In 2011 I wrote an article entitled “The Closing of the Adventist Mind” (title borrowed from Professor Allan Bloom’s book and adapted) that Spectrum published. A few months had elapsed since the election of Ted Wilson as President of our church when I began to feel uncomfortable as I read some of the statements coming out of Washington. It seemed to me at the time that some sort of straightjacket was not so subtly being drawn tight around the psyche of the church, which I was afraid would eventually close the Adventist mind to new ideas and concepts theological and otherwise.
A couple of quotes will give today’s readers the gist of what I wrote back then. “…I have come to the conclusion that the general trend in our church leans more toward the closing of the mind than toward taking the risk of openness. It has been my experience that Adventist leadership does not react positively when thoughtful members disagree with the official position on issues of concern to the church. In actual fact, intentionally or not, much effort is put into making sure that that the church as a whole accepts whatever the leadership determines is valid…This has produced an ethos of silence, which effectively prevents church employees or church members from expressing what they really feel about issues.”
Four years later I can find no reasons to believe that things have changed. The President and his men have used the official publications, the 3ABN TV network, personal websites etc. to promote and enforce a very conservative agenda that leaves very little room for new ideas. It all coalesced into the overarching and tightly controlled atmosphere that prevailed in San Antonio.
I know that many will disagree but I remain convinced that much subtle and sometimes not so subtle manipulation and pressure occurred under the roof of the San Antonio Dome to keep debate in check. This was evident on at least two occasions.
On Tuesday July 7, an amendment to Adventist Belief number 6 was to be debated. Specifically, the delegates were to debate the introduction and relevance of the word “recent” to the text. The president of the BRI clarified the research committee’s reasons for adding the word after which the debate was to start. But for some unknown reason the Chair asked Ted Wilson to say a few words. I was stunned to hear him say: “…You all know where I stand on that question. The word “recent’ to me means 6000 years” (a reference to an obscure statement of EGW).
My concern was not with the figure but with the inescapable fact that the president’s strong remark put a damper on a debate that might have otherwise brought into the open some concepts more in tune with the present scientific discoveries (and I am not referring to the evolution point of view). There simply was no debate after Ted Wilson’s intervention. Indeed, in my opinion the statement also put a huge dent in the credibility of our scholars in the minds of the Christian scientific community, let alone the secular one.
The second occasion had to do with the debate about allowing the respective Divisions to determine the relevance of ordaining women in their territories.
Right the start a number of high profile individuals who were known to be against female ordination began to make statements to the effect that the delegates should be careful not to do anything that might divide the church. This often happened during the debate on other motions that had nothing to do with that particular issue.
Of course there was no directive given as to how one should vote but the subtle hints that protecting the unity of the church was of paramount importance, determined the ultimate result even before the vote was taken. Nobody will say it but it is known hat it is almost impossible for some cultures to openly take a stand against the perceived position of the leaders.
I have tried to find a rationale to explain the ethos of the present leadership in Washington. I believe that I may have found something in a text written by Mark Vernon a British journalist, broadcaster and author. He authored the book “The Big Questions, God” and in the chapter about fundamentalism he endeavours to explain the mindset of fundamentalist/conservative church leaders. He borrows from an essay (Migration, Acculturation and the New Role of Texts) written by the Jewish scholar Haym Soloveitchick, describing what is taking place within conservative Jewish communities.
Mike Vernon argues that conservatism/fundamentalism reacts against the trend by seeking and finding refuge in rigorous codes and practices and in strict tenets of belief. The foundational texts, used narrowly without proper exegesis by the powers that be, become the weapons of preference. Almost no room is given to the “let us come and reason together.” Is that perhaps a telling sign that a war of meaning against authority is being waged?
It strikes me that the same is also happening within the ranks of the Seventh day Adventist community in the West as can be readily observed when one makes time for meaningful conversation with the 18 to 45 age group.
Until some fifty years ago, the believers of that age group were part of a tradition that found meaning in engaging with the texts of Adventist teachings, and by a process of mimesis they embraced a way of life handed down from the fathers. But in the last thirty years or so that cosy world has exploded under the pressure of a society that is constantly changing. Younger generations are altering their religious inheritance (beliefs and practices) because they are more and more at odds with the demands of secular modernity.
Challenging new ideas and concepts are threats and any compromise on these issues represents the dissolution of faith. This may explain why a significant percentage of the world membership (not just the men) considers the issue of women ordination, as an insidious creeping in of feminism seen as a rebelling against God ordained male headship, and as such must be fought against.
It is also still a matter of considerable surprise to me that no one seems to have realised that the Bible has nothing to say on the issue if after some forty years of quoting Scripture no crystal clear conclusion is reached.
At the risk of sounding cynical I will add that in my view, the sermon on the last Sabbath was evidence of the closed Adventist mind. The content was nothing but a long series of Scripture readings laced with quotes from EGW that any church member could have put together with minimum effort. There was almost nothing that challenged one’s mind and spirit. The exercise smacked of anti intellectualism. Mind you, I hold both the Bible and the Sprit of Prophecy in high esteem. But to have travelled almost ten thousand miles experiencing a mounting sense of excitement as the last Sabbath of the session approached, then having to go back home with one’s spiritual hunger not satiated still fills me with sorrow three weeks later.
I shudder to think that we may have to go through another five years of the same unless every person of good understanding and good will engages in an intelligent conversation that focuses on changing the present course.
I am keenly aware that this piece is a diagnostic (yet another one) of the prevailing situation. Space constraints will not allow the elaboration of a possible solution in this article, but I intend to present some suggestions in the near future.
Pastor Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown and pastors two churches in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia.
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