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Discouragement and Optimism for Our Adventist Future

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It was 1986, during one of my first church-related trips to the United States, and I was staying in a guestroom of Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) in Washington, DC. The day before, I had bought a book that left me quite confused. It was titled Betrayal: The Shattering Sex Discrimination Case of Silver vs. Pacific Press Publishing Association. The book chronicled the conflict between the Pacific Press Publishing Association and two of its female employees (Merikay Silver and Lorna Tobler). It gave a shocking picture of the way workers were dealt with in this church-sponsored enterprise and detailed the unchristian way in which two female employees were treated. I read for most of the night, wondering how such terrible things could happen in my church. The manner in which the management of this denominational publishing house handled the issue of gender equality and the way in which the General Conference (including the president) reacted were so far below any level of acceptability that it took me a few days to recover my spiritual equilibrium.

I have since had a number of similar experiences. A few years ago, I acquired the book Who Watches? Who Cares? by Douglas Hackleman, published in 2008 by a group named “Members for Church Accountability.” It remained unread in my bookcase until a few weeks ago when, without some special reason, I picked it up. I was transfixed as I read through the fascinating recounts of the financial scandals that the Adventist Church has suffered in past decades. The book left me with a feeling of deep disgust. Could my church really be guilty of so much deceit and unchristian behavior?

There have been other books that have added to the frustration I at times feel about my church. For instance, I am thinking of the biography of Desmond Ford, written by Milton Hook: Desmond Ford—Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist. Although the book was written with a somewhat positive bias, it is still worth reading for its detailed description of the many theological and church-political issues in which Desmond Ford was caught up. I could not help but conclude that, even if only half of what Hook wrote is factually correct, Ford was treated in a most prejudicial way. His main adversaries did not want to have an honest theological debate. Instead, they were determined to get rid of him from the very start.

Then, of course, there is Gilbert Valentine's masterful depiction of Robert H. Pierson’s presidency of the General Conference from 1966 to 1979. He writes about Pierson’s determination to ensure the elimination of a number of theology professors—all accused of "liberal" ideas—from Adventist teaching positions. Reading his book Ostriches and Canaries (Oak and Acorn, 2022) left me deeply saddened. Again there was the question: how could this happen in my church?

In addition to the kinds of experiences that have affected the aforementioned people in the church (and I could cite several others), most of those who are or have been church employees have lived through disappointments or downright crises in their work history. Many feel they have been treated unfairly by their conferences or unions or that they have been victims of scheming church members or colleagues. Many have been accused of "un-Adventist" ideas or practices without the opportunity to defend themselves. Some time ago, I read that a young pastor was told that he must be prepared for at least three major and deeply disappointing crises in his professional life. From personal experience, I can testify that this certainly was true both in my church career and in the lives and work of colleagues around me. In all honesty, I must confess that in my years of leadership I was at times a cog in the ecclesiastical machinery that hurt rather than helped people.

Among the Disappointed

There is, however, another layer in my deep-rooted concern and sense of disappointment with my church. This is to some extent related to the fact that most of my social contacts in the church are with a certain segment of my (retired and still active) colleagues and a particular section of the membership. I preach almost every Sabbath but have come to realize that, while quite a few churches are keen to have me speak, some churches never invite me to their pulpit at all. I move mostly among people of the same spiritual ilk as me. Be that as it is, I hear an almost constant echo of the disappointment that I feel myself. In almost all social contacts with colleagues, visits with friends, and after-church chats with members, people share their sense of despondency. They deplore that, over time, a major part of their church seems to have shifted towards "the right." This appears to be true in many parts of the world, and it is certainly the case in my country, the Netherlands.

People indicate that they no longer feel at home at many church-organized events. They emphasize they are still committed Seventh-day Adventists but feel uncertain about certain traditional beliefs. They wonder why church leaders still object to full equality between male and female pastors. They no longer agree with the official views regarding different sexual orientations and hope their church will soon become more inclusive. They no longer accept a "plain reading" of Scripture. While they believe that God is the creator and sustainer of everything, they do not think that Genesis tells us when and how he created. They have shifted their view of Ellen White’s role and no longer look to her for the final word on every issue. They certainly do not want to get involved in carpeting entire cities with copies of The Great Controversy, and they dislike most of the independent fringe ministries that enjoy strong support from the leaders in the highest echelons of the denomination. 

What Is the Solution?

Some feel that our Adventist community is becoming so polarized that a split into several communities is inevitable. It may, in fact, be nothing short of a miracle that a major split has not yet occurred. Compared to other confessional families, Adventism has remained, organizationally, remarkably united. For all the criticism that is heard about our denominational hierarchical structure, it must be acknowledged that this structure has done a fairly good job at keeping us together. However, there are tensions, and we must ask: can it be stretched any further? Or have we come to the point where progressives and conservatives must go their separate ways?

I fervently hope we can find ways of staying together. A breakup into two or more denominations would bring untold misery. In recent decades, the schism between two groups of Adventists in Hungary (which has fortunately been healed) was a distressing example of how division pitches groups of people against each other, tearing church groups and families apart. In the past, the Calvinist denominations in my country have been prone to multiply—often as the result of hair-splitting theological quarrels that few people in the pews really understand—and conclude with generational estrangements.

A split between a progressive and a conservative Adventist denomination would be an extremely painful process and would affect hundreds of thousands of people in a very negative way. A few years ago, I wrote a small book that was published in seven different languages. Its English title is Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers on the Margins. It was my way of making a small contribution to combatting the polarization in the church. My plea was: please do not leave the church, but rather help create a space where we can focus on the things we have in common instead of the things that separate us. I was surprised to discover that my plea resonated with so many readers, and I still receive occasional messages telling me that the book helped them to stay in the church!

I often feel frustrated as I read or hear about things that should not have happened in our Christian community. I feel disillusioned when I see poor leadership and far too often observe how church workers are treated inequitably or are denied a sympathetic hearing. I feel disheartened when doctrinal discussions and differences in prophetic interpretations lead to rifts between people. I cannot deny that the church does suffer from a significant degree of polarization and that something needs to be done about it.

The Dutch government fell a few weeks ago. The four political parties who had formed a coalition could not reach an agreement about an issue concerning asylum seekers. Several other interesting political developments have since taken place, making the outcome of the upcoming elections in November very unpredictable. To say that there is a political polarization in Dutch politics would be the understatement of the year. One unexpected event has been the return of Frans Timmermans from Brussels to the Netherlands. He has resigned from his position in the European Union to become the leader of a combined left-leaning bloc in the Netherlands. Timmermans recognizes the challenges posed by the current polarization. In his first public appearance in his new role, he stated, “We cannot reduce polarization by throwing mud at each other. We can only diminish polarization by campaigning with decency.” This is, I believe, a key principle that must also be applied in our Adventist church context.

Polarization must be eliminated, or at least reduced, by refusing to throw mud at each other. The key principle must be to treat each other with respect—as brothers and sisters who may not think alike but are willing to listen and accept each other as fellow Adventist believers. If that is our point of departure, we can hope to love, respect, and remain together with, and in spite of, all our differences.

Reasons for Optimism

Does this mean that those of us who consider ourselves "progressive" Adventists must keep our frustrations to ourselves and take comfort from the thought that, fortunately, there are others who look at their church in the same way as we do? Or is there reason to take courage and remain optimistic that change is possible? 

I remain optimistic. Looking back at general Christian history, and at the past of Adventism in particular, we notice that churches can and do change. However, this change often involves a very lengthy process. Usually, we are not speaking in terms of years but rather in terms of decades or even longer. In Adventist history, there has been a pendular movement. General Conference president from 1954 to 1966, the era of Reuben Figuhr manifested a significant openness which differed greatly from the time of his more conservative successor, Robert Pierson. The swing of the pendulum towards greater academic freedom and true dialogue, which characterized the Paulsen administration, moved regrettably back when Ted Wilson assumed the presidency of the General Conference. It may seem that Wilson will do all he can to ensure that his successor will protect his legacy, but I remain open to being surprised.

There is also, I believe, another reason to be optimistic. It may appear that the “progressive” Adventists form a relatively small minority while the “conservatives” see their influence increase. But this minority may in fact be much bigger than it appears. It does not only consist of those who are vocal about their doubts, frustrations, and dreams for the future of the church; there are more "progressives" than there are readers of Spectrum and Adventist Today. There are many more who think along "progressive" lines but choose to remain silent in order to keep the peace in their local church or to maintain relationships with family members and friends. Many others have feelings of uneasiness about the dubious trends they perceive in the church but feel they are unable to express these sentiments in a reasoned and structured manner.

The term "remnant" is an important part of our Adventist jargon. Usually, it is applied to the small portion of believers who will eventually be ready to meet Jesus at his return to this earth. I suggest that we can also apply the term "remnant" to the section of the church that is willing to think outside the box of tradition and is eager to make their Adventist convictions relevant for Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century. As in Elijah’s days, this "remnant" which has not bowed its knees to the Baal of traditionalism and fundamentalism may be much larger than what our troubled sight allows us to see.

It may not yet be clearly discernible, but I believe COVID-19 has had a long-term impact on the church. It has shifted the focus of a large number of members from higher organizations to local communities of believers. During the pandemic, the higher organizations in the denomination were severely restricted in their activities. Local churches, pastors, and other leaders found that the continued "running" of the church depended on their determination and creativity. Certainly, there was benefit to some online conference and union initiatives, but it became apparent that the church was not structurally hindered by the lack of international meetings or the disrupted travel schedules of General Conference personnel. It appears to me that the pandemic period bolstered the ongoing transfer of authority and autonomy from higher levels to the local church. If that is true, it would mean that global unity can find more diversity in its expressions, and that might help to reduce polarization.

When a few unions decided to defy the General Conference and started to ordain women pastors, the General Conference reacted by establishing a system of compliance committees and threatening to punish church entities that would not comply with church policy. Now, a few years later, these punishments have remained empty talk, as has the idea of enforcing these compliance strategies. The top leaders apparently realized they do not have the globally accepted moral authority to definitively halt the spreading of women's ordination through these measures. It may yet take some time, but I remain hopeful that full equality between men and women in ministry will come!

The issues surrounding the LGBTQ community are even more complicated than those connected with women's ordination. Many other denominations are also struggling to find their direction. A few recent events in Adventism indicate that, in some places, the sign posts are moving with regard to alternative sexualities. This has pushed church leaders to create another polarizing statement and to establish a new task force to defend the traditional position of the church. However, it seems church leadership is running out of steam in this domain. If they cannot find a more powerful way to alert the church to the perceived evils of non-heterosexual orientations and practices than a Mark Finley sermon with well-worn and shaky arguments, this is clear evidence that the church is losing the battle.

I want to add one more thing. Recently, we had a few Sabbath School study guides that were heavy on traditional eschatology with the well-known scenario of last-day events and the customary anti-Catholic elements. As I attended Sabbath School classes during this period, I noticed a growing reluctance among many of the members to simply absorb the content without asking questions. I was surprised to hear solid, and in my eyes quite conservative, members expressing questions and doubts. Many wondered aloud: is this really going to happen in the way we have always said? Or should we, maybe, take another look at some of the classic interpretations of apocalyptic prophecy? Some members with a tendency to remain quiet chose to speak up. Is this a small sign that change is underway?

Where Do We Go From Here?

The future remains uncertain—this truism also applies to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I look at the future of my church with a mixture of deep concern and optimism. Whatever happens, I hope the church will stay together and find creative ways to deal with its diversity, utilizing serious dialogue, love, and respect. More than ever before, it is crucial that we listen to one another. "Progressive" Adventists must realize that most of their "conservative" brothers and sisters are pleasant Christians with whom they share many core values and ideals. At the same time, it remains important that "progressive" Adventists continue to be actively involved in their communities. They must do all they can to communicate their beliefs and concerns in ways that connect rather than divide—in ways that are tactful and winsome, rather than combative and judgmental. Throughout all of this, we all must exercise "the patience of the saints," not just as we interact with "the world," but especially as we seek spiritual growth and enrichment within our diverse faith community.

 


Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a BA from Newbold College and an MA from Andrews University, he earned a BDiv with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. Before retiring, he was president of the Netherlands Union.
 
Title Image by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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