Yearly Archives: 2019

Sorry, we were wrong . . .

On September 7 the College View Church in Lincoln (Nebraska, USA) celebrated its 125 years of existence. For this local church—the largest in the Mid-American Union—this was not just a time of celebration, but also an opportunity to take a critical look at the past. The leaders of this church made it very clear that in the past it had mistreated people of color. For a long time they could only sit on the balcony and at times they were even refused entry to the church.

Unfortunately, this church was no exception—and not just in the South of the United States. And even today the evil of racism has not fully disappeared, in spite of numerous apologies and statements which recognized that in many places the Adventist Church allowed discrimination and racism.

Of course, one might ask whether apologies, such as the one of the College View Church, are very meaningful. Should the current generation in a faith community, or people in society in general, apologize for what a former generation did? Must young Germans continue to say ‘sorry’ for what their grandparents did? Must I still harbor feelings of guilt for the fact that some centuries ago some of my countrymen earned a lot of money in the slave trade? Whatever one may think about this, it remains important that people know their history and are also aware of the ugly things of the past.

The fact that an Adventist church in the USA that celebrates a jubilee and uses this opportunity to openly state its regret about its racist past, is a good signal for other churches—and not just in the United States—that in the past have been guilty of discriminatory practices. Local churches do well to ask themselves from time to time whether they were perhaps times (either long ago or more recently) when they have allowed discrimination in their midst. Or whether discrimination perhaps continues to play a role—whether openly or underground. I think, for instance, about the relationship with groups of immigrants who have joined us in recent decades. Have we always welcomed them in all respects as our brothers and sisters? Of have we, at times, felt threathened by them and have we felt rather superior to them?

There is a group of people that unfortunately—also in my own country—continues to face serious discrimination. I am referring to the LGBTQ community. In many cases they do not find a ‘safe’ church, where they are truly welcome and where they can fully be what they are, and where their sexual orientation is not a serious barrier. Yes, we will have to accept that not all church members think alike about the meaning of some of the oft-quoted anti-homo texts in the Bible. But we cannot accept that this leads to discrimination of people who have a non-hetero sexual orientation. Significant numbers of men and women have left the church because they did not find a warm welcoming community, where they could be who and what they are. Are there perhaps local churches that want to say in all honesty: Yes, we were guilty of discrimination and we will do all we can to put a stop to this?

John Wesley and Ellen White

It stood already for a number of years in one of the book cases in our living room, amid numerous other biographies and autobiographies. After I bought it, I read some 50 pages, but for some reason put it aside. Last week I looked at it again and decided to give it another go. And I found it quite fascinating. I am speaking of Roy Hattersley’s biography of one of the greatest religious leaders of modern times: A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley (2003).

Wesley was one of the founders of Methodism—a movement that emerged from the Anglican Church and spread to many countries around the world. Today a number of denominations belong to the Methodist family of faith. Worldwide the movement has some 40 million members. The United Methodist Church in the USA is the largest entity with about 12 million members. Methodism is of special interest to the Adventist community, as there are many similarities in beliefs and practices. In addition, we should note that a number of early Adventist leaders, including Ellen G. White, had a Methodist background.

John Wesley, and to a lesser degree his brother Charles, defined early Methodism and remained a source of inspiration and an object of admiration for all Methodists. A certain amount of hagiography has colored the views of many Methodists regarding their early history and regarding John Wesley as the movement’s main founder. Books like that of Hattersley are needed to correct this. This particular biography is fair and, as far as I can judge, sympathetic but quite objective. Wesley is described as a ‘normal’ human being—as a man with great gifts but also with serious weaknesses. He could shift quite often in his theological views. He defended the possibility of perfection, but did certainly not achieve this goal himself. He was in many ways quite authoritarian and was less than straightforward and successful in his relationships with women. But, in spite of his weaknesses, he was a giant of faith and was able to lead tens of thousands of men and women to Christ. What strikes one more than anything else is his unbelievable capacity for work. It is estimated that he traveled (mostly on horseback) between 400.000 and 500.000 kilometer. During the 52 years of his itinerant ministry he preached about 40.000 sermons, an average of more than two sermons a day, besides many other activities, such as meetings with other leaders and writing scores of books. What may have helped him greatly was his ability to read while riding a horse!

So, when one speaks of Methodism, the name of John Wesley will inevitably be mentioned. Movements are often directly linked to the vision and leadership of their founder. This is also true in the Lutheran world. Martin Luther not only gave his name to the many religious communities that are represented in the Lutheran World Federation, but he remains in high esteem among Lutheran believers and his books remain a source of inspiration in Lutheran theology. Calvin holds a similar position in the Reformed churches. But in none of these religious movement the founder has become (and remained) the sole arbiter of what is considered sound doctrine and a true Christian lifestyle. Some of their ideas are rejected. Many have been modified as time went on.

It makes me wonder: Why can Adventists not look at Mrs. Ellen White—one of the main founders of their church—in a similar way? No one can deny her important role in early Adventism and her abiding inspiration for later generations of Adventists, until today. But, so it seems to me, we are making a mistake when we put her on a pedestal as the person who has the final answer to just about everything. I wish we could begin to look at her in a similar manner as the Methodists look at Wesley, the Lutherans at Luther and the Reformed at Calvin: as a leader used by God—to be admired for her important contribution to the founding and early development of the Adventist Church and to be valued as a continuing source of inspiration. Not as less, but also not as more than that.

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:

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:

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!