Editorial Note: The following paper was presented at the 2017 Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) during the Sabbath morning Panel Discussion on the topic of William G. Johnsson’s book Where Are We Headed? Adventism After San Antonio. Read more about the six young scholars who presented and the publishing schedule for the papers here.
In his latest book, Where Are We Headed? Adventism After San Antonio, William Johnsson points to the issues currently shaping the Adventist church. Chapter 1 deals with the ordination of women. He claims following: it is a moral issue; our treatment is unjust and discriminatory; equality and inclusion is needed. Finally, millennials laugh at our church and they leave. I believe Johnsson is making a big point here, since according to some statistics we lose 95% of our young people in the western world.
Chapter 2 deals with the “chosen” or the “remnant.” According to Johnsson, such self-designation makes us arrogant and exclusive in the eyes of others; it separates us from the world. Johnsson, as a known expert in the epistle to the Hebrews, points out that Jesus died “outside the gate” (Hebrews 13:12). He died in an unholy place. “Now,” says the epistle to the Hebrews, “let us go to Him outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13).
Johnsson believes that we are called to leave our comfort zones and go where Jesus has gone before – outside the camp, into the public square! My question would be, what is our contribution to the public square, when we are treating our own people unjustly and discriminatory, being ready to present ourselves as arrogant and exclusive? How appealing is that to the young people of today?
Chapter 8 discusses interpreting the Scripture, distinguishing between 1) the flat literalistic approach, which centers on words and tends to deny the need to interpret and go beyond the literal meaning of the text, and 2) the nuanced approach, which centers on context and is aware of the challenges in understanding the text caused by time, place, and circumstances of the writing.
I strongly agree with Johnsson’s claim that polarization over the role of women in our church to a large measure stemmed from different approaches to reading the Scripture. Culture and circumstances of the biblical author have to be taken into consideration when we read and interpret Scripture. It must be acknowledged that words in different contexts could have different meanings.
In addition to that, our word “ordination” is not part of the vocabulary of biblical writers, but part of the King James Bible vocabulary and the hierarchy struggles of that time. Today’s culture must be taken into consideration as well, as we apply Scripture to the needs of our world. I would like to point to the tri-polar thinking, which according to Fritz Guy is what distinguishes Adventist theologians: 1) Scripture; 2) today’s culture; 3) Adventist heritage. The main question is, how can Scripture, from the culture of the biblical author, be relevant in today’s culture, without losing our Adventist heritage?
Chapter 10 deals with unity and the high danger of a major split within our Church. The main question is how to keep the big worldwide family together? What is the proper way of dealing with the “rebellious” Unions? My pastoral experience in dealing with conflict situations leads me to agree with Johnsson’s assessment, that the course of action that the General Conference leaders contemplate is wrong. Johnsson suggests that it is wrong in its theology, history, policy, spirit, and that it is more papal than Adventist. Finally, I agree with Johnsson that the issue is one of conscience. He claims straight forwardly that a “faithful Adventist is bound before God to obey conscience rather than policy when policy conflicts with conscience.” Using policy to resolve an issue of conscience does not lead toward a resolution, but toward escalation of the conflict and separation.
At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, I do not observe a use of policy, but rather a dialogue which brought both sides near, for the purpose of keeping the family together and advancing the work. The crucial moment at the council was the testimony of the working of the Spirit among the Gentiles (Acts 15:8-9). Who can prevent the Holy Spirt from working? No policy can restrict women to be a blessing to our Church, and we should recognize it and give them equal rights, like the Jerusalem Council recognized Gentiles and gave them equal rights in the family of God. Paul’s entire missionary work aimed at unifying different parties, as exemplified in 1 Corinthians, as well as in his collection of money among Gentile Christians for the needs of the poor in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-27). I see Paul as a great unifier, as was our Lord Jesus Christ who reunited Earth with Heaven on the cross. Finally, we are called by Jesus to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), aiming at expanding and keeping the family together.
In conclusion, I will quote George Knight’s question from his 9.5 Theses, “how Catholic do we as a church want to be?” In light of the events at Annual Council last month, Johnsson’s book continues to be highly relevant. Issues pointed out in his book will decide the future of our Church. Successful leaders recognize strength in diversity and work at keeping the family together. We need diverse people and diverse approaches to reach the diverse world. Finally, we do not have one Gospel in our Bible, but four diverse versions of it, all aiming at the same goal. I pray for sensitive leaders who will recognize strength in diversity and keep the big, worldwide family together, as we all work together toward fulfilling the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20).
Igor Lorencin, PhD, is a New Testament professor at Theologische Hochschule Friedensau (Friedensau Adventist University) inGermany.
Image Credit: ASRS / Oak & Acorn Publishing
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