Unity . . . A way forward?

 

Last week I attended the Unity 2017 conference about church unity in the face of the different views and practices surrounding the issue of the ordination of women to the ministry in the Adventist Church.  It was one of the most satisfying conferences I attended in years. A spiritual and intellectual high point.

In the past few days other things have kept me busy, but in the background remained the question: How can we go forward and find some kind of solution for the disagreement that causes so much trouble in the church?

Immediately after the General Conference session in 2015 in San Antonio, I wrote a blog in which I grappled with that question. How can we go forward. I just re-read it and decided to repeat it below. Can this help to find a way forward?

 

HERE IS WHAT I WROTE IN JULY 2015.

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 againstvote 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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Attending an ‘unauthorized’ meeting

 

[Friday afternoon, June 16] Since Wednesday evening about 80 people from more than a dozen countries are meeting in a hotel near London Airport for a conference that has ‘Unity 2017’ as its theme.  There is something very special about this convention.  I have been to countless church-organized meetings, but these meetings were always officially ‘authorized’ by some level of the denominational organization.

This meeting is an exception: it is  ’unauthorized.’ In fact, it is a meeting the top leadership of the church does not want to take place. You will not read about it in the official church media, such as the Adventist Review.  The General Conference wants to ignore this meeting. What is even more serious: It has done what it could to obstruct the organization of the conference. The meeting was to be held in a denominational institution, but that institution was put under pressure ‘from above’ to withdraw the offer of hosting it. Furthermore, when comparing the list of speakers that was announced a few months ago with the actual program, there is quite a difference. A number of church-employed academics have been told it would be unwise for them to attend and to make a presentation.  In fact, that is why I am now one of the speakers. I am replacing one of the persons who has been told not to attend!  And yes, like several of the other presenters, I am retired and am relatively ‘safe’ as I do not have to fear any disciplinary measures.

This is a very serious and tragic situation. It smacks of a dictatorial mentality and it smells of fear. But, maybe it was to be expected. For the topic of the conference is closely related to the issue of gender equality and women’s ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It focuses specifically on the way the church wants to use it authority to force so-called ‘non-compliant entities’ to give up their ‘rebellion’ en desist from any further ordinations of female pastors.

This initiative taken by ten unions (from Europe, the USA and the South-Pacific region of the world), attempts to provide an opportunity for further dialogue about the explosive issue that threatens to divide the church. But was this current year not supposed to be a year of dialogue and of listening to each other? Or was this just a pious smokescreen to obscure the real message: Get in line, or else . . .?

We are now two days into our program. So far we have listened to six excellent presentations, and we have engaged in group dialogue and in a panel discussion. For me, it has been a learning experience, but also a spiritual stimulus. We are meeting in a spirit of togetherness, bound by a deep desire to see some fundamental changes in the church we all love. We hope that the conference will not only have an impact on the participants, but that the materials that are presented will be disseminated widely and that they will give a better understanding of the core issues to leaders all over the world, in preparation for some crucial decisions to be made at the Autumn Council in August. At that time the 210-plus members of the executive committee of the world church will have to decide whether or not punitive measures must be taken against the unions that have ordained women pastors or are planning to do so.

I would encourage you to go to www.adventistunity2017.com where you can find the papers of the presenters. And also to make others aware of this material, especially if you have persons in your social network that are part of the decision making process in the church. Let’s make sure that this perspective on the issues of women’s ordination and of church authority is heard, even when it will not be reported by the official media.  These media, as well as top church leadership, were invited. But only  the independent media (Spectrum and Adventist Today) have accepted to be present. They have sent people to report on this conference first-hand.  Well, I am sure they will do a good and objective job!

 

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Leadership

[Friday morning, June 9) After ten days at Newbold College in England I will fly home later today. I have tried to get a good idea of the goal and structure of the MA course in Leadership that Andrews University is currently offering in Europe to people with leadership qualities in the Adventist Church.  Over a three-year period seven sessions of about two weeks will be held, mostly on the campus of Newbold College in the UK. In addition, the students will, if at all possible, meet on a monthly basis in groups in various geographical regions to discuss the projects they are working on as part of the program and to support and stimulate each other in the progress of their thesis that must be finished before they can graduate.

Over forty students enrolled for the course--rather more than was expected. Most of the participants are sponsored by their church organizations. Because every 6-7 students will have an advisor assigned to them, who will coach them during the entire course of study, the organizers were suddenly faced with a lack of mentors. That was the reason why about three weeks ago I was asked to serve as one of the advisors. Even though this means that--except in unforeseen circumstances--I must commit myself for three years to this project, and even though I am involved with a lot of other things, I decided to accept the challenge. It was gratifying to see that the students that have been assigned to me had actually told the course leaders that they would like to have me as their advisor. And so, I have accepted the role of giving all possible support to seven participants from the United Kingdom (4), Germany (2) and the Netherlands (1).

It was very important for me to understand the structure of the course and to find out what exactly was expected of me. I think I was able to do so in the past ten days. The course has a fascinating design. Admittedly, a major chunk of theory needs to be digested, but the main focus is on projects in the actual professional situation of the participants, in which this theory can be applied--whether they are leaders in a conference, a union, or are a departmental leader or a leader in a church district.

Besides having learned a lot myself in the past few days, I have enjoyed the very engaged and inspired way of teaching by, among others, Dr. Erich Baumgartner (whom I first got to know some 25 years ago when I was myself working at Andrews University). But this assignment as a mentor also gives me an unexpected chance to see from near-by what leadership in the Adventist Church is all about in 2017. It stands to reason that many leaders feel they need some very specific training, since being a leader is a much greater challenge today than it was in the period when I had to lead other people and had to (help) develop a vision for the organizations I was involved with.

I have had the privilege to be a leader during a major portion of my working life. At age 29 I was already parachuted into the post of leader of the educational institution the Adventist Church had in the Netherlands at that time. In later years I led several church institutions and als served at different denominational levels in leadership roles in various countries. In many respects it was a good and fascinating time to look back at with satisfaction. However, I am not blind to the many mistakes I made, and in retrospect there are quite a few things I would do differently today. At the time I could have greatly benefitted from the kind of course I have now become involved with.

Being a church leader has through the years become ever more difficult. More is required of our leaders than in the past. The church (as well as the society that surrounds it) has become much more diverse and more complex. Moreover, ‘authority' functions now quite differently, and today leaders are faced with widespread distrust on the part of many to whom they must provide leadership. Professional courses are extremely important to give leaders more theoretical background and to provide them with the necessary tools for their work, but support and trust from the people is at least as essential. When this trust is lacking, many leaders will soon be ‘burnt-out’ and it becomes increasingly difficult to find talented people who are willing to be leaders. I hope I can help a number of the participants in this course to retain their enthusiasm for their task and to grow in their leadership role.

 

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Translations

 

Both for my wife Aafje and myself  the word ‘translating’ had always been important. Aafje was involved in translating books for a major part of her working life. When moving from place to place in the world her job as a translator went with her. In the book case in her room are more than one hundred books which she translated–mostly from English into Dutch.

My focus has been more on writing books and articles. However, throughout most of my life I have also done some translation work from time to time. I translated a number of books from English into Dutch. The last one is the devotional book by Dr. Jon Paulien: The Gospel from Patmos. The Dutch version, to be published by the Adventist Church in the Netherlands, will appear within a few months. The author offers a short meditation for each day of the year, based on one or more texts from the last book of the Bible.  However, from time to time, I have also translated theological books from Dutch into English. Just a few weeks ago the American publisher Eerdmans published a book of over 800 pages:  An Introduction to Christian Dogmatics. It is my translation of a book by two Dutch theology professors at the Free University in Amsterdam (Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink). Some two years ago I spent a major part of my time on this exciting project. For me translation work is a kind of a hobby! To work with languages and go from one language to another is a fascinating challenge.

Recently I have become involved with translations also in a different way. After having written the book FACING DOUBT in English, it was not too difficult to translate it myself into my mother tongue Dutch. But a French translation far exceeded my expertise. In the course of my assignment in Belgium, a few years ago, I got to know my colleague Michel Mayeur quite well. He had already, at some earlier time, taken the initiative to translate into French a devotional book that I had written  and he now spontaneously offered to also translate my latest book into French. It is now available as FACE AU DOUTE (Amazon.fr).

From Belarus I received a similar spontaneous offer from a fellow-pastor to care for a Russian translation. This Russian edition has now come off the press and may be ordered through Amazon.uk (Рейндер Бруинсма). This edition is mainly intended for Russian speaking Adventists in the ‘diaspora’ (i.e. those who have migrated to countries in the West). Very soon a cheaper edition will also appear, through a Russian online publisher/bookseller: www.ridero.ru.

Walder Hartmann, a retired pastor in Denmark, whom I know very well, saw the importance of this book and wrote me that he would be happy to take on a Danish translation. Two weeks ago the visitors of the annual camp meeting of the Danish Adventist Church were able to buy the book (it can also be ordered through www.saxo.dk). The German translation is also a ‘labor of love.’ A very capable person with great linguistic skills is currently in the last phase of this work.

In the near future I will have a meeting with a Portuguese speaking colleague to discuss the possibility of a Portuguese edition, and it would be great if I could find a volunteer for a Spanish translation.  I am immensely grateful for all translators. And my appreciation also extends in a very special way to Mr. Manfred Lemke of Flanko Press, who is putting a lot of expertise and energy in this project.

PS.  Talking about translations: It is clear that a translator must have a thorough knowledge of at least two languages: the original language and the language into which  the original is to be translated. It requires knowledge and linguistic sensitivity, in addition to a lot of time and energy and a good deal of creativity. That is also what is needed when we want to communicate the Word of God–the good news–to the people around us. Whoever is involved in this work must know the language of the Bible, but also the language of the people in the twenty-first century. Without this kind of translation the gospel will remain unintelligible for all those who so far have never heard it.

 

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When being a prophetess was rather common . . .

When in the United States, I always try to find an ABC–an Adventist Book Center (bookstore). I want to know whether my church has latelypublished anything significant. Usually I leave the store rather disappointed. But this time, a few weeks ago, I found a small book that I had not yet heard of, and that looked quite interesting. I bought a copy, partly also inspired by the fact that I had gotten to know the author when I lectured at Loma Linda University, some two years ago, as a ‘visiting professor.’  It was a small book of just under a hundred pages, written by Theodore N. Levterov, the director of the Ellen G,. White Estate Branch Office at Loma Linda University in California.  It is entitled: Accepting Ellen White: Early Seventh-day Adventism and the Gift of Prophecy Dilemma.

The book is a popularized and abbreviated edition of Levterov’s doctoral dissertation. The scholarly nature of the original is still visible in an abundance of endnotes. Levterov makes clear that the acceptance of Ellen White as a prophet was often quite challenging for the early Adventists. He focuses on the factors that helped them to ‘put the doctrine of spiritual gifts into a balanced perspective within their over-all theology.’

I found the first chapter the most fascinating. It describes the world into which Ellen White was born and, in particular, the religious milieu in which she grew up. As a child and adolescent she would quite often attend religious meetings in which she would witness visionary and charismatic manifestations. Levterov confirms the description of a Methodist historian who studied the Methodist surroundings that had a strong formative influence  on Ellen White.  In her book Fits, Trances and Visions, Ann Taves published her research into the activities of numerous prophetess in early 19th century Methodism. She documented how the form and content of these visionary experiences were very similar to what the early Adventists saw and heard when Ellen White was ‘taken off’ into one of her public visions.  Levterov furthermore gives a very candid description of the often chaotic and wild scenes during the meetings of the early Adventists and, especially, during their campmeetings. Ellen White would later often refer to these as evidence of ‘fanaticism.’

In this book Levterov makes an important contribution in giving twenty-first century Adventists a clearer picture of the way in which Ellen White fitted into the religious landscape of her time. Reading this first chapter one gets an amazing picture that has not often been painted in such an open and unapologetic way. It underlines that God uses methods and forms that are understood by the people he wants to address. The forms and methods that were common among the ‘shouting Methodists’ had their appeal and their use in their time, and God apparently used these forms when communicating through Ellen White, who was part of that milieu.  If he were to communicate with us in similar forms it would only lead people to wonder about our sanity, and it  would cause many around us to question whether we should be regarded as a truly Christian church.

It is encouraging that we recently see a greater willingness on the part of people who are close to the institution that is responsible for the literary heritage of Ellen White, to bring ‘the prophet’ down from her pedestal, and to distinguish myth from reality. Unfortunately, we have yet a long way to go, and large numbers of her devotees around the world continue to worship her in ways that she would herself have disapproved of. Ellen White continues to have a great importance for Seventh-day Adventists, but we owe it to ourselves–and also to her–that we do not treat her as a kind of ‘saint’, and that we always interpret her writings and actions against the background of the time in which she lived.

Kudos to the Pacific Press for publishing this frank and refreshing book, and to Levterov for his important work. I would say to the author: Please expand this first chapter into a book-length study. I would be among the first to buy such a book.

 

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