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Coffee at the 1995 world congress

On Tuesday mornings I can usually be found in the basement of the office of the Netherlands Union of Seventh-day Adventists. A few volunteers are steadily working on getting the denominational archives in order. Documents from the past are analysed and professionally described and stored. Materials from a few succesive periods of 20 years each have already been worked on. What is ready goes to the Provincial Archives in Utrecht, where the storage conditions are optimal and where interested parties can consult it.
The archive boxes with material from the 1965-1985 period are now ready to be taken to Utrecht, after one more final check. Work on the subsequent period from 1985 to 2005 is already well advanced.

Today I spent a few hours in the archive again. I worked my way through a thick stack of paper–documents that in one way or another have to do with the activities of the Dutch Union Office in connection with the World Congress of the Church that was held in the Netherlands in 1995. Much of it need not be kept, such as, for example, the correspondence of delegates from around the world, who sought assistance in securing a visa for entry into the Netherlands. But there are minutes of meetings and important letters that must be preserved. After all, this was the most important Adventist meeting that ever took place in the Netherlands, and the church organization in the Netherlands was closely involved.

Sometimes one comes across something that may not be of real historical importance, but still sheds light on certain aspects of who and what Adventists are. For example, this morning I came across a letter that had been faxed to the Dutch Union, with copies to a list of other individuals and agencies. Among the addressees I also saw my name. In 1995, prior to the GC session, I was working in the church’s regional office for much of Europe (the so-called Trans-European Division), as the person responsible for, among other things, communications.

What was going on? It had come to the attention of the organizers of the conference (in the headquarters office of the church in the USA) that pastor C.E. van der Ploeg, the person responsible in the Dutch church for the communications department, had included in a bulletin for the Dutch church members a warning, that, if they visited the meetings in Utrecht, they would have to do without their cup of coffee or tea. A message went out from the US to the regional office in England criticizing the Dutch bulletin. After all, the Dutch union was supposed to be positive about the church’s attempts to keep coffee and tea away from the conference. The president of the division (Dr. Jan Paulsen) then sent a letter to the Dutch Union (which will be preserved for posterity) to convey the complaint from the GC. He regretted that van der Ploeg had written about this topic. That only generated resentment. Moreover, it was completely unnecessary because, he commented, Dutch Adventists need no advice where, if they need their national drink, they can find a place to satisfy that need.

Unfortunately, I cannot remind van der Ploeg of this incident, for he is no longer with us. But it may one of these days be a good occasion to write or call Jan Paulsen, who was elected President of the World Church after his presidency of the Trans-European Division. I don’t know if he remembers this event, but it was a small but striking example of his gift for de-escalating problems. And that is one of the most important qualities of a good leader.

How do conservatives and fundamentalists differ?

It is often very difficult to define concepts with precision. To cite an example: When is someone an extremist or a fanatic? When is he/she more aptly called tenacious and principled? Sometimes it is very clear that someone has crossed a definite boundary, but often it is not. In many cases it remains very subjective whether you find someone to be tenacious in holding to his/her principles or consider that person an extremist. For me the most important criterion is whether one wants to impose a certain point of view on others or whether one grants freedom to others and is prepared to change one’s mind if there are decisive arguments for doing so.

Another example is the opposition between orthodox and liberal. There is a line between these two categories, but where exactly? Are you a liberal if you doubt certain teachings of the denomination to which you belong? And is it primarily about “doctrine”, or first and foremost about lifestyle? Can you be liberal in your theology but orthodox in your way of life? And vice versa? And how does one determine orthodoxy? In the eyes of some fellow believers I am a liberal, but other Christians may consider me as very orthodox. Who is right?

Perhaps it is even more difficult to mark the boundaries between conservatives and fundamentalists. In some denominations–including, certainly, the Adventist Church–both categories occur in ample measure. Initially, the word “fundamentalism” applied to the resistance in certain Protestant circles to the “modernism” that had gained the upper hand in many churches. The fundamentalists’ struggle focused primarily on the inspiration and authority of the Bible. The Bible, the fundamentalists argued, was verbally inspired and inerrant, and was also authoritative in historical and scientific matters. This fundamentalist movement gained–to this day–much influence among Adventists. [Over time, the term "fundamentalism" broadened considerably. People now often also refer to Muslim fundamentalists.]

Fundamentalism is often characterized by aggression. George Marsden, a well-known American church historian, once said that a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about all kinds of things. It is not so easy to point out exactly what the difference is between conservative Christians and Christian fundamentalists. There are certainly points where the two groups overlap. This week I came across a concise but very clear explanation in the book Profile of a Religious Man, written by Dr. Edwin Zackrison (b. 1941). With its 600-plus pages, it is quite a bulky book. I have agreed to critically review this autobiographical book in a theological journal.

Zackrison grew up in an Adventist bubble, became a pastor and, after receiving his doctorate, taught at one of the Adventist universities in the USA. Eventually he became persona non grata there. Anyone who wants to read this complicated but fascinating story should order the book from Amazon.

Zachrison definitely denies that he is, or ever was, a fundamentalist, but he did not object to the conservative label. He points out that a fundamentalist, unlike an average conservative person, usually has a very negative attitude toward the academic study of theology. A fundamentalist usually already knows everything and needs no further study. In the Adventist Church, the main issue centers on the authority and inspiration of the Bible. Fundamentalist Adventists have a rigid doctrine of inspiration and usually assume that Ellen White was inspired in the same way as the Bible writers. For them, Ellen White has the final say regarding the proper interpretation of the Bible, rather than the other way around. Most conservative Adventists agree that our atonement was completed when Christ died on the cross, while many fundamentalist Adventists deny this. Fundamentalism is also usually linked to perfectionism.

For me, Zachrison’s comments were enlightening. One difference he did not mention, but which I have often experienced, is that, while conservative Christians tend to have very outspoken opinions, they are usually open to dialogue. With die-hard fundamentalists, however, no real conversation is possible. They have the Truth. They are right. Period.

Fundamentalists are a danger to the church. They cause rigidity and paralysis. The church, on the other hand, needs both conservatives and liberals. Liberals are good at asking questions. Together, conservatives and liberals should seek sound answers. This ensures that the church remains a living organism where we can grow together in our faith.

The message of the James Webb Space Telescope

When I studied at Newbold College in 1962-1964, the study of theology was part of the curriculum for the American bachelor’s degree. In addition to the major in theology, there were a number of general subjects. Which subjects these were depended in part on the professors who were available at any given time. Albert Watson, who was responsible for the dormitory for the male students, was pursuing a university degree in astronomy and taught a two-hour class in astronomy . I found it quite complicated. It was the class in which I scored lower than in any other subject. But to this day I have retained some technical terms and some basic knowledge. This may be the reason why I still have a more than average interest in astronomical developments.

This past week was special for all people with astronomical interests The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched on Christmas Day 2021, sent the first pictures to Earth. Named after James Webb (1906-1992), one of the first directors of NASA, this giant infrared telescope measures 20 by 14 meters when fully unfolded. It will continue to orbit the sun at a distance of 1.5 million kilometers from Earth (that’s four times the distance to the moon) for the next few years. As might be expected with such projects, the cost came way over budget and the price tag ended up being over ten billion dollars.

The fascinating pictures that a few days ago could be proudly shared with the world actually depict what was going on in space in the very distant past. The light from celestial bodies that is now captured by the telescope has been traveling for a very long time. The new telescope captures light from the universe that has been traveling for more than four billion light-years. A light-year is equal to the distance light travels in one year. The speed of light is 300,000 km per second, so a light-year is 300,000 x 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 km. And this we must multiply by 4,3 billion.

The pictures we were shown this week only cover a small part of our universe in which there are billions of galaxies. New ones are constantly being born while stars are also dying out. Experts tell us that there are other universes besides our universe. It is impossible to comprehend this with our human brain. According to mainstream science, this is all the result of the Big Bang that supposedly happened 8.6 billion light-years ago. Suppose there was such a thing as a “big bang”. Did it just happen by itself? Or is there an omnipotent, eternal Creator who set it all in motion? I believe the latter, but the how, what and when will remain shrouded in mystery, even after all the images from the JWST have been studied by scientists.

What all can be found in the universe remains an inexhaustible source of study. Incidentally, the new telescope also has its limitations. It will not allow the people of NASA to look into God’s heaven, because God inhabits another dimension, which will only open up for us when we are “changed” in such a way that we can share in God’s heavenly dimension. For now, the most important thing for us is to realize that “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) God created in a minuscule piece of the immeasurable universe something that He called “heaven and earth,” and that He entrusted this in the care of us humans. When and how this happened and what processes He used in doing so? Some think they know the details, based on a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis. The JWST will not be able to give us an answer to such questions. I’m not worried about that. It’s enough for me to know that the almighty God of the universe is also the God of this small part of the universe where we live. It is beyond my comprehension that He is concerned with that. He had a plan for the earth and for mankind, but we have messed it up. However, He had a plan B in place, and everything will work out in the end.

Has this great God other similar experiments going on, somewhere in the universe? Someday, when we have broken through the barrier that separates time from eternity, we will find out. If the JWST continues to function as planned, the images we will yet see can only increase our awe and gratitude for our Creator. After all, that great awe-inspiring Creator is our loving God, whom we are privileged to call “our Father.” What more could we want?

Patience is running out

We knew that the recent World Congress of our church would not bring a breakthrough regarding the ordination of female pastors. We will have to be patient for a while longer. However, I remain convinced that this breakthrough will come. After all, it is becoming increasingly difficult to explain why the Adventist Church is dealing with this issue the way it is. What theological justification is there for still opposing the ordination of women pastors, while their “sisters” can be ordained as elders or deacons. Does this involve a different kind of blessing, a kind of blessing light? And, of course, it is absurd that a woman cannot be elected to lead a conference–because, according to the current rules, only an ordained pastor can be a conference president–but that there can be a female vice-president in our highest church governing body. Audrey Anderson, the former secretary of the Trans-European Division, succeeded Ella Simmons as one of the GC vice presidents.

We will have to be patient for a while longer. It is perhaps comforting to see that in other churches advocates of equal rights for women in church offices also had to exercise patience. I recently came across two interesting examples. In 1940 Nora van Egmond began her theological studies at the Free University in Amsterdam. She wanted to become a pastor in the Reformed Church (which would later become part of the PKN-the Protestant Church in the Netherlands). After completing her studies, she did all kinds of pastoral and other work. It took 22 years before she was ordained as a pastor. That happened only after the synod of the Reformed Church of 1969-70 fully opened the church offices to women. Later, Nora van Egmond said that, indeed, she had to wait a long time, but that it actually surprised her that the waiting time had not been much longer. She had counted on eighty years!

Other denominations in the Netherlands decided to appoint women pastors considerably earlier. Anne Zernike (1887-1972) became the first female pastor in the Doopsgezinde Kerk, a denomination with Anabaptist roots, in 1911, and Frederika Willemina Rappold followed in 1920 as the first woman to be confirmed as pastor in the Remonstrant Church. The Lutheran Church in the Netherlands took the decision to also admit women to the office of pastor in 1922. Seven years later, Pastor Jantine Auguste Haumersen officially began her work as pastor in the Lutheran congregation in Woerden. However, for decades it remained very difficult for women to find their place in the Lutheran male world. Until 1956 there were only four women pastors in the Lutheran congregations in the Netherlands. It was not until the 1970s that it was fully accepted that female pastors did not have to resign when they married! All in all, the Lutheran “brothers” asked a lot of patience from many of their church members. And women who wanted to become pastors had many obstacles to overcome. However, anno 2022 there are significantly more women than men in Lutheran pulpits in The Netherlands. (See Sabine Hiebsch, “Lutherse vrouwen op de kansel—1922-2022, Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Kerkgeschiedenis, pp. 56-71).

How much patience must we have before the biblical principle of full equality between men and women is accepted worldwide in the Adventist Church? We should expect change, probably, first of all from courageous administrators in the “lower” church organizations. What signals will Daniel Duda, the new president of the Trans-European Division, send? Will he dare to set a course of his own in this part of the world where discrimination against women meets with total incomprehension and is even illegal? Will union administrators dare to follow the example of their German colleagues–in deviation from what the General Conference still prescribes? Advocates of full equality between men and women have been very patient. This proved to be necessary, just as it was necessary in other denominations. But patience is running out!

Does every local church need an EGW coordinator?

The sessions of the General Conference of the Adventist Church, that were postponed by Corona for two years, are now part of history. If there are no unexpected events causing future postponements, the next General Conference will take place three years from now. The place of the meeting will again be St. Louis.

One of the notable decisions of the meetings of a few weeks ago was the appointment of a new functionary in all local congregations. This person will be tasked with “the responsibility of promoting the importance and right use of the Spirit of Prophecy writings, in collaboration with the publishing ministries coordinator [The term "Spirit of Prophecy" in this context should be read as "Ellen G. White."]

Whether this decision will be widely implemented is highly questionable. My guess is that there will not be many unions and conferences that will give this high priority, and there will not be many congregations that will put this new function on their list of vacancies to be filled at their next election cycle. There is a danger, however, that in some (many?) congregations this issue will lead to further polarization between those who believe that Ellen White’s publications deserve more promotion and those who, on the contrary, believe that she already receives far too much attention.

In very many local churches it has become increasingly difficult to find people for all offices and positions. It is a characteristic for our postmodern society that people are less and less prepared to take on long-term commitments. Often the most capable men and women are not willing to accept positions of leadership. And frequently, those who are willing to do so, are pushed into caring for several different positions. It is curious, to say the least, that the top leadership of the church has not given more weight to this reality at the local level and now adds yet another function to the range of responsibilities for which persons must be found. Small congregations, in particular, will not (be able to) comply with this recommendation.

However, there is a much more important objection that deserves urgent attention. At present, as far as the role of Ellen White is concerned, the main emphasis is on the promotion and mass distribution of her books. The contentious idea of distributing free copies of the book “The Great Controversy” worldwide in the hundreds of millions, illustrates this tendency. At the same time, the church is silent about the questions being raised from many sides about aspects of Ellen White’s person and work, and about all sorts of serious accusations that have been made about how she operated. The General Conference and the Ellen G. White Estate (the body that administers Ellen White’s literary estate) have the primary task of providing the church with information with regard to various matters that remain shrouded in darkness, and of relieving Ellen White and her work of all kinds of myths. Ellen White, with her husband and other early leaders, played a prominent role in the birth and further development of Seventh-day Adventism. Her work can remain an important source of inspiration, but in the long run this is only possible, if the story of who and what Ellen White was, is told in a way that is consistent with the historical facts.

Unfortunately, instead of an initiative from the higher echelons of the church to answer the questions surrounding the person and work of Ellen White, a new initiative is being launched that completely ignores the questions that are becoming more and more pressing.

I hope that unions and conferences that will decide to facilitate the appointment of this local promoter of Ellen White’s books will at least organize webinars or other channels of instruction to adequately equip these coordinators for their task.