by Reinder Bruinsma  |  12 September 2018  |

Recent developments in the Seventh-day Adventist Church have brought great concern to many church members around the world. The controversy about the ordination of women has sadly deteriorated into an ugly fight about authority and power. Whether or not there is a biblical basis for ordaining women to the gospel ministry, unions must refrain from ordaining female pastors, because the church has decided that it should not happen. To be more precise: a majority of almost sixty percent of the delegates at the General Conference session in San Antonio in July 20, 2015 decided that the ordination of women was not something that could be initiated at the regional level. The world church must act in unison and is therefore not ready to open up the ordained ministry to female pastors.

The top leadership of the General Conference believes it cannot tolerate any deviation from what the world church has decided. After all, it is claimed, the General Conference is God’s special channel of divine guidance for this phase of world history, and therefore all units of the church must be compliant with what the highest authority in the church has voted. The unity of the church (understood in terms of absolute uniformity) must be maintained, and thus demands that measures be taken to ensure compliance with the policies and decisions of the church that issue from the GC. Most recently this has led the administrative committee of the world church to set up five committees that must evaluate whether or not leaders and administrative units of the church (conferences, unions, institutions) are in compliance with official church doctrine and church policies. It is interesting to note that each of these five committees (which consist of people with conservative views, who all work at the denominational headquarters in Silver Spring) must address specific areas of concern: (1) The “core policies” of the church. This description, of cause, begs the questions where the line is to be drawn between “core” policies and policies of lesser importance. (2) Creation and matters of origin. (3) Homosexuality. (4) The “distinctive beliefs” of the church. This description also could cause intense debate: Which of our beliefs are “distinctive” and which beliefs are not in that category and are exempt from the scrutiny of this committee? (5) Ordination.

We must hope that at the forthcoming Autumn Council, to be held in Battle Creek (of all places) from October 11 to October 18, the full executive committee of the General Conference will oppose these recent “compliance” plans and instruct the GC-leaders to desist from their high-handed attempts to force their particular understanding of unity upon the church, and to turn back from this proposed process of “naming and shaming” of those leaders that do not openly repent of their non-compliant stand.

The Underlying Issue

It is always tricky to try to single out one element as the cause of a particular development. Usually trends and emphases in individual lives and in organizations have multiple aspects that have different roots. Nonetheless, I believe that recent developments within Adventism are primarily related to how we “do” theology and to the role we give to doctrine.

We see an unfortunate trend in present-day Adventism towards a more fundamentalist approach to the Bible. Although we claim not to be fundamentalists, in actual fact the church has moved to a significant degree in that direction, especially in the last few decades. The so-called “Rio document” that was adopted during the Annual Council in 1986 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, defined the boundaries for acceptable theological activity. All forms of historical criticism of the Bible were banned and strict guidelines for biblical hermeneutics were prescribed. Currently we are constantly told that we must adopts a “plain reading” of the Bible, which means that we must take Scripture as literally as possible. Thus, if we read about the six days of creation, that means that everything was created in six days of twenty-four hours. If we read about the man being “the head” of the woman, this clearly means that the Bible teaches male “headship”, and if we read about homosexuality as being an “abomination” this settles every question regarding alternative sexualities.

In addition to this promotion of a “plain reading” of the Bible, there has been a tendency to ever further nail down the “Fundamental Beliefs” of the church, as was evident in the changes in a number of those beliefs that were voted by the GC session in San Antonio. It betrays an unfortunate trend: Official theology is more and more being defined and developed by administrators rather than by theologians.

This tendency now culminates in attempts at devising a system that will scrutinize the compliance of leaders and organizations with regard to the “creed-like” formulation of our “fundamentals” and to the ever more “canon law”-like church policies.

What We Need

Our church has many needs. But what we need perhaps more than anything else is more intellectual and spiritual latitude, more space for diversity, more breathing space. As to academic freedom, I am not proposing that this freedom should have no boundaries and that theologians, and other scholars at our colleges and universities, should be free to write and teach about any topic in any way they happen to choose. Working in the context of an Adventist institution, or pastoring Adventist churches, demands loyalty to the organization that employs you and pays your salary. But a church is not just any organization. A church is a place where people must be able to grow and develop, and where they have the opportunity to constantly search for new ways to communicate the gospel. And this demands openness and space. It requires dialogue and needs people who dare to ask difficult questions—even for questions that remain unanswered in the foreseeable future.

A denomination—and certainly one that claims to have a God-given worldwide mission—must have a clear organizational structure. It is expected, from time to time, to issue statements and guidelines. It must seek for ways to keep the flock together and to guide it into one and the same direction. And in order to inform the outside public it may be a good idea to compile a summary of the main beliefs that unite us as Adventists with most other Christians and of the main convictions that set us apart. But there must at all times be a careful balance between these directives that come from the church’s administration and the freedom of believers in the pews and of theologians and other academics, to explore and implement these directives in creative ways, and to search for new paths towards deeper spirituality and for a closer relevance of what we believe to our everyday life.

The development of theology is a complex topic. To get a good grasp of how doctrines evolve and theological trends appear and may again disappear, some knowledge of historical theology in general, and of Adventist history in particular, is essential. Administrative bodies and representative church gatherings (such as a General Conference session) play a role and may at a certain point put a seal of approval on the results of a process that may have gone one for many years. But administrative bodies should never feel that they can prescribe or control in detail what the church members must think, believe and proclaim. The Adventist Church has officially denied, time and time again, that it has a creed. Instead, it has claimed that is was always open to the discovery of new “present” truth. But while the church still pays lip service to this idea, is has, in actual fact, adopted a detailed statement of “Fundamental Beliefs” that increasingly functions as a creed. It is time to return to our earlier denominational position that the search for truth is never finished and that, as time goes on, we must continue to find new words to ensure that the Adventist message is understood and retains its relevance.

The evolvement of new perspectives on theology does not happen in a vacuum. Just as early Christian theology had to define its doctrines in the context of a Graeco-Roman world and was influenced by its philosophical categories, and just as early Adventism was influenced by the backgrounds of its founding fathers (and mother)—so current theological thinking takes place in a twenty-first century postmodern world and cannot detach itself from the developments in modern science and technology. And as our denomination grew into a worldwide movement it was conditioned by a myriad of different cultures, which meant that further theological developments would take place at varying speeds and along diverse tracks. It cannot be otherwise, if Adventism is to be a living religious movement rather than a dying tradition. Administrative bodies must create the conditions in which a healthy process of innovative theological thinking, of evaluating new trends within our faith community, of continuous dialogue between different theological streams, and of providing the membership with information on what is happening on the theological scene, can take place.

The development of theology must always happen in the context of the community of believers. Within this faith community theologians must play a major role. They must serve the church with the breadth of their expertise. At this point, we are confronted with a major problem within current Adventism. The top administration of the church does not trust (most of) its professional theologians and largely ignores the expertise that is found in the theology departments of our colleges and universities. It only consults with a limited number of theologians that are considered “kosher”.  It does not seem to understand that healthy theological developments can only happen when different voices are heard. The church needs to hear the questions that some so-called more “liberal” theologians ask, but also needs to be reminded of more traditional positions by those who are often referred to as “conservative”. When the most recent process of rephrasing some of our Fundamental Beliefs took place, resulting in a vote in San Antonio, there was hardly any input from the church’s professional theologians. And the wider Adventist theological community is sadly underrepresented in the new non-compliance committees. Only a few trusted (conservative) BRI scholars are placed on these committees.

If church history has taught us anything it is that theological developments take time. And that theological problems and confusion cannot be sorted out overnight. It seems to me that in the current controversies over theological and ethical issues in our church the various “parties” are often too much in a hurry. If we want the involvement of a significant part of our faith community, we need time to explain and to educate, and opportunity for dialogue. If things are administratively pushed along it will only strengthen the already strong perception that everthing (including theological positions) is decided at the top of the ecclesial hierarchy, pushed along in the chain of administrative bodies, and then declared “policy” that demands absolute “compliance.”

Finally, linked with understanding the importance of allowing for enough time, there may be another serious aspect in the church’s dealing with theological developments and in its obsession with theological purity (at least with regard to a few selected issues). This is an adequate recognition of the role of the Holy Spirit. If we truly believe that God has something to do with the existence, the maturation and the future mission of our church, we must at all stages rely on the guidance of the Spirit. Even though in the “unity”-process that is being pursued by the GC-administration, great stress is laid on listening to each other and on prayer, one cannot escape the conclusion that this listening and praying must contribute to a goal that has already been firmly settled in the minds of those who are leading out in this process towards restoring this so-called “unity”. And in formal meetings about the key issues that supposedly have led to the non-compliance that needs to be addressed by disciplinary measures, prayer at times appears to be used in a manipulative way. Prayer, it seems, must help to convince those who are non-compliant that they are on the wrong path. A church that sincerely believes that God guides the church through his Spirit must let itself be surprised as to where the Spirit leads and not tell the Spirit what the outcome of a process should be.

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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, his last post before retiring as president of the Netherlands Union. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching and writing. His latest books are Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers “on the Margins” and In All Humility: Saying “No” to Last Generation Theology.