Yearly Archives: 2017

Church and state

 

A few days ago some interesting pictures emerged of a group of evangelical leaders in the White House, who prayed with and for President Trump, with their hands laid upon him. I find it strange that this would take place in the official work environment of the US president, and I find it even stranger that, apparently, lots of evangelicals are positive about this. Although the president’s over-all approval rating has sunk to ever-lower depths, many evangelicals still see him as a leader who shows great moral strength. I read on Facebook (I have forgotten who posted it originally) that the same people who a few years ago called Obama a Muslim now think that Trump is a Christian! It is clear that many Americans, on the other hand, are highly critical about the cozy relationship between som evangelical leaders and the Trump administration, and worry that the American tradition of separation between church and state is in serious jeopardy.

I have never believed in a total separation of church and state. Once upon a time the Dutch Reformed Church was the ‘established’ church in my country and had significant privileges. That is no longer the case, and even the ties between the royal family and this church are not what they have been for centuries. There was hardly any criticism when Maxima (the present queen) decided to remain Roman Catholic when she married with Willem Alexander, who is now the Dutch king. And in a multicultural and multi-religious country like the Netherlands it is no longer deemed appropriate that the king would ask for God’s blessings in his speech at the beginning of the parliamentary year.

I appreciate these developments. It is proper that religion and affairs of state are separate, but on the other hand I see no problem in, for instance, accepting government money for denominational schools if certain conditions are met. Why should parents of children in public schools benefit from the taxes we all pay, and should parents of children in private schools not be able to benefit in the same way?  And why should churches and religion-based NGO’s–again under clear conditions–not be able to receive government grants for social activities, just like other organization with similar projects?  And why should churches not be able to accept tax-exempt donations, just like other charities and cultural institutions. If there are clear rules, it seems to me (and most European Christians, Adventists included) that church and state may legitimately interact in certain domains.

But then, I look at the United States. . .  I have never understood what separation of church and state actually means in the US.  For Europeans like myself it is hard to understand why the national flag is prominently displayed in American churches. And why virtually every major address by an American politician ends with the words: God bless America! And why would in past decades Billy Graham show up in the Oval Office when the president had to make a decision whether or not to take his country to war? And what to make of presidential prayer breakfasts? All this is difficult enough to understand, but Trump’s unashamed courting of evangelical support makes it even more complex.

I am reading in blogs and Facebook posts that some of my Adventist co-religionists see the intermingling of religion and politics as a clear sign of the end. They expect that religious leaders will so influence politics that eventually the ‘true believers’ will feel the negative consequences. They point in particular to recent statements by pope Frances regarding the need to take global measures and erect global structures to defend basic human values. Well, we must certainly remain alert, but we have seen time and again that it is unwise to make hasty predictions, as trends often come and go. However, for the time being, I am more afraid of the evangelicals who support Trump than of the pope.  I do not subscribe to many of the pope’s ideas, but his moral compass seems to be in much better shape than that of many of the religious leaders who hail the American president as a ‘born again’ Christian.

 

Difficult Conversations

Below is a sample of the conversations I had (or listened to) in very recent times and which I experienced, in various ways, as ‘difficult’.

(1) I met someone I had not seen or talked with for a very long time. He is a regular reader of this blog and has reacted a number of times to some of the posts. He contacted me and we agreed to meet and to take a long walk together. It was an enjoyable day. My visitor reminded me that I had actually baptized him almost fifty years ago. But he had lost his faith and now referred to himself as an atheist. He had given this careful thought and had very solid arguments why he could no longer believe in God.  He was adamant that a God, who does not do a better job of caring for what he allegedly made, is not worthy of our adoration.

(2) A few days ago I was at a birthday party and spent most of the evening talking to two men. One was very open about his faith. The other listened politely, but left us in no doubt that he wanted to have nothing to do with faith and church. And why was this? he was asked. He told us about his experiences, growing up in an extremely conservative home, and about his father who had forced him and his siblings to go to church. He attended church twice every Sunday, until he was able to free himself from this kind of negative religion that was very judgmental and even violent.

(3) Last Sunday I listened to a conversation during an early Sunday morning television program. The host of the program interviewed the father of a teenage child with multiple physical and mental handicaps. The word ‘ faith’ was not used, but many a believer, no doubt, watched it with the same kind of questions that I had. Why do people have to go through such misery?

(4) A few days ago I visited a friend who suffers from Altzheimer. I could not help thinking that this might also, some day, happen to me. My friend has difficulty coming to terms with his situation, but he does not point an accusing finger to God. I could have understood if he argued with God about his fate.

(5) A week or so ago someone, who we have met a few years ago in the USA, visited the Netherlands and stayed with us for a few days. Besides the touristic activities we had some very intense conversations. Her husband had died a few years ago at age 60 in a car accident. She had found a new partner, but he died last year from a massive heart attack. One theme dominated our discussions: Is there really something after death? She has her faith and is a loyal church member, but she keeps wrestling with the question whether it is really true that death is not the end.

(6) This week I visited someone who suffers from ALS. He lives is a care home. Many of my Dutch blog readers will recognize whom I am referring to.  He is able to deal in an amazingly positive way with this disease that relentlessly follows its treacherous and destructive course. The bottom line is that he must live between often dementing elderly people, separated most of the time from his wife and family–with virtually no hope of recovery.

(7) And, finally, a total different conversation. It took place after last week’s Sabbath morning divine service, in which I preached. After the service I sat with a group of church members in one of the rooms for our traditional coffee. Two young men came to me and forcefully reprimanded me for the fact that I was drinking coffee. How come I did not pay any attention to our health message? Did I not know what the “spirit of prophecy” says about drinking coffee? As a pastor I should know better and be an example . . . They kept at it for at least ten minutes.

This is just a brief selection of some of the talks I recently had with various persons. I do not in any way claim that having such discussions is unique and many others could make similar lists of the somewhat difficult conversations they were part of. But what can one say in situations as I described above? The standard-replies usually sound hollow and insensitive. “God must have his reasons why . . .” ‘Yes, we must suffer, but in the end all will be well . . .”  “In spite of everything, we must keep our trust in God.”  And so on. I must admit that I cannot get that kind of answers over my lips. Often, I am at a loss for words, as I try to say something that is more than a series of pious platitudes. Or, I simply remain quiet, since I do not have any good answer.

The only thing I can say is that I want to hold on to my faith in God, in spite of all my questions and uncertainties. I must, however, admit that my faith is something for which I have no solid rational basis. But I do not want to lose this existential certainty of faith. It does me a lot of good and it inspires me when I meet others who, in all their problems and sufferings, are able to hang on to their faith. On the other hand, I can also empathize with those who see their faith gruadually evaporate.

I find it especially difficult to respond in  situations such as I mentioned last (Number 7). In such discussions (or “attacks” might be a more suitable word), I tend to become literally speechless. This kind of religion, to me, has nothing to do with Christian faith. It really ruins my day when people want to confront me with this kind of thing. And I can only have sympathy with those who lose all interest in the church when this is the sort of thing that some people feel they must always talk about. It has nothing to do with the faith that we need to deal with the real questions of life.

 

 

A good week

 

The past week was a very good week indeed. A good friend–a lady from around Loma Linda in California–visited us and that meant a few nice touristic activities (as e.g. a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam), some good meals and, above all, some very inspiring discussions.

A few days ago I was able to send the English translation of my last devotional book (with portraits of 366 men and women in the Bible) to the Stanborough Press in England. I am delighted that they are interested in publishing it. The Dutch original came off the press about two years ago and was well received in the Netherlands. It was a major job to translate the 366 meditations into English and my wife also invested a good number of hours in checking my translation and spotting numerous typo’s and other impurities. She has a sharper eye for that kind of thing than I have.

Some months ago a Russian edition appeared of my book FACING DOUBT. This edition is distributed through Amazon and is primarily intended for the Russian-speaking Adventist ‘diapora’–i.e. those who live outside of Russia. People in Russia, and such countries as Ukraine and Belarus, find it difficult to get the book through Amazon, and it is also quite expensive for them. From this week there is now also a cheaper edition available through a Russian online bookseller.  (http://www.ozon.ru/context=search&text=%c2%d1%d2%d0%c5%d7%c0%df+%d1%ce%cc%cd%c5%cd%c8%df&store=1,0).

In addition there was some other good news. The work on a Spanish translation of FACING DOUBT has now started.

In between other activities during the past few weeks I have started work on a new book, after I had already done a substantial amount of reading and thinking about it in the past months. The first 24.000 words of a first draft have been written. I am writing this book first in English rather than in Dutch. The theme of the book is Last Generation Theology (LGT). Lately this theological trend has become quite prominent in the Adventist Church.  I (and many with me) believe that this theory has a very shaky foundation on a rather selective use of a number of Bible texts and Ellem G. White statements, and that it is, in fact, quite dangerous to a healthy faith.

The supporters of the LGT maintain that just before the end of history there will be a group of people who have overcome all sin. Moreover, Christ will not return until this is a reality. Another essential element of the LGT is that Christ took upon himself the kind of human nature that Adam had after the Fall. It is then argued that, if Jesus could be perfect while he had the same inclinations towards sin as we have, there is no excuse for us not to become perfect also. I will try to explain in reasonably simple language that this particular theology rests on a number of faulty premises and will also make clear why this is an important matter.

It will take a few more months before the manuscript is ready, as there are also other things in the coming months that demand my attention. Among other things I must prepare presentations for a number of speaking appointments in several European countries and the USA. And then, of course, there is also some vacation time.

Well, all in  all, it was a good week!

 

Power and/or influence

As a rule people with power have influence. That is true in society at large and in the church. Leaders have a form and a degree of power over the organisation they are part of, and over other people in that organisation. Politicians often have far-reaching power and their influence may extend far into the future. They have influence as their decisions may have  consequences for many years to come, some of which may perhaps never be reversed.

Church leaders also have power. The fact that people have been elected in certain positions or have been appointed in certain jobs, means that they can take all kinds of initiatives or obstruct the initiatives of others. They are able to promote particular people or block their promotion. Leaders play an important role in processes of change, and in steering the trends in the church. Their influence is even greater if they also posses charismatic qualities, enabling them to enthuse and inspire others.

In democratic countries and democratically led organisation the power of leaders is limited and is shared with others. In addition, there are mechanisms to evaluate their decisions and, if necessary, to remove leaders. In non-democratic countries and organizations leaders may be able to impose their will on everyone.

In a world-wide church, such as the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, leaders tend to have considerable power and influence. How much power they have differs from place to place. In the United States, for example, presidents of church entities have considerably more power (and influence) than a union or conference president has in a European setting. Inevitably, the administrative model of church organizations is strongly influenced by the political system in the  region or country where they are located.

However, there are also lots of people who do not (or no longer) have power, but continue to have influence. Frequently, former politicians and people who have built an extensive social network during their career continue to have much influence. Likewise, authors, artists, academics, and those who work in the media, may not have the kind of power that policians or captains of industry have, but they may have a lot of influence, which they can use in such a way that those ni power cannot ignore what they are saying.

Similarly, there are many people in the church without any administrative power but with considerable influence. I am thinking of former church administrators, but also of others who over the years have built extensive social networks within the church.  I am also thinking of theologians and other academics, key preachers, who have become well-known, and of men and women who write blogs and books, who are visible at different forums and may lobby while at the sideline of the denominational administrative system.

More than ever before it is essential for the Adventist Church that those of us who do not (or no longer) have any power, use their influence. Today we see leaders (especially in the higher echelons of the church) who want to use their power to enforce uniformity and demand the implementation of particular policies. This may have catastrophic consequences. It is important that all those without formal power and authority, but with influence, who are  concerned about some tendencies in their church, will use that influence to encourage those who have the power to lead with more tolerance and with with more respect for opinions that differ from their own.

In the autumn the executive committee of the world church will once again debate the question what must be done with those church entities that refuse to comply with certain GC imposed policies, because their conscience tells them that it is morally wrong to discriminate between men and women, also regarding the issue of full recognition in the gospel ministry. I hope that all people with influence will in the coming months do what they can  to convince the church leaders to find a solution that is acceptable to all.

[I have no power, but I am determined to continue using the little influence that I still have. I hope that all those who have much more influence than I have, will use that influence in the coming months as intensely and strategically as possible.]

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.