Your friend Jan . . .

 

A week ago Jan T. Knopper died in far-away Australia. He lived to be 91 years. Jan Knopper was a Dutchman. He worked his entire working life in the publishing branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as coordinator of literature evangelism. First in the Netherlands, then in Kongo in Africa. After this he served in Northern-Europe and Australia. And in his retirement he spent a significant  period in Russia as a volunteer.

I knew him from the time when he worked in the Netherlands. Later I met him from time to time when he furloughed in his home country, together with his wife Reintje. To be honest: I did not like him at that time. He was theologically extremely conservative and was rather harsh in his judgments of other people and of events in the church that he did not like. Nonetheless, I have kept on a intense e-mail correspondence with him during the past four years. They always ended with the words: Your friend Jan.

People who know me and also have known Jan Knopper may be rather amazed when they hear that we were in very regular contact. For we are a somewhat unexpected duo: An arch-conservative man (of another generation) in far-away Australia and someone who is seen by some (probably with some justice) as rather liberal.

In 2011 I was in Australia to give a few lectures during a conference that was organized by Avondale  College—the Australian Seventh-day Adventist institution of higher learning. Jan Knopper lived just a few kilometers away from this place, at some 120 kilometers from  Sydney. He sent word to me that he hoped I would pay him a visit. With some reluctance I drove to his retirement home. I hoped I would be able to get away after less than an hour, but it became a five-hour visit.

I visited Jan at a crisis moment in his life. His wife Reintje was to be admitted in a care home the very next day. After a long life together they were now to be separated. The man who once appeared so unapproachable to be, now was very vulnerable and needed someone with whom he could share his devastation. He did almost all of the talking that afternoon. A few days later he sent me an e-mail to thank me that I had come to be with him and his wife. He was very grateful that I had offered a listening ear. It had done him a lot of good at that difficult moment in his life.

After this visit somehow our e-mail correspondence started. He wrote me about lots of things that he disagreed with. At times he had heard (through very conservative channels) about the terrible things that were happening in the Dutch Adventist Church. I responded by asking him to consider whether he had heard the full story, and whether he might have received rather one-sided information. I told him about the many positive things that are happening in the Dutch church. He was a staunch admirer of Ted. N.C. Wilson, the president of the Adventist world church since 2010. I told him I did not share in this adoration and why this was the case. He totally disagreed with my (what he considered) too ecumenical views. He believed I was far too vague in my interpretation of Daniel and the Revelation. For him the pope remained the ‘little horn’ whom we should carefully watch. Of course, Jan Knopper was also a fervent opponent of women’s ordination. And he was totally against any recognition of homosexuality as a legitimate option and any acceptance of such an ‘abomination’ in the church.

I responded to him—at times very carefully, but more often quite clearly. In most cases he continued to disagree. But gradually my respect and sympathy for him grew and I answered his mails at some length. It happened occasionally that he was willing to revise his views a little, but that did not happen very often. However, he continued to correspond with me and gradually, I suppose, he came to see me as someone who wholeheartedly wants to serve the church and wants to live his faith in an authentic way, in spite of the fact that I had (in his eyes) some very terrible liberal ideas. This enabled him to always end his mails to me by wishing me God’s blessings and by signing with: Your friend Jan.

What occurred in the past four years between Jan Knopper and me is a small illustration of how people who deeply disagree, and are unable to convince each other with their arguments, may nonetheless have a ‘brotherly’ and friendly relationship, in which they can keep the dialogue going. If that is possible at the individual level, it should also be possible for groups that differ theologically within the church. Listening with respect is the keyword. I recognize that this may be somewhat more complicated on the collective level than between between individuals. But we can all make a small beginning in the personal contacts we have. That this may work a miracle is demonstrated in the correspondence between myself and my ‘friend Jan’.

 

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YES

 

It is one week since San Antonio. This dust is beginning to settle. But the debate will go on. In the past week I have intensely participated in the digital discussion about the position of women in the Adventist Church. My blog of last week, entitled NO, has been read by a few thousand people. I received many e-mail reactions and comments on Facebook. Many of these were positive, and some were heart-warming, but there was also a sizable amount of hate-mail. In one reaction I was even referred to as ‘one of the most evil leaders’ in the Adventist Church. Well, i can live with that. It even gives me a certain degree of satisfaction that the writer of this comment thinks that I continue to have some influence.

At present I am still on vacation. However, when I return to the Netherlands, some time next week, a number of very busy months are awaiting me. One of the projects I am working on, at the request of the Dutch Adventist Church, is a completely new translation into Dutch of Ellen White’s book Education. The old Dutch translation is in urgent need of refreshing. It is a challenging assignment to render the text of this book into the kind of Dutch that (also younger) people still want to read. Therefore, the language of the book must be brought into the twenty-first century.

In this book Ellen White makes a statement that is extremely relevant in the context of the current discussions about the ordination of women. I quote: ‘The greatest want of the world is the want of men – men who will not be bought or sold; men who in their inmost souls are true and honest; men who do not fear to call sin by its right name; men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole; men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.’ This quote emphasizes the need for total integrity. And, indeed, that is what counts. God has created men and women with equal status. The NO-vote by some 60 percent of approximately 2,500 people does not change that. We cannot play with that principle: men and women participate equally in the priesthood of all believers. YES, in Christ all differences in status (that for a long time were culturally stamped by a patriarchal society) between men and women were annulled.

By the way, now that I mention the name of Ellen White, it is good to realize she never slavishly followed the ideas and decisions of the church leaders. Repeatedly she protested against the ‘kingly power’ that ‘the brethren’ often claimed for themselves. I have a strong suspicion that, had she lived today, she might have uttered a similar criticism. Church leaders who continuously cite her books (at time more frequently than the Bible) should take such statements much more seriously.

Ellen White also quite often commented critically on the way presidents of the General Conference approached certain issues. If in doubt about this, read the book The Prophet and the Presidents, written by Dr. Gilbert Valentine. It was published in 2011 by one of the official denominational publishers (Pacific Press). Here we may also say: Had she lived today, she might have sent some critical testimonies to the current president of the world church.

Church leaders often tell us that a decision of the a general conference session must be interpreted as God’s voice. Admittedly. Ellen White made comments to support this. But such statements must always be balanced by other statements that she made and that point in a different direction. When I do this, I cannot escape the conclusion the ‘the church’ may at times err and that leaders must be loyally, but also very critically, supported.

Then, just one more thing at the end of this blog. There was a time when our faith community practiced large-scale racial discrimination. We still detect traces of this. And we should still feel ashamed because of this. Do we now enter the history books also as a denomination that officially approves of gender discrimination? The very thought makes me ashamed.

 

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After San Antonio . . . what now?

 

So, how do we deal in the foreseeable future with the role of women in the Adventist Church? The vote in San Antonio did not bring anything like a solution. A 40 percent pro and 60 percent against vote does reveal a majority, but it is miles away from a workable consensus. You do not have to be a prophet to see that a major segment of the church is, and remains, of the opinion that men have another (more important!) position in the church than women. This opinion is based on a particular (‘plain’) way of reading the Bible. It sees the superiority of men as a ‘truth’ that cannot be compromised, not even when forty percent of the church asks (or rather: pleads) to have the freedom to ordain women as pastors in their territories. On the other hand, there are many individual church members, but also administrative entities (unions/conferences), that are frustrated by the decision of the GC session. Or, in fact: they cannot abide by it for conscience sake.

How do we go from here?  For, in spite of all differences of opinion, also those who favor the ordination of female pastors want to stay together. I do not pretend to have a final answer, but I would like—in a very preliminary way—to contribute a little to the ongoing discussion by suggesting a pragmatic approach that may help us to find a way out that may be acceptable for many on both sides of the issue, and may prove to be workable.

It may be an approach that is attractive for conferences/unions that want to guarantee an equal status to male and female pastors, but also want to go as far they can to avoid controversies with the world church.

My own thinking about the topic of women’s ordination has in recent weeks been considerable sharpened by reading a book written by dr. Bertil Wiklander, the recently retired president of the Trans-European Division.[1] He points to a number of very important aspects that have often been largely ignored. To get an impression of the content of this book, see my reviews on the website of Adventist Today (http://atoday.org/at-last-a-fresh-re-assessment-of-the-entire-issue-of-ordination-men-and-women.html) and the website of Spectrum ((https://shar.es/1s1coO).

The most important principles in Wiklander’s book (for which he gives solid arguments) are:

  1. The issue of the ‘ordination of men and women’ must be seen against the background of the mission God has given the church.
  2. Men and women were created equal, and the ‘fall’ has not ended this equality in status.
  3. In the Old Testament we see how, with regard to the implementation of his ideals, God often made (temporary) accommodations in view of the social structures of the times (slavery; divorce; polygamy; patriarchal structures, etc.).
  4. The New Testament emphasizes how in Christ a new community has been realized, in which the old dividing lines no longer exist (slaves versus free, jews and non-jews, male and female).
  5. The leading principle for the church is the priesthood of all believers (male and female).
  6. At the same time we need to acknowledge that cultural circumstances in many parts of the world may (still) inhibit full implementation of the New Testament ideal of gender equality in the church.
  7. The traditional way of ‘ordaining’ people in the Adventist Church is not biblically prescribed. Some aspects may even be considered unbiblical (for instance, the idea that a human act may transfer a special, exclusive authority, seems to resemble Catholic sacramental theology).

In the discussion about the role and status of women in the church we should not forget that in many countries women form a large majority of the membership. And, more and more, it is simply impossible to ‘run’ the church without the involvement of women, also in leading positions.

In addition, it is also essential to keep in mind that humans (‘the church’) only play a secondary role with regard to the calling of men and women to be pastors. God calls people, through his Spirit, and this same Spirit equips them, male and female, for work in the church and on behalf of the church. Subsequently the church (i.e. an agreed upon administrative entity in the church) has the task to evaluate (as best as it can) whether a person has a genuine calling to the ministry and to determine whether he/she is adequately equipped for the pastoral role to which he/she is called. If these evaluations are positive, ‘the church’ will affirm this calling and give the person a place in the structure that it has created to accomplish its mission.

The form is which the calling of a person is recognized and affirmed, and the language that is being used in the process must be gender-neutral. The traditional terminology of ‘ordination’ and ‘commissioning’ are too emotionally and historically charged. But these are not biblical terms anyway, and, if so desired, we can put them aside. In stead it might be better to have three gender-neutral categories: pastoral interns, pastoral workers and pastors. Anyone (male/female) whose calling has been recognized by the church will—after some further practical training and possibly a (short) period as a pastoral worker—be given the title of pastor.

The differences between the status of pastoral workers and pastor need to be clearly defined.

The public recognition of the person (male/female) as a pastor will be announced in the first church(es) where he/she is to serve.  This announcement is to be made be a conference/union official. This may be accompanied by a low-key ceremony which avoids the rituals and terminology of traditional Adventist ordination ceremonies.

When a person moves from the area where he/she was publicly recognized as a pastor, to another division/union/conference, the receiving organization accepts him/her with all the rights and privileges of a pastor. If that is considered a problem (for instance, because the pastor is a woman) the receiving organization may decide not to call /employ this particular pastor, or, with mutual consent, accept him/her as a pastoral worker.

Unions/conferences that want to give equal status to male and female pastors may in their assignment of churches to their pastors show sensitivity towards particular feelings and circumstances in some local churches.

It would be important that (hopefully) the General Conference and those division that value equal treatment for male and female pastors, approve, or at least tolerate, this approach. If this approach proves to be workable, in time the relevant policies (preferably at the division level) may be adapted.

[It would seem to me that the ‘ordination’ of elders and deacons must also receive a different form, since the objections that are raised against the ordination of female pastors, would be the same for the categories of elders and deacons/deaconesses.]

Could a solution in the direction sketched above help us to go forward with as little controversy and tension as possible?

[Those who agree that we may continue to think along these lines, may feel free to share this blog with others or to distribute it in other ways]. 



[1] Bertil Wiklander A Review of Ordination Reconsidered: The Biblical Vision of Men and Women as Servants of God (Newbold Academic Press, June 2015) Available through Amazon in paperback and eBook.

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NO

 

[Thursday morning, 9 July]  Our modern technology enables us to follow what happens in San Antonio, even if one is not physically present. Yesterday I spent a major part of the day watching the live stream of the debate about Women’s Ordination in the Adventist Church. At 11 pm local time (I am presently vacationing in Sweden) I went to bed. It was clear which way things would go. Although I knew we would probably not get a ‘yes’ vote, I had not lost hope that at last my church would be able to affirm full gender equality—also in the church. I continued to hope that my church would demonstrate in San Antonio that we do live in the twenty-first century and that it is in that context that we must give a concrete expression to our faith.

The speeches that impressed me most were those of Jeroen Tuinstra and Jan Paulsen. But in the end all pro-speeches were to no avail. When I got up this morning, I wanted, of course, to find out how the vote had gone. The sad news jumped at me from the various websites and the many Facebook postings.

No doubt, I am not the only Adventist who had to deal this morning with a serious spiritual hangover. What can we do when we see how our church is gradually gliding back into the nineteenth century (position of women) or even to the Middle Ages (article 6 of Fundamental Beliefs)?  Ted Wilson and other leaders may tell us in a myriad different ways that we should now unite and leave all controversial issues behind us, so that we can focus on our real task, but this, I believe, is an utterly naïve point of view. The gospel (also in its Adventist version) will only convince twenty-first century people if it is communicated by men and women who are recognized as contemporary people who speak and act in the context of this time.

When I looked this morning out of the window I saw a dark-grey sky. In this part of the world the sun rose this morning already around 2.30 am, but so far it has remained totally invisible. It tends to make me rather depressed. And that is how I feel this morning about my church.

No, I will not easily decide to leave my church. I hope I will have a good number of years left to function in my church and be a blessing to many people. But, please, do not expect me to go against my conscience and to simply accept the dictates of about 60 percent of our world membership—most of whom have no idea what it means to be a christian in Europe and other parts of the western world, and what challenges christians face when they want to tell their de-christianized friends that being a follower of Jesus Christ is still a realistic option.

Some weeks or months from now I will probably see the broader picture somewhat more clearly . What happens in Adventism is not unique. The christian church is moving from North to South. In particular, in worldwide christian movements the non-western segments more and more call the tune. Against this background a church in the West must, on the one hand, continue to show its loyalty to the world-wide organization, but, on the other hand, find its own way and seek the boundaries of how to remain true to itself and to follow its own conscience, without—if at all possible—severing the ties with brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.

But this morning everything is so fresh that I find it difficult to relativize things. I am ashamed for my church. And that is a depressing feeling.

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Far away–not only geographically

I write this blog on the day that the quinquennial world congress starts in San Antonio, Texas (Thursday morning, 2 July). This is the first time in a few decades that I do not attend a GC session—but the GC session seems to happen anyway! In 1966 my wife and I were weekend visitors of the session in Detroit. It was a few hours drive from from Andrews University, where at the time I was studying for my MA. I remember the car trouble on our way back from Detroit in my less than reliable Pontiac Tempest more vividly than the congress itself.  In 1975 I was a guest at the GC world congress in Vienna. And I went as a delegate to the sessions in New Orleans (1985), Indianapolis (1990), Utrecht (1995), Toronto (2000), St. Louis (2005), and worked for the Adventist Review in Atlanta (2010).

This time, while the General Conference Session is taking place, we will enjoy our vacation in Sweden. At this moment, while I write these lines) we are just about to depart for the our second day of driving to Kramfors , about 600 kilometer North of Stockholm. We are about to leave from the Vejle area in Denmark (mid-Jutland). We will drive some 240 kilometers , to Frederikshavn, from where we will take a three hour ferry to Gothenburg in South Sweden. Tonight we are booked into the Ibis Styles Hotel in Örebro. Tomorrow (Friday) we hope to reach our final destination after another 650 kilometers over Swedish roads.

During the coming  ten days I will keep abreast—mostly by digital means—of the main events  of the session in San Antonio. Of course, I want to know who will be the new world leaders (although I am almost sure Ted Wilson be re-elected as president for a new term), and who will be leading out in the Trans-European Division in the coming years. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands is a part of this administrative regional unit. Together with many others I hope a fresh, less conservative, wind will begin to blow from Washington in the next quinquennium. But I fear I will be disappointed.

And, of course, I am curious to know what will happen when the discussion and voting takes place concerning some changes in the Fundamental Beliefs, in particular with regard to article 6 (about creation). It is proposed to close some alleged loopholes and to emphasize that a literal creation took place in six literal days, in recent times (i.e. between 6.000 and perhaps 10.000 years ago). To me these changes seem unnecessary and undesirable, and I am, afraid many members will not be able to agree in good conscience. Then, later in the week, it will be decided whether the thirteen regions will be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to ordain female pastors in their part of the world or whether there are strong cultural impediments to go that route. At the beginning of this congress it is impossible to predict which way the vote will go. Rarely have different parties in the church lobbied as intensely as has been done regarding this topic in the past months. I assume that even now during the early days of the congress both groups will continue to win further support for their particular viewpoint.

Yes, it would have been interesting and pleasant to be in San Antonio during the coming ten days and to be in the midst of all this. I would have liked to meet with many friends and ex-colleagues and to taste the atmosphere. But not to be there also gives the chance to relativize things. I will not deny that what happens during such a gathering has impact on the world church. However, it is just one aspect of being-church and for (perhaps as many as) 95 percent of the 18.5 million Adventists around the world San Antonio is very far away in more than  just a geographical sense. Their church is primarily the local church where they have their membership and where each week they worship together with other fellow-members of the same faith community.

My wife and I experienced a very good illustration  of what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist, when we arrived in Denmark where we were going to spend Wednesday night. A couple  we had known over the years, but with whom we have been  much closer in  recent time, had invited us to stop at their home on our way to Sweden. Wednesday evening we sat around the table for a great meal on the deck behind their house, with a magnificent view over the Vejlefjord. They had also invited another couple that lives just a few kilometers from there. I know the man quite well, since many years ago we were both involved with the publishing work in the church, and we would meet quite regularly . He has been retired for quite some time but continues to be active in the Danish Adventist Church.

So, the six of us had a very pleasant evening: six friends and fellow-believers. In spite of all our differences it felt like we really are family. We spent a lot of our time together talking about developments in the church—worldwide, in Europe, in Denmark and in the Netherlands. In fact, we were a small-scale illustration of what it really means to be part of the same faith community. Realizing this also made the meeting in San Antonio fo me into something happening far away—in geographical distance, but also other more important ways.

 

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