Yearly Archives: 2018

The eternal gospel

Matthew 24:14 is perhaps one of the best known Bible texts for Seventh-day Adventists: ‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come’ (NIV). It is a texts that seems to give us a clear direction. Just persevere a little longer and remain active! Then, when people everywhere have heard the message of Christ, He will return!

Yes, it seems straightforward, and yet it raises a number of questions. I will mention just a few of them:

  1. What is the gospel (the good news) that is to be preached everywhere? Is the ‘eternal gospel’ to be identified with the messages of the three angels that fly towards us in Revelation 14? And are those of my fellow-Adventists right who maintain that ‘the gospel’ must be defined as the specific Adventist interpretation of the biblical message?
  2. The question that follows directly from the previous one is: Is the task to preach the gospel to the world the exclusive assignment of Seventh-day Adventists? Or is it a common project for all Christians? I am glad that already almost a century ago my church stated its position in this regard. In the thick tome with all the policies of the worldwide Adventist Church (Working Pollicy) it is said quite clearly:  ‘We recognize those agencies that lift up Christ before men as a part of the divine plan for evangelization of the world, and we hold in high esteem Christian men and women in other communions who are engaged in winning souls to Christ. (Policy O 75). This is the official position of the Adventist Church. Unfortunately, many Adventist church members seem not to be aware of this.
  3. How far have we progressed with preaching the gospel? The strong growth of the membership of the Adventist Church (now almost twenty million baptized members) seems to indicate that things are going quite well. But other statistics give much reason for concern. The world’s population is increasing at an alarming rate. This is also true of the number of men and women who take leave of the Christian faith. Missiologists tell us that a century ago about thirty percent of the people in the world had in some way or another been ‘reached’ with the gospel. They also tell us that, one century later, the total population of the world has dramatically increased, and so has the number of Christians. But the percentage of people that have been ‘reached’ in a meaningful way in today’s world has static at the level of about thirty percent.
  4. The mission mandate is: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19). ‘All nations’—this phrase is not to be interpreted as referring to the just over 220 nation states that the United Nations recognize, but it refers to the many thousands of ethnic groups that are spread over the globe. God’s people consists of men and women ‘from every nation, tribe, people, and language’ (Rev. 7:9). This means that all barriers of culture and languages must be superseded. How well are we doing in this regard? Just look nearby. Dot we effectively communicate the gospel in the language of asylum seekers and refugees? And in the language of the millennials, for the matter?
  5. Will the job ever be completed? Even if the proclamation of the gospel would suddenly accelerate in a miraculous manner, we are still faced with the problem that on every single day some 300.000 children are born into this world. This amounts to some 110 million annually. How will we ever reach the point that all people on earth have heard the gospel?

It is not difficult to add a few more questions. To most questions I do not know the answers. But I try to simply hang on to the firm promise of the Lord that He will return! There is no question about that. And I am convinced that we must continue with telling others about what Christ can do for them.

And then? It is a matter of living the gospel. And trusting that God will somehow solve the problems that we struggle with. And who knows: He may have some interesting surprises for us.

Black and White

On September 22, 1943 the 66-year old Lucille Byard was brought by her husband to Washington, DC. She was suffering from liver cancer in a terminal phase. Through her pastor contact had been made with the Washington Adventist Hospital. The response had been positive: Lucille could be admitted. However, the request that Lucille would be admitted to the hospital had not indicated that she was black, and the rules of the (Adventist) hospital did not allow for admittance of black patients. When James Byard and his wife Lucille arrived at the doors of the hospital, after a long and tiring journey by train, the color of Lucille’s skin proved to be a insurmountable barrier and they had to find another hospital where Lucille would be welcome.

In his recent book about the history of racial issues in the Adventist Church[1]. Dr. Calvin B. Rock mentions this sad occurrence as one of the incidents that stirred the emotions among the steadily growing number of black Adventists in the United States. Dr. Rock (now retired) was a prominent black church leader, who served from 1985 to 2002 as a General Conference vice-president. As no one else Rock was able to acquaint us with the equally fascinating as tragic black (in a double sense) pages of Adventist History—the record of the struggle for equal treatment in and by the church and to have a fair share in the governance of the church.

I feel deeply ashamed to know that my church was much slower than most other Christian denominations in correcting the flagrant injustices Black members were subjected to, just because they were not White. Several of the earliest leaders of the church were ahead of their times regarding the issue of racial equality, but later generations of leaders tended to walk to a very different tune. Unfortunately, we discover time and again that all forms of racial inequality in the Adventist Church do not yet belong to the past.

Did we learn our lessons from this sad state of affairs in the past? In answering this question we much be careful not to fall into generalizations. However, sadly enough, once again the Adventist Church is slower than most other Christian faith communities with regard to discrimination. Today we still see discrimination in particular on the basis of gender. Even today men and women are not treated as fully equal in many parts of our church. The issue whether women, just like men, can be ordained as pastors hides the underlying refusal to fully emancipate women. As a member of the Adventist Church and as a (male) pastor this fills me with shame. The Bible texts that are usually cited fail to impress me. They were written in a very different social context. And those who refused to admit Lucille Byard and those who were against black leadership were also able to quote their Bible texts.

I have long ago concluded that such a use (or abuse) of the Bible is squarely condemned by the third of the Ten Commandments. It is a ‘taking of the name of the Lord in vain’ or: a scandalous misuse of the Word of God!  This commandment is not just about swearing but about linking the name of God to things that are utterly wrong and indefensible.

[1] Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity(Berrien Springs, ML: Andrews University Press, 2018).

‘Running’ for a leadership role

A friend recommended to me Robert Harris’ book about the election of a new pope . The book is entitled: Conclave, and is subtitled The Power of God and the Ambitions of Men. It is a powerful story, although it is not among the ten best books that I read in the recent past. However, it remains a fascinating topic: How does the Roman Catholkic Church elect its highest leader? All cardinals below the age of eighty convene in Rome and must decide with a two-thirds majority who of them will become the new pope. Of course, there is always much speculation as to who are papabili, i.e. who are considered the most likely candidates. During the conclave many prayers are offered to plead for the guidance of God’s Spirit, but that does not guarantee that the process is free from political maneuvering and that human ambitions play no role. Whether this is so omni-present as Harris wants us to believe must remain a question mark for the reader.

Every denomination has its own system for the election of its leaders. Like many other denominations that originated in the USA, the Adventist Church uses a nominating committee that formulates a proposal which must then be voted by a large representative body. This is true for all elected positions at all levels of the church, including the presidency of the General Conference. The rules of the churcb stipulate very clearly that any form of political activity ought to be avoided. The nominating committee must have the freedom to consider which candidate is the most suitable person for a given post, without prior consultations between members of the nominating committee or the open promotion of particular candidates. In any case, this is the theory, which does not always coincide with realty.

Why have I chosen this as the topic of my blog of this week? It was triggered by an article on the website of Spectrum, written by Matthew Quartey. It appeared last week with the title:  Should Ted Wilson Run for a Third Five-year Term? The use of the verb ‘run’ suggests an active strategy to seek  support in order to assure Wilson’s re-election. Quartey’s first argument is that Wilson will have reached the age of seventy in 2020 and that it would be highly desirable to choose a younger successor. But Quartey also leaves his readers in no doubt that Wilson has been responsible for a strong polarization of the church and that it is high time that a new wind will begin to blow. I very much agree, but this is not the point I want to emphasize.

Unfortunately, there are many indications that ‘running’ for a high church office becomes rather common. This is a serious hollowing of the procedures we profess to use. Moreover, if we feel there should be an opportunity for actively ‘running’ for an offices, others (and not only the incumbent leader) should also receive opportunities to do so. Undeniably, the incumbent has a very major advantage. He (unfortunately, we cannot yet say he/she) has the opportunity to travel the world and to acquire high visibility. Others do not have this opportunity, or, at least, to a much lesser extent. However, open competition between several candidates would be a disastrous development. We should do all to prevent a further politicizing of leadership positions. I have participated a few times in the Adventist ‘conclave’ during a General Conference session. I noticed many things that, in my view, could be improved. But actively ‘running’ for a leadership role is a very poor alternative.

Campaigning for a position is totally at odds with what should be the point of depoarture for those who want to serve the church. They are ‘called; in a process—if things go the way they should go—in which the Spirit of God as asked to show the way.

Is that too good to be true? In any case, the alternative is too ugly to even consider.

The Church We Love, Serve and Lead

This past week has been a very rewarding and inspiring experience.  I was one of a group of some 30 people who met for a few intense days in a hotel near San Diego. I was honored to have been invited and to be able to interact with a group of theologians, male and female pastors, and present and former church leaders. Our theme was not only a convenient slogan, but was the very soul of what this meeting was all about: The Church We Love, Serve and Lead: Best Practices and Strategies for the Future.

The meeting was a follow-up on the Unity Conference that was held last year in London, England. During that conference a series of papers was read that touched on some of the major issues with which the Adventist Church is currently struggling. Its special focus was on the response of church leadership at the highest level of the denomination to the fact that some church unions in the United States and elsewhere have ordained female pastors, or have expressed a strong dissidence with the continued gender discrimination in the Adventist Church. The General Conference maintains that ordaining women for pastoral ministry goes directly against the decisions of the world church and is evidence of a serious kind of non-compliance that must have punitive consequences.

This has given rise to all kinds of questions that were, either directly or indirectly, addressed by the speakers at last year’s Unity Conference.  Some of these have to do with the authority of the unions and of The General Conference, respectively. In the view of the General Conference the ordination of pastors is not solely in the jurisdiction of the unions; the General Conference maintains that it sets the criteria for ordination. Another aspect that was high on that conference’s agenda was the true nature of unity and the vital question whether this requires full uniformity.

Since that conference was held new developments have taken place. During the meetings of the full executive committee of the General Conference (during the 2017 ’Autumn Council’) proposals were introduced to enforce compliance with the rules of the church that forbid the ordination of women pastors. A document was introduced that caused much consternation, and in the end was rejected by a significant majority of the committee. It contained the idea that all committee members would henceforth be required to sign a loyalty document, with the explicit stipulation that they would comply with all decisions of the church. It was further suggested that presidents of organizations that were ‘non-compliant’ could be denied voice and vote in committee meetings, as long as their organizations are non-compliant. The manner in which this document was produced and sprung upon the committee members caused great dismay and many felt that there had been an intolerable amount of manipulation by top church leadership.

For many around the world it was a great relief that the proposals outlined in this controversial document did not pass. But this is not the end of the matter. A Unity Oversight Committee has been set up by the General Conference, with the clear intent of preparing a new proposal for the October 2018 Annual Council, that will, once again, focus on what action must be taken against non-compliant unions.  Our meetings in San Diego of the past few days dealt with our serious concerns about this matter. We asked ourselves what can be done to steer the church away from this non-compliance trajectory and to ensure that the church will no longer be sidetracked by the power struggle around non-compliance, but can, once again, give all its attention to the mission is charged with.

During our meetings in depth discussions took place about how certain processes took place in past years. It was felt that there is a need for a publication that reveals some very questionable processes and debunks some myths that have evolved. We spent hours talking about possible ways to disseminate vital information to the members of the ca. 350 member executive committee of our church. Our work was not some kind of conspiracy, but an honest attempt to contribute to solutions and to help bring about full gender equality in the church, with the understanding that not all church entities world-wide would deal with these issues at the same speed and in the same way.

I learned a lot in these past days. Some issues became much clearer to me and my desire to be involved with supporting my church received a new impulse. I thank the initiators of this week’s event for having invited me to this positive and decidedly spiritual event, and I pray that our work will bear fruit and will prove to be a blessing for the church we love, serve and lead.

Wholeness

Last week I started in Walter Isaacson’s  recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Earlier I read his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs. I enjoyed both of these books and this prompted me to also order Isaacson’s newest literary product. So far, I have read only one third of the 500-plus pages. The rest will have to wait until next week. This week I am away from home and I decided to travel light with only cabin luggage. I therefore took my e-reader along rather than a heavy tome that would fill most of my computer bag. The part of the book that I have read has certainly not disappointed me and I look forward to continuing my reading.

The story of the Italian master is fascinating. He was one of these blessed people who not only excel in one area of life, but make huge contributions in different fields, Not only was he a gifted painter, who gave the world the Mona Lisa, but he also was an accomplished sculptor and made name as an architect. In addition, he became a multifaceted scientist and a designer/inventor of all kinds of useful instruments as well as curious contraptions.

As I read I made a note of something that I thought would be useful for a blog. There was a strange paradox in Leonardo. One the one hand he spent lots of time in designing deadly instruments of war, which he wanted to be more cruel and lethal than anything that was on the fifteenth century military market. On the other hand, however, he was a kind-hearted animal lover, who was a passionate vegetarian. His reason was not a concern for his health, but his aversion against killing animals for human consumption. How do these two elements fit together in one and the same person?

This inconsistency that we see in Leonard da Vinci is found in an even more acute manner in people  in past and present who may be caring and loving spouses and parents, but are ruthless in their professional life. Well-known is the fact that several Nazi war criminals were great lovers of art. And Albert Konrad Gemmelker, the commander of the Dutch concentration camp Westerbork, had no qualms about sending thousands of Jews to the gas chambers in Germany. But at the same time he was widely known for his love for his cats.

This strange mix of contrasting character traits is found—though, fortunately, usually in a less extreme measure—in most human beings. Often our lives are fragmented or compartmentalized, and how we act and behave can be quite different depending on the circumstances. Christians are not exempt from this regrettable phenomenon. We meet men and women who appear to be committed and pious when we meet them in a church environment, but who operate in daily life in ways that are quite unchristian. I have noted in many recent discussions in the church that often the most orthodox defenders of the ‘Truth’ do so in decidedly unpleasant, unloving and intolerant ways. One wonders how love for the Truth can coexist with sentiments that often border on hostility or even hatred. (I must immediately add that not all so-called ‘progressive’ church members always show a truly Christian spirit when confronted with people who do not share their views.)

Faith in Jesus Christ means, among other things, that we allow Him to shape our character. For some, faith is primarily a matter of being right and ‘having the Truth’, while it should be first of all a matter of becoming spiritual, well-balanced, pleasant, loving men and women. Jesus said to the leper who came back to thank him for what he had done for him: Thy faith has mode thee whole (Luke 17:19, KJV). I do not often quote from the King James Version, but I cannot resist doing so in this case. For these words seem to encapsulate what Jesus wants to do for all of us: He wants to make us whole. In 1948 the World Health Organization defined ‘health’ in this now famous formula:  A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. In other words: true health equals wholeness. This is also true in the spiritual realm: spiritual health it is a state of wholeness in which all parts of our being are in tune with Christ.

I recognize that it is easy to see the inconsistencies and the lack of wholeness in the lives of others, while forgetting our own challenge to obtain this spiritual wholeness that is the essence of being a follower of Christ.