A lot of people are angry. I’m angry too. The sermon delivered by Burnett Robinson on November 13 included an endorsement of marital rape and that’s horrific. But people aren’t solely angry about that sermon. People are upset about the culture that breeds a mentality that makes some believe this thought process is acceptable. Unfortunately, he is not an outlier. There are countless books and sermons promoting these same misogynistic teachings: that the worth of a woman primarily lies in her sexual value, either in her sexual utility within marriage or her virginal status before marriage. People are angry at a church culture that insidiously harbors these doctrines and preaches these messages—just without using the word “rape.” And people are righteously angry at denominational precedents of simply ignoring the abuses perpetrated by clergy. Sometimes these incidents go entirely unaddressed and sometimes the minister is merely shipped off to another unwitting congregation. So all of those precipitants have justifiably created anger and hostility throughout the denomination and beyond. Yes, beyond: this has reverberated not only through the Adventist community, but the wider Black community, the nationwide Christian community, and the secular community. This incident opened old wounds and reinjured some that were never healed in the first place. Those who see this as “one mistake” fail to comprehend the larger picture.
So with an incident that had so many social, ecclesiastical, and emotional repercussions, it’s no wonder that there are many fingers of blame being pointed. And I’ve seen many lists of demands in the aftermath. Yet there are limits to what can be done. In the midst of understandable indignation, some calls for action are illegal or impossible. Many of these requests stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Adventist Church works and the limits of the law. Let’s start by examining some of the justifiable grievances and then explore some of the misunderstandings about what can actually be carried out.
What the church got wrong:
1 - Hiring him: This is a failure of the Greater New York Conference. Robinson had a history of dubious behavior including an allegation that resulted in a restraining order filed in Florida. The exact allegation is unknown. Was the conference not aware? Or were they unconcerned?
2 - Not reprimanding previous behavior: This was something that should have been addressed by leadership in the local church. Robinson’s sermon was not an isolated incident. Former congregants of Grand Concourse reported that he has spoken in disparaging ways about women in the past. And previous sermons have expressed sympathy for known abusers. Despite having a penchant for sexist discourse in the past, his comments went unchecked for years. Although his church board and elders couldn’t have removed him, they could have either talked to him or reported his abusive language to the conference. Even now there are members who are in denial about the harm he’s committed and are petitioning for his reinstatement.
3 - Fostering Headship Theology: This problem is on the Church with a capital C. It’s ubiquitous in the entire World Church. Robinson is not a unicorn in his beliefs about women. He only said out loud what many church-going men (and women) sincerely believe. This gross misapplication of Scripture has permeated the theology of many congregations for a very long time. He only followed these teachings to their natural conclusion. If women are seen as unequal by administrators at the GC, why is it any surprise that they are considered unequal by some local church pastors?
4 - Taking so long to put out that milquetoast initial statement: The Greater New York Conference didn’t need an entire day to put out a statement saying “we don’t condone rape.” That should have happened ASAP. I am fully aware that Adventist Risk Management and other legal entities have to meet together to strategize. But if your organizational crisis response precludes you from immediately stating “our church does not condone rape or abuse of any kind,” then that response mechanism needs serious reassessment and revamping. Also, the division description of this as “unfortunate” made his actions sound accidental when it isn’t simply a mishap.
What the church cannot do:
While I’ve never been shy in acknowledging the church’s missteps (as I have above), there are some unwarranted criticisms that also bear correction. Again, these seem to stem largely from not knowing the inner workings of our denominational structure and legal limitations in New York. Here are some things I have heard:
1 - “They shouldn’t have let him resign”: You can’t stop someone from resigning. Unless someone is under contract, there’s little an employer can do to prevent someone from quitting. An at-will employee doesn’t need their employer’s permission to resign. There is no requirement for the employer to “accept” the resignation or any avenue to “refuse” it.
2 - “He should have been fired the same day he preached that sermon”: Conferences don’t monitor the sermons of every pastor in every church every Sabbath. That’s simply unrealistic. The conference trusts that on any given Sabbath their ministers will preach a non-heretical word that aligns with Adventist values. They won’t know something has gone awry unless and until someone alerts them. That’s what happened in this case. The Conference was first notified the week after his sermon. They were sent a clip on Saturday, November 20. The email was opened on Sunday the 21st. The administrators met on Monday the 22nd.
3 - “The president/administration should’ve fired him before he resigned”: Contrary to popular belief, the president does not hire/fire—the conference committee does. The conference committee is made up of multiple people, including laity who are not actually employed by the denomination. These people often have regular day jobs, families, and lives that don’t revolve around the church. Again, the email was opened Sunday, the administrators met Monday, and he was put on administrative leave. But before the conference committee was able to meet for any possible discussions about firing him, he resigned. There’s no realistic way the conference committee would have been able to meet and act faster than that. Some dear readers may be on the conference committee in your own conferences. If you were called on the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving, would you have been available to convene in a meeting that same day to make decisions about a pastor’s employment? Realistically, you’re probably not available to be at your local conference’s beck and call to talk about their employees at a moment’s notice.
4 - “They should take away his pension”: Just like at your own job, a retirement plan/pension is something you accumulate in conjunction with years of employment. As long as you’re vested (worked for a set number of years), your retirement can’t be taken away from you regardless of whether you quit or were fired. That’s just the law. His resignation vs. firing is irrelevant.
5 - “The conference should take away his ordination”: This is admittedly confusing if you aren’t intimately familiar with church structure. Unions bestow ordination credentials. Conferences provide ministerial credentials. Ministerial credentials are given for the length of your employment with that conference. If you leave conference A to go to conference B, you will no longer have credentials issued by A. Now they are issued by B. And those credentials have an expiration date on them. They are renewed every constituency meeting by the hiring conference for as long as that person is employed by them.
Ordination is different (this is why women’s ordination is a big deal … but I digress). Ordination is given by the union on recommendation from the conference that hires you. You can possess ministerial credentials yet not be ordained because you are hired by the conference. Conversely, once you are ordained, you retain your ordination regardless of whether or not you cease being a conference employee. Your ordination is not tied to your employment. The conference does not give ordination credentials nor can it revoke them. However, just as ordination is given by unions through the recommendation of the conference, unions can revoke ordination by recommendation of the conference. In Robinson’s case, the Atlantic Union has to decide what to do with his ordination credentials. The Greater New York Conference can make a recommendation to revoke them, but the Atlantic Union will be the one that will decide.
6 - “The conference should bar him from church employment anywhere”: The Religion News Service quoted Kevin Lampe, a crisis management communications consultant from Kurth Lampe Communication, as saying that Robinson “would no longer be allowed to serve a Seventh-day Adventist church.” That’s what everyone wants to hear. And that’s the demand that people continue to petition for. However, I’m going to tell you the truth: the Greater New York Conference has no control over that. Ostensibly, some other entity in another part of the world could choose to hire him and issue ministerial credentials to him if they want to. While we would all hope another conference would consider everything that’s happened before they even dared to think about hiring him, the bottom line is that each conference can hire whomever they want. We all know about repeat predators that have been fired from one conference and simply moved to another. Each individual conference has the power to decide for themselves. While this seems messed up, the alternative is giving another entity (the division? the GC?) the authority to tell conferences whom they can or can’t hire. Reflecting on that for just a couple of seconds makes it clear why it would be a bad idea. Do you want the GC president to decide who can be your local church pastor?
7 - “Wouldn’t revoking someone’s ordination keep them from pastoring another church?”: Again, you don’t have to be ordained to pastor a church. So technically even if his ordination is revoked, that doesn’t stop him from being hired by some other conference. Yes, this sounds horrible. But think of the alternative. If only ordained people could pastor, that would be a bad situation. And even if someone isn’t technically hired, they can still preach and call themselves an evangelist. Most famously, even in light of multiple reports of sexual misconduct, the disgraced Samuel Pipim left Ghana, came to the United States, and was welcomed by supporters who allowed him to preach and teach.
There are real tradeoffs to our church structure of having entities that are only responsible for their distinct jurisdiction. It’s beneficial that the hiring practices of the Southeastern California Conference aren’t allowed to be dictated to by the Michigan Conference, and vice versa. But in situations like this, it seems like a terrible loophole that allows abusers to potentially continue abuse.
These realities may seem discouraging to some. One bright spot is that Adventist Risk Management (slow and cumbersome agency that it is) will likely stop any conference (at least in the NAD) dead in its tracks if they consider hiring someone whose exploits have caused so many negative consequences.
And there’s one more powerful fail-safe. You! You can speak up if your own conference tries to hire or harbor employees that are harmful to the church. You are the church! Your tithes and your voice are important. Speak up when there’s injustice and call out predatory behavior and words. Don’t let predatory behavior go unchecked—hold abusers accountable
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
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