by Reinder Bruinsma | 2 January 2024
On Tuesday mornings I can usually be found in the basement of the office of the Netherlands Union of Seventh-day Adventists. I am one of a small number of volunteers who are steadily working on building and optimizing the denominational archive in our country. Documents from the past are sorted, categorized, described, and stored in folders and document boxes. When we have finalized a particular period the boxes go to the Provincial Archives in Utrecht, where the storage conditions are optimal and where interested parties can consult them.
Recently I worked my way through a thick stack of documents that in one way or another were related to the activities of the Dutch Union Office at the time when the world General Conference (GC) session was held in Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1995. Much of it could be discarded—for example, the correspondence of delegates from around the world who sought the assistance of our church office in securing a visa for entry into the Netherlands.
But there are also minutes of meetings and significant letters that must be preserved. After all, this was the most important Adventist meeting that ever took place in the Netherlands, and the church organization in the Netherlands was very much involved.
The coffee affair
Working in the archive we come across items that may not be of real historical importance, but still shed light on certain aspects of who and what Adventists are. For example, I found a letter that had been faxed to the Dutch Union, with copies to a sizable group of individuals and church entities. Among those who received a copy I also saw my own name because in 1995, prior to the GC session, I was working in the church’s regional office for much of Europe (the so-called Trans-European Division), as the person responsible for (among other things) communications.
It had come to the attention of General Conference leaders that Pastor C.E. van der Ploeg, the person responsible in the Dutch church for the communications department, had put a warning in a bulletin for the Dutch church members which stated that, if they attended the conference in Utrecht, they would have to do without their cup of coffee or tea. He warned the Dutch Adventists that the organizers of the session had made sure that there would be no coffee on sale in the session building.
Upon finding out about this, the GC people decided that they needed to send a complaint to the division office in England. They were clearly very upset about this statement in the bulletin; after all, the Dutch union was supposed to be positive about the church’s attempts to keep such toxic substances as coffee and tea away from the saints at the session.
The president of the division, Dr. Jan Paulsen, was supposed to do something. Dr. Paulsen did not want to see this matter escalate into something bigger, so he sent a letter to the Dutch Union (which will be preserved for posterity) to convey the complaint from the GC. He regretted that van der Ploeg had written about this topic, as this would only generate ill feelings.
He added that the message to the Dutch church members was completely unnecessary, because he had no doubt that if Dutch Adventists needed their national drink, they could find a place to satisfy that need.
I cannot remind my friend van der Ploeg of this incident, for he is no longer with us. I don’t know whether Dr. Paulsen remembers it, but I treasure it as a small but striking example of his gift for de-escalating problems. A small injection of humor was usually part of that process.
I am convinced that de-escalating conflicts, using humor when possible, is a crucial quality of a good leader. I have, in my own way, tried to operate in this manner.
Escalation of conflict
Unfortunately, at present many of our leaders—at various levels in our denomination—are sadly missing the willingness, and perhaps also the capability—to de-escalate conflict situations. In recent years we have seen how several issues have continued to escalate without any solution in sight.
I am not referring to activities of some of the so-called independent ministries at the conservative fringe of the church—even though some of these seem to consider it part of their mission to foster polarization in our church. A number of conflicts have escalated due to the determination of the church’s top leadership to promote one particular view and condemn variant opinions.
The issues concerning women’s ordination and the status of LGBTQ+ members come to mind as prime examples in which escalation resulted from the pressures from the higher echelons of our denominational bureaucracy to stay with the status quo, accompanied by the publication of several uncompromising statements. In many cases these statements had a fundamentalist odor, and failed to take note of the findings of contemporary science and of the breadth of theological expertise in the Adventist Church.
The conflict about the role and status of female pastors, for example, escalated to the point that a special “compliance committee” was established to discipline conferences and unions that were unwilling to submit to the dictates of the GC with regard to the women in their organization who felt called—and had given ample proof of their calling—to the gospel ministry.
A special task force has recently been established in an attempt to halt the growing willingness of many congregations to accept LGBTQ+ people as fully part of their church community. A few weeks ago a new website was launched to convince those who want their church to be truly inclusive to change their “liberal” minds.
But even if I try to look at these things from a conservative perspective, it seems to me that these measures only heighten the conflicts and will have very little, if any, success in creating solutions.
Lately there has been an intensified emphasis from “on high” on the importance of assent to every detail of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. I am willing to believe that this concern is based on a genuine conviction that the church is at risk of losing its identity if the growing theological diversity cannot be reversed and greater doctrinal uniformity isn’t achieved.
However, the controversies around this issue have regrettably further escalated as the result of repeated assertions that all pastors and teachers who do not subscribe to all doctrines of the church (as they are formulated by the GC and are interpreted by conservative opinion leaders) had better turn in their credentials.
Recent events, such as the withdrawal of teaching credentials from a theology professor at our Italian university, and the pressure on the German church to cancel the ministerial credentials of a pastor who informed his church that he has a bisexual orientation, have all the seeds in them to escalate into major conflicts.
A matter of principles?
One may well ask why church leaders have not tried harder to decrease polarization and de-escalate tensions in the church. There were opportunities to do so.
There was the option to allow different regions in the world to deal with the matter of women’s ordination at their own speed, while taking cultural factors into account. After all, the church has succeeded in dealing with the issue of divorce by focusing on pastoral rather than theological aspects. Could that not also serve as a model for approaching various aspects of the LGBTQ+ dilemma?
Some will argue that Truth must be defended—at whatever cost. We are told that when principles are involved, one cannot compromise! We must accept that things may easily escalate if biblical truth is being attacked or ignored. This may cause controversy, and people may decide to turn their back on the church. If that happens, it is the expected end-time “shaking.” In fact, we are frequently reminded, the “shaking out” is inevitable if we want to ensure that there will be a faithful remnant ready to welcome the Lord when He returns!
Truth or our interpretation of it?
I agree that Truth is important and that principles cannot simply be pushed aside when they do not suit us. But we must remember that what we call Truth is actually our interpretation of the truths that we have distilled from the Scriptures. We must acknowledge that this side of the Second Coming, all our knowing is in part (1 Corinthians 13:9) and what may appear crystal-clear to some of us is actually always “a reflection in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and love is the greatest truth of all. That should make our leaders more modest in claiming that their perspective is absolutely and totally correct.
Moreover, we must realize that compromise is not by definition a dirty word in the Christian vocabulary. Love—consideration for others—must guide us to put our principles into practice in a way that builds our faith community.
When all is said and done, the principle of love must prevail, as Paul emphasized in his magisterial description of agape-love in 1 Corinthians 13. At the beginning of a new year, I hope and pray that all those in our church who are in leadership roles—at all levels—will do everything possible to break down the barriers that exist in their realm of influence; that they will decide to reach out rather than condemn, and can step over their own shadow; in one word: that their goal will be to de-escalate.
Let the year 2024 be the year of pulling together. Of showing that, in all our diversity of opinion and action, we belong together. De-escalation must be our constant aim, and love and peace must take precedence over everything else, including our limited understanding of truth.
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching, and writing. He blogs at http://reinderbruinsma.com/.