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.

 

A decisive moment in the history of Adventism

Adventist historian George R. Knight[1]believes we have reached a defining moment in the history of Adventism. What does the future hold? Will we still be a church in which power flows from the bottom upward, or will we have to accept that a hierarchy of power dictates in detail from above what all members of the church worldwide must believe, and which rules and regulations each denominational entity and institution must obey? Will we still strive for unity in diversity, or will uniformity be imposed by a control system that takes punitive measures against all who are considered to be out of line?

I find it increasingly difficult to understand how things got out of hand in the way they did. The decades of discussions about the ordination of women pastors had at long last led to a majority view that there are no real biblical objections against WO. This at least was the outcome of the TOSC process, even though the GC decided to discard the work of this 100-plus member committee. Nonetheless, the GC session of 2015 was asked to vote on a motion to allow world division to agree with the ordination of female pastors in their territory, if they felt the time to do so had come. This was, in fact, a further recognition of the fact that there were no real theological objections. There would, of course, never have been a proposal to give divisions the option to discard the Sabbath or to go their own way with regard to some other crucial issue. However, no such theological objection seems to have existed with regard to the ordination of women.

We know what was decided in San Antonio in 2015. The process was highly flawed and many delegates voted against the motion because they had not fully understood its intent. A few unions felt (and feel) that the ordination of their female pastors is a matter of conscience and that they therefore can no longer discriminate on the basis of gender. I can somewhat understand that the leaders of the General Conference find this rather difficult to deal with. But I completely fail to understand their continued attempts to place these unions and their leaders in the dock and enforce compliance. It is extremely unfortunate that the matter has degenerated into an ugly power struggle. And in recent months further oil has been poured on the fire by devising a system of ‘compliance committees’ that looks very much like a kind of inquisition.

Never before has there been so much open protest prior to an important meeting of church officials as we currently see. Publications and open letters from a number of unions plead with the members of the GC executive committee, that is to meet within days from now, to stop the unfortunate process that has been initiated.

Wherever I have been in the past months and have spoken with church leaders and members, I have met with the same question: “What do you think will happen at the meeting in Battle Creek?” I can only say that I do not know how things will go, but I fervently hope that everything will end well. I am not about to leave my church. But I have lost much of my respect for some of the top church leaders and I am deeply disappointed at recent developments. I agree with a retired church leader who recently told me: “The church did survive the Folkenberg debacle and I trust that, with God’s help, the church will also find a way to survive the Wilson debacle.”  Together with many others I hope and pray that the church will emerge without further damage from the current crisis rather than sink into an ever deeper ecclesial quickmire.

 

[1]See his recent publications and a recent interview: https://spectrummagazine.org/interviews/2018/most-serious-issue-church-has-ever-faced-interview-george-r-knight

Encounters

This blog is written while I am just outside the Australian city of Brisbane, where I am one of the main speakers during a camp meeting of the South Queensland Conference. It is a huge event with several thousands of people in attendance, housed in a large city of tents and caravans. Since I have never really enjoyed camping I am happy to report that there are also a few motel units and that my wife and I were been given one of these. The meetings and activities take place in three big tents and some smaller buildings on the camp grounds. My assignment consists of seven sermons and five seminar-type presentations. In other words: I have a significant role without being overburdened.  The conference staff is doing all it can to make our stay pleasant and comfortable.

Apart from the official duties an event like this gives the opportunity for lots of personal interactions. It is gratifying when people come to tell you that what you said resonated with them. I had that experience many times during the past week. At the same time, it is also to be expected that some will come to express their displeasure. But so far there has only been one person who told me in no uncertain terms that I am part of Babylon. Good, traditional, Adventists know exactly what that means.

Lots of things are going on during this week, with programs for many different age groups. But there is plenty of time to meet people and spend time with friends and/or make new friends. It always surprises me to meet people—in other countries and even on the other side of the worlds—whom I know. It was a real pleasure to meet up with two former colleagues, who also worked for a number of years in the division office in the UK: Roy Richardson, who served in Europe as a leader in the ADRA-network and my good friend Peter Roennfeldt, whose innovative work inspired many pastors and church members all over Europe. Presently, Peter is retired, but he is as busy as ever. People seem to think that I am still quite energetic, but I am slow and lethargic when compared with Peter Roennfeldt. It is good to see that in recent years he has written some powerful books that are well received.  We also met pastor Laurie Evans and his wife. Laurie served as the president of the church in the South Pacific and I met him at many international church meetings.

And then there are quite a few people who come to tell me that they have friends or family in the Netherlands, who are Adventists, and wonder whether I know them. In many cases I do. Others simply want to have a chat and want to tell their story. Others again want to know my opinion about certain issues. This can be tricky, as I usually do not know the context of the particular problem. By now I have had sufficient exposure to this kind of thing that I know how to handle such occasions without getting involved in some controversy.

A very special extra in this week was the possibility to visit dr. Desmond Ford and his wife in their home, some 60 km away from the camp. I had never met “Des” (as he is called by those who know him) in person. At almost ninety his mind is still as sharp as ever. He is a remarkable man. I happen to agree with many of his views, but even those who don’t see eye to eye with him theologically, will have to agree that he has manifested a truly Christian spirit in his decades-long interaction with a church that rejected him.

All in all, this week has been a remarkable experience. It showed me a side of the church that totally differs from what happens in the church elsewhere and from the kind of issues that will be discussed during the upcoming Annual Council of the General Conference. Here, at the BIG CAMP in Brisbane I see a church with an abundance of vitality and with lots of “normal”, down to earth but committed, Christians. It was a privilege to be among them and serve them.

PS 1.  The other night we saw—just about 50 meters from our accommodation a coastal carpet python. He was about 1.50 m.  A snake handler was called who picked up the snake to bring him elsewhere.

PS 2.  Should you want to hear one of the sermons that I preached in this past week, go to ca. 0.58 on this youtube film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32QO4T6v1Gk&list=PLHProf_kWWEO6JEc4h8ZdNQZekEhs6h8O

What is a real “crisis”

It is true for both Spectrum and Adventist Today that the website of these independent news and opinions journals are read by far more people than the print-editions they produce. It is also a fact that the articles on these website often result in dozens or even hundreds of reactions from readers. This was also the case with my latest article (about a week ago) on the website of Adventist Today, that was entitled: Our Turn to Fundamentalism & How it Led to the Current Crisis. I argued in this piece that our increasingly fundamentalist approach to the Bible and the fact that the administrators of the church are more and more intent on formulating “pure’ doctrine, with less and less input from professional theologians, are among the primary causes for the crisis in current Adventism.

One of the comments on this article came from my British friend Victor, who combines love for his church with a sharp analytical mind and the gift to phrase his standpoints in very clear language. He suggested that I should see things in their proper proportions. He agrees with me that Adventism is going through a rather tumultuous time. He argues, however, that I must qualify the term “crisis” somewhat further. For how serious is this “crisis” in our church in actual fact in comparison to the enormous crises that have a global impact and to some of the crises in the society in which we live? He poses the question how many of the circa twenty million Adventists worry about who is getting ordained as a pastor when they get up in the morning. He compares this with the hundreds of thousands or even millions of people who are caught in the path of destructive hurricanes. That, he says, is a real crisis. And he points to the millions of men, women and children who live in abject poverty, and the millians of Syrians who no longer have a home and have had to flee the regime that mercilessly kills its own citizens. Those, we read in his commentary, are real crises!

Of course, I enjoy reading reactions from readers who fully agree with me and who tell me my article was very good. At the same time I expect at least some reactions from people who have do not appreciate what I write. But there is little I can do with these kinds of comments. On the contrary, reactions such as the comment of the above-named Victor are valuable. I must admit that I am often so absorbed by my church-environment that I fail to see things that happen there in their proper perspective. Unfortunately we have, as a church community, elevated navel gazing to a sublime art and, as a result, often take too little notice of what occurs in the world around us. [Or many of us simply conclude that all the misery in the world is the work of the Evil One, and that the best way to do something about this is to proclaim the “three-angels’ messages” more vigorously, and thereby “hasten” the Second Coming.] As human beings—and more specifically as Seventh-day Adventist Christians—we have a responsibility in and for the world. This implies among other things that we should not invest all our energy in the (un?)spiritual internal ecclesial controversies.

Admittedly, a large majority of Adventists worldwide know very little (let alone: have a clear opinion) about the passionate discussions among leaders and theologians. And we may wel ask the question: “is this a real crisis”? We must be careful not to compare apples with pears. The crisis in the Adventist Church is not of the same order as the worldwide poverty crisis. But it is, I believe, a real crisis. For the future of our church is at stake. Is the church gradually being transformed from an organization in which the members decide on important matters (with these decisions being implemented by those who have been elected to leadership positions through a democratic process), to a system that begins to show more and more similarity with the system of governance in a church that we have always strongly criticized? Do we want to remain inactive when we see how large numbers of church members leave our ranks, because they no longer feel at home in their church, and do not feel seen and heard? Above everything else: we are dealing with issues of conscience. Is the term “crisis” too big a word when we take all of this into consideration?