I remember it like it was yesterday. It happened in 1986 during one of my first church-related trips to the United States. I was staying in a guestroom of Columbia Union College in Washington DC. The day before I had bought a book that left me quite confused. It was entitled Betrayal and subtitled The Shattering Sex Discrimination Case of Silver vs. Pacific Press Publishing Association. The book chronicled the story of the court case between the Pacific Press Publishing Association and two of its female employees
The book provided a shocking picture of the way workers were treated in this church-sponsored enterprise and the absolutely, and totally, unchristian way in which two female employees (Merikay Silver and Lorna Tobler) were dealt with.
The manner in which the management of this denominational publishing house handled the issue (gender equality), and the way in which the General Conference (including the president) reacted, were so far below any level of acceptability that it took me a few days to recover my spiritual equilibrium.
Perhaps I have in the meantime become somewhat more hardened with respect to this type of experience, for reading the biography of Desmond Ford has not impacted me in quite the same way. Yet this book also bothered me more than I had anticipated. I knew about the book and for some time it had been on my list to buy and read it. Now that I am spending some time in Australia, I could borrow it from my host, and I read it this past week in between our touristic activities. The name of the book is: Desmond Ford—Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist and is written by Milton Hook. The author does not hide the fact that he is an admirer of Ford. But, although the book may have been written with a somewhat positive bias, it is very much worth reading and it offers a very detailed description of the many issues in which Desmond Ford was caught up.
Desmond Ford, an Adventist pastor in Australia, developed into one of the prominent theologians of the Adventist Church. For a good number of years he taught theology at Avondale College, some 100 kilometer outside of Sidney. He also became a popular author and speaker in Australia and beyond. From early on in his ministry he upset quite a few church leaders and members because of his insights that deviated from traditional Adventist theology. The (in many eyes) controversial views that he espoused centered on justification by faith and the nature of Christ, and on his rejection of all forms of perfectionism. In addition, many were unhappy with his approach to some of Daniel’s prophecies and with the way in which he expressed his doubts with regard to the traditional theories of the so-called heavenly sanctuary.
I must admit that I always had (and have) difficulty in getting excited about all kinds of theological controversies, and I am totally amazed about the ferocity with which many defend ‘the Truth’. Through the years I have gotten the impression that Adventism in Australia has been especially susceptible to fierce theological fights. Perhaps the commotion around Ford should be, in part, explained against this general background, and perhaps also in the context of the simultaneous issues around Robert Brinsmead. And it seems that perhaps Desmond Ford and his second wife Gill were at times too combative. However, all this in no way justifies the often vindictive and highly politicized way in which the Ford case was handled and the endless political maneuvering that ultimately cost him his job and his ministerial credentials. The Ford-story is a tragedy that has left a trail of deeply hurt victims, who often not only lost their employment, but also their spiritual home and even their faith.
Reading this book was a truly sobering experience. I have no difficulty admitting that I share many of Ford’s conclusions and I know of many colleagues and friends in ministry and church administration who also largely agree with Ford (although many are afraid to say this too openly!). However, reading this book did not impact me quite as much as the story of two lady-employees of the PPPA did over thirty years ago. Perhaps I now realize more acutely that the church is too often simply very human and that it far too often operates on the basis of human norms and values. Yet, it is important never to be satisfied with this, for—when push comes to shove—the church must be guided by the values of the gospel it preaches.
Desmond Ford is now an old man, but he continues to be active. He still has very strong ties with the church that rejected him and he is even today an author and speaker who inspires many Adventists with his gospel message of divine grace. It would be a great credit to the church if it found a way to rehabilitate him before his life comes to an end. Unfortunately, there are no signs that point it this direction, but Ford knows that, in spite of everything that has happened, he is still appreciated, and even admired, by many Adventists!