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? 

Wanted: Theologians

When attending a doctoral defense and hearing the liberating words from the jury that the doctoral candidate may now call himself/herself “doctor”, I cannot help but wondering whether it was worth all the efforts that went into the doctoral project. Last Wednesday it was no different, when I attended the ceremony for my friend Wim Altink, who successfully defended his thesis in the Faculte Universitaire de Theologie Protestante (FUTP) in Brussels (Belgium). His thesis dealt with aspects of the status of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Revelation. I have great admiration for the fact that Wim was able to complete his doctoral work while holding a full-time job and in spite of experiencing major challenges in his personal life.

I must admit that from time to time I have wondered whether my own ambition to get a PhD was worth it.  It was not an easy process. And, to be honest, I did not really need it, as I was not in an academic position and was not planning to move into full-time academics. What practical use did it have to become a doctor in theology? Looking back, I must admit that the practical use of my title has been limited.

Nonetheless, I do not hesitate to encourage others to follow people like Wim and myself and aim for a doctoral degree. The very process is extremely worthwhile. Apart from increasing one’s knowledge about the topic of the dissertation it has significant value. It demands rigorous thinking, and being extremely well organized. It develops critical thinking and tests one’s perseverance. Going through that process is an enrichment and gives great satisfaction, even if few people will ever read the dissertation.

Quite a few Christians (Adventists not excluded) express doubt about the usefulness of obtaining a doctorate in theology. Does it make the new doctor a better preacher? A better shepherd of the flock? Is there not the possibility (or even the likelihood) that all this study leads to a loss of faith rather than a strengthening of one’s personal faith? These questions are certainly relevant. But I want to briefly emphasize another aspect.

A denomination must have a good, balanced and dynamic theology. This also applies to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Theologians are servants of the church and play an important role in formulating and critically developing the church’s doctrinal understanding. The church must not depend on just a few theologians of a certain kind, but on a wide range of theologians who approach their theological task from different perspectives. They nourish the theological thinking in the church by their dialogue, their lectures and publications, and in their interaction with the church at large. In other words: they must help the members of the church to think theologically in a sound way and to grow in their understanding of the implications of their faith.

Currently, the Adventist Church faces a number of serious problems. One of the core issues the church presently struggles with is that the administrators of the church feel that they must be the protectors of “correct” theology. If they seek advice in theological matters, they look for that advice in a small circle of theologians who are known to be conservative. This process is in the way of responsible theological developments. Theology is a project of the entire church, led by theologians who represent the entire (Adventist) theological spectrum.

The church needs capable administrators. But the church needs just as much (or even more) dedicated theological minds that will guide and encourage all church members (including administrators) on their pilgrimage toward an ever better understanding of who and what God is, how He relates to us and how we may better serve Him. Therefore: We continue to need more theological specialists. It is good to see that Wim decided to join the theological brother- and sisterhood. May many more women and men follow on that path!

 

With the LGBTI in Vienna

This year I will celebrate my birthday in Vienna. No, this is not a weekend-trip to a European city that I get as a birthday present. My wife and I are a few days in Vienna as guests of the Kinship organization, which this year holds its international congress in that city. I have been asked to give a number of presentations and to preach the sermon on Saturday morning. Kinship is an international organization of (mostly) Adventist people with an “alternative” sexual orientation—thus we nowadays tend to label as LHBTI or a variance of these letters.

In actual fact, I am “second choice” as the speaker, for the person who had in first instance been invited was told by his employing (Adventist) organization that his job would be at risk if he were to accept the invitation. How tragic. But, regardless of whether I am “second choice”, I have gladly accepted the invitation to be  in Vienna with the LGBTI-particpants at this congress, and a group of “friends”. I hope the people will be blessed with what I have prepared.

Some twelve years ago a similar congress was held in a conference center in the South of the Netherlands. I had been invited by the Kinship-leaders to come and give a number of worships. They added that they would understand if I would decline the invitation. At the time I was the president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. I received the assurance that they did not require me to agree with all the Kindship standpoints.  This meeting became a life-changing experience for me. I knew at that point very little about homosexuality and “alternative” sexual orientations. I had not studied the topic in any depth and my (rather negative) attitude was mostly shaped by the anti-homo climate that was quite general among Christians (and certainly among Adventists) in the Netherlands of previous decades. During the days of that congress I had the first real opportunity to listen to the stories of men and women (I do not think any transgenders were present) of how their orientation impacted upon their lives and how they, more often than not, were not welcome in the Adventist Church—let alone that they could play an active role in their church. At the end of those days I still had many questions, but I did have a very different picture of the challenges the LGBTI community in my church was facing.

Now, many years later, I know a lot more about the LGBTI subject. Recently I even wrote a brochure about it.[1]I have given presentations in local churches and pastors’ meetings about the topic in a number of countries and participated in study conferences. I am still left with questions. As a heterosexual male I continue to find it very difficult to understand what it means te be attracted to another male. I still have some theological questions, but gradually I have become convinced that the Bible does not equate homosexuality with a loving, committed, permanent and exclusive relationship between two persons of the same gender, who are simply unable to enjoy a meaningful heterosexual relationship.

Unfortunately, I continue to see in my church a great lack of understanding and acceptance of “brothers” and “sisters” who are “different”. But I am happy to also see more and more positive signals. I hope to continue to make a small contribution towards a full integration of those who have an “alternative” sexual orientation. Gods fully accepts them. How can we do otherwise?



[1]Little Alphabet Theology.  Copies may be requested from: buildingsafeplaces@gmail.com. The brochure is available in English, Dutch, German, French and Swedish.

 

Inspiration in Belgrade

I was tempted to skip this week’s blog. I am at the European Pastors’ Council in Belgrade and the days are quite full. But over the past few days literally dozens of colleagues from countries all over the Trans-European Division have told me that they are faithful readers of my weekly blog, and thus it seems I must also write a short piece this week.

I am enjoying this pastors’ congress and appreciate enormously that the TED has invited me to be here, even though I have now been retired for almost eleven years. It is great to somehow still “be part of it”.  Meeting many old friends is a great joy, and getting to know others is an extra bonus. And contributing in a limited way to the program gives a lot of satisfaction. Yesterday I presented a workshop on “Criteria for a Healthy Church”, which was well attended. And since nobody walked away half-way through the presentation, I assume it was reasonably well received. This afternoon I will do two workshops, one on “Last Generation Theology” and one on “Changing the Church”. A good number of people have chosen to attend them.

I must admit that I have not attended all meetings. Early in the mornings and in between meetings I have done some writing on a new book. And there must always be moments to get away from the crowd and have a good cup of coffee with friends. But, before you get the impression that I am not overly involved with the overall-event, let me assure you that I have greatly appreciated the preaching that I have heard thus far.  On the opening night pastor Ted Wilson was the speaker. I must admit that his sermon was pretty good—much to my relief, because I found some of his sermons that I heard in the past pretty hard to digest. On Tuesday evening Wilson preached a biblical sermon that was very much in tune with the theme of the congress: Connect-Change-Inspire. There were just a few EGW quotations. My only problem with the sermon was that his words, which emphasized the fact that the church needs all of us, are not easily matched with some of his administrative initiatives.

As I write, I have also listened to pastor Ian Sweeney, the president of the British Union, pastor Gifford Rhamie, a lecturer at Newbold Colleges, Dr. Daniel Duda, a departmental leader in the Trans-European Divisions, and pastor Anne-May Müller, a pastor and departmental leader in the Danish Union. Sweeney is one of the best preachers our church has. In 1996 he won the prestigious London Times preaching award, and listening to him this week I had no difficulty understanding why he came out in first place.  I had never heard Gifford Rhamie preach; his sermon was impressive, in terms of structure, delivery and content. And, of course, Dr. Daniel Duda will always surprise with new ideas and new perspectives on old stories.

For me the entire debate about women in ministry is decisively settled when I hear how some women pastors preach the Word.  A few months ago I listened in San Diego to a worship by Dr. Kendra Haloviak, one of the first women to be (illegally) ordained in the USA. Last night I listened to Anne-May Müller, who preached a superbly crafted sermon that had a powerful message for her colleagues. When an issue arose in the early church about the status of gentile Christians in the church, Peter and Paul gave as their most powerful argument for the full inclusion of gentile Christians that the Holy Spirit made no distinction between the Jewish and gentile believers. Hearing  women as Kendra and Anne-May preach, I can only conclude that the Holy Spirit does not seem to favor male over female speakers. And that is probably the most powerful argument for having an inclusive ministry, with men and women sharing the same status.

I need events like this pastoral congress for my own spiritual benefit.  I see many things in the church that I do not like. I worry about the future of my church when I hear about General Conference plans to enforce uniformity and even punish those unions that are not fully “compliant”.  But when I talk with colleagues from all over Europe I realize that I am not alone in my fears and concerns, and that there are many who have not given up on their church but will continue to work for change and renewal. That certainly helps me to keep going and to remain hopeful!

 

Anger, dismay and optimism

I started my day in a perfect mood, but that was soon to change. One of the first things I usually do after I get up is to open up my laptop and read the headlines of the news and check whether there is any church news. The article by Bonnie Dwyer, the editor-in-chief of the Adventist independent journal Spectrum, was in this last category. In this article she reported the vote of the General Conference committee to establish—even before the deliberations in the forthcoming Autumn Council—an elaborate systems of committees that must oversee whether church administrative entities and institutions, and church leaders, are in compliance with church regulations.

It is important to recognize that the GC committee that took this decision is not the full GC Executive Committee, with representatives of divisions and unions, but consists of the group of leaders who are stationed in Silver Spring and are part of the apparatus at the church’s headquarters. This immediately raises the question why such an important decision was made at this point in time, just weeks before the committee with world-wide representation has had the opportunity to discuss the document that supposedly will form the basis for the control-task these five new committees are to perform.

The five new committees must ‘oversee’ whether the official beliefs, statements and decisions of the church are adhered to. This concerns the general doctrinal teachings of the church, but in particular the areas of creation vs. evolution, homosexuality and ordination of women. Apparently, these are the topics which the leadership of the church at Silver Spring considers as having the highest priority. It has already been observed—and rightly so—that there is no mention of the Fundamental Belief of the Trinity, which is more and more under attack, and of the heretical teaching of the Last Generation Theology.

There is much that could be said—and no doubt will be said in the coming weeks and months—about these new developments. I hope and pray that during the Autumn Council a majority of the Executive Committee will have the courage to disapprove of these developments. These new measures are as much top-down as one can possibly imagine and flaunt our democratic principles. Moreover, the members of these five committees will all be, without exception, part of the administrative machinery at the church’s headquarters. The Biblical Research Institute, which is manned (!) by conservative theologians, will have an important role in these committees.

When reading this article this morning, my first reaction was one of anger. Bus as I was writing this blog my anger gradually changed into a feeling of dismay. How could our church reach this deplorable situation? How is it possible that the leadership of a faith community tries to impose with force (and threats) in such a top-down manner its views and interpretation on the entire church?

Nonetheless, also today I will try to remain optimistic. My hope is that during the Autumn Council this plan will receive severe criticism, or will disappear altogether. And I believe that, if this does not happen, this control mechanism will prove to be a paper tiger. Such an administrative control mechanism will soon suffocate in the ecclesial bureaucracy.  However, in the process some (and maybe many) people will decide to leave the church, since they feel they are no longer allowed to think for themselves and can no longer breath freely. For those who are not (or no longer) paid employees of the church all this is one more reason to continue protesting against this top-down coercion and to speak out for an Adventist church where unity may be experienced in diversity—in theology and church practice.