Out of Adventism

My wife and I are currently spending some time in California. I had been invited to give a few presentations based on my book FACING DOUBT, first in San Diego and then in Glendale, near Los Angeles. A friend whom we got to know a number of years ago, and who visited us last year in the Netherlands, invited us to stay with her. I am now sitting at the kitchen table in her fabulous house in Redlands, not far from Loma Linda, writing this blog. We will have left from here to go to San Luis Obispo by the time this blog appears on my site. San Luis Obispo is a relatively small town some 400 kilometers Northwest of Redlands. I am scheduled to preach there on Sabbath and to give a presentation about the theme of my book.

Many of those who attend these presentations have already read my book or have at least heard about it. In the Glendale City Church my book has been used in one of the main Sabbath school classes during the previous quarter as a guide for the discussions. For me these presentations and the question-and-answer periods that followed, and also the numerous conversations of the past few days, were once again a clear confirmation of the fact that a large number of Adventists are stranded ‘on the margins” of the church, and that this group needs special attention.

Shortly before leaving on this California trip someone called my attention to a book written by a former Adventist pastor and theologian, Jerry Gladson. It is entitled Out of Adventism and describes how Gladson came to the decision, after a long process, to quit as an Adventist pastor and to become a minister in another Protestant denomination. I ordered the Kindle-edition. (Since I got a Kindle e-reader a few months ago as a birthday present from my wife, I am using it rather intensively). In between other things I read Gladson’s book during this past week.

I had never heard of this Gladson, but I hear from people in California that is he quite well known. After having served for a number of years as a church pastor he was invited to join the theological faculty of one of the colleges in the South of the USA (now called Southern Adventist University. He was given the opportunity to continue his studies and to pursue a doctorate in Old Testament studies.

Gladson describes in detail how he gradually began to question some traditional Adventist doctrines. A few chapters chronicle the tumultuous situation that followed the activities of Brinsmead and his followers and, subsequently, the controversy around the ideas of Desmond Ford. In addition, the church was confronted with people like Ronald Numbers and Walter Rea, who with the books called many aspects of the work and person of Ellen G. White into question. Gladson was not only trying to resolve many issues in his own mind, but became theologically more and more suspect. It is sobering to read about the process he went through, but it is absolutely dumbfounding to read about the toxic climate in some of these institutions for higher learning. ‘Spies’ would infiltrate the lectures of some of the professors in an effort to collect evidenced through recordings of their alledgedly ‘heretical’ views. Church leaders were all too often inclined to take sides with the conservative church members who urged that these theology professors would be fired.

Much of what Gladson writes about his pilgrimage through Adventism parallels my own experience. However, I worked in the Netherlands at the time of the controversies around Brinmead, Ford and Walter Rea and others, and there the conflict was much less bitter and did not make any casualties among the pastors. At that point the experiences of Gladson and my experiences were different.

Gladson decided, like many others, to leave the Adventist Church. The church lost many competent and fine workers as a result of the intolerance and often unchristian attitude of church leaders. In the past few years I have met many of them and listened to their sad stories. But I am glad to be able to say that I have also met many who decided to stay and who have done all they could to help improve the spiritual climate in the church. And I am grateful that, in spite my reservations with regard to certain doctrines and my aversion against particular trends in the church, I have found the strength to remain and to continue to play a positive role. However, books like Out of Adventism remind me of that fact that power play and intolerance continue to make victims and damage many good people for the rest of their lives. That made my reading of this book in the past few days into a painful and sad experience.

A theological toolbox

The Dutch publishing firm Boekencentrum recently published a book with a title that, literally translated, says: Having good tools is half the work.[1] The book has two authors: Professor Kees van der Kooi, who teaches systematic theology at the Free University in Amsterdam, and his wife Margriet, who is a hospital chaplain. I have become rather well acquainted with the content of their book, since I translated the text for the edition that will shortly be published by Eerdmans in the USA. The message of the book is clear: Christian spiritual care has much in common with spiritual care that is given from the perspective of another worldview or that pretends to be neutral. The Christian chaplain, however, brings more to his job than the skills and knowledge that every person needs who mentors or coaches people in crisis situations. He/she needs a good theological toolkit in order to do and say things that have a solid theological basis. This thesis is further explored in the analysis of some fifteen different cases from Margriet van der Kooi’s practice.

As I was focused on this topic, I happened to see a book in my library that I bought a few years ago in an Christian bookstore in Australia. This book emphasizes the role of the pastor as the theologian in his church.[2] A pastor must dispose of a good number of gifts and social skills if he/she wants to be a competent leader of his/her church. But the plea of the authors of this book is that a pastor should first and foremost be a theologian, who is able to feed his church members with good, theologically responsible, spiritual food and can lead his team in a way that has a solid theological undergirding.

I would like to extend the thread that runs through these two books a bit further, to include a specific group of people: leaders and administrators of church organizations—in particular the leadership of so-called ‘higher’ organizations. In the context of the Adventist Church this would mean: leaders of conferences, unions, divisions and the General Conference. In the past decennia much has been done to provide education for leaders through leadership courses and seminars and even full academic programs. These usually emphasize the techniques that are needed to lead rather complex organizations.  Those who have tried to keep somewhat informed about the subject matter the church-initiated courses usually deal with, will have discovered that in many cases they include topics that are also relevant for training sessions in non-church organizations and in the business world. To some extent this is quite all right, for, after all, the church is also a social organization, in which one encounters the same processes that are found in any organization. However, it should also be mentioned that the training that the church provides for its leaders does always stress the important fact that church leaders must be spiritual leaders.

Nonetheless, there is an aspect that is often not given the kind of attention it deserves. A church leader must also be a competent theologian who is able to execute the task that has been entrusted to him/her in a theologically responsible manner. He/she must not just have the skills to organize things efficiently, to chair meetings professionally, and to lead and enthuse a team of co-workers. It is also of crucial importance that a church leader/administrator is a theologian who is able to steer the church in a positive theological direction. He/she must understand current theological developments and either stimulate or resist particular developments in a theologically responsible manner. It seems to me that on its various levels the Adventist Church has many leaders who are ‘spiritual’ men and women, but at the same time are theological light weights. And this has its consequences. I cannot help but think of the former president of the General Conference and his current successor. The leadership of the former president was characterized by his solid theological background and, unfortunately, that cannot be said of at least some of the present leaders of the world church. Church administrators must always have their theological toolkit at hand in the execution of their task. If not, the church will suffer incalculable damage.

[1]  Kees en Margriet van der Kooi, Goed Gereedschap is het Halve Werk: De Urgentie van theologie in pastoraat en zielzorg. Utrecht: Boekencentrum, 2017    [2] Kevin J. Van Hoozer en Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.


Unity: a step forward

Last week the Adventist Review—the more or less official journal of the Adventist world—published a remarkable article about the questions that continue to stir the emotions in the Adventist Church. How do we proceed with the issue of the ordination of female pastors? And, an even more pressing question: Should the church take disciplinary measure against unions and conferences that, against the will of the General Conference, have decided to ordain women to the gospel ministry?

During the Autumn Council of 2017 the executive committee of the GC (of which all union president are members) a plan that had been devised by the top leadership of the church to punish the leaders of those organizations that do not abide by the church’s policies, was rejected after a lot of commotion. The majority of the 250- member committee was dissatisfied with the process that led to the proposal and considered the proposal itself as not carefully thought-through or even totally unacceptable.

The article in the denominational journal explained the process that must now lead to a new proposal that may go on the agenda of the Autumn Council in October of this year. It is hopeful that the church’s journal was quick to publish this article, giving all the details, and also that the committee that is dealing with this matter wants to guarantee absolute openness and transparency. The previous chairman of the Unity Oversight Committee, Tom Lemon, left this position. It remains unclear whether or not he did so under pressure from ‘on high’. He has now been replaced by Michael Ryan, a veteran church administrator, whom I know reasonable well and whom I would want to characterize as a no-nonsense pragmatist (which is not the same as saying that he is not spiritual or a politician!). In the process of preparing a new proposal, in order to break the current impasse, a broad inventory will be made of how leaders at all denominational levels think that the ‘non-compliant’ unions must be dealt with. A list with six questions had already been sent to all union president. They are asked to indicate what, in their view, should happen with those ‘non-compliant’ unions.

It is too early to predict whether this new approach will bring us forward. Personally, I would have preferred if the church at the General Conference level had opted for a more relaxed attitude. Would it not be possible to allow the passage of time to do its work? In the past there have often been significant developments, without endless meetings, congresses, study committees and GC-session votes. The matter of military service is a good example. There was a time when the SDA position was clear: Adventists are willing to respect the authorities, but carrying weapons and the possibility of having to use these for killing people, was considered as contrary to our understanding of the sixth commandment: ‘You shall not kill’. In some areas in the world this is still the Adventist position, but in other places Adventists more and more consider it an honor to defend their country, also in a combat role. I regret that development, but it shows that there may be a development in a certain area that leads to a diversity of practice, which can be absorbed by the church without too much tension.

Would it not be possible to allow unions, if they so desire, the freedom to operate with a one-credential-system, in which men and women have fully equal status and rights? And could we not allow other ‘fields’ in the world that disagree with such a development to continue with the traditional ordination practices? Can we not simply decide to see how matters will develop and re-evaluate the situation in a decade or so?

Some may object and say: Must we take so much time? I realize it is in the Adventist DNA to want to do things quickly. However, church history teaches us that ecclesial processes may take a long time. In the Eastern Orthodox world that question of the correct Easter date has always been a dilemma. One committee that was set up to discuss this question held annual sessions for over fity years! I admit: that maybe too long to our taste. But it seems a good thing to me to give ourselves—and first and foremost the Spirit—a bit more time than we are accustomed to do.


The Shack

From time to time one of my books goes missing. I usually fail to write it down when someone borrows one of my books. Occasionally a borrower may forget to return it. (I must admit that I also have a few books in my library that I borrowed, and that I have forgotten whom to return them to. And from time to time some books must be recycled to make place for new books.

I do not remember what happened to The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young. Some ten years ago I bought this book in a Christian bookstore in Sidney. I may have lend it to someone after I had read it. Anyway, it was not longer there when I looked for it. But early last month I happened to see it in Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the USA, and, as I write, the book lies on my desk in front of me. Worldwide some 25 million copies of the book have been sold. The Dutch edition sold over 25 thousand copies.

The book begins with the story of a little girl that is abducted during a family camping vacation. The police finds evidence that she was murdered in a deserted shack, somewhere in Oregon. Four years later Mack, the father, who still mourns his little girl, receives a letter inviting him to return to the shack. It seems that the letter comes from God himself. Very hesitatingly Mack returns to the shack, where he finds three persons: a black woman, an Arabic-looking young man and an Asian young woman. They present themselves as the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God in a totally different form from what Mack imagined God to be. In the long conversations that take up much of the book the three try to bring Mack to some new insights about God and to reconcile him with the terribly event that had happened.

The reviews of the book vary from ‘rubbish’ to ‘absolutely amazing’. Many readers felt the book was blasphemous, while many others say the book has immensely enriched their spiritual life. I am somewhere in between. I do not believe the book has significant literary qualities, but it has given me food for thought. The theme of human suffering remains relevant for all of us, and is addressed in this book in a creative and meaningful way. But the special value of this book is the way in which God is pictured.

It is perhaps not very shocking to see Jesus presented as a young Arab, even though most people are more familiar with pictures of Jesus as a white European of American young man. Of course, this is not what Jesus looked like when he was on earth. The Holy Spirit as a young Asian woman—what do we make of that? Most people do not have any mental picture of the Spirit. It remains mostly very vague who and what the Spirit is. In early Christianity the Spirit was often spoken of in female terms. However, God the Father as a beautiful black woman of about forty—for many readers this is simply a bridge too far. This is the total opposite from the way they picture God the Vader. Inspired by medieval paintings they imagine God as an old, white (!) male (!), with a long white beard. But why would it be all right to think of God as a white man, and not as a black woman?

A theology professor at an Adventist university once told me that, when he teaches a class about the Doctrine of God, and specifically about the Trinity, he tells his students that—beside several heavy theological books—they must read The Shack. He believes it is essential that students realize it is possible to picture the triune God in many different ways, but we can never get beyond human images. God is so infinitely different from us that we can never define him (?).  Even when we say that God is a ‘person’, we do not really know what we mean. The problem is that we can never describe the Indescribable One with our limited human vocabulary. We must carefully search for words and images that will lift us above our own human level, but as soon as we have said something about God we must take a step back and admit that it was no more than human stammering and that we have not penetrated into the mystery of God.

No, God the Father is not a black woman, but neither is he a gray-haired old man. He is God. He/she is my God, who in some mysterious way gives meaning and future to my life. And let us realize that, if we are looking for an image of God, as something concrete that we can hold on to, this image never represents the divine reality. For God does not live in our human ‘shack’, but in heaven (whatever that word may mean).


How will it happen?

At the end of the service in the church where I had preached last Saturday, I was greeting the people at the door. An elderly man in a wheelchair held back and waited till he was the last person in line. When I wanted to simply greet him and then move on, he told me he had a question for me. I had told him, he said, that I did not believe in a literal six-day creation some 6.000 years ago. I vaguely remembered that a year or so ago I had also met him and he had asked me questions about this.

Here was his new question: ‘Do you believe that many people will be saved and will be resurrected when Jesus comes?  Could there be billions of people who will be resurrected? Do you believe this can all happen in one day?  You told me that you believe that a long time was needed to bring everything into existence. Or do you also believe that God will need a long time to bring us back from death and to make the new world that we are waiting for?

I assured him that I firmly believe that God is the Creator, even though I do not know how and when exactly he created, and that I also believe in a life after this life and in a new creation, even though I have no precise idea how God is going to do this.

My brother in the wheelchair quoted 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:52.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. . . .

In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

So, what did I think of this? Are these texts not crystal clear? At first sight they seem straightforward but I must admit that I have many questions. How is this going to happen? OK, somehow God knows all those who are his, and somehow they will one day be re-created and live eternally in a totally new world. But what about those who do not belong to those who will “rise first”.  According to Revelation 20 they rise a thousand years later. Is “thousand” here a symbolic number? What do the trumpet and the voice of the archangel stand for? And why does God want those who rejected him to rise before they are annihilated in a second death? And what does it mean that the saints will have a role in the divine judgment? And why do those who are saved first go to heaven before they return to this planet?

I must admit: just as I have tons of questions about the creation of our world and the origin of the human race, I also have lots of questions about the future new creation. But these questions no longer worry me. I do not know how and when God made everything, and how he may have used the evolutionary process, but he is the Creator and I am a creature who owes him worship and loyalty. To know that is enough is for me.

And even though I cannot visualize and conceptualize how God is going “to make all things new”, I believe that at a given point in time God will intervene in the affairs of this world through Christ’s second coming, and because of his love and omnipotence I can entrust myself to him. It is enough to know that he is my God and that he will somehow take care of me. Being saved, I am safe with him.

My interlocutor was not totally satisfied. He clearly reads the Bible in a more literal way than I do. I have difficulty understanding the various texts as they read, and in linking them together in such a way that I can even begin to understand how God will recreate the world and bring his children back to life. But in faith I want to hold on to assurance that there is eternal life and that somehow, by his grace, that is what God also has in store for me. That conviction should be enough for me.