Rescinding a decision?

During this past week the Belgian-Luxembourg Conference held a two-day pastoral meeting in the Netherlands. They also invited Dutch pastors to attend. I was glad I was able to be there. Ever since a few years ago I interrupted my retirement to serve for some 18 months as the interim-president of that conference, I enjoy meeting with my Belgian colleagues. The theme for the study-conference was “Violence and Non-violence”. A number of presentations focused on biblical issues, some on historical aspects, and the last lecture dealt with how to handle non-verbal and verbal abuse in our churches. I had been ask to give a historical overview of the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, throughout its history, with regard to participation in the military and, in particular, regarding the long tradition of non-combatancy.

I had spent considerable time researching this topic, as this was an area of which I did not know all that much. The church was organized (in 1863) in the midst of the American Civil War, and the small denomination of just a few thousand members had to decide how to react to this situation. Although the standpoint of the leaders was not immediately crystal clear, it is fair to say that from the beginning of the Adventist movement there was a strong sense that Christians should serve their country and be loyal citizens but should first of all obey God’s law, which would not allow them to “work” on the Sabbath and to go against the sixth commandment that tells us not to kill any other human being. In many parts of the world, and especially in the United States, there has over time been a significant shift in this regard, and today a military career is a viable option for many young Seventh-day Adventists. I feel sad that in the process a significant aspect of our heritage is being lost.

As I was preparing my lecture, I was struck by two interesting facts that (I think) have a direct bearing on current issues the Adventist Church is struggling with. First of all, there is the question whether decisions that are taken by a General Conference in session must always be adhered to or may, at some later stage, be rescinded or disregarded by the church’s administration, if there is a strong conviction that the decision was not good for the church. The 1954 General Conference in session in the city of San Francisco decided that the principle of non-combatancy was of such importance that it should be included among our principal beliefs in the Church Manual. This, however, did not happen. Apparently, the editors of the Church Manual dragged their feet, and a few years later it was decided by the administration of the church that it would be unwise to put this in the Church Manual, as this would cause considerable problems for our members in different places in the world.  How interesting!  It seems that a vote by a GC session was not always sacrosanct. There is at least this precedent where such a vote was later disregarded. And the argument used is also of major significance. The consequences  for some regions of the world of that vote were thought to be serious enough to go against a decision of the world body. Could this precedent perhaps help us to see the San Antonio decision about the ordination of female pastors in a different light?  And could it also help the GC leaders to respond positively to the North American request to rescind the “compliance-document” that was approved during the recent Autumn Council?

And then, secondly, it occurred to me that the shift in our attitude towards serving in the military and towards bearing arms happened without any formal decisions during a General Conference session or Autumn Council. It simply was a gradual development that took place over time. The point is not whether or not I applaud this development. The point is that the church does not always define and re-define its positions by a process of formal world-wide debate and GC session votes. Some things just develop and change over time—not always everywhere in the same way and with the same speed. Would it not be much better to also allow the issue of the ordination of women to simply run its course and accept that changes will happen in different ways in the various regions of the world and at different speeds? Similar developments have happened in other areas without jeopardizing the world-wide unity in the church.

The recent Autumn Council paid a lot of attention to our denominational history (in some aspects in a rather bizarre way). But is would seem that this attention to the Adventist past was in many ways quite selective. I would urge the church’s administrators to also look at our past in order to find some inspiration for ways that would get us out of the present quick mire in which our church is at risk to sink ever deeper and deeper.

 

Hunger

As I returned from a preaching appointment last Sabbath I listened to the radio in my car and happened to hear a lengthy interview with the author of a recently published book about the long-term effects of hunger. Mrs. Tessa Rosenboom was interviewed about the project on which she reported in this book that she co-authored with mr. Ronald van de Knol and was published by Atlas/Contact. The title of their work—translated from the original Dutch—is: Baby’s of the Hunger-winter: the unexpected heritage of malnutrition.

The winter of 1944-1945 in the Netherlands was uncommonly severe. This created enormous hardships during the last phase of World War II, when normal food supplies were dramatically reduced. Especially in the Western part of the country people had to scramble for food and were often reduced to eating tulip bulbs or animal feed. Mrs. Rosenboom and her team embarked on a major, twenty year long, study to investigate whether the circumstances of this dreadful winter had any negative long-term impact on the children that were conceived and born during that period.  It was found that, in particular, pre-natal conditions played an important role. Unborn children of mothers who did not receive enough good nutrition during their pregnancy tended to have many more health problems later in their lives when compared to the population in general. They tended to have more heart- and blood-vessel problems, fell more easily victim to depression and stress and, perhaps surprisingly, also often had a smaller brain. The study involved a few hundred persons whose birth details were still available in the Amsterdam hospital where they were born. (I must count myself lucky that, though I experienced this terrible winter as a small child, I was conceived and born two years earlier!)

In the interview it was stressed that this study is not just important as a historical document, but also is a stern warning that hunger does not only produce temporary physical setbacks but also has very negative long-term results. At this very moment around the world there are great numbers of pregnant women who do not get adequate nutrition and there are millions of small children who are chronically malnourished. Just think of the war-torn country of Yemen, where food supplies remain stuck in the ports and simply do not reach the millions who are in dire need. What does that mean for the future of millions of people and for the future of that country. (I continue to read reports about Yemen with extra interest since I had, now almost twenty years ago, the opportunity to visit there during a ten-day inspection trip of ADRA-projects.)

Now, it could easily be argued that most food shortages and large-scale occurrences of malnutrition in the world are man-made disasters. But even though those of us who live in other parts of the world had no part in causing these catastrophes we are usually asked by various NGO’s for our financial contributions. I expect, before too long, to see a national television campaign on my television screen to address the hunger situation in Yemen. For many it begs the question: Should we always stand ready to help when people become the victim of circumstances that are caused by competing parties within these countries? From time to time we are confronted with an understandable degree of donor fatigue.

And yet, we must accept our responsibility when, for whatever reason, people are hungry. Usually those who cause (and do) the fighting have enough food but innocent citizen, and especially children, are the victims. And, nearer home—even in our prosperous Western societies—people may go hungry and need our help. Whatever else we think and say about the causes of this, Christ made clear that He comes to us in the hungry people of this world and whatever we do to alleviate the plight of hungry people, we actually do to Him.

I may not be good enough, but God is!

Lately I have spent considerable time studying the topic of the so-called Last Generation Theology. According to the supporters of this theory there will be only a small group of Adventist believers ready for Christ’ s coming. And this “last generation” must be perfect. In my recent book IN ALL HUMILITY: Saying “No” to Last Generation Theology, I explain why this view is not just wrong but also very dangerous.

The thought that ultimately just a very small minority of the people (also of those who confess to believe in Christ) is a persistent idea which makes many Adventists believers unsure or even desperate. How much hope can they have in the light of the statement by Ellen G. White that only one in twenty will be saved? Many keep asking themselves the question: “Will I belong to that “remnant” (see Rev. 12:17) that will be acceptable to the Lord? Will I ever be good enough to one day receive eternal life?

I have become ever more convinced of the fact that we must present the gospel as “good news”. There is salvation for whoever believes (Rom. 10:9). It is God’s greatest desire that all would enter his kingdom (1 Tim. 2:3, 4). This had led some to believe  that a God of love will not allow anyone to be lost. I find this view, that is known as universalism, very attractive. It seems to fit a lot better with a God of love than the idea that there will be an eternally burning hell fire. Fortunately, soon after their origin Adventists understood that there is no biblical ground for the idea that the “wicked” will suffer never-ending torture. However, it is clear that there have always been (and still are) people who consciously refuse the accept the offer of eternal life.

The Bible texts that speak of a “remnant” that will be saved should not blind us to the many Bible words which proclaim the good news that God’s house has many “mansions” (John. 14:2). However, living in one of these many “mansions” requires a personal decision. The statements about the “remnant” assure us that there have always been (and there will always be) people who make this good choice. Even though it may seem that in this world  faith is on its way out, we have the good news that God’s enterprise is not a lost cause. On the contrary. There will eventually be a multitude that no one can count (Rev. 7:9) and a enormous crowd from “all tribes and peoples, and from every tongue and nation” (Rev. 5:9) that will enter God’s new world.

This enormous multitude is als described in Rev. 7:4-8 in terms of the 144.000. This is a symbolic label for God’s people in all its completeness. The number is based on units of 12 and 10. Twelve is the number of God’s people and ten is the number of completeness! In other words: No one—absolutely no one—of those whom God counts as His, will go missing. This makes me think of the words of that beautiful English hymn: “There is a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” Many Adventist have not yet fully understood this. When push comes to shove, it does not depend on whether I am good enough, but on the certainty that God is good enough!

 

Will time do its work?

A few days ago my wife said to me: “Why, for a change, don’t you write this week a “pleasant” blog rather than all the time commenting on the situation in the church? Perhaps this advice was appropriate, but I should mention that she also very closely follows what is happening in the church, locally and world-wide, and in most cases shares my opinion.  I will, however, do my very best to honor her request next week, but his week’s events in Battle Creek do require some comments.

To be honest: I do wonder from time to time whether expressing my opinions on church matters does make much difference. I realize that I am mostly preaching to the choir. Of course, there are always some readers who simply want to discover what terrible heresy my newest blog contains, with a view to immediately airing this on their favorite websites (which I do not visit). From time to time people send me a message to inform me that someone said something negative about me on such and such a site, but I have ceased to worry about that long ago. The vast majority of my faithful readers are at the same spiritual wavelength where I am, and have the same concerns about their church. All the time readers assure me that my blogs and other writings encourage them. Together with other similar voices this keeps them going. They are happy to discover that there are others who think like they do, and dare to say so.

I must, however, admit that at times I find it difficult to remain optimistic. Watching last Sunday, until way past midnight (Dutch time), the live stream of the debate about the proposed measures against the “con-compliant” leaders and rebellious unions/conferences, and seeing the results of the vote, I wondered more strongly than ever before whether this is still my church. The next day I asked myself whether I should perhaps re-read my latest book FACING DOUBT: A book for Adventist believers ‘on the margins. In this book I try to encourage people who are ‘on the margins’ of the church to stay with the church, in spite of many negative experiences! Perhaps the book can also encourage me.

In the past few days a flood of communications have made it clear that the session of the Annual Council did not solve anything, but possibly further hardened the standpoints. There is no doubt that also in the coming period a good number of conferences and unions will insist on treating their female pastors in the same way as they treat their male colleagues. I hope (and this hope is, I think, justified), that their number will increase, in spite of the threats from the GC.

It seems undesirable that the protests against the decisions of the General Conference take the form of withholding funds that would normally be sent to the GC. Abuse of power from the side of the top of the church’s structure must not be answered with another kind of display of power: money. Loyalty towards the organization remains important, but when in certain instances the denomination’s structure totally ignores the conscience of constitutionally elected leaders of conferences and other organizations, it is justified (or even obligatory) to disobey GC policies and to deviate from GC approaches, regardless of the consequences.

Could it be that time will have to do its work? As the decades went by many ideas and practices have gradually changed without deliberations and decisions at the highest level. (A clear example is how the  church’s attitude towards military service and the bearing of weapons has shifted, without any formal decision by an Annual Council or a GC session.) This led to increased diversity in the church but did not endanger its fundamental unity. I would wish that the topic of ordaining female pastors would no longer appear on the agenda of GC meetings and that the church would simply accept how things in this regard will develop in the coming years. Is this realistic? Perhaps not so. very realistic, but it seems to me that the church has no other option if we want to stay together and not each time see a sharp divide between winners and losers.

In the meantime I have the privilege of focusing for a few days on something totally different. Last Tuesday my wife and I flew to California, where next Sunday I will officiate at the wedding of good friends. In addition, it will be great to see many friends and colleagues around Loma Linda and to relax for a few days after some very hectic months.

A flawed defense

A few days ago Adventist News Network(ANN), the official news channel of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, released a remarkable statement. Its heading was: “Questions regarding the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its leadership.”  It was, of course, no coincidence that this publication occurs just prior to the beginning of the Annual Council, the annual meeting of the denomination’s full executive committee, with representatives from all around the world. But it was rather surprising to see that the top leadership of the church apparently felt the need to publicly defend itself against a torrent of criticisms and accusations about its leadership style that is widely seen as less than democratic, top-down, and bureaucratic. The document strongly denies that the leaders exercise a kind of “kingly” power and are turning the system of church governance from a bottom-up democratic organization into a hierarchy in which all authority flows from the top downwards, and in which total “compliance” is required from all the constituent entities and their leaders.

On the surface many may find the document quite convincing (which is, of course, the intention), but closer analysis shows that problems are downplayed, important issues are ignored or misinterpreted, and that the concerns that have been expressed by so many unions and prominent church leaders are not taken seriously or, at least, not understood.

I was, particularly, struck by the way in which the Adventist process of defining doctrine was described in this GC statement.  I am quoting a few lines where a comparison is made with the Roman Catholic process of making doctrinal decisions.

The papacy is a system of centralized, top-down authority centered in an infallible pope and his cardinals. But in the Adventist Church authority flows in both directions, from the bottom-up and the top-down, through representatives who include at all committee levels women as well as men, and lay members as well as pastors. 

In the Catholic Church, decisions on doctrine are decreed by the pope and the top theologians of the church. In contrast, within the Adventist Church, the statement of 28 Fundamental Beliefs simply summarizes what members, based on their own Bible study, already believe. Only the largest and most representative gathering of leaders and lay members at the General Conference Session held every five years can modify this statement of beliefs, the Church Manual, and certain GC policies, because they affect every level of the church. . . .

This paragraph paints a picture that differs significantly from reality. The description of the process by which the Roman Catholic Church defines doctrine is a caricature of reality. For one thing: it fails to mention the important role of major church councils. But more worrisome is the description of how our own church defines or re-defines fundamental beliefs.  To say that the Fundamental Beliefs simply summarize what members, based on their own Bible study, already believe, is a far cry from what actually happens. If we just look at the latest revision of our Fundamental Beliefs in San Antonio in 2015, these re-statements were most definitely not a “summary” of what the members “already believe”. The changes were forced upon the church by the denomination’s top leadership, with little or no input from any prominent theologians, apart from some members of the Biblical Research Institute (that falls under the supervision of the General Conference).

I do not know who was responsible for drafting this recent defensive statement of ANN. We must assume that it was initiated and controlled by the GC leadership. Every organization has, of course, the right, to defend itself when it feels it is unfairly attacked. But when this is done with very questionable arguments, this adds to the rather widespread uneasiness about how the General Conference operates, rather than allaying the grave concerns of a vast number of church members around the world.