Merikay Silver/Lorna Tobler and Desmond Ford


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!


5 thoughts on “Merikay Silver/Lorna Tobler and Desmond Ford

  1. Aage_Rendalen

    What was so jarring about the process against Desmond Ford was that church leaders were willing to sacrifice him overtly on the altar of tradition. Given that the SdA church, from its beginning, had fought against tradition in favor of a new reading of the scriptures, it was shocking to the many members who had internalized that belief to see church leaders condemn Dr. Ford for sins against a creed they were unable to defend from the Bible. In that sense, the Ford affair became a pivotal event in SdA history. 1980 was the year when Adventism ceased to be a movement and became a denomination among many others.

    Ford was primarily advocating for a Lutheran/Reformed understanding of “righteousness by faith” and “sola scriptura.” (It was this, incidentally, and not any controversy over the sanctuary doctrine that led him to leave Australia for PUC). Ford’s critique of the sanctuary doctrine was merely the outworking of these two Reformation principles; first, that you could not accept a doctrine that said that the work of salvation was not finished at the cross, and secondly, you could not retain a dogma that was not based on the Bible. If you did, you betrayed both the gospel and the Reformation.

    In my view, Ford was technically right (with the exception that Paul’s concept of “law” was not entirely in agreement with Luther and Calvin’s), but at the same time offending against the spirit of the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel, as it emerged from the first century, is based on the idea that Jesus, somehow, provided salvation for humanity and that this salvation is available for the asking “by faith alone.” Now, if that is true, why is it crucial to understand the underlying theology? If somebody gives you a car, why do you need to understand how the power train works?

    Ford, like Luther, brought great comfort to a lot of people who had been condemned to eternal doubt, if not destruction, by a theology marinated in perfectionism, but what I saw happening at the time was that moral perfectionism was being replaced by its theological variant. You see this reflected in Ford’s own assessment, quoted in the review above, that the end of all things would have been ushered in in post-apostolic times, at the latest, if the church had correctly grasped the nature of the Christian gospel. This, to me, sounds very much like magical thinking, of the the type that Ali Baba resorted to when he entered the robbers’ treasure mountain. A single password was all he needed, sesame. When his uncle forgot which cereal it was and tried barley and wheat, the mountain scorned him.

    Car owner don’t need to be auto mechanics, but they need to know a thing or two about maintenance, and so do Christians. It is for that reason the church has pastors. Ford did wonders as a pastor, and much of his scholarship was unimpeachable, but when theology (or any ideology) becomes self-referential, its usefulness is compromised. As a result, the Ford imbroglio was quickly filed away in the envelope of “Theological controversies” and ceased to have much of an existential impact on the church.

    But on the other hand, the heavy-handed way it was handled destroyed the General Conference as a religious authority. Ever since, it has often been nothing more than the SdA Vatican and a far cry from the days when it prided itself in being God’s highest authority on earth.

  2. Floyd Phillips

    As I read this I could not help but see a strong corollary to the recently published book Adventures in Forgiveness by Linda Shelton who has been treated even more harshly and for a far longer period of time than possibly the ones mentioned here. And though it is not the official denomination who has been behind her harassment and attempted murder repeatedly, both 3ABN and the denomination have been complicit in maintaining a solid front to keep her marginalized. I would recommend reading her book as a revelation of the grace of God and its amazing power at work in the life of one who has suffered needlessly for many years as a result of the corruption of people in love with power and religion.

  3. Gillian Ford

    I note that Reinder said that Des and I were both too combative, and I am curious to know why he would say this, particularly about me. The brethren said this and the rumour persists, but does that make it true? There were a lot of rumours that went around Australia and Glacier View about me, and it took me years to find out what they were about because nobody ever talked to me about it directly. I was believed to be colluding with Robert Brinsmead and calling him by phone from Glacier View. This was not true at all, but John Brinsmead had told the Australasian Division president that it was. The brethren took it as fact but never discussed it with me. It took eight years after Glacier View to find out what had happened. There is written documentary evidence of what I am saying by both a Division leader and by Robert Brinsmead. Des was fired because he challenged traditional Adventism. But the idea of a Ford-Brinsmead alliance was the method by which Des was despatched on the Friday afternoon. In fact, there was a Parmenter-Brinsmead alliance.

    I did write to Neal Wilson in defence of Des while at Washington before Glacier View, and I did talk to him in his office. I also talked to a lot of the scholars while at Glacier View. I defended Des because I felt he was being treated wrongly, but I doubt I was combative. The denomination needed to be challenged. I can’t see anybody else has challenged it much since.

    I take no offence at what Reinder says. I probably am combative for a woman, and I am more interested in theology than most of my women friends. But I have studied history and know that much of what is printed as fact is rather rumour. Therefore I have given my point of view for readers to consider.

    1. Reinder Bruinsma

      Thank you for responding. My blog was certainly not an exhaustive treatment of the entire issue. My remark about ‘combativeness’ was solely based on my reading of Milton Hook’s book. It does not reflect any negative feelings or thoughts about you or your husband at all. If anything, my blog was intended to express my frustration at the way the church tends tlo handle people who challenge traditional thinking, while, in fact, this is what our church needs more than anything. Warm greetings to you and your husband.

      1. Gillian Ford

        I might add that when Des read your piece he had a different experience and enjoyed the article and thanks you for it. In fact it reminded him of some things he needs to address in a meeting at Morisset in New South Wales in which he will be referring to women’s ordination. He read to me parts of Milton’s book that portrayed us as combative, so he agrees with you. He couldn’t understand my reaction, but it was only on the one point and has to do with the rumours that flew around Australia and Glacier View about things I was supposed to have done re: Robert Brinsmead and didn’t. A sore point, but you weren’t to know.

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