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Do we need Ellen White to interpret the Bible?

During the recent Autumn Council of the General Conference—the annual meeting of the full executive committee with representatives from the entire world field—a statement was voted about the role of Ellen G. White and her writings. This statement will be submitted to the delegates to the General Conference session of next year, with the intention that they, through their adoption of this statement, will reaffirm their conviction regarding the crucial role of Ellen White and her work in the Adventist Church. It has almost become a tradition that the delegates to a GC session adopt such a statement. One might well ask why it is deemed necessary to each time vote such a document about this element of our Adventist beliefs. Is there a fear that confidence in ‘the spirit of prophecy’ is slowly but surely ebbing away? But, if, so, does it really help to once again vote some official statement? Why would we then not also adopt a statement that Adventists must continue to value the seventh-day Sabbath and why is there no vote during the session which appeals to the worldwide membership not to slacken in their expectation of the second coming of the Lord?

Besides the questions whether such a statement is really needed, there is the problem of its content. The full text of the statement may be found on:
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The paragraph that for me raises a red flag is:
We believe that the writings of Ellen white were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are Christ-centered and Bible-based. Rather than replacing the Bible, they uplift the normative character of Scripture and correct the inaccurate interpretations imposed upon it. They also help us to overcome the human tendency to accept from the Bible what we like and distort and disregard what we do not like.

The first sentence of this paragraph leaves us with the question how the concept of inspiration is to be defined. However, for now I will not pursue this topic. It is, in particular, the second sentence that bothers me. It contains a most serious internal contradiction. On the one hand it states that the Bible is the norm by which all ideas must be tested. So far so good. However, it immediately ads that there is another authoritative source (i.e. the oeuvre of Ellen White) which tells us how we should interpret the Bible. With such a view we seem to ignore the fundamental protestant principle of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) and come dangerously close to the Roman Catholic teaching that only the church is capable of interpreting the Bible correctly, and that only the church can protect the believer against wrong interpretations. The idea that Ellen White has the last word in the interpretation of the Bible puts her work in fact above the Bible. This approach is totally opposed to other statements of the Adventist Church that clearly underline the principle of ‘the Bible alone’. See, for instance, point one of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. (The Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative, and the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the definitive revealer of doctrines . . .). Ellen White herself quite often emphasized that the church should not expect from her that she has the final word about issues of theology and biblical exegesis!

It is my firm conviction that this statement about the role of Ellen White (if, indeed, there must be such a statement) must go back to the desks of those who wrote it. But I would also like to see in the statement (again, if there must be such a statement) that far more attention be paid to the results of the extensive Ellen G. White research of the last few decades. Providing the church members with that information would help them to arrive at a much more balanced view as to who Ellen White was, of what she has meant for the church and what her continuing significance can be.

Tithing: commandment or privilege?

My father died when he was only fifty years old. I was a teenager at the time. My mother was in her early forties. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were very poor. My mother had to live, with her children, on a very minimal social payment that was available for widows and orphans. She became a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at age sixteen and ever since took her faith very seriously, including the fact that she was expected to give one tenth of her meagre income to the church. I remember how she once told me that she did not always succeed in doing so, which made her feel guilty. The more so, since the pastor of our small church had severely criticized her and had quoted Malachi 3:8-10 to her. She was told there was no excuse not to give a faithful tithe, for God must always come first!

The words of the prophet Malachi have created a lot of feelings of guilt in the minds and hearts of many Adventist believers. For the prophet says that not giving our tithe equals robbing God, which is not without its serious consequences. On the other hand, faithful tithe-givers can count on God’s blessings. They must test God and in so doing will experience that in the end all will be well.

It has always disturbed me when people in our church were put under severe pressure through this text. And this annoyance only increased as I gradually came to realize that our tithe-giving tradition does not really have the kind of solid biblical basis that I had often been told it has. I had to think about this when a few days ago I read an article by my friend Larry Downing (a retired colleague in the USA) on the Adventist Today website. In this piece he discusses all the tithing-texts that we find in the Bible and he concludes that there are many questions surrounding the Old Testament phenomenon of tithing, and that we cannot find a clear commandment for the followers of Christ to give ten percent of their income to their church organization. See: https://atoday.org/an-overview-of-tithe-texts-in-the-english-bible/

Do I write this short piece because I want to tell my fellow -believers that giving tithes is unimportant? Certainly not. I want to see my church prosper, giving a clear sound to world around us. And to do so, the church will continue to need the right people but also money. I am personally very grateful that during more than forty years tithe-giving church members provided for my salary and that presently I receive a monthly pension that is also financed from tithe funds. And I myself belong to the circa sixty percent of church members who give a regular tithe. [The church would no longer have any financial worries if all members were to give tithes! Alas, that is a rather utopian thought.]

Giving tithes remains a good idea, even though the New Testament is almost completely silent about it. And there is no hint as to whether one should take the tithe from one’s gross or net income. And whether all the money should be forwarded to a central point (i.e. to the treasury in the conference office). However, the Bible—and certainly also the New Testament—is quite clear that we must be generous in our giving (see e.g. 2 Corinthians 9:7) and the apostle Paul emphasizes the principle of systematic giving (e.g. 1 Corinthians 16:2).

It was a good thing that the members of the church agreed in the past on a system of systematic support for the gospel work. After first having worked with a different system (“systematic benevolence”), from about 1870 onwards the tithing system was promoted.

Considering that in Old Testament times the believers gave ten percent of their income (or more) to God’s cause, should not we—who gratefully look back on the incomparable sacrifice of Jesus Christ—practice a giving pattern that is, at least, at the same level? If we give our tithes, it is not because we have been pressured by a text from Malachi, but because our love for Christ prompts us to give to a cause that is dear to us—and because giving to the church is in actual fact a sacrifice of love that we bring to God.

Let us keep our system of tithe giving in high esteem. It is a good basis. No doubt there are those among us who are able to give more than ten percent (and that is what some do). However, if we are (perhaps temporarily) unable to reach this ten percent norm, we can rest assured that God is happy with what we can give. For in the end it is not the size of our gift, but our motivation that is important for God (see Mark 12:41-44.

Perhaps it is time to rethink our approach to tithing and consider it no longer as a duty but as a privilege.

Too few pastors, too many administrators

One of the important agenda items for the 2019 Annual Council of the Adventist Church was the report of the director of the Office of Archives and Statistics. Dr. David Trim, the current director, presented a report that gave ample food for thought. Let me just mention a few of the key statistics he mentioned.

Per June 30 2019 the Seventh-day Adventist Church has 21.3 million members. Between mid-2018 and mid-2019 almost 1.4 million new members entered the church, but in that same period over 600,000 names were taken off the books.

An interesting statistic is the number of congregations per ordained minister. In the Trans-European Divisions (to which the church in the Netherlands belongs) this stand at 4.34. In the other European Division it is slightly higher, at 5.28. In North-America each pastor looks, on average, after 2.15 congregations. In most divisions in the developing world this number is much higher. In the southern part of Africa the number of congregations per pastor is almost 30!

In the Trans-European Division each pastor is responsible for, on the average, 160 members. In the Netherlands this is considerably higher and stands at around 300.

But perhaps the most interesting (and disturbing) statistic Dr Trim reported concerns the ratio between the pastors who serve in local churches and those who hold administrative posts. Looking at the entire Trans-European Division, we see 0.9 administrator for every church pastor. In other words, there are almost as many church administrators as there are pastors ‘in the field’. I am happy to be able to say that the situation is rather better in the Netherlands Union, where the ratio is about 1:3.
This statistic causes even more concern when it is noted that since 1988 the number of pastors worldwide has increased by 85%, while the number of church administrators at all levels has risen with an alarming 300 percent.

So, what is the problem? It would seem that we have too many administrators and too few pastors. Let me say a few things about the growth of our administrative work force. We must realize that in many parts of the world the church has grown exponentially and this had led to the formation of new administrative entities (unions, conferences, institutions) which employ ordained pastors. And we must also recognize that many processes are becoming more and more complicated and, in spite of all computers, may need more staff.

At the same time, it is also a fact of Adventist life that, when there is a need to economize, the administrators seldom feel they can eliminate their own budget, and when some administrative downsizing has actually taking place, it usually does not take long before the administrative work force is back at its previous level.

It has often been suggested that our church shoud undergo a major organizational overhaul. Do we need the General Conference and the Divisions with their present size and structure? Can we perhaps eliminate one administrative level (unions or conferences)?

Part of the equation may also be that administrative jobs are attractive. The work in church administration often causes severe headaches, but perhaps not as many as the work in the local church does. In most places in the world being part of the administration not only gives status, but also some financial benefits and opportunities for travel. (Before I sound too sanctimonious, I must admit that by and large I have enjoyed my work in church administration!)

But it may well be that the main problem is not that we have too many administrators, but that there are too few people who feel called to be a pastor in a local church. In many places around the world many pastors do not feel happy in their ministerial role. Often pastors no longer get the kind of appreciation they used to receive in the past. It is increasingly difficult to function in a more and more polarized spiritual climate—in the church at large and in the congregations that have been assigned to the pastor. Moreover, in many areas in the world the remuneration of the pastor leaves much to be desired. In addition, many pastors feel they must be very careful in expressing their own theological convictions and their questions, lest they are viciously attacked by church members or leaders at higher echelons. And, the ongoing debate about the ordination of women pastors has been catastrophic. It has deterred many men and women from a career in the ministry. It must be a priority to ensure that becoming a pastor, once again, becomes an attractive option for young men and women.

Will the General Conference of 2020 be a turning point? Will it give the church the kind of leaders who understand that God does not accept gender discrimination and calls both men and women to serve him? Allow me to make a suggestion for the new leaders when they formulate goals and projects for a new quinquennium: Aim for at least a reduction of ten percent in the number of administrators and for at the very least a twenty percent increase in the number of local pastors—with at least half of them women!

I refuse to give up dreaming and hoping!

PRAYER OR TAKING THE NAME OF THE LORD IN VAIN

My most-read blog ever was my comment of July 12, 2015 on the women’s ordination vote during the General Conference session in San Antonio. It seems that my blog of last week has become one-but-most read blog. Apparently—-at least for most of the faithful readers of my musings—-giving equal rights to men and women in the Adventist Church continues to be a hot issue. Most of the reactions I received were from people who agree with me on the topic of women’s ordination. But I also had some e-mails and other reactions from a few readers who agree with the principle of full gender equality but at the same time believe that we should all abide by decisions of a General Conference session. An argument that keeps coming back is: Prior to the decisions in San Antonio intense prayer was offered. The delegates prayed for divine guidance and we must therefore believe that the vote that was taken represents God’s will.

Well, if only things were so simple. We must not forget that also in those unions which, according to the top leadership of the church, are non-compliant, a lot of praying took place before a decision was taken that deviated from the line that was set out by the General Conference. Did those prayers have less value? Did God listen to the prayers that reached him from San Antonio and not to the prayers of the church leaders in Norway and of the representatives of the church in the Pacific Union?

I have often thought about this conundrum. How does God determine which prayers he will answer and which prayers he will ignore? We are confronted with this question in a very down-to-earth way when people pray for a certain kind of weather. The tourist may pray for dry weather and a pleasant temperature, while the farmer in that same region pleads with God for rain. How does God handle this? How does he decide what prayer to answer? It becomes more serious when in a war both parties earnestly pray for God’s help and his blessing. And an awkward situation arises when in a faith community different groups plead with the Lord to let their viewpoint win the day, because their view accords with the ‘truth’.

Could it be that prayer is at times misused? Would it be God’s intention that we ask him to send us a particular kind of weather? Of course, an Almighty God might, in very special circumstances, intervene in weather patterns. But the kind of weather we get is normally a matter of processes that follow natural laws and that may also (according to many experts) be influenced by human conduct. At the very least, I think, we should be reticent in praying for a particular kind of weather. And it is certainly very questionable to pray God’s blessing over weaponry that will be used to kill other people. In that case our praying becomes cursing (‘taking God’s name in vain’), as we connect God’s holy name with something God should never be associated with.

What might be the role of prayer in ecclesial decision making? Unfortunately, we see all too often how prayer is used in a manipulative manner, for instance when immediately before a crucial vote is to be taken, someone is asked to offer a prayer and that person clearly alludes in his prayer to what would be the best decision.

May we ask God to be in our midst with his Spirit and to inspire us in our discussions and decisions? Certainly, but there are a few caveats. Whether or not God’s Spirit is with is and directs us does not primarily depend on God. He is always with us, but whether he can effectively touch and guide in a meeting depends mostly on the people who are assembled in that meeting. Praying for the guidance of God’s Spirit does not free us from the responsibility to make a thorough study of the subjects that are being discussed, to be theologically well-informed and to learn about the cultural backgrounds of the other participants. It presupposes that we are ready to listen to each other’s viewpoints and that we, when a vote is taken, try to overcome our prejudices and biases, and do not let ourselves by steered by political motives or external pressures. Only when such conditions are met, can the Spirit of God become operative. If not, then our prayers for God’s presence and guidance are meaningless or perhaps even a case of cursing—taking God’s name in vain. (Could it be that we saw an example of this during the recent Annual Council of the GC Executive Committee?)

You are being warned!

I asked myself: Do I want to write something about the tragedy that took place this past Tuesday in the main auditorium of the headquarters building of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring? Has not enough been said already on the various social media? Perhaps everything that can be said has already been said. And yet, this is such a sad event, that distresses me so much, that I cannot remain totally silent. My naturally optimistic and hopeful self gave way to a sense of despair. Where is my church going? Where will it end? And how many will decide that enough is enough, and that they must find another spiritual home.

Some have said that the outcome could have been much worse. The system of non-compliance committees, that was pushed through last year’s Autumn Council, has so far remained a dead letter. The GC president complained that, unfortunately, many around the world have misrepresented the intention of these committees. On Tuesday he did his best to downplay the importance of these committees. They were supposed to be only advisory! But, the top leadership of the church (although it is not clear how many at the church’s headquarters actually agree with the president’s strategy) did not want to let the matter of non-compliance with regard to the ordination of women rest. Something had to be done to shame and discipline the leaders in the six unions in the USA and Europe, who were held responsible for the fact that their unions are supposedly non-compliant. And so, a majority of the members of the GC executive committee voted to issue an official warning to the presidents of the Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and North-German unions as well as to the presidents of the Pacific Union and the Columbia Union.

What does it mean that these men have received a warning? Not all that much. In fact, the General Conference leadership cannot do very much to make these men (yes, they are all men!) tow the line. Only their constituencies can remove them from their office. And that is not going to happen any time soon. They are all highly respected leaders in their areas of the world. They will bear the distinction of being warned as a badge of honor.

As I think about the events of last Tuesday, I have a number of questions:
1. Why did so very few GC leaders and division officers come to the microphones and protest against what was happening? I know from personal contacts with quite a few of them that there is a lot of “in-house” resentment against the persistent anti-women-ordination strategy. Why did they not have the courage to step forward. Do some perhaps fear for their job?
2. Why was the president of the union where I have long worked and where my membership is, not among the group that was warned? The Netherlands Union started on the path of implementing full gender equality, but then got cold feet. Is it not time to once again let principle rule over polity?
3. Could this be the time for some other unions in the USA, Europe, Australia and elsewhere to do what they have long wanted to do: do justice to their women pastors and treat them as Fundamental Belief no. 14 (about the full equality of all human beings) prescribes?

As I was watching the live stream of the proceedings of Tuesday afternoon, I regretted that I am retired and can no longer participate in the decision making process of the church and make myself heard in this committee. Looking back I wonder whether Jan Paulsen, our previous church president, could not have pushed a little harder to get the ordination of women accepted. And I also wonder whether I was courageous enough in those days, when I was a church administrator in the Trans-European Division and subsequently in the Netherlands Union, and could not have done more to advance the cause of gender equality in my part of the world. Well, it is too late to do anything about this. The only thing I can (and will) do is encourage those leaders who have been ‘warned’ and plead with others to be courageous and to accept the risk being ‘warned.’