By Bill Bossert, June 16, 2015: As humans – there will be times we disagree. At times our disagreements are of little consequence. But at other times, close relationships can be seriously damaged. Disputes arise between husbands and wives, parents and their children, bosses and their employees, and even between next-door neighbors. Although most disagreements don’t rise to the level of the Hatfields & McCoys, such moments can end poorly or not at all.
Sometimes when an impasse stops any further development of our discussion, we smile and say, “We’ve agreed to disagree.” That seems fair or at least courteous to our opponent who obviously is an idiot – who is just too ignorant to see the purity of our flawless argument.
But when the subject manner is in the religious arena – well, the inner dynamics of the disagreement can be huge and complex. What do we do when we disagree about what God says to us through His Word or what He wants from us as we practice our lives as His followers? If one looks hard enough it’s easy to find something heretical in even our closest Christian friends. Right?
Martin Luther got caught up in the fury over doctrinal purity by simply nailing a few of his thoughts to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel in 1517. Many Anabaptists paid dearly with their lives for rejecting the church’s practice of infant baptism, choosing instead a “believer’s baptism” as adults. Rachel Delight Oakes, a Seventh Day Baptist, confronted Frederick Wheeler about why he was not keeping the seventh-day Sabbath if he felt so strongly that Christians should be ready to obey God and keep His commandments.
Without looking too far, religious disagreements can have serious consequences. You can simply cast your gaze towards the Middle East to see religious disagreements playing out on a major scale.
This July, Adventists from all over the world will gather for their General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas. The normal business of the church will happen just as it has at every previous GC session. There will be budgets voted, officers elected, and proposed new policies considered for implementation. But this year’s session may be shaping up to be as controversial as the GC Session of 1888 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The repercussions of that session still reverberate with different individuals even today, in 2015.
Two issues are on the agenda that potentially could bring even greater division to our denomination. The first concerns whether to ordain women to the Gospel ministry, while the second deals with the relationship of modern science to the six-day creation story in Genesis 1. I don’t wish to overstate the potential for church-wide division – but a vote either way on either issue may bring serious restlessness among our fellow believers everywhere.
As a pastor, I’ve been reading the different views shared by various people concerning both issues. It’s not my purpose here to weigh in on either issue. You can find the discussion in many different places on the Internet. Yet, as a pastor it is my purpose to perhaps be like a “watchman on the wall” (Isaiah 62:6a), and try to prepare for possible coming conflict over potential ruptures among us.
We should always be watchful for “wolves” from outside wishing to attack and destroy “the flock.” We also need to be aware of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” within who wish to destroy. Jesus warned us of such when He was here on earth. He even spoke about the wheat and the tares growing together until the harvest.
In recent years I’ve witnessed critical comments and vicious verbal attacks made at pastors who have gone to school at our own Theological Seminary at Andrews. Early in my ministry, I had one local elder on my very first Sabbath at my new church assignment ask me if I had graduated from our Seminary. Innocently I responded that I had. Strike one! In his mind, all of the Seminary teachers were actively corrupting their students, introducing them to false teachings. Although he had never set foot inside our Seminary, he knew no one could really trust what was being taught there.
At that same church, a very sincere woman was phoning others in my church, telling them that I was teaching Desmond Ford “doctrine.” When I heard about it, I paid her a pastoral visit. I asked her specifically which of Ford’s doctrinal positions she thought I was teaching. She didn’t know. But she asserted I definitely was because I had been one of his students at Pacific Union College. I asked her if it would any make a difference to her if she knew I had never even met Dr. Ford. I shared with her that I had never taken even one class from him, and that I was already through the Seminary before Dr. Ford ever taught at PUC. She seemed somewhat relieved to hear that. Yet I sensed she was not really convinced of my doctrinal purity.
I’d like to briefly touch on a few more current examples. I do so only to suggest that a similar negative attitude towards trained pastors might be present this summer in San Antonio.
One of my colleagues and good friends is Joe Kidder, DMin. Joe teaches at our Seminary at Andrews. The Seminary offered a class called Spiritual Formation. Dr. Kidder teaches this class. It is my understanding that the purpose of the class is to assist pastors in developing a deep spiritual and devotional life in Christ. The textbooks used are – the Bible, Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages. Following the process of full disclosure, I admit to having all three of these in my library and having read from each extensively.
A short time ago, an Academy classmate, who was very upset, confronted me concerning this class. She insisted that the class was evil and deceptive to the core. She was really angry that it was being taught at our Seminary. She believed that such a class was teaching mystic philosophy and Buddhist-type meditation. She seemed to want me to affirm for her that his class was now corrupting our pastors and our church. I was surprised by her vehement insistence that this was happening “right under our noses.”
As of the writing of this article, I know that no one has bothered to pick up the phone and call the Seminary to ask about this specific class and what its purpose is. I know my classmate has never bothered to call Dr. Kidder and ask for clarification. It seems to me that simply contacting the Seminary Church Ministries Department or the teacher would be the appropriate Christian procedure. But perhaps any explanation from the teacher would not be accepted for it would be dismissed as all part of a larger evil conspiracy. And perhaps for some, it’s better for their argument to not know the facts.
Another example might be the relationship between diet and the normal Christian life. Some around me choose to live their lives with a vegan lifestyle and diet. I have no quibble with them if they chose to do so. If they can live a healthier life doing so, enjoy.
But when someone insists that one must be vegan in order to be a true Adventist or to really have a sanctified spiritual life, then I have a question. I believe Jesus’ life here on earth is to be our example. (Doesn’t the Bible mention that somewhere?) It’s clear to me that He showed us how to live following His Father’s will. Therefore, if Jesus’ example here on earth could not have met the requirement of being vegan, is it really a true standard of salvation or deeper spirituality? If Jesus Himself could not meet the diet standard suggested by some, then I don’t think it’s a requirement for all others who wish to follow Him. After all, we don’t teach salvation by diet.
Suzanna Ocsai’s recent book, Something’s Happening: The Behind the Scenes Story of the GYC, was a most interesting read to me. I didn’t sense that her book was a critic of the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC) but simply sharing the history of its development and growth. The stated goals of the GYC of helping youth study their Bibles, be devoted followers of Christ, and evangelize those around them – I applaud.
The GYC, however, hasn’t been without controversy with the church of North America – particularly within the youth departments of many different conferences. Although I haven’t attended any GYC session, I have heard the discussion. I thought Ms. Ocsai’s book was enlightening. It appears to me that sincere people on both sides of the controversy might be “talking past” the other. It happens. But I also understand that those in the NAD youth department have sat down with GYC leaders and developed a mutual respect for each other as fellow workers for Him.
Over the last few years, I have listened to presentations (sermons, if you will) from a few of the GYC speakers. Almost all were young adults with no formal theological training. As I listened to some of the teaching from these eager young people, I knew that a few bits of what they were saying weren’t really what the passage they were using said at all. I could see that they were injecting onto the passage what they already assumed was truth.
I had to smile to myself as I listened, because as a new young pastor fresh out of college I had done the same thing – yes, more than once. Standing up boldly in the pulpit I had given some impassioned sermons that at the time I thought were spot on. They were not. Upon later review and hopefully greater maturity, I knew they clearly were off the mark. I actually have saved them in my sermon file with bold letters written across them – DON’T PREACH AGAIN. Fortunately those sermons weren’t videotaped and aren’t available online.
So, as I have listened to some speakers at the GYC, I have given them in my heart space to grow. I know they’re trying to reach the same goals I am as a pastor for our youth and young adults. I choose to give them the space to be wrong, as I was when I first began. It seems to me that the Spirit of God is more than capable to overcome our well-intended, “low-information” conclusions.
But could all of us who stand and preach remember to be students still growing in our knowledge of His Word? I certainly want to remain open to being taught.
Perhaps the most serious issue would then focus on the use of Scripture. This summer, I am sure that each side will insist that Scripture in on “their side.” What troubles me is how some seek to apply various verses to support their cause when it appears the passage isn’t addressing the topic they are promoting at all.
A few summers ago I was talking with a couple of young adults who were insisting that the King James Version was the only version of the Bible that was truly accurate for the church to use. I was told it was the Bible that Ellen White endorsed. Passionately, one young man told me that the New International Version was corrupt and we shouldn’t read it. After all, he concluded his argument with me, Ellen White never used or endorsed the NIV.
When I pointed out that the New International Version wasn’t first published until 1978, and that Ellen White died in 1915, he seemed unpersuaded. When questioned further about his dismissal of the use of the NIV, he didn’t know really why the NIV was so corrupt, but was very sure it was. After all, he argued, the NIV uses words that the KJV doesn’t use.
During the current debate about women’s ordination, some insist that when God passed judgment on Eve in Genesis 3, that God established “headship” of the man over the woman. Indeed, in Genesis 3:16, the KJV reads: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and they desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
I will leave the exegesis of the passage to others. But search as I may within the whole chapter, I fail to see even an implied reference to women’s ordination or how the New Testament church is to organize itself. Isn’t it a passage dealing with the relationship between husbands and wives, as spoken of in other places in the Bible, having nothing at all to do with whether women can be ordained to the Gospel ministry?
I saw a video clip on Facebook about using this passage to say that God was placing men over women in all relationships by this command in Genesis 3. The voice over spoke fast and seemed so authoritative. Yet, it appeared to me that great leaps in logic and questionable Biblical interpretations were everywhere.
Ellen White attended portions of the 1888 GC in Minneapolis. It was a most contentious session and afterward she shared her thoughts and made an appeal. In Manuscript Release #961, I would like to share just a bit of her comments. They seem so relevant for this upcoming session in San Antonio.
I felt very much pained at heart over the condition of things. I made most earnest appeals to my brethren and sisters when assembled in the morning meetings, and entreated that we should make this occasion a season of profit, searching the Scriptures together with humility of heart. I am entreated that there should not be such freedom in talking in regard to things of which they knew but little. All needed to learn lessons in the school of Christ. Jesus has invited, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). If we daily learn the lessons of humility and lowliness of heart, there will not be the feelings which exist at this meeting.
There are some differences of views on some subjects, but is this a reason for sharp, hard feelings? Shall envy and evil surmisings and imaginings, evil suspicion, hatred and jealousies become enthroned on the heart? All these things are evil and only evil. Our help is in God alone. Let us spend much time in prayer and searching the Scriptures with a right spirit—anxious to learn and willing to be corrected or undeceived on any point where we may be in error. If Jesus is in our midst and our hearts are melted into tenderness by His love we shall have one of the best conferences we have ever attended. (Manuscript Release #961, pages 6-7)
Therefore, I would suggest the following as we go through the upcoming GC Session in July:
- Let’s be loving towards the one with whom we disagree. No matter what side of an issue we find ourselves, we have a brother or sister in Christ who wishes to follow Him as we do. They desire our love and respect. Somehow that sounds like the Golden Rule, doesn’t it?
- Be careful not to “jump to conclusions.” Not all the facts may be seen at first glance. Some may take time, study, discussion, and prayer to be revealed to the mind and heart.
- Be open to be taught. You never know from whom the Spirit of God will send to teach you. He may have a learning moment in your future that will surprise you. Being teachable is just what Ellen White was asking for in the Manuscript listed above.
- Do you or the person speaking really know what they’re talking about? Frequently, hearsay is just that. And often the person speaking certainly may be passionate and loud. But passion and volume don’t make truth. Truth isn’t found in insisting I’m right and you’re wrong. Be careful to make sure the person has done their homework in good Bible interpretation.
- Be open to accepting you might be wrong. It’s a tough pill to swallow – admitting you were wrong. But doing so can open up for you greater truth and understanding of what God is revealing to you. I have had such life-changing moments of swallowing my pride and admitting I was wrong. Each time, it’s been a God-sent blessing to me.
- Be gracious to your brother or sister even if you think they are wrong. All of us are to continue to grow in our understanding of Scripture, truth and God’s will for us. Jesus has been patient with me and I have grown. I would guess that He’s been gracious towards you as well. Let’s be gracious and patient with others.
This summer, after the votes are all taken and the delegates head home, I pray that we not lose our true focus that we are to uplift the risen Savior and His matchless grace towards all of us. We have a movement that is to alert the world to our returning Savior. We long for them to join us as we greet that Savior. Oh, by the way, blest be the tie that binds.
 Because of the criticism, the name of the class has been changed to Foundations of Biblical Spirituality.
Bill has been serving as Sr. Pastor at the Riverview Adventist Church in Reno, NV. He is married to Michele, and he has just retired after 41 years of pastoral ministry. He & Michele have a home in Naples, FL.