The September Diversity lecture at Newbold College of Higher Education was timely. Dissidence in churches is commonplace. In many faith communions, majorities of one stripe find themselves in conflict with minorities of another. The Church of England still in the early days of appointing women bishops, disagrees about liturgy and Biblical interpretation, and disagrees with some of its adherents from the LGBT community. In the Roman Catholic Church, the progressive Pope Francis meets open and fierce resistance from traditionalists. Meanwhile, at its Autumn Council in a few weeks, the Seventh-day Adventist Church through its leaders will be making decisions which may well have far-reaching consequences in formalizing the already deep divisions within the church over women’s ordination.
The lecture began with figures showing that while the Seventh-day Adventist Church is growing rapidly around the world, it has a problem with retaining 50% of new members. The lecturer, Pastor Wim Altink, a pastor for over thirty years including ten years as the President of the Netherlands Union of Seventh-day Adventist churches, suggested that attitudes to dissidence are part of a broader concern for retention. He explored two approaches to dissidence: that of Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, and that inherent in the genius of Seventh-day Adventism.
Luther’s approach to dissidence grew out of his own crucial vision of a God who saves through faith in Jesus Christ rather than by works. Communicating with a society where 10% of the population were in priestly orders, Luther translated the Bible into the language of the common people and bravely urged priests and people alike to read the scriptures for themselves and to measure all the Church’s teachings accordingly. Luther recognized that the controversial business of deep biblical scriptural interpretation was another arena where power politics could threaten freedom of conscience. His argument was that no-one can or should control the Word of God. “The revelation always comes in contradictions, different from what you would expect…we will never be the boss of the text, the text goes on to work for us.”
Luther’s own teaching about freedom of conscience exhibited some blind spots as he dealt with Anabaptists and Jews. But his general approach was to encourage the freedom of conscience of the individual believer both in the wider society and inside the church. “He encouraged his followers,” said Altink, “to stay loyal but to refuse to be treated like second class people!”
In the second part of the lecture, Altink described what he called the genius of Adventist attitudes to dissidence. Quoting from Where are We Headed: Adventism after San Antonio by William G. Johnsson, he outlined at least ten controversial issues among Seventh-day Adventists which lead to dissidence. He suggested that Adventism in its second century is experiencing a departure from Jesus’ teachings and practice similar to developments in the second century Christian Church.
Altink dug deep into the spirit of Adventism to talk about holistic thinking, the patience of God and the Adventist belief in independence of thought. “I believe that the DNA of Adventism provides a way forward…. Adventism preaches a holistic view of life. It is a movement of integration, inclusion and wholeness….” As we take this approach, we will create “a healthy whole of all Adventist believers” - whether they be historic Adventists, orthodox Adventists, fundamentalist, evangelical or progressive Adventists.
Closely connected to this holistic approach is the Adventist teaching on the Great Controversy –or God’s dealings with dissidents. “The theme of the Great Controversy,” said Altink, “is not the story of apocalyptic wars first of all… Rather, God’s…dealings with mankind show His forgetfulness, His forgiveness, His grace and His serving self-giving.”
Finally – there is Adventist independence of thought. “We Adventists love to feel that we are independent thinkers – ‘thinkers not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts’ as Ellen White said.” We follow Jesus who was a dissident and are led by the thoughts of Luther and Ellen White – both of whom were dissidents – independent thinkers who brought people back to God’s original plan.
Pastor Altink finished with a quotation from another dissident – Nelson Mandela. “Changing society is not the most difficult task – the most difficult task is changing yourself!”
Significant challenges in the Q&A session explored the themes raised in the lecture. What follows are the questions and reporter’s summaries of the answers.
Q. “Are all dissidents destined, like Jesus, Luther, and Ellen White, to leave home and start again somewhere else?”
A. All the dissidents were pushed out rather than leaving! As a church we should make it very difficult for people to leave! I don’t believe that a new start is the only way forward…there could be options.
Q. “If you shower people with love, can you quench dissidence?”
A. If everyone is loving but not talking about the issues, it makes me want to hit someone! We should be honest and open about the issues, and about our weaknesses and differences.
Q. “What if the General Conference just absorbs the dissidents and doesn’t change?... Wouldn’t it be better if the GC hits back? Is it time for a good family row?”
A. Truth comes from dialectic – a good family row. But follow Augustine – always start with love, even if we have a fight. I’m not saying love is a weak thing…there needs to be honesty.
Q. “Would you agree that unconditional, non-judgmental love is the answer?”
A. If that would be the atmosphere locally and internationally… approaching Annual Council would be a completely different setup. I wish we were there… if we had that attitude we could cope with anything.
Q. “In view of your experience at Silver Spring – as a member of the General Conference Committee – are you optimistic?”
A. It’s difficult. With other leaders in Europe we have tried to approach the GC leadership but we didn’t see any change. Women’s ordination is not an issue of faith, not an issue of fundamental beliefs. I am still optimistic. Coming up to Annual Council there is always the rumor that things are going to be difficult and very tight. Up till now the church system has worked well…The Division presidents have stood up and said we cannot afford a break. When it comes to the unity of the church, I believe that the system of the church works well…that there is something in the system which can balance the system. When it comes to ultimate schism…I doubt it. There is more openness at the Annual Council than at the General Conference Session.
Q. “Does there come a time when you as a dissident can no longer stay? What about the decision you take as a dissident?”
A. If this issue is not dealt with in a proper way, I believe that many people will leave, especially in the West – and that is the responsibility of us all…
Q. “What about the people who are treated as second class citizens?”
A. If a group feels they are treated as 2nd class citizens, we should talk about that feeling.
Q. “Speaking from the authority side… For every honest dissident, we have a Jim Jones or David Koresh. Obviously, there must be a limit…when would you disfellowship?”
A. There are moments that you need to do that – interestingly, that is not a work for the General Conference but for the local church. There comes a moment when a person is destroying trust, grace and community…this is the time to leave.
Q. “There seems to be a pattern with Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Luther, and Ellen White who tried to remain in the organizations where they were. Does any change really happen when people leave?”
A. I’ve talked to too many people who after many conversations don’t feel that they will change anything but for their own sake feel they need to leave.
Q. “If boundary-making is in the hands of the local church and each one does it differently…is that a good thing?”
WATCH Pastor Wim Altink’s lecture at the Newbold College Diversity Centre:
Helen Pearson is Diversity Centre Co-ordinator at Newbold College of Higher Education, where this report was originally published. It is reprinted here with permission.
Image Credit: Newbold College of Higher Education
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