Retired General Conference President Reflects on Challenges
by Monte Sahlin
From APD, June 16, 2014
Dr. Jan Paulsen, retired president of the General Conference (GC) of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, spoke recently in Stuttgart, Germany, about the challenges faced by the Adventist movement. He stressed that the decision about women’s ordination as pastors is one of the top priorities. A wide range of committees in the world church have tackled this question for the past 40 years. In 1990 the GC Session denied ordination to women serving as pastors.
In 1995, when the denomination’s North American Division asked for permission to make a decision only within its area of responsibility, the majority of the world delegates meeting in Utrecht rejected the request. This very same question is again on the agenda for the GC in 2015.
Asked about fears that a decision to allow women to be ordained might divide the denomination, Paulsen replied, “Perhaps so. But equally, not to ordain women has the same probability to divide our church." It is, therefore, important to find a solution which is acceptable to both parties. All arguments, whether for or against, have been presented and the problem cannot be postponed again.
The Church: An active part of life or irrelevant sect
According to Paulsen, there are, however, a number of other challenges for the Adventist denomination. Despite cultural differences and theological challenges it is necessary for the global church to preserve its unity and identity. A global community of faith faces the difficult task of integrating their spiritual values into the practical aspects of daily life in many different cultures. It is necessary to resist the easy solutions, to withdraw from people who have completely different values into what some think of as “their own perfect world.”
Paulsen cautioned, "Either the public accepts us as part of society and sees that we want to be an active part of life in the larger community, or the public considers us as an irrelevant sect which dissociates itself from all others. Our world may no longer be interested in God, but it is a world full of people whom we, under no circumstances, can leave to fend for themselves." Adventists should therefore live out their values, prepare people for the future, such as by way of education and act as peacemakers.
Turning to the topic of Adventist relationships with other Christian denominations and world religions, Paulsen posed the question, "are we having an open-minded attitude and a constructive dialogue? Do we explain to them who we are, what we believe and which duties we have? Or, do we seal ourselves off, withdraw and consider any communication with other faiths as dangerous?"
Either Adventists introduce themselves "or others will do it for us,” Paulsen observed. “Then we will be most likely misrepresented or even ridiculed.” It is, of course, easier to only interact with like-minded people. However, the ‘Truth’ does not have to be afraid of scrutiny. It is the duty of Adventist church members, pastors, teachers and leaders to demonstrate how one's own convictions and the respect for other faiths co-exist.
Paulsen was born in northern Norway. After finishing his education, he served as a pastor, a professor and then dean at Adventist universities in Africa. He later taught at Newbold College in England, where he was appointed dean. He earned his doctorate in theology at the University of Tübingen (Germany) in 1972. In 1980 he was elected secretary and in 1983 president of the denomination in northern Europe. In 1999 he was elected GC president and served until the age of 75 in 2010. In 2012 the King of Norway decorated Paulsen “for his meritorious service to the welfare of mankind.” Paulsen is married to Kari and they have an adult daughter and son.
APD is an official news service that serves the denomination in Europe from a base in Switzerland.