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Wanted: Theologians

When attending a doctoral defense and hearing the liberating words from the jury that the doctoral candidate may now call himself/herself “doctor”, I cannot help but wondering whether it was worth all the efforts that went into the doctoral project. Last Wednesday it was no different, when I attended the ceremony for my friend Wim Altink, who successfully defended his thesis in the Faculte Universitaire de Theologie Protestante (FUTP) in Brussels (Belgium). His thesis dealt with aspects of the status of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Revelation. I have great admiration for the fact that Wim was able to complete his doctoral work while holding a full-time job and in spite of experiencing major challenges in his personal life.

I must admit that from time to time I have wondered whether my own ambition to get a PhD was worth it.  It was not an easy process. And, to be honest, I did not really need it, as I was not in an academic position and was not planning to move into full-time academics. What practical use did it have to become a doctor in theology? Looking back, I must admit that the practical use of my title has been limited.

Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to encourage others to follow people like Wim and myself and aim for a doctoral degree. The very process is extremely worthwhile. Apart from increasing one’s knowledge about the topic of the dissertation it has significant value. It demands rigorous thinking, and being extremely well organized. It develops critical thinking and tests one’s perseverance. Going through that process is an enrichment and gives great satisfaction, even if few people will ever read the dissertation.

Quite a few Christians (Adventists not excluded) express doubt about the usefulness of obtaining a doctorate in theology. Does it make the new doctor a better preacher? A better shepherd of the flock? Is there not the possibility (or even the likelihood) that all this study leads to a loss of faith rather than a strengthening of one’s personal faith? These questions are certainly relevant. But I want to briefly emphasize another aspect.

A denomination must have a good, balanced and dynamic theology. This also applies to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Theologians are servants of the church and play an important role in formulating and critically developing the church’s doctrinal understanding. The church must not depend on just a few theologians of a certain kind, but on a wide range of theologians who approach their theological task from different perspectives. They nourish the theological thinking in the church by their dialogue, their lectures and publications, and in their interaction with the church at large. In other words: they must help the members of the church to think theologically in a sound way and to grow in their understanding of the implications of their faith.

Currently, the Adventist Church faces a number of serious problems. One of the core issues the church presently struggles with is that the administrators of the church feel that they must be the protectors of “correct” theology. If they seek advice in theological matters, they look for that advice in a small circle of theologians who are known to be conservative. This process is in the way of responsible theological developments. Theology is a project of the entire church, led by theologians who represent the entire (Adventist) theological spectrum.

The church needs capable administrators. But the church needs just as much (or even more) dedicated theological minds that will guide and encourage all church members (including administrators) on their pilgrimage toward an ever better understanding of who and what God is, how He relates to us and how we may better serve Him. Therefore: We continue to need more theological specialists. It is good to see that Wim decided to join the theological brother- and sisterhood. May many more women and men follow on that path!


With the LGBTI in Vienna

This year I will celebrate my birthday in Vienna. No, this is not a weekend-trip to a European city that I get as a birthday present. My wife and I are a few days in Vienna as guests of the Kinship organization, which this year holds its international congress in that city. I have been asked to give a number of presentations and to preach the sermon on Saturday morning. Kinship is an international organization of (mostly) Adventist people with an “alternative” sexual orientation—thus we nowadays tend to label as LHBTI or a variance of these letters.

In actual fact, I am “second choice” as the speaker, for the person who had in first instance been invited was told by his employing (Adventist) organization that his job would be at risk if he were to accept the invitation. How tragic. But, regardless of whether I am “second choice”, I have gladly accepted the invitation to be  in Vienna with the LGBTI-particpants at this congress, and a group of “friends”. I hope the people will be blessed with what I have prepared.

Some twelve years ago a similar congress was held in a conference center in the South of the Netherlands. I had been invited by the Kinship-leaders to come and give a number of worships. They added that they would understand if I would decline the invitation. At the time I was the president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. I received the assurance that they did not require me to agree with all the Kindship standpoints.  This meeting became a life-changing experience for me. I knew at that point very little about homosexuality and “alternative” sexual orientations. I had not studied the topic in any depth and my (rather negative) attitude was mostly shaped by the anti-homo climate that was quite general among Christians (and certainly among Adventists) in the Netherlands of previous decades. During the days of that congress I had the first real opportunity to listen to the stories of men and women (I do not think any transgenders were present) of how their orientation impacted upon their lives and how they, more often than not, were not welcome in the Adventist Church—let alone that they could play an active role in their church. At the end of those days I still had many questions, but I did have a very different picture of the challenges the LGBTI community in my church was facing.

Now, many years later, I know a lot more about the LGBTI subject. Recently I even wrote a brochure about it.[1]I have given presentations in local churches and pastors’ meetings about the topic in a number of countries and participated in study conferences. I am still left with questions. As a heterosexual male I continue to find it very difficult to understand what it means te be attracted to another male. I still have some theological questions, but gradually I have become convinced that the Bible does not equate homosexuality with a loving, committed, permanent and exclusive relationship between two persons of the same gender, who are simply unable to enjoy a meaningful heterosexual relationship.

Unfortunately, I continue to see in my church a great lack of understanding and acceptance of “brothers” and “sisters” who are “different”. But I am happy to also see more and more positive signals. I hope to continue to make a small contribution towards a full integration of those who have an “alternative” sexual orientation. Gods fully accepts them. How can we do otherwise?

[1]Little Alphabet Theology.  Copies may be requested from: The brochure is available in English, Dutch, German, French and Swedish.


Inspiration in Belgrade

I was tempted to skip this week’s blog. I am at the European Pastors’ Council in Belgrade and the days are quite full. But over the past few days literally dozens of colleagues from countries all over the Trans-European Division have told me that they are faithful readers of my weekly blog, and thus it seems I must also write a short piece this week.

I am enjoying this pastors’ congress and appreciate enormously that the TED has invited me to be here, even though I have now been retired for almost eleven years. It is great to somehow still “be part of it”.  Meeting many old friends is a great joy, and getting to know others is an extra bonus. And contributing in a limited way to the program gives a lot of satisfaction. Yesterday I presented a workshop on “Criteria for a Healthy Church”, which was well attended. And since nobody walked away half-way through the presentation, I assume it was reasonably well received. This afternoon I will do two workshops, one on “Last Generation Theology” and one on “Changing the Church”. A good number of people have chosen to attend them.

I must admit that I have not attended all meetings. Early in the mornings and in between meetings I have done some writing on a new book. And there must always be moments to get away from the crowd and have a good cup of coffee with friends. But, before you get the impression that I am not overly involved with the overall-event, let me assure you that I have greatly appreciated the preaching that I have heard thus far.  On the opening night pastor Ted Wilson was the speaker. I must admit that his sermon was pretty good—much to my relief, because I found some of his sermons that I heard in the past pretty hard to digest. On Tuesday evening Wilson preached a biblical sermon that was very much in tune with the theme of the congress: Connect-Change-Inspire. There were just a few EGW quotations. My only problem with the sermon was that his words, which emphasized the fact that the church needs all of us, are not easily matched with some of his administrative initiatives.

As I write, I have also listened to pastor Ian Sweeney, the president of the British Union, pastor Gifford Rhamie, a lecturer at Newbold Colleges, Dr. Daniel Duda, a departmental leader in the Trans-European Divisions, and pastor Anne-May Müller, a pastor and departmental leader in the Danish Union. Sweeney is one of the best preachers our church has. In 1996 he won the prestigious London Times preaching award, and listening to him this week I had no difficulty understanding why he came out in first place.  I had never heard Gifford Rhamie preach; his sermon was impressive, in terms of structure, delivery and content. And, of course, Dr. Daniel Duda will always surprise with new ideas and new perspectives on old stories.

For me the entire debate about women in ministry is decisively settled when I hear how some women pastors preach the Word.  A few months ago I listened in San Diego to a worship by Dr. Kendra Haloviak, one of the first women to be (illegally) ordained in the USA. Last night I listened to Anne-May Müller, who preached a superbly crafted sermon that had a powerful message for her colleagues. When an issue arose in the early church about the status of gentile Christians in the church, Peter and Paul gave as their most powerful argument for the full inclusion of gentile Christians that the Holy Spirit made no distinction between the Jewish and gentile believers. Hearing  women as Kendra and Anne-May preach, I can only conclude that the Holy Spirit does not seem to favor male over female speakers. And that is probably the most powerful argument for having an inclusive ministry, with men and women sharing the same status.

I need events like this pastoral congress for my own spiritual benefit.  I see many things in the church that I do not like. I worry about the future of my church when I hear about General Conference plans to enforce uniformity and even punish those unions that are not fully “compliant”.  But when I talk with colleagues from all over Europe I realize that I am not alone in my fears and concerns, and that there are many who have not given up on their church but will continue to work for change and renewal. That certainly helps me to keep going and to remain hopeful!


Anger, dismay and optimism

I started my day in a perfect mood, but that was soon to change. One of the first things I usually do after I get up is to open up my laptop and read the headlines of the news and check whether there is any church news. The article by Bonnie Dwyer, the editor-in-chief of the Adventist independent journal Spectrum, was in this last category. In this article she reported the vote of the General Conference committee to establish—even before the deliberations in the forthcoming Autumn Council—an elaborate systems of committees that must oversee whether church administrative entities and institutions, and church leaders, are in compliance with church regulations.

It is important to recognize that the GC committee that took this decision is not the full GC Executive Committee, with representatives of divisions and unions, but consists of the group of leaders who are stationed in Silver Spring and are part of the apparatus at the church’s headquarters. This immediately raises the question why such an important decision was made at this point in time, just weeks before the committee with world-wide representation has had the opportunity to discuss the document that supposedly will form the basis for the control-task these five new committees are to perform.

The five new committees must ‘oversee’ whether the official beliefs, statements and decisions of the church are adhered to. This concerns the general doctrinal teachings of the church, but in particular the areas of creation vs. evolution, homosexuality and ordination of women. Apparently, these are the topics which the leadership of the church at Silver Spring considers as having the highest priority. It has already been observed—and rightly so—that there is no mention of the Fundamental Belief of the Trinity, which is more and more under attack, and of the heretical teaching of the Last Generation Theology.

There is much that could be said—and no doubt will be said in the coming weeks and months—about these new developments. I hope and pray that during the Autumn Council a majority of the Executive Committee will have the courage to disapprove of these developments. These new measures are as much top-down as one can possibly imagine and flaunt our democratic principles. Moreover, the members of these five committees will all be, without exception, part of the administrative machinery at the church’s headquarters. The Biblical Research Institute, which is manned (!) by conservative theologians, will have an important role in these committees.

When reading this article this morning, my first reaction was one of anger. Bus as I was writing this blog my anger gradually changed into a feeling of dismay. How could our church reach this deplorable situation? How is it possible that the leadership of a faith community tries to impose with force (and threats) in such a top-down manner its views and interpretation on the entire church?

Nonetheless, also today I will try to remain optimistic. My hope is that during the Autumn Council this plan will receive severe criticism, or will disappear altogether. And I believe that, if this does not happen, this control mechanism will prove to be a paper tiger. Such an administrative control mechanism will soon suffocate in the ecclesial bureaucracy.  However, in the process some (and maybe many) people will decide to leave the church, since they feel they are no longer allowed to think for themselves and can no longer breath freely. For those who are not (or no longer) paid employees of the church all this is one more reason to continue protesting against this top-down coercion and to speak out for an Adventist church where unity may be experienced in diversity—in theology and church practice.


Beards in Battle Creek

When I was studying at Newbold College in England in the 1960’s students were not allowed to grow beards. I do not remember whether there was any clear rationale for this rule. It was simply how it was.  A little later I spent just over a year studying at Andrews University in the United States, to earn a masters degree in theology. One of the most memorable classes (Introduction to the New Testament) was team-taught by three professors: Dr. Sakae Kubo, Dr. Earl Hilgert and Dr. Herold Weiss.  Professor Weiss was the youngest of the trio and was just starting his academic career. He came under heavy criticism from some members of the university staff because his comportment supposedly lacked in dignity. He not only had a red sports car, but also grew a beard!  Imagine: a theology professor with a beard!

The beard has an interesting history in some Christian circles, including Adventism. Once upon a time most Christian leaders had beards. Just look at pictures of the Adventist pioneers and you only see heavily bearded men. Many actually believed that wearing a beard was a God-given symbol of masculinity and that there were a number of Bible texts that were explicit about not shaving off one’s beard. But times (and ideas) changed and gradually the faces of the denominational leaders became clean-shaven. However, dear reader, we  now once again seem to have reached a turning point. Turn to the Adventist Review or to some other Adventist media and find a recent picture of the world president of the church, and you will find that pastor Ted Wilson has grown a substantial beard.

What do we make of this? Did brother Ted get up one morning, look in the mirror and conclude that a beard would make him look more impressive?  Or did his wife Nancy suggest a change in his appearance? No, there is more to it.

This year’s Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will be held in the city of Battle Creek, Michigan, the cereal capital of the United States and the headquarters of the large Kellogg corporation. But until a little more than a century ago it was also the headquarters of the Adventist movement. A historic village is an educational reminder of the denominational past. Many Adventists who visit Battle Creek make sure to also go to the Oak Hill Cemetery and pass by the graves of Ellen White and her family and of many of the early Adventist leaders. The General Conference decided that its most important annual meeting of 2018 was to be held in this city that has so much Adventist history. And Wilson suggested that it would be fitting for the men who would attend this meeting to enter into the atmosphere of the past by growing a beard and even by wearing some period costumes. (I have no idea how many of the participants will actually comply with this suggestion.)

When I first heard of this plan I could hardly believe it. I just hope the secular media will not find out about this, for they might well poke fun at a church that combines a costume party with serious church business. The whole idea, it seems to me, reflects a nostalgic desire to relive the past, as if the hope of our church is a return to the Battle Creek era. Unfortunately, there is on the part of many fellow-Adventist believers a strong feeling that early Adventism represents true Adventism and that the church must go back to its beginnings. I just hope that during the upcoming Battle Creek meetings the delegates will not only be reminded of the positive aspects of our beginnings, but will also hear about all the things that went wrong and why it was necessary to leave Battle Creek and make a new start elsewhere. And perhaps the top leadership should also be reminded that it was in Battle Creek that the erstwhile leaders were sharply criticized for their tendency to exert ‘kingly power’ rather than servant leadership. A repeat of that criticism would seem very timely in the present phase of our denominational existence.