A remarkable conflict

I know Gilbert Valentine as a sharp historian and talented author. I am thinking in particular of his book The Prophets and the Presidents (Pacific Press, 2011), in which he offers a fascinating account of the rather complicated relationship between Ellen G. White and three of the presidents of the worldwide Adventist Church in her days. The book paints a very human picture of Ellen White, her feelings for certain person and the manner in which she often tried to influence—or even to manipulate—the decision making process of the church.

A week or so ago I saw another book of his for the first time, hidden in a corner on a shelf in the Adventist Book Center in Melbourne: The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage. The subtitle clearly defines the topic of the book: Issues in the Conflict for Control of the Ellen G. White Publications, 1930-1939. It was published in 2006 by the college in Thailand where Valentine taught theology at the time.

Gilbert Valentine details in this book the history of the conflict between church leadership and those who were responsible for the care for the literary heritage of Ellen White after her death in 1915. This did not only concern the rights of her books that were published during her life, but also a great number of letters, diaries and other, hitherto never published, documents. Some aspects of her last will were rather unclear on the question who would inherited the unpublished manuscripts and who would, therefore, make the decisions about a possible future publication of them. In any case, Willen C. White—the oldest son of Ellen White who had been named in the will as one of the trustees who were to care for the writings after her death—saw himself as the legal owner of at least part of her literary heritage. He, therefore, felt that he could make the decision about any further publication. Top church leadership vehemently disagreed and preferred that there would be no further publications besides the books, etc that had been published during Ellen White’s life.

The matter was further complicated by the fact that Ellen White had a very considerable debt at the moment of her death, which could not be covered by the assets she left behind. The leaders of the church were unwilling to take on this responsibility and forced the heirs to temporarily hand the assets (as e.g. her home in California) over into the custody of the church, until sufficient royalties from the sale of her books would have been received to clear the debt.

Those who want to read the full story of the (at times quite bitter) controversy between the trustees of Ellen White’s literary heritage and the church, should read Valentine’s book. For most readers of the blog it might be difficult to lay their hands on a copy of this book. I looked in vain for it on amazon.com and on the website of the Adventist Book Center. However, I discovered that the book may be downloaded from: http://www.restoringtheoldpaths.com/uploads/Struggle_for_the_prophetic_heritage__2_.pdf.

Some readers may find the book quite disconcerting. How was it possible that it would not be until 1939 that a satisfactory solution was found for the question what to do with the unpublished documents, since this was a major cause for conflict? Repeatedly William White emerges from the story as a rather stubborn person who had a difficulty realizing that the work of Ellen White was the communal ‘possession’ of the church, rather than the private property of his family.

I thought that I am rather well informed about most aspects of the history of Adventism, but this book filled a definite gap in my knowledge. However, it did not worry me unduly. Ellen White was not a saint, nor were her sons. And the church leaders that feature in Valentine’s account were also far from perfect. But this also applies to most of us today, and certainly to me personally. But in spite of this we may gratefully acknowledge that we are part of something bigger than us as individuals and may trust that our good Lord still wants to use us—with our gifts and talents but also with our imperfections and stubbornness.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Between doubt and faith

 

[Melbourne, 29 January, 2016] I instantly mistrust people who tell me they never had (or have) any doubts. And I am not referring to the kind of doubt that they may have about what they will wear today, or what food they will put on tonight’s table. I am talking about doubt with regard to issues of faith.

Faith never offers absolute certainty. Faith is hoping, expecting, trusting. It is a strange mix of certainty and uncertainty that is not based on hard scientific evidence. It is, therefore, not so strange that many find it difficult to continue to believe or may even lose their faith at a certain point in time.

Ryan Bell, a former ministers of the Adventist Church in Hollywood (USA), decided to experiment with his faith. He wanted to live as an atheist for a year. He did not know where that might lead him or how it might change him. It was obviously not something he thought of one day and then implemented the next day. I know only snippets of his personal history, from remarks by people who know him, but I suspect that his decision came at the climax of a long and complex process. By now two years have passed since he began his experiment. He often writes about his experience and gives talks about it. Many seem to be interested in what has been happening to him. By now it is clear that he did not abrogate his experiment after twelve months. As far as I have been able to ascertain from a distance it seems to me that he has completely (and for ever?) given up on his faith.

From time to time I see the name of Ryan Bell pop up. This week, for instance, I happened to see it as I was reading the small, 120-page book Why I Try to Believe. I had bought it in the Adventist Book Center that is located in the office of the Victoria Conference of the Adventist Church in Melbourne. (I should say that I much more enjoyed my visit to another bookstore that belongs to the Kooron-chain of first class christian bookstores in Australia.) The book has been written by Nathan Brown, the editor and manager of the Adventist publishing house in Australia. I met Nathan a few years ago during another visit to Australia and I hope to see him again before my present vacation ‘down under’ comes to an end.

The preface of Nathan Brown’s book is written by Ryan Bell. Nathan and Ryan have been friends for many years. Nathan acknowledges that he also has many doubts, but he has very intentionally chosen another route than his friend Bell. He does not want to abandon his faith, but wants try to believe in spite of his many doubts and uncertainties, and he hopes that his openness and honesty will stimulate many readers to give faith a new chance in their life. I read the book with strong interest and will fondly recommend it to some of my friends!

Reading this book confirmed in me the plan that, for the past four or five weeks, has been slowly acquired a more definite form in my thinking:  to write a book that especially targets people who are in the margin of the church—those who are about to leave and those who have recently left. In the past few months I have met and talked with a significant number of people who told me about their doubts and uncertainties—concerning their faith in God or their relationship with their church. A considerable number of Adventists have told me how exceedingly troubled they are because of certain trends in the church—in the Netherlands, but also in the Adventist world church. I share with them many of the same feelings and questions, and sometimes I wonder whether I can stay with my church. So far I have (just as Nathan Brown) concluded that it continues to be worthwhile to stick to my faith in God and that I continue to have good reasons to consider the Adventist Church as my spiritual home. At times this is not easy, but I believe I may be able to help some people to also remain on the path of faith.

In the past few weeks I have created a provisional outline for such a book. It have shown the outline to a few people who have encouraged me to pursue this project. Reading Nathan Brown’s book had given me further impetus.

There are some difficulties to consider. I have yet to decide whether I will write the book in Dutch or in English. And, of course, I must embark on some intensive thinking and reading. (Writing the book may actually be the easiest part.) And I must face another important issue. Is there a publisher in the Adventist Church that will dare to publish such a book? But, as I said, the plan is getting a clearer shape. There are other projects on which I hope to work in 2016, but chances are that this project may be realized in the next 12-18 months!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

A time for inspiration

 

At the beginning of this week my wife Aafje and I were busy packing our suitcases in Zeewolde. Now, at the end of the week, we are sitting—after a stop-over of some 36  hours and a very long flight—on a comfortable couch in a  very nice home in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Our jetlag is still bothering us a little, but the worst is over.

The next few weeks we will be the guests of Peter Roennfeldt en his wife Judy. Peter and I were close colleagues when we both worked for a number of years in the office of the Trans-European Division in the UK—the regional office of the Adventist Church for a sizable part of Europe and, at the time, also the Middle-East and even Pakistan. Peter carried some important assignments. One of these was to provide support for the almost 1.000 pastors in our territory. He also coordinated the so-called Global Mission program—the outreach activities that targeted areas and people groups that thus far had remained mostly ‘unreached’ by the church. Another major part of his work was dedicated to church-growth (specifically: church planting) activities.

When I look back at the last twenty years or so, and try to list the people and activities that were most important for European Adventism, Peter’s name emerges quite quickly. In the 1960s and 1970s the Adventist Church in Europe went through a phase in with church growth (certainly in the western countries) stagnated and many church leaders at the national and local level were at a loss to find ways of reaching the increasingly secular population with their message. In many places this resulted in a sense of frustration and loss of hope. Peter played an extremely important role in reversing this downward spiral.

Pastor Peter Roennfeldt succeeded in inspiring many ministers and other church members in quite a few countries in Europe and guided them into the launching of many ‘church plants’. In the Netherlands he inspired, in particular, pastor Rudy Dingjan, besides many others. This was the start of a process that led, over the years, to the launching of some 25 different groups (‘plants’), several of which have by now attained the status of a recognized church. Part of the credit should, no doubt, also go to the positive—moral and financial—support of the Netherlands Union.

Through the years I have kept in touch with Peter. When a few years ago I served for some 18 months as the interim-president of the church in Belgium and Luxembourg, Peter was willing to come three times for an intense program of visitation of the churches and of consultations with the ministerial work force. His contribution was essential at that time and was much appreciated,.

Since a few years Peter is officially retired, but he continues to be extremely active and still inspires and equips groups of pastors, in many countries, within and outside of the Adventist Church.

I look forward to spending a few weeks together. No doubt, we will see a lot in around Melbourne, for Peter and Judy are very enterprising. But I also look keenly forward to the many discussions Peter and I will have. I have always found talking with Peter both challenging and inspiring. He has often given me valuable ideas and renewed energy to do the things that I yet would like to accomplish in this phase of my life/work. The physical experience of relaxing in a totally different environment will do me much good, but the interaction with regard to the ideals and things that are important to us, will be at least as valuable!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Advertising

 

The Remonstrant Church in the Netherlands is a small Protestant denomination that owes it its origin to the 17th century controversy over the doctrine of predestination versus man’s free will. Some time ago it launched a significant poster campaign to promote itself. Shortly, it will now start with a series of 20-second radiospots that are also intended to draw people to the Remonstrant Church. In these spots a pastors of this denomination will very briefly announce what he will preach about the coming Sunday.

Does this form of religious promotion have any tangible results? The Remonstrants are convinced it does. In recent years their membership slowly but consistently decreased. But last years over 300 new names could be added to their membership lists. This is a remarkable growth, considering the fact that de church has only about 5.000 members.

The announcement that these spots will soon begin airing, made me wonder whether  the time may have come that my church in my country should also seek more publicity. Fact is that the Remonstrant Church is much better known than the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Why would hat be? Is it perhaps our somewhat cumbersome name? That, I think, does not fully explain it. There are more denominations with uncommon names. Take e.g. Restored Apostolic Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Liberated Reformed (a literal translation of ‘Vrijgemaakt Gereformeerden’). Other unusual names could be added. And let’s face it: the name ‘Remonstrant would not be immediately clear either to people who hear it for the first time.

It is certainly not the size of its membership base that explains that the Remonstrant Church is relatively well-known and respected. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands has more members than the Remonstrant Church. Also, Adventism is found everywhere in the world, while the Remonstrant denomination is an exclusively Dutch phenomenon. The percentage of Remonstrant people who regularly attend church is so problematic that in several places they have decided to worship together with small groups of ‘Doopsgezinden’ (a small denomination with Mennonite roots). On Saturday you will find many more Adventists in their churches that you will find at any Sunday in the Remonstrant pews.

Do the Remonstrants owe last year’s membership increase to a very attractive theology? This may explain it, but only to some extent. Remonstrants are very liberal in their theology and utterly tolerant. Members may write their own confession of faith! This apparentlyappeals to some people, who experienced a lack of space and freedom in their previous spiritual home. But it does not seem to provide a full explanation. Extensive research (also in western countries) has shown that those churches that are still growing tend to be denominations that require quite a lot from their members.

Back to the question: Would advertising be useful for our church? In any case, it would make more people aware of our existence and could help in positively influencing the image of our church. Yes, maybe Seventh-day Adventists in the Netherlands should seriously think about launching a series of public messages that make people think.

Unfortunately most Dutch people know nothing or very little about Adventists. And most of those who have heard the name do not have the foggiest idea what Adventiss stand for. And, regretfully, those who know something about Adventism, often have a rather negative picture. The sad reality is that we are often better known for what we do not (‘are not allowed to’) do, that for what we do and for the values we promote and try to live bn.

Of course, our collective reputation is to a large degree dependent on how each individual members, in his/her own sphere, in words and actions, communicates his/her faith. Most of us should do better in making people curious to know more about our insights and views on God, and on society and the world. And this applies certainly also to myself.

However, I believe it is time to see some collective action. I hope my church will decide to let people more clearly know that we exist and to convince them that we have really something worthwhile to tell them!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment