Skip to content

Schisms Then and Now


I was just a teenager when the North American Division, in league with the General Conference, produced a book titled Issues: The Seventh-day Adventist Church and Certain Private Ministries (published in 1992. -Ed.). As I recall, the document condemned, along with other things, the acceptance and use of tithe money by self-supporting ministries in violation of General Conference policy.  

To my family and other friends within the wider self-supporting community, this threatening missive was no better than a papal bull. We considered it to be further confirmation that the denomination was in deep apostasy. At the very least, we suspected there were Jesuits calling the shots at the General Conference. If this was not persecution, it was at least the precursor to persecution, we thought. What would the General Conference do next? Try to disfellowship everyone who worked for or sent tithe money to a self-supporting ministry? Suddenly, the more to fear from within than from without persecution scenarios were coming to life! Yet, we believed we were following our convictions and standing up for the right. The church was in apostasy and did not deserve our tithe. After all, had not Ellen White once sent her tithe money to retired ministers for whom the denomination had failed to properly provide? 

Fast forward a few years to 1994, the year that I entered Hartland College (one of the proscribed self-supporting institutions) as a first year pastoral evangelism student. Hartland was (and still is, I presume) a very spiritual place. My time there was filled with good memories, wonderful friends, and many spiritual highs. My appreciation for the Bible and the writings of Ellen White was deepened. Granted, there were some imbalances (e.g., some faculty tended to major in minors, and salvation as a gift was not emphasized like it should have been), but it was a spiritual stepping-stone on my journey with God that I do not regret. 

Is an Apostate Church the Voice of God?

During my four years at Hartland, I listened to chapel talks and class lectures and read books in which college faculty emphasized that the church was in apostasy. Speakers at self-supporting convocations around the country preached that the church was in apostasy as long as things like female elders, celebration churches, and false doctrines about the human nature of Christ were condoned by the General Conference. Implicitly and explicitly, the message was that the General Conference was not the voice of God as long as the church continued in this apostate condition.

Therefore, it was taught, the “storehouse” into which to bring our tithe was not primarily the church but rather any self-supporting ministry that was doing the real work of proclaiming the undiluted, historic Three Angels' Messages. One self-supporting ministry leader argued that not only did independent ministries have the right to receive tithe money, butthey must also take tithe if they were to be obedient to the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy.  

While many self-supporting ministries (like my alma mater, Hartland College) have recently fallen into line with General Conference policy and no longer ostensibly receive or solicit tithe, there is no question that many Adventist church members currently divert their tithe money to independent ministries deemed more worthy than their local conference. (It is also an open secret that some “supporting” ministries that do not publicly solicit tithe funds may actually receive donations of tithe money – unwittingly, they would argue).  

In the 1990’s, most of the conservative historic Adventists I knew were not concerned about following the General Conference as the voice of God. If General Conference policy required them to violate their conscience, they would gladly stand on their interpretation of the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy above any man-made working policy or church manual (and perhaps rightly so, I would argue). Calls for church unity were fine, but unity could only be achieved if it were based on Bible truth, they argued, not on a man-made policy that contradicted what they believed the Bible taught. 

The North American Division and the General Conference responded in kind by publishing their book Issues, and what followed was basically the severing of any working relationship between these “rebellious” institutions and the worldwide church. The result? Self-supporting ministries grew and flourished. Instead of silencing or destroying them, these institutions felt emboldened to do the work of God in the face of opposition and reproach. They were Elijah, maligned and persecuted, fearlessly proclaiming an unpopular message to an apostate church.  

The New Schism

Fast forward to 2016. Another schism is taking place in Adventism. This time, the divide is not between self-supporting ministries and the organized church but within the denomination itself. Some of the union conferences have chosen to allow the ordination of female pastors. They have done this because their constituency believes that the Bible not only allows for this but that it compels them to recognize the gifting of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life regardless of gender. They argue that it is a violation of their conscience to do otherwise. Sound familiar? But in this more recent schism, the roles have been reversed. The “conservative” General Conference is accusing the “liberal” union conferences of rebellion against the voice of God. The argument is that since the General Conference voted in session against allowing the divisions to choose whether to permit ordination of female pastors, unions that are ordaining females are rebelling against General Conference policy. Thus, these unions are rebelling against the very voice of God on earth.

However one may choose to reconcile Ellen White’s various statements about the General Conference being God’s voice on earth, one thing that I’ve noticed is that most of us tend to use those statements selectively and as a club to batter those with whom we disagree. When we happen to agree with a General Conference policy, it is the voice of God. When we disagree, most of us appreciate a little latitude to be free to believe and practice the truth as we see it revealed in God’s word. 

Which brings me to my point: The self-supporting tithe rebellion of the 1990s should be instructive for conservative Adventists today whose fortunes have been reversed and now find themselves “in power.” They should be cautious to join a bandwagon that seeks to quash a movement of conviction just because it goes counter to their beliefs and, coincidentally, counter to General Conference policy. If they do join the bandwagon, they should at least be honest about whether their concern is really about following General Conference policy (which, by the way also allows for female local church elders and female commissioned pastors) or whether it is simply about using their newly acquired power to quash the convictions of others and advance what they believe is the truth.

If the Bible clearly defined “the storehouse” or told us “thou shalt not ordain women or let them do pastoral ministry,” then by all means, we should take a stand and, if necessary, split the church over these issues. But the Bible does not say these things so clearly, so perhaps we should learn from our history and give others a little latitude on issues that God has left to individual conscience. 

Once upon a time, long ago, another movement of conviction challenged the status quo. Those in power moved to quash the movement, but a wise man said the following: I say to you now, stay away from these men and leave them alone. If this teaching and work is from men, it will come to nothing. If it is from God, you will not be able to stop it. You may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39, NLV).


Steve Allred graduated from Hartland College and subsequently "baptized" his heretical bachelor’s degree at Andrews University where he received a Master of Divinity.  He served as an Adventist pastor for 14 years before recently stepping down to be a stay at home dad and practice law part time.

Image: Hartland Institute (formerly Hartland College) in Rapidan, Virginia and the new North American Division Headquarters in Columbia, Maryland.

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.