Back in Zeewolde

 

Our first week back in Zeewolde has almost ended. Our jetlag was, for some reason, probably a bit more severe than usual. It was a strange experience to skip the entire spring. We left for California when the winter had hardly ended, and now, upon our return, it is fully summer. But it is not difficult to pick up things where we left them And a not unimportant detail: our car started as soon as I turned the key. In fact, we simply transitioned from one pleasant phase to the next.

I have used the past few days to get a good grip in the things I plan to do in the coming months. I have appointments for some presentations and lectures, for a good number of sermons and have some plans for travel. But our first major project is our vacation (late July to early August) with our son and his family in Sweden. In addition, a few writing assignments are awaiting completion. All in all, quite enough to spend the rest of the year without any fear of boredom.

Today I spent most of the time working on a sermon. It gave me real satisfaction to focus once again on a new sermon. I did miss my regular Sabbath preaching appointments in my Loma Linda period. (But this was largely compensated for by the inspiring, alternative Sabbath school sessions that are initiated by dr. David Larson and dr. Roy Branson.) The sermon topic is the doubting John the Baptist, who wonders, while in Herod’s prison, whether he had been wrong all the time about who Jesus is. Then it deals with the reply of Jesus to John’s disciples and what this answer could mean for us when, at times, we wonder whether we can still rely on our faith and our church. In hope that on July 5 the church members in the Zeeland church will recognize some of their own experiences in my sermon and may find some helpful points in what I will say.

When last Monday I visited the office of the Dutch Adventist Church in Huis ter Heide, I was given a copy of a new book by Ellen White that I translated into contemporary Dutch. I would have liked to make the language even more contemporary, but I also needed to keep the expectations of the average church member in mind. Working on this book once again made me think about some aspects of Ellen White’s inspiration. This book (Christ’s Object Lessons) is a commentary on Jesus’s parables. It does not deal with any theological issues, but is of a purely devotional nature. Ellen White wrote the book in the context of a fund raising campaign that was to ease the debt burden of some of the schools of her days. While translating I often wondered in what ways this book essentially differed from the work of many other authors who have written on this topic. And at times it seemed to me that several people that I know could also have written such a book. But in that case, of course, the book would not have been inspired. Or would it? Anyway, it was good to see that the book looks attractive and that it is now available. Hopefully it will be a blessing for many readers.

I have now almost finished reading Hillary Clinton’s book (Hard Choices) about her four years as the Secretary of State of the USA. It has reinforced my feelings that she might be a good American president. However, what I think in far-away Zeewolde about her virtues and competencies will not have any influence on what happens in 2016.  I will, however, closely follow the election process, since I have always been keenly interested in American history and American politics. But, besides what I might think about Hillary and her political future, I found this book highly informative. It gives an excellent survey of trends, leaders and events around the world. Therefore I would highly recommend this book also to my fellow-Dutchmen.

 

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WO and soccer

 

I wrote in my previous blog about the last round in the meetings of the TOSC (Theology of Ordination Study Committee) and the confusion that has resulted from these deliberations. I also wrote that I have gradually concluded that it would be better not to put this item on the agenda of the Adventist world congress of next year, since I believe that both a decision ‘for’ as well as a decision ‘against’ might lead to very unfortunate situations. And my view that ordaining or not ordaining woman has much more to do with culture and tradition than with theology has been confirmed.

And why would we, in fact, need a vote of a world congress? The issue of ordination has a lot of aspects that have never been put to a vote during a world congress. For instance: How long must candidates for ordination wait until they will be ordained?  World-wide practices differ sharply. In some areas new ministers are ordained as soon as they have successfully completed their internship. In other areas of the world they may have to wait up to ten years, and sometimes even longer. Which men are eligible for ordination? Only those pastors who are directly involved in pastoral and evangelistic work? Or can we also ordain theology teachers and church leaders with an administrative task, even if they may have had minimal theological training? There have been many differences in our practices. But we have never felt that we needed to regulate these things through a vote at a General Conference session.

I am a passionate supporter of the ordination of women. I wished we could all agree on this, rather today than tomorrow. (In my view any discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong, even sinful.) But even if next year’s world congress would open the possibility of ordaining female pastors, it will take many years before this would actually be a world-wide practice. One simply does not change this kind of tradition by making a large congress vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. These are complex processes that often require a lot of time.

In December 2012 I wrote an article in Ministry magazine, the journal for Adventist clergy. It focused on the question whether or not the next General Conference session should decide to sharpen the wording of the Fundamental Belief nr. 6 about Creation. [1] I argued strongly against this bureaucratic way of dealing with doctrinal issues. Much of what I said in that article would also apply to the issue of Women’s Ordination.

We can point to lots of things in our church life that developed over a considerable period of time and have (with our without a formal stamp of ecclesiastical approval) become part of what we do and believe. We may, for instance, think of how many of our views regarding sports, culture and recreation have changed. (See e.g. my blog of 21 February of this year about competitive sports.)

In the early days of Adventism there was little appreciation for the doctrine of the Trinity. It would take dozens of years before the Adventist Church accepted the view that had long been standard doctrine in most Protestant churches. But there came a point when faith in the Trinity was so generally accepted in Adventism that it could become part of the Fundamental Beliefs. There was, however, no world congress where delegates from all over the world voted that henceforth we were all supposed to believe in the Trinity. This is simply not how it works!

What happens if next year we would not take a final vote on the ordination of women? As I said earlier, there will be church entities that will decide that in the future they will no longer allow for any gender difference in their ordination policies. And there will be union and divisions that will not (yet) go that route. But gradually the panels will shift. Undoubtedly, there will be persons (and groups) who will continue to protest, but the problems will, I believe, be far less serious than they would be  after a ‘yes’, ‘no’, yes if’ or ‘no unless’ vote.

I realize that lots of things may yet happen before the delegates travel to St. Antonio. And in the mean time our attention will also be drawn to the reorganization of the church’s publishing work in North America–and possible to other matters.

And what about me? My wife and I are on our way back to the Netherlands—after a very pleasant and exciting three months in the US—with Hillary Clinton’s new book ‘Hard Choices’ in my hand luggage for reading on the plane, and looking forward to the ‘Orange’-enthusiasm  of a country that hopes to be the soccer world champion. I know absolutely nothing about soccer, but I do understand that the Dutch team is already assured of a place among the last eight teams that will further compete in the quarter-finals, etc. The time for my first meeting on Dutch soil (Monday evening) has been changed because of the next game in which the Dutch will play. Temporarily, for most Dutch Adventists soccer is more important than any church business!

 

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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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