On Sunday June 5 the Adventist church in the Netherlands held an extraordinary union session. A group of ‘concerned’ members used their statutory right to demand such a congress. In a ‘members manifesto’ they had published their views regarding a number of areas in which, they feel, the Netherlands Union is sadly amiss. The fact that the Dutch Adventist Church has decided to ordain women pastors remains a sore poin to them, the more so, since the General Conference had closed that route. How then does the Netherlands Adventist Church dare to go its own way, against the will of the world church?
I did not attend the meeting last Sunday. I was (and still am) in Sweden. But, of course, I made sure to use all available channels to be informed about what happened. I was relieved to hear that the motion to revoke the earlier decision to ordain female pastors failed. Some of the comments that I read suggested that the vote was too close for comfort (76-88). That the delegates who wanted to revoke the earlier decision were almost as many as those who wanted to continue with ordaining women pastors, may well (at last partly) be due to the fact that the ‘concerned’ members were more eager to participate in this session than the majority of the members, who tend to trust the current Dutch church leadership and support its policies.
Those who say that the Dutch Adventist Church is painfully divided, and that this does not bode well for the future, surely have a point. No one can deny that the polarization between those who are ‘concerned’ (the ‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists’, or whatever label one wants to apply) and the other members deserves close attention. But we must not over-dramatize things. The situation in the Adventist Church in the Netherlands is not unique and certainly not hopeless. Below are a few points I think we should consider:
1. In most religious movements of past and present one finds a diversity of currents of thought. The former Dutch Reformed Church is a good example. This church had a number of different ‘modalities’, from quite liberal to extremely orthodox and everything in between. Today one can see the same pattern in the new United Protestant Church of the Netherlands and other denominations. These churches function well, in spite of the internal diversity.
2. Churches with a strong international presence often have considerable problems in arriving at a consensus between all members worldwide, due to major cultural differences between countries and world regions.
3. In many western countries the influx of immigrants from non-western countries had resulted in a large measure of diversity. This has contributed to the present polarization, also in the Netherlands. However, it also brought a major enrichment to church life.
4. A church that is alive will inevitably experience a degree of tension between its tradition and the changing society in which it is called to live and to communicate the gospel. Not all are able to deal with this tension in a balanced way.
5. With regard to the Adventist Church in the Netherlands it cannot be denied that there are significant differences in theological opinion between the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, and in the way people value the organizational structure of the church. But this is not something new and it will undoubtedly remain with us in the future. We all come with our own background; each of us is in his/her own stage of spiritual growth, and we all read the Bible through our own lenses.
6. The greatest priority is that we learn how to give more space to one another, and to listen more intently to each other, with a willingness to learn from other points of view. This is true for those on the ‘right’ as well as for those on the ‘left’.
7. In spite of the undeniable polarization it remains important to keep in mind that, with all our differences, we have certainly enough in common to be one people with one common goal.
8. The problem that appears to be so immense will become much more manageable when we respect the opinions of those who differ from us, rather than immediately condemn those who have another view than we have.
The extraordinary session of the Dutch Adventist Church is now in the past. I sincerely hope that as a faith community we can find the grace to observe a truce in the current discussions and focus on the many other challenges that face the Adventist believers in the Netherlands.