Seventh-gay Adventist?

 

A short item in a recent Dutch newspaper. A Roman-Catholic priest in one of the southern provinces of the country refused to baptize a baby. Why? Because the parents are a lesbian couple. The priest concluded that his conscience did not allow him to perform the baptism. A colleague in another parish, however, was willing to baptize the infant. The bishop commented that the priest had not asked the advice of his superiors. He has the freedom to use his own judgment, even though he may, under these circumstances not have acted in the wisest possible way, the bishop added.

In any case, Adventist preachers will not face this particular dilemma. The Adventist church does not baptize infants, regardless whether the parents are homo or hetero. But Adventist pastors increasingly face similar problems. More and more often Adventist ministers face the question how their church thinks about same-sex matters, and must ask themselves what they think themselves and what choices they will make.

I know of a number of cases that currently play out in the Adventist Church, in the Netherlands as well as in Belgium. Can a lesbian woman, who has been living for years in a stable, monogamous relationship, be baptized and become an Adventist church member? Must we tell a homosexual couple that wants to receive a blessing on their relationship, that they ‘live in sin’ and that therefore the church cannot bless them? Can an Adventist homo safely come ‘out of the closet’ and retain his/her responsibility in the local church?

The discussion about homosexuality and everything that relates to it has hardly started in the Adventist Church. The church is still too busy with the commotion surrounding ordaining female ministers, and the problems concerning a literal six-day creation. But in the meantime it is clear that the questions regarding same sex relationships (which according to many Adventists are unequivocally condemned by the Bible) can no longer be ignored.  It is also clear that these various issues have one common denominator. It is the basic question: How does one read the Bible? Can you only read the Bible in such a way that you have little or no room for maneuvering in these matters? Or can you, in good conscience, (and with the unwavering belief that the Bible is the Word of God in tact), also read the Bible in a way that leaves room for a non-literal approach that also takes into account that we live today in a world that starkly differs from the world of Bible times?

Not too long ago I saw the film Seventh-gay Adventists—a fascinating documentary that followed three Adventist same sex couples over a period of some years. The film pictures in a clever, sometimes surprising, and often sad, manner what homosexual men and women must go through when they want to be full members of the Adventist Christ.

One of the partners of one couple asks his brother who is an Adventist pastor, to officiate at their marriage ceremony. He goes through a lot of inner turmoil. He does not know how to handle this situation. But, eventually, he decides to respond positively. ‘Because,’ he says, if I make a mistake, I rather err at the side of humanness and mercy, that that I make a mistake by giving too much emphasis to rules and organizational policies, without due regard for real people of flesh and blood.’

It will be a while, I guess, before we can have an open discussion about these matters at all levels of the church, in all countries and in all cultures. There is indeed a great number of theological, cultural and historical issues to consider. Might it be that, for the time being, we could follow the example of the two Dutch priests and his bishop, who stated that the priests could make their own independent decision in this matter.  Could it be possible that we give the Adventist minister, and the individual Adventist congregation, the same kind of space and freedom? I suspect that most of those with a ‘different’ sexual orientation will understand that not all pastors and church committees will, in good conscience, come to the same judgment. But it may, at least for now, provide a pragmatic and yet spiritually responsible way out of many terrible dilemmas.

It may be that my thinking may change again in the next year or so. It has changed in many ways in the last few years. I continue to struggle with several aspects. But I have concluded that always saying ‘no’ when brothers and sisters with a ‘different’ sexual orientation want to be full members of the church, is no Christian option.

 

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Theology or power struggle?

With mixed feelings I studied, earlier this morning, the reports of yesterday’s special one-day constituency meeting of the Pacific Union (the administrative unit of the 215.000-plus Adventist church members in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada en Utah). With 79 percent of the votes in favor, and 21 percent against, a motion was approved that in the future ordination of pastors will be open to men and women.  After a similar recent decision by the Columbia Union (in the North-East of the US), this is the second major administrative unit that chooses to depart from the policy that, until the very last moment, the General Conference (the highest administrative unit in the Adventist Church) had been pleading for. A similar decision was recently taken by the North-German Union.

I am delighted with the outcome of the meeting, (which was not unexpected, in spite of heavy resistance from men (yes, of course: men) like Dough Batchelor, and in spite of the fact that the president of the church, Ted. N.C. Wilson, together with two of his vice-presidents, addressed the delegates in person with a view to protecting the unity of the church and to urge the Pacific Union to wait with unilateral steps until the ongoing process of study and decision by the world church would have been completed.

It seems, however, that the General Conference leaders had expected that the outcome would be negative (from their perspective), for just a few hours after the meeting in California ended, a bulletin was already published on the website of the Adventist Review, signed by the three officers of the world church, in which the decision of the meeting in the West of the US was deplored and it was announced that the church would have to react in some way to this development.

Yes, I am happy with yesterday’s outcome, and so are many with me. It is time that the church will end this nasty form of discrimination, that, according to the majority of Adventist theologians, is not in line with the Bible, and that many members can no longer, in good conscience, support. But it the same time I am saddened and deeply disappointed about the fact that the church finds itself in the present situation.

Something that, first of all, is a cultural matter, has been turned by many into a burning theological question. Of course, we do have to deal with the underlying question: How do we read the Bible? This is an issue that is at stake in many different discussions, and it demands the church’s attention. But it is deplorable that the ordination of women has slowly but surely become the key issue in the debate between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’, that may well split the church.

For a long time the world church has failed to come to any decisions regarding the ordination of female pastors and has appointed one study commission after another. In the meantime is has become extremely difficult to discover a clear line in the official statements and decisions. It is OK to have (ordained) female elders in those areas of the world that are open to this. Churches are also free to appoint female deacons and to organize a suitable service of induction (whatever that means).  Female pastors may receive a blessing (we call it ‘commissioning’). They are allowed to baptize and lead out in the Lord’s Supper. But they are excluded from a number of (administrative!) positions and they may not be ordained. That poses the question: What is ‘ordination’ exactly? Is it a ‘sacrament’ that may only be administered to certain categories of people? What then is the real difference between the ordination of a pastor and the ordination of an elder? (Some biblical arguments, please!) Most ‘ordinary’ church members cannot follow the reasoning that forms the basis for the current praxis. But what they do understand, loudly and clearly, is the basic fact that somehow women are not yet quite the equals of men. And many of them feel that the moment has come to protest against this state of affairs and to be no longer satisfied with promises that the church is engaged in a thorough, comprehensive study and that a decision will be forthcoming by 2015.

But the most deplorable aspect, I think, is that the matter of WO (Women’s Ordination) has developed into a power struggle. The decision by the three unions is seen by some (many?) as ‘rebellion’. A few weeks ago Wilson threatened with (undefined) sanctions against the unions that refused to follow the policies of the world church. Is this pastoral concern or ‘power-speak’? Many regard Wilson and his team as the ‘losers’ in this struggle and feel that their prestige as world leaders has clearly suffered. For many, the top leaders of the church are engaged in a rear guard battle. It is part of a process, they feel, that has been going on for considerable time. Increasingly, members want to see that many aspects of the church’s policy making takes place at lower levels, where local circumstances can be taken into account, and they no longer translate the concept of unity in term of uniformity. It is not easy for the leadership of the church to deal with the current impasse in a wise (and spiritual) manner. Unfortunately, the impasse has, to a major extent, come about as a result of the fact that the church has failed to adequately address the issue, mainly out of fear for reactions from the non-western regions of the church. Fear causes serious long-term problems. Courage, linked with tolerance and understanding for those who look at things from another cultural perspective, may often prevent situations such as they one we currently face.

The other day I read a comment on an article on a pro-WO website that invites further thought. The leaders of the church have invited us to be open to a process of ‘revival and reformation’. In Bible times, justice always was a key concept when prophets spoke about reformation and revival. When the Spirit descends on God’s people, there will be a deep desire for justice. Could it be, that the conviction that it is time to end the injustice towards women is a (perhaps unintended) fruit of the ‘revival and reformation’ to which we were called?  It might very well be.

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Reality

This past week a major part of my time has been devoted to the reading of the final page proofs of the devotional book that I have written and that will appear around October 1 (in Dutch), with the title Een Kwestie van Kiezen (A Matter of Choice).  Today I hope to scrutinize the pages for the months of November and December.

This work was interrupted by a long, but productive, weekend in Belgium. On Saturday morning I preached to an audience of some one hundred people in the Francophone African Church in Brussels. They have found a place for their worship in a recently renovated building of a Protestant community, not far from the city center. The Adventist group that meets there consists to a large extent of folk who have come from Rwanda. My (French) sermon was, therefore, translated into Kinyarwanda. To my amazement, the French translation took about twice as much time as I needed. Nonetheless, I must assume that my translator gave a reasonably correct version of my sermon.

In addition to a few visits with a predominantly social character, and an important meeting on Monday, we took time for some touristic activities. My wife accompanied me during these days and for that reason we had decided to include a few private items in our program. So, we visited the Atomium and the Magritte museum.

For some time I had been planning to visit the Atomium. It is now 54 years ago, during the World Fair in 1958, that I first visited this impressive structure. Since then I had just looked at it from a distance. To have a coffee in the highest sphere in this fabulous structure, at a height of more than 100 meters, with a magnificent view over the city and its surroundings, was well worth the 8 euro entrance fee (including senior rebate).

So far neither my wife nor I had been to the Margritte museum, in spite of our reasonably frequent visits to the enormous, but rather pompous building of the Natural Museum of the Arts, where also the Magritte museum is housed. The museum is exclusively dedicated to the famous Belgian surrealistic artist, René Magritte (1898-1967).  Magritte exceeded our expectations, with regard to his enormous creativity, the multi-sidedness of his work and his workmanship as a painter.

There is one facet that has stayed with me since the weekend: the connection between the Atomium and the work of Magritte. Both offer a particular perspective on reality. The Atomium is a representation of a tiny piece of reality, that we cannot perceive without technical instruments. The iron structure that was erected in Brussels in 1958 consists of nine interconnected spheres, each with a diameter of 18 meters. They are at a distance of 29 meters from each other. Together they represent the crystal structure of an iron atom—but enlarged by a factor of 165 billion! The Atomium represents a small piece of reality, yet in a manner that leaves us with something that no longer is that reality.

Magritte treats reality in his very own way. He looks at it through the prism of his own imagination. As a surrealist he is in search of a subjective reality behind what he perceives at first sight. This imagination can add a dimension and give special meaning to what he sees. It is no longer a matter of exact representation, but about feelings, associations and ideas that are evoked.

Giving it some further thought, it would seem to me that a Christian may add something important to this. The ideas and associations that emerged in the  creative genius of Magritte were not inspired by a Christian view of reality. When one looks through the prism of faith at reality, one, first of all, realizes that ultimate Reality is known by God alone. We can only see in part, and we need all kinds of instruments to give structure and meaning to what we see. But, most of all, we need the sacred imagination of faith, a kind of spiritual, biblically informed, surrealistic perspective on Reality. Only then will this Reality open up some of its meaning to us. Or am I wrong?

 

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Comments and Smoutebollen

 

A ‘blogger’  must not only expect to receive comments from visitors to his blog, but should welcome them. I can assure you, I do. In the last two weeks I have received many more comments—mostly by e-mail—than I used to get. My last blog (‘Nykobing decides the future of the church’), in particular, caused many to react.

‘Was it really necessary,’ one reader wrote me, ‘to mention the name of this Danish church?’ Another reader in de US—an employee in the headquarters office of the church in Silver Spring, commented: Indeed, ‘the most important decisions don’t happen in Silver Spring. I so agree! It’s what happens in the individual congregations. Some regions are so on fire (Inter-America, South America, Southern Africa-Indian Ocean), while others are so close to death they don’t seem to be breathing (North America, Europe). It’s sad, so sad. You hit the nail on the head, and I appreciate it.’ A reader from Sweden told me he had forwarded the blog to the editor of the journal of the Adventist Church in his country, with the suggestion that they publish it . . .

Well, maybe I should say ‘sorry’ to the members of the Adventist congregation in Nykobing. I hope that, if they read the blog, they do understand that this was not an attack that was specifically targeting them, but that I only took it as an example of an, unfortunately, rather common state of affairs.

Making the blog bilingual resulted immediately in a substantial increase in the number of unique visitors and page views. But other adaptations in the presentation of the site did also not remain unnoticed, such as the plan to publish the text of articles that I wrote in past years. ‘Ministry Magazine’ notified me that I need to ask fort heir permission if I want to re-publish articles which I wrote for them, since they own the copyright. I have now asked for this permission (and received it). Soon these articles will be accessible via this site.

The communication department of the church in Britain reminded me that they have two video interviews with me in their archives and suggested that I might alert my readers to this. Well, for those who are curious, here are the links:

http://www.hopetv.org.uk/content/media-library/media-story/ml/in-conversation-series-4/reinder-bruinsma//12/ and http://www.hopetv.org.uk/content/media-library/media-story/ml/from-the-archive/bruinsma-book-review-1998/9/6/

I will ask my son how I can mention these links somewhat more visibly (and less cumbersome) on the site. And there may be some other, similar, interviews around. About two years ago I was interviewed by the Rumanian Adventist Church television channel (in English) for a program of about one hour. I suppose I could locate that somewhere.

But this must wait a little, for today I am back in Brussels. My vacation has come to an end, and yesterday evening I got in the car to drive to Brussels for a few days in my temporary job in Belgium. The trip took me a bit longer than expected. For about a month I had not used the small diesel car that the Belgian church has put at my disposal, and I had repeatedly filled the tank of my own car with Euro 95. That is what I did yesterday evening at about twenty miles from my home. The emergency service had to be called. It costs me an extra 100 Euro and two hours. But today I was able to forget this misery. I was told that there is at present a large fancy fair close to the Brussels South Station. One if the attractions is a stall with most delicious  Smoutebollen or Croustillons—a small variety of what the Dutch call oliebollen (a kind of doughnut hole, but more special than that). For sure, an unexpected treat during my first day back at work!

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Nykøbing decides the future of the church

The future of the church is not going to be decided in Silver Spring. In spite of the endless study commissions that must formulate an advice for the church’s governing bodies about such issues as the ordination of female pastors or the further tightening of the ‘fundamental belief’ about the six-day creation. In spite of the audacious (or what other adjective might I use?) plans to distribute millions of copies of The Great Controversy, and in spite of a new thrust to bring ‘the message’ to the big cities. In spite of all the meetings and initiatives, the millions of dollars and the media efforts, the future of the church is not going to be decided at the church’s headquarters in Silver Spring. No, the future of the church is decided in Nykøbing in Denmark. Let me explain.

Last Saturday my wife and I visited the Adventist Church in Nykøbing, some 100-kilometer south of Copenhagen. For several weeks, while on vacation, we had not been to an Adventist Church. So, we decide that on our way back from mid-Sweden to the Netherlands we would make a stop in Denmark to spend a leisurely Sabbath in this lovely country that so much resembles Holland, and go to church. A quick search on the internet provided us with the address of the Adventist Church in the town where we had booked a room for two nights in a modest three-star hotel.

We found the pleasant, modern church building, and we parked our car next to the seven or eight vehicles of fellow-worshippers. A few more ‘brothers and sisters’ arrived and at eleven o’clock on the dot the worship started. All together there were probably about thirty people—one girl was possibly around twenty, the rest was closer to my blessed age. There were some indications that ‘normally’ (i.e. outside vacation time) some children would be present, presumably with their parents. But when we were there, no child was anywhere in sight.

Our Danish is good enough to understand what was going on, to join in the congregational singing and to get the main thrust of the rather dull sermon that was preached by a pleasant man in mid-life—probably the elder of the church. We were greeted by several people in a very friendly manner, even though no one really tried to start a conversation with us when the service was over. A little lemonade in a plastic cup was available in the foyer, but to say that this was part of an exuberant social event would be stretching the truth considerably.

As we left the church and set out on our afternoon ride through the surrounding countryside, my wife and I happened to voice the same question: Why in the world would the people in Nykøbing want to join the Adventist Church in their town? What could possibly attract them there? What would, in particular, motivate young people to look for a spiritual home in this local Adventist Church? We could not think of an answer.

I may be doing great injustice to the Adventist church members of the Nykøbing church. Admittedly, we visited during the holiday season, when things tend to be slow. There may be more to this church than met our eyes. But, I rather doubt it. And after having visited many local congregations in many countries in Western-Europe (and in the US, for that matter), the question keeps coming up with ever greater urgency: Is there enough on offer in most Adventist churches to keep the people that are there, let alone to attract new people in any serious numbers.

I am a member of a 50-member church in the Netherlands (Harderwijk). On the average I attend once every six weeks, as I am usually out preaching myself. I enjoy coming there. I have come to know the people. There is a pleasant atmosphere. I feel welcome. But now, image that I came there, because I happened to spend a few days in the area. Or because I moved to this town and was looking for a church to join? Or because I popped in out of mere curiosity? Would I find enough to make me come back? To feel that what happens there is relevant to whom I am, to where I am in life, and to what I am looking for?

The future of the denomination does not primarily depend on the big issues that are currently debated in our headquarter offices. In final analysis, the future of the church—in particular in the West—depends on whether it succeeds in being relevant; whether its truth is ‘present truth’ for me, in my situation, and, in particular, for my younger contemporaries. That is why the future of the church depends on what happens in Nykøbing (and in Harderwijk and the thousands of other small and not so small local churches).

 

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