyone beat them, and would then do so when beaten by their fathers. The latter had then explained to the police who answered the call that beating erring children was a teaching of the Adventist Church, and they then asked the pastor to come to affirm their explanation. Such discipline is apparently often very severe, for when a group of researchers studied Spanish-speaking Adventist students in American high schools, they found that two-thirds of them lived in fear of being maimed as a result of such parental discipline.

Members with HIV/AIDS

When the epidemic that would later be identified as HIV/AIDS first broke out in the USA in the early 1980s it was initially known as “the gay plague,” for its incidence seemed to be confined to male homosexuals. Unlike the earlier polio epidemic, when Adventist hospitals became heavily involved with those who were infected, who they regarded as mostly innocent children, Adventists saw those who contracted HIV as victims of their own sinfulness. Consequently, the Adventist church in the USA never became seriously involved with the epidemic there, and when churches discovered that they had a member with AIDS, he was often scorned as a sinner. In most cases Adventists with AIDS withdrew from attending before the fact that they were infected became known; however, several of their mothers told me that the attitude in their churches was so negative towards anyone with the disease that they felt unable to seek comfort by telling their pastors or the other members of their Sabbath School classes of the burden they were carrying.

As time passed it became clear that people from other categories also contracted the dread disease, and then it spread to other countries, initially especially to Africa, where it infected large numbers of heterosexuals. Nevertheless, since it usually took having sexual intercourse outside of a marriage to become infected, when I first asked a division president in Africa about Adventists there with AIDS, his immediate response was “AIDS is not an Adventist issue.”

However, this assumption proved to be false, for large numbers of African Adventists contracted the disease. This was primarily because large numbers of African Adventists regularly had sexual intercourse with prostitutes and others they were not married to. Moreover, poor equipment and practices at some Adventist hospitals also had the effect of helping to spread the disease: for example, when I visited Kendu Bay Hospital in Western Kenya the head nurse showed me their large supply of blood for transfusions, and then told me that they did not have the means then to check it in order to isolate donations from people infected with AIDS.

One of the first Adventist MDs to commit large amounts of his time to helping AIDS patients in Africa was Dr. Harvey Elder, whose initial experiences working with people with AIDS in the area around Loma Linda in California had led him to specialize in helping those with the disease. It was Dr. Elder who told Robert Folkenberg, the then President of the General Conference, that so many Adventists in Africa had contracted AIDS, including many pastors, officers at many of the church’s structural levels, and other church employees, that this was going to create a financial disaster for the Adventist Church. It was the prospect of this that persuaded Folkenberg to create a program there that would help care for people with AIDS and work to slow the spread of the disease.

Dr. Elder was also instrumental in persuading the African church leaders to sponsor a conference on AIDS to which one of the invited groups was Adventists infected by the plague. At that conference a president of one of the African Divisions told the audience about the experiences of a family member who had the disease. This encouraged others to feel able to mention that they too had Adventist relatives with AIDS. The conference also included a private meeting of African church leaders with Adventists with AIDS. At this meeting the church leaders asked the forgiveness of those with the disease for the ways in which they had ignored and humiliated them. This conference was an important step in changing the attitudes and behavior within the Adventist church towards members with AIDS.

Even though most the African Adventists with AIDS had contracted the disease through frequently contravening the sexual mores taught by the church, the Adventist church felt able to switch its position and to launch a program to help them. However, this was never the case with infected gay Adventists in the Developed World — too many of the church leaders in the USA found the thought of a gay Adventist disgusting, and they therefore withheld love, acceptance, and needed help. In contrast, once research made it clear that those treating patients with AIDS were not themselves in any particular danger of infection, the Adventist hospitals there gradually became more welcoming to such patients, even those who were Adventists. This became one of the ingredients that gradually helped Adventist doctors, teachers, and rank and file members to treat LGBTIQ Adventists with love and as normal human beings.

LGBTIQ Members

Homosexuals in most of the societies in the Developing World face discrimination and even danger. Christian churches such as Adventists only make is worse for them, rather than providing love and support. When in Latin America I often asked if there were any gay or lesbian members or former members I could interview; however, I chose not to interview them if I would have needed a translator. In Lima, Peru, I was finally directed to a former member who spoke English. He had grown up as an Adventist, and the church had been important to him, but after he realized he was gay he gradually ceased attending services because of the scorn he felt. He was surprised to learn from me of the existence of SDA Kinship International, an LGBTIQ support group, for while he had known several gay and lesbian Adventists, all of them had drifted away from the church because of the scorn they had received, and were now embittered with Adventism. He also told me about his sad life because at that time (1986) Peru was not at all supportive of its gay citizens. However, the society has become more accepting in the years since, and I am now aware of a staff member of the Adventist university in Lima who lives a happy life, living with a loved partner, although he feels he cannot flaunt that fact before his employers or the church administrators. Nevertheless, he has Adventist friends who are supportive of him and his relationship.

When I visited Buenos Aires in Argentina I was told about a gay couple who had been disfellowshipped because of their sexuality by one of the two large churches in the city. Even though this hurt them considerably, they still wanted to attend an Adventist church. They reasoned that since they were no longer members, they would be able to attend another Adventist church as visitors. They began to attend the other large church, which was located at the Union headquarters. However, they found that they were immediately recognized, and even though tongues were obviously wagging about them, they were ignored by the other Adventists who attended the church. After a few weeks an elder approached them and asked them to meet with the board of elders. There they were told very firmly not to attend the church: there was no place for them in an Adventist church, even as visitors.

Jamaica is a dangerous place for gay men: they experience a lot of violence, and the church does nothing to change or cushion that. A gay Jamaican Adventist came to the USA to attend university, and after his graduation he was so afraid of returning to the hostile environment that he applied for asylum in the US, and the judge at his hearing was so impressed by the evidence that he would in fact again be in danger if he returned there that he approved his application. He is now a U.S. citizen. Adventism is very strong in Jamaica. The current Governor-General there was chosen by the previous government — he was at the time he was chosen the president of the Adventist Union. Since that time there has been an election and a change of government, and the present Prime Minister is also an Adventist. However, these Adventist politicians have not done anything to mitigate the danger to LGBTIQ Jamaicans.

Adventists have also held high political posts in Uganda, Africa. Dr. Samson Kisseka, who prided himself on being an Adventist, was the Prime Minister of Uganda from 1986 to 1991, and then Vice President from 1991 to 1994. He was a close associate of Yoweri Museveni, who was the President then and continues to hold that position. In more recent years the ecumenical organization of clergy in Kampala agitated for laws that would make an already very difficult situation for Ugandan homosexuals (homosexuality was already illegal) much worse, threatening them with the death penalty if discovered. The head of the organization of clergy at that time, and therefore the main spokesman pressing for passage of the proposed law, was the president of the Adventist Union in Uganda. International human rights activists fought against this measure, and SDA Kinship International, the support group for LGBTIQ Adventists, which already had a group of members in Uganda, tried to persuade the General Conference to pressure the Union President. Because of the fuss among activists the General Conference did become embarrassed about the press coverage of an Adventist leader playing a key role in pressing for such a law, and eventually it intervened rather mildly. The issue continued on the high burner for months, until the Ugandan government eventually back-tracked on the proposal. However, Uganda remains a dangerous and uncomfortable place for gays and lesbians. The Adventist church there is an even more hostile environment for them. I have interviewed two gay Ugandans who were formerly Adventist pastors. One fled to the USA and was granted asylum, the other remains in Uganda where he heads an organization of LGBTIQ members that is also a non-denominational congregation. Several of his members were Adventists, but were, like him, driven from the church. Almost 100 of the members of his group also chose to join SDA Kinship.

In countries where homosexuals are persecuted and Adventists have held highly influential positions, such as Jamaica and Uganda, the Adventist Church has not helped create a more accepting situation. Indeed, the Adventist church there has been anything but supportive. Since Ted Wilson became President of the General Conference, he has created a committee whose task is to take action against homosexual church members: that is, Wilson has led the Adventist Church to be an even less comfortable and loving place for its gay members. He is reacting to the fact that support and understanding of such members has been increasing in the Developed World, and that students at Adventist universities and colleges there have taken up their cause, seeing this as perhaps the most important human rights issue facing the Adventist Church at this time. However, in most of the Developing World the environment for LGBTIQ members remains far from supportive.

Adventists in the Developed World have become much more aware of issues related to sexuality in recent years. These have now become perhaps the major issue facing the Mainline denominations — especially how to respond to the presence of gay and lesbian members, and whether or not to accept them as clergy or to celebrate their marriages. Adventists are much further still from fully addressing these issues because we have consistently failed to focus on social issues until after they have been decided by the Mainline denominations. It is therefore unlikely that the Adventist church in the Western World will effectively address the LGBTQ issue until the world church has settled the women's issue.

The Political and Financial Impacts of the Southerning of Adventism

These changes have altered, and will likely ultimately transform, the balance of power within the world church as seen in the composition of delegates to General Conference Sessions and in the makeup of the important Nominating Committee, which nominates, and thus usually chooses, the members of the hierarchy of the General Conference. The result has been a growing presence of leaders from the Developing World within the hierarchy. It has also created the likelihood that in the near future the person chosen as President of the General Conference will come from some part of the Developing World. 

General Conference Session Delegates

Now that almost all of the leadership of the Adventist Church at the conference, union, and division levels in the Developing World has been indigenized, the composition of delegates to General Conference Sessions has also inevitably changed. Whereas a large proportion of the delegates from the "mission fields" were formerly missionaries who had been sent there from the Developed World, now almost all are indigenous. Delegates from the Developing World have increased in number to match its proportion of the global membership. These delegates can now control the outcomes of votes if they vote together. This was demonstrated dramatically during the Sessions in 1990, 1995, and 2015, when the delegates soundly defeated items sponsored by the North American Division that would have permitted the ordination of women. These debates demonstrated that Adventists are divided geographically on both social issues and their understanding of the Scriptures, just as Jenkins has described the divisions within global Christianity.


For most of its history, the Adventist administrative structure has been dominated by people from the Developed World, especially Americans, who filled leadership posts from the General Conference to local missions in the Developing World. As Adventism became established in new countries, indigenous members gradually took over leadership posts first in the local missions or conferences, and then, in turn, in the union missions or union conferences, and finally in the divisions.

However, it was not until between the 1960s and 1980s, after the end of colonialism, that the leadership of many of the unions and divisions--that is, at the level of countries, subcontinents or continents — was indigenized. The first indigenous division president in the Global South was Bender Archbold, who led the Inter-American Division from 1970-1980. The South American Division followed in 1975 with Enoch Oliveira. However, the African and Asian divisions were slower to switch to indigenous leadership. The first indigenous African Division president was Bekele Heye, an Ethiopian, who was elected to lead the East Africa-MidEast Division, which was later called the East Africa Division, in 1980. It was only after that that leadership posts in the General Conference below the president began to be occupied by persons from the Developing World. The first appointment of a leader from a “Southern” Division as one of the six Vice Presidents of the General Conference occurred at the General Conference Session in 1980, when Enoch Oliveira, the president of the South American Division, was chosen. At the same Session Ralph Thompson, a West Indian, was elected Secretary of the General Conference, the second position in the Adventist hierarchy. In 1985, African students at the Adventist Seminary at Andrews University, who had been appointed delegates in order to save their Divisions the cost of additional fares from Africa, noted during debate that the Pope had recently appointed African Cardinals, and demanded that Adventists follow suit. This led to a last-minute decision to bring Matthew Bediako, a Ghanaian, to the General Conference as a Field Secretary, a vaguely defined post. He became the first African to hold a position at the General Conference. Fifteen years later, at the Session in 2000, Bediako was elected Secretary of the General Conference. Three of the seven General Vice Presidents elected at that Session were also drawn from the Developing World — from South America, Mexico, and China. However, only two of the other seven members of the Secretariat and one of the seven treasurers were drawn from there, and two of these three had long before migrated to the US from the Caribbean. Leaders or associates in four departments were also drawn from the Developing World — three of four in Education, two of three in Youth Ministries, one of two in Women's Ministries, and both the leaders of the Publishing Department; however, the other nine departments had no elected leaders from there. These changes in personnel at the General Conference presented a huge contrast to the situation at both Mormon and Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters — at that time neither group had anyone from the Developing World on its governing body. It is inevitable that an increasing number of the General Conference leaders and staff will be drawn from there because of the concentration of members there.


The huge growth of membership among the poor in the Developing World and a decline of interest in missions among members in the Developed World has undermined the long successful Adventist financial system where funds from the more wealthy regions were redistributed to support missions and institutions in the Developing World. Table 6 shows the decline in the value of World tithes and offerings per capita for the years 1950-2016. In the second column, the value of the dollar is constant at its value in 2016. Table 7 shows the huge differences in per capita income among the divisions.

Since the Adventist members in the Developing World are so much poorer than those in the Developed World, and their numbers are growing so much faster, the income per capita has plummeted in recent years, especially if the value of the dollar is held constant. That is, the income is being spread thinner and thinner. The North American Division continued to have great financial leverage even after it lost the numerical dominance in the 1920s because American tithes and mission offerings continued to fund most of the mission work and mission churches. However, this leverage is now much weaker, for the income per capita has fallen so low, and the North American Division has become increasingly reluctant to send a higher percentage of its income to the General Conference to redistribute. Consequently, the Church no longer has the funds to build and operate sufficient schools in the Developing World to keep up with the burgeoning membership there, nor is it able to maintain many of the hospitals it built in earlier decades.

The most significant source of new funds that are spent by Adventists in the Developing World are those used to support the projects of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). However, the bulk of these funds are obtained from government agencies in the Developed World, especially USAID. Such funds must be devoted to approved projects, which do not usually include expenditures on items that normally appear on church budgets such as funding the costs of church buildings, running church institutions, or evangelistic activities.


Meanwhile, an influx of members from the Developing World to churches in the Developed World is changing the composition and leadership, and, at least in the short-term, the finances, beliefs, and worship of the Adventist Church in many parts of the latter regions. People from the often impoverished Developing World have, during recent decades, been migrating in increasing numbers to many parts of the economically dominant Developed World. The US Immigration law of 1965 greatly increased the numbers of such people admitted here, and the flow to parts of Europe and to Canada began even earlier. Given their growing concentration in the Developing World, Adventists were inevitably included among these migrations. Moreover, the immigrant membership has in turn been swelled as immigrants have eagerly sponsored evangelistic campaigns designed to reach their compatriots, and as the latter have proved to be far more receptive than the indigenous whites to Adventist outreach.

Today the Adventist membership in England is mostly drawn from West Indian, African, and other foreign immigrant groups, and the presidents of the British Union and the North England Conference are from the Caribbean, while the President of the South England Conference is Ghanaian. In France, both Paris and the North France Conference have a solid immigrant majority, drawn predominantly from the Caribbean, and over half the membership in the Netherlands is immigrant — once again mostly drawn from the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean (see table 8). In Canada, the churches in both Toronto and Montreal are heavily immigrant, creating solid immigrant majorities — once again mostly from the Caribbean — in both the Ontario and Quebec conferences. Indeed, at least one president of the Canadian Union in recent decades was born in Jamaica.

Several US cities — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami — have acted as special magnets to immigrants. I explored the transformation of the Adventist membership in metropolitan New York in detail in 1996. Table 8 shows the racial breakdown of the membership at the beginning of 1945, when the totally black Northeastern Conference was separated from the Greater New York Conference, which became almost totally Caucasian — its first Spanish-speaking company had just been formed. Consequently, we know that the membership then was almost 60% Caucasian, and 40% black. Almost all of the latter would have been Afro-Americans. Table 9 reveals that by 1996 a dramatic change had occurred: Caucasians had fallen to only 2.7% and Afro-Americans to 8.0% of the total membership — that is, almost 90% of the members were drawn from "new immigrant" stock from the Developing World. Both conferences experienced considerable conflict as the leadership switched from a succession of white Americans to Dominicans and West Indians in the Greater New York Conference and from a line of African Americans to a succession of West Indians and then most recently a Haitian in the New England Conference. One consequence is that both conferences are socially and doctrinally more conservative than average in the North American Division, and certainly out of step with this liberal city: for example, the GNYC has finally appointed a woman pastor, which is something that the NEC has yet to do.

Table 10 shifts the focus to the North American Division as a whole, showing the changing proportions of racial groupings in recent years. These statistics were derived from tables released by the NAD Office of Human Relations, and I cannot vouch for their accuracy (if the statistics gathered from around the Division are as uncertain as they were in the two conferences in New York before I undertook my count, the totals are at best approximations) — but they do confirm that the membership has become very mixed. Note that the category "African Descent" in this table combines Afro-Americans, English — and French-speaking Caribbeans, and Africans.

The Future

The General Conference is committed to Adventism remaining a unified global organization preaching a unified message. However, it seems unlikely that either of these expectations can continue to be fulfilled, given the diversity of the global church and the shift in its center of gravity.


As noted earlier, Adventism's tithing system is breaking down and the funds are now spread too thin. Consequently, the church organizations and institutions in the Developing World are being forced to become self-supporting. This has "loosened the tithes that bind" and released previously suppressed resentments about the domination of America and the churches in former colonial powers that accompanied the funding. These resentments were brought sharply into focus in the sentiments expressed during the debates before the votes against allowing the ordination of women during the General Conference Sessions in 1990, 1995 and 2015.

It is likely that the election of a President from the Developing World will occur soon. There is already considerable unease in the US about such a prospect. When there was speculation that Dr. Jan Paulson might retire from the position at age 69 in 2005, several Americans in the General Conference suggested privately that it would be better if he would agree to continue on for a couple more years and then resign, so that his replacement could be chosen by the General Conference Committee, rather than by the Nominating Committee at a Session, where places on the Committee are allocated according to the size of each division. However, such a strategy could only, at most, delay the inevitable. It was feared that any “Southern” president would be more conservative and perhaps also more authoritarian than his Caucasian predecessors. Some would see the conservative, controlling presidency of Ted Wilson since 2010 as fulfilling that fear, since his main support on the Nominating Committee both in 2010 and 2015 came from delegates from the Developing World.

While the election of a Southern President would certainly be momentous, it is my hunch that it could well have positive results. I would expect that it would increase the pace of decentralization in the Adventist structure, so that national or regional churches would gain greater independence and the power of the General Conference would diminish further. If I am correct in this, the President of the General Conference would then become more of a symbol of both unity and diversity rather than a locus of power, more of a preacher and a source of spiritual encouragement than an administrator. If the person chosen were good at that role, he (I do not dare yet to suggest "she") could bring a sense of excitement to the position, and become a breath of fresh air. However, time will tell if a more decentralized structure could retain the sense of unity that today's leaders see as so important.


One result of the rapid growth of Adventism in the Global South and its contrast with the trajectory in the Western World has been that the churches in the Western World have lost power. Not only have they lost many delegates to General Conference Sessions, but Ted Wilson has also placed considerable pressure on them, as he has attempted to force them to conform to his desires. His determination to roll back the practice of ordaining worthy women pastors by some Unions in the Developed World has produced his recent extreme attempts to centralize power and discipline in the General Conference and especially in his own hands. Toward this end, since he knows he has little support within the Developed World, he has schemed to curry favor with the Global South. Even though it is well known within the membership of the General Conference Executive Committee that several of the union and division personnel from the Global South are not observing the rules laid down for them, he has ignored most of those issues and is said to have promised church leaders there that his administration will not make any attempt to enforce their adherence to official policy in return for their support in addressing the extent to which American, European and Australasian unions flout the 2015 reaffirmation of the policy designed to prevent the ordination of women. Since he lives within the boundaries of the Columbia Union, which is one of the unions which ignored his insistent pleas not to vote in favor of ordaining women pastors, he has emphasized the extent to which this issue matters to him by placing his membership in the only church in his conference that refuses to appoint women elders. Indeed, his insistence on preventing women from occupying positions where they are ordained is of such importance to him that, having gained support from many of the large unions and divisions in the Global South, he has recently shown a willingness to undergird this policy with measures that flout the consciences of many church leaders and members in the Developed World and thus to risk splitting the Adventist Church.

Among the factors that have helped facilitate Ted Wilson’s policy in this respect have been the conservative teachings espoused by many of the missionaries who brought Adventism to the region; factors, such as limited educational opportunities, most of the preaching, teaching, and evangelism in the region being done by poorly trained laity; a culture that has traditionally fostered the dominance of men over women; and then the dramatic growth of the Adventist membership in the region, which greatly strengthened its political clout within the decision-making bodies of the church.


Notes & References:

i. Table 4 combines what should have been two groups of columns, for Australia and New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands into one set, labeled “Oceania,” because Australia and New Zealand alone are such a small proportion of the world membership that they would not appear as columns. However, because their growth rates are more prominent, they appear separately in Table 5.


Ronald Lawson is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, City University of New York. He is the organizer of the Asheville Adventist Forum, started in 2016. Before that, he was a member of the Metro NY Adventist Forum for 44 years, president for 41, and before that one of the founders of the Queensland University SDA Society in 1962, president from 1963-65. Along the way, he has been an ambassador for local Adventist Forum chapters, taking initiatives to call founding meetings that successfully founded chapters in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, San Diego, Toronto, and Orlando. He is currently uploading his published papers and those written for sociological meetings that are relevant to understanding Adventism to his website,, uploading one per week with 22 uploaded so far and a total of over 70 expected when the project is completed.



We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.