Yes, no–yes if, no unless

 

Last week the fourth and final meeting of the TOSC (Theology of Ordination Study Committee) was held in Silver Spring (near Washington, DC).  Just over one hundred committee members (pro- and contra Women’s Ordination [WO]) were supposed to finalize their advice to the General Conference executive committee. Unfortunately, no consensus was reached. And, to make things even more complicated than they already were, this last round of talks ended with three (rather than two) opinions: (a) those who are in support of WO; (b) those who are opposed to WO, and (3) those who support a compromise proposal.

Adding (a) and (c) produces an ample majority for those who support WO, either unconditionally or under some specific conditions. However, adding (b) and (c) gives an other substantial majority, namely to those who either reject WO completely, or will not support WO if certain conditions are not met. From the perspective of those who favor Women’s Ordination, as well as from the perspective of those who reject it, the result of this money- and time-devouring exercise is rather inconclusive and unsatisfactory.

During the past three months I have heard and read a lot about the issue of Women’s Ordination. It was  worrying to see how during the past few months a new element has surreptiously crept into the discussion, and has been embraced with passion by many of the WO-opponents. I refer to the so-called ‘headship theology,’ that was been imported from fundamentalist circles into Adventism.  We must in this respect think of the  influence of people like Bill Gotthard (do a little googling if you do not know the name), who had quite a following among Adventists, and Adventist theologians like the late Samuel Bacchiocchi. But, significantly, this philosophy has just in very recent times become more popular than ever.

At issue is the question whether men received a higher ranking in God’s created order than women. Yes, say those who defend this way of thinking. Adam was created before Eve was formed as his ‘helper.’ The apostle Paul, they argue further, makes it abundantly clear in 1 Corinthians 11:3 that the man is ‘the head’ of his wife. The order is:  God – Christ  – man – woman.

I am at a loss to understand how intelligent theologians can arrive at this conclusion. The chapters around 1 Corinthians 11 and the chapter itself seem to provide ample evidence that Paul reacts to various local customs and situations, that we only very partially understand. Such Bible passages surely should not be used to establish church policies that must be implemented universally in 2014.

Things become even more serious when some (academic!) participants in the discussion suggest a horrific answer when they are told that you might as well defend slavery, since, similarly to what we find in the case of the status of women, there are some New Testament passages that defend slavery.  Some will say that a mild form of slavery may actually not be unbiblical! Fortunately this goes far beyond what most anti-WO people would find acceptable.

The leaders of the denomination are in a difficult situation. Whatever is proposed during the coming GC session in July 2015 in St. Antonio (TX), will cause major controversy and bring a lot of turmoil to the church.

I am a fervent supporter of ordaining female pastors. I know the Bible texts that supposedly defend the unequal status of men and women, but I cannot deny one of the core principles of the gospel that we are all—whether we are male or female—equal in Christ.

But I am also a realist and I know that some processes may take a lot of time in a complex worldwide movement with enormous cultural differences and with distinct modalities in theology.

I believe it would, after all, be best if the ordination of female pastors would not be put on the 2015 GC agenda. That might well be the safest option. I my next blog I will mention some points that have gradually led me to that conclusion.

 

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A Bible and a bizarre funeral

 

‘This is the Bible Ellen White held in her hand, with an outstretched arm, during a half hour vision she had in 1845 in the home of her parents in Portland, Maine.’ The lady who gave me and a few others a visitor’s tour, some time in the 1980s, of the new General Conference building in Silver Spring, related this incident with considerable drama. She pointed to the large family Bible, printed in 1822, that weighed almost 20 pounds.

Until recently this bit of information was an inevitable part of what the visitors of the Ellen G. White Estate, in the basement of the denominational headquarters, were told. But by now it is clear that this story about the ‘Big Bible’ was a myth, that started circulating some fifty years after it  allegedly took place. It became part of Adventist folklore after John Loughborough mentioned it in his book on Adventist history. However, the proof that Loughborough presented was rather flimsy, and that was true for quite a few things of his historical recollections.[1]

As regards Ellen White, there continue to be many questions about what was and what was not true. Much of what has been written about her is far from objective. From the very beginning of her career Ellen White had many enemies, both in and outside the church, and people who did not appreciate her work often raised their unfriendly voices. This led to an avalanche if negative pamphlets and books and—more recently—of hostile articles on the Internet. Sometimes, the writers posed  serious questions, but there also were wild accusations that missed every basis.

On the other hand, Ellen White was often presented by her supporters—and in the official denominational channels–as a kind of saint, while many human aspects of ‘the prophet’ were overlooked. The historical sources tended to be used quite selectively. Often those who wanted answers to some very serious questions were viewed as nasty trouble makers, without receiving solid answers to their concerns. The apologists of the White Estate often were quite vague in their reactions, and for a long time remained very reluctant to give the public access to all E.G. White documents.

Much has changed. Those who today read the books that caused so much controversy as e.g. Ronald L. Numbers (Prophetess of Health [1978]), in which he explained that Ellen White’s ideas about heath were not as original as she had made her readers believe, and Walter T. Rea (The White Lie, [1982]), who accused Ellen White of serious plagiarism, wonder what all the excitement was about. The facts that were put on the table by these and other authors, are now generally accepted as simply part of Ellen White’s background.

No individual has contributed more to providing a more responsible and balanced picture of Ellen White than George R. Knight, an Andrews University  professor-emeritus of church history. His books (two of which have also been translated into Dutch) have corrected many false ideas about Ellen White

Next year will be the centennial of Ellen White’s death (July 16, 1915) and this  brings renewed attention for this co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Just a few months ago an encyclopedia appeared that is dedicated to her life and work.[2]  Terrie Dopp Aamodt, a professor of history and English at Walla Walla University (WA, USA), is in the final stages of writing a new biography of Ellen White. A few weeks ago an important new book appeared to which some twenty Adventist and non-Adventist scholars contributed.[3] Each of them presents one specific aspect of the person and the work of Ellen White as objectively as possible.

Reading this book I have learned quite a few things about Ellen White that I did not know. I remain convinced that Ellen White has been (and is) of great significance for Adventist believers and many others. But as the years have passed I have had to adjust some of my ideas about her and about the way in which inspiration apparently functioned. And I realize that I may have to change my mind further on some points, as the historical research continues.

One of the most remarkable things that I read in this new book relates to the end of Ellen White’s life.  After she died in her ‘Elmshaven’ home on July 16, 1915, a funeral service was held on the lawn of her home. Then her body was transported to Richmond, near Oakland, CA, where a few days later more than 1,000 people attended another memorial service. Subsequently, her coffin was put on a train for transport to Battle Creek, Michigan, where a few thousand people attended her funeral on July 24. At the close of the service Ellen White’s coffin was lowered into the family grave, where earlier two of James’ and Ellen’s children had been buried, and where James White had his last resting place since 1881.

Quite recently a rather strange extension of this train of events has come to light. Correspondence and other sources (as e.g. the administration of the cemetery in Battle Creek) have revealed that on the evening of the day on which Ellen’s coffin had been lowered into the grave, it was removed from that grave and brought to the vault of the cemetery, where it remained for 34 days. Then, on August 26, it was, in the presence of the two sons of James and Ellen once again buried in the family grave. Until today there is no credible explanation for this bizarre train of events. I had heard rumors about this burial-in-stages and was extremely curious as to what this book would tell me. Chapter 16 about Ellen’s death and burial was, therefore, the first chapter I read after I had obtained my copy of the book, signed by Numbers and Aamodt.


[1] John Loughborough, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists (Battle Creek, MI: Gen. Conf. Association, 1892).

[2]  Jerry Allen Moon and Dennis Fortin, red., The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2014;  1504 pp.

[3]  Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, Ronald L. Numbers, Ellen Harmond White: An American Prophet (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

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Difference

A bigger difference is hardly imaginable. During the past few months I have been a faithful attendee of the Loma Linda University Church. It is the largest local Adventist Church in the world. Not quite is big as the Yoido Full Gospel Church (the Korean Pentecostal mega-church with some 800.000 members and a weekly attendance of about 250.000 people in a wide array of services), but with about 7.000 members it surpasses the membership of the entire Netherlands Union. During the first service (9.00-10.15) and the second service (11.30-13.00) almost all of its 2.300 seats are occupied. The church has concrete plans to substantially enlarge the building in the near future.

Since the services are televised, the services follow an exact time schedule. The music (either instrumental or a large choir) is of high quality. Everything is projected on large screens. During the weeks that I visited the church, the speaker was invariably the senior pastor. He knows how to captivate his audience. He preaches without any paper (Perhaps I state this with a little jealousy, since after fifty years of preaching I still take 10 sheets of A5 to the pulpit when I start my sermon.) Everything breathes professionalism.

You can enjoy your anonymity if that is what you prefer. You can choose to be a spectator, without getting personally involved in any way. I have the impression that this is true for many of the attendees. But I must be honest: there are hundreds of volunteers who ensure that the Sabbath services run smoothly and the church’s many programs are organized. I have also discovered that the church has many activities for its children and youth. Moreover, almost every week some people are baptized.

However, last Sabbath I was in a totally different church, about 100 miles North-East of Loma Linda. After a drive along a beautiful road through the Mojave desert we arrived at a rather simple church structure: a one-story building that contained a meeting hall and a few other rooms. Prior to the service I asked the pastor how many people we might expect. ‘On a good day about one hundred, or possibly one hundred twenty,’ he said. I was to be the guest speaker that morning.

My wife and I had arrived early enough to be there at the beginning of the Sabbath School, at 9.30 am. To my surprise there we just two men when we entered. To my further surprise these were two black men. During the Bible study hour gradually the number of (almost exclusively black) people increased, and when I began my sermon at about 1.15 pm (!), it appeared to be ‘a good day’, for the church hall was almost full.

I had not realized that many of the Adventist churches in California are quite small: mostly white churches, but also predominantly black churches and Spanish churches and churches with a mostly Asiatic membership. In any case, we were most warmly welcomed in the Antilope Valley SDA Church in Lancaster, CA. At the beginning of the worship service the church members were invited to greet each other, which was a much more spontaneous and physical process than I had become accustomed to in the Loma Linda University Church.  No classical music with violins and cellos, but jazz-like music with instruments I tend to associate with New Orleans. My sermon may have been a bit tamer than a sermon of the church’s regular pastor. (But there were a solid applause after I had said ‘amen’ and I do not believe this was mainly inspired by the fact that at last I was ready to sit down!)

During the past few days I have repeatedly wondered: If I were to live permanently in California, would I want to become a member of a perfectly orchestrated church as the Loma Linda University Church, where the services have many elements that agree with me as a white, well-educated, senior European? Perhaps I would, for I prefer a worship service with style, that starts on time and ends on time. Or would I rather opt for a smaller church where people know each other and you sense that they belong together; and where all, or most, people are directly and actively involved in what happens on the Sabbath morning—even though there many be some aspects that are culturally distant to me?

What ensures that a group of people is in fact a community of faith? It is a question that is not easy to answer. Of course, cultural factors play an important role. But the crucial thing is that a real ‘church’ consists of people who are determined to be ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ and behave as such—people who do not only come to church as passive receivers, but are also intent on giving from themselves to others. Well, I am beginning to look forward to returning to my home church—the Adventist church in the Dutch city of Harderwijk—where, thank God, we still have a church organ (admittedly, hardly comparable to the Casavant Freres pipe organ with 7,036 pipes in the Loma Linda university Church), with Robert as our faithful and gifted organist. It is a church that, I believe, qualifies in many ways to be called a real community of faith.

 

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An American saint

 

A few weeks ago we could not miss the news that two former popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, had been officially recognized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church. But saints are not part of my world. Protestants still believe—and rightly so—that the Reformers of the sixteenth century were justified in resisting this Catholic dogma. After all, Christ is the only Mediator and he does not need the assistance of Mary or thousands of saints. Adventists have one further objection. They believe that these ‘saints’ are not in heaven but must still wait—just as billions of other people who have ever lived on earth—for the resurrection of the last day.

This explains perhaps why I hesitated before I bought a book about an American saint. But in the end my curiosity won the day and I purchased, two weeks ago, the book American Saint, the biography of Elizabeth Seton, written by Joan Barthel. Now that I have read the book, I certainly do not regret my purchase. On the contrary.

It would be an understatement to say the Elizabeth Seton was a remarkable woman. Her life started in the context of American high society in New York, in the final decades of the eighteenth century. She had a protected youth and a happy marriage that was blessed with four children. But things changed. After the bankruptcy of the firm in which her husband had a major share and, not long after this,  the death of her husband, Elizabeth went through a period of extreme poverty, in which she had take a number of boarders into her home to get some income and was largely dependent on gifts from others.

The factor that affected the rest of Elizabeth’s life most was her conversion to Catholicism. She left the Episcopal Church (the American version of Anglicanism) and eventually became the founder of the first religious order for women: the Sisters of Charity. The manner in which she succeeded in finding her way (and often pushing her will) in the Catholic male world of her time gives an extra dimension to this book.

The book is based on careful research but reads as a novel. Al in all, it is very much worth its money. But it has a special interest for an Adventist (like me) who likes reading about history. Around 1800 the total number of American Catholics was limited to about 50.000.  The anti-Catholic sentiment would reach its climax later in the nineteenth century, but Elizabeth was already experiencing how a person became a social outcast in America by embracing the Catholic faith.  The book offers an extremely interesting insight into this aspect of American history. It describes the anti-Catholic world in which Adventism originated and helps the reader to better understand the strong Anti-Catholic feeling that was to dominate Adventism ever since. This is, in particular, true for non-Americans who, two centuries later, wonder why this anti-Catholicism continues to be so strong in their faith community.

Was Elizabeth a ‘saint’? The Catholic Church officially canonized her in 1975. I cannot accept the theology behind the canonization process. But through the reading of this book I met a very special woman. She was intelligent, courageous, had some strong feminist traits, but was, most of all, an inspiring person of faith.  She was someone who lived for other people.  She was a very special woman. In short: I would call her a saint!

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Separate roads?

 

It has been an intense week. As I am writing these lines I am on my way back to California, after I had interrupted my three-month stay at the Loma Linda University for five days, in order to participate in a symposium in Germany.

During three long days I have listened to some twenty lectures and have participated in the discussions. The central theme of the study conference was the impact of World War I on Adventism—in Germany and elsewhere. A number of aspects were on the agenda: (1) the speculative prophetic interpretations which misguided the church in its expectations of imminent events; (2) the problem of military conscription and military service in the period around WWI, and the question how Adventists, with their traditional non-combattancy standpoint, were to relate to this; (3) the attitude of the German church leaders who, at the time, were prepared to accept far-reaching compromises to ensure the survival of the church organization; (4) the protests of significant groups of members which eventually led to the origin of the Adventist Reform movement; and (5) the broader issue of war and peace and the challenges this brings to the Adventist Church. It was my task, during the final lecture, to provide an analysis of the various contributions to the conference and to outline potential strategies for the future.

The days of the conference were very interesting and highly informative. But it also was a pleasure to meet, among the presenters, quite a few persons I already knew and to get acquainted with people I had, so far, never met. The most extraordinary aspect of this conference was that it was also attended by a sizable group from the Reform movement (among them the president of its General Conference). We were privileged to listen to two lectures from leaders of this sister organization that now has some 70.000 members worldwide. In these lectures they gave their perspective on what led, now one hundred years ago, to the schism between the Adventist Church and the Reform movement.

During the past week I have gained a much better insight in the events that occurred in the German church in the years 1914-15. It was repeatedly conceded by several speakers (and confirmed by a special declaration that was read on behalf of the current Adventist leadership in Germany) that a century ago unforgivable mistakes were made. But this, at the same time, raises the question whether indeed these mistakes remain unforgivable or whether the time has perhaps come to put an end to this painful episode in the history of our church.

When I looked at the list of the more than one hundred persons who had come to listen to the experts, I saw that there was another person from the Netherlands. The name did not ring a bell. When we made contact this person introduced himself as the pastor of two of the Dutch local churches of Reform believers. He is not of Dutch origin, but, after two years in the Netherlands, has an excellent command of the Dutch language. He preaches once or twice a month in a small Reform group that meets in a rented hall (de Roef) in Harderwijk. This is at a distance of less than one kilometer from the church in Harderwijk where the Adventist church meets of which I am a member.

So, there are two small groups of Adventists meeting each Sabbath at the same time in the same small town. Without ever having any contact. Brothers and sisters who do not know each other and never see each other. It simply does not feel good.

Of course, I realize that differences between religious groups are never only a matter of theological insights. We all carry a significant amount of baggage. We have our own history. We have our own perceptions of each other. We have our own prejudices and traditions. Perhaps there are differences in mentality. But we have much more in common than there are things that separate us.

I do not know whether this meeting that brought us together in Germany will produce any lasting results. Perhaps it proves to be a tentative beginning of a gradual restoration of trust and perhaps this study of the past may help us to open ways to a new future. If this symposium had been a small step on this path, it was more than worthwhile to participate in it.

 

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