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Waiting for the ‘Brethren’ — Symptoms of a Looming Crisis, or Renewal?


In the wake of San Antonio 2015, I wrote an article1 on this site where I made the claim that “the issue of ordination cannot be solved on a purely textual basis,” as demonstrated by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC). Today, post-Battle Creek, where the ‘Brethren’ and their ‘will to power’ has been demonstrated, the hope for a reconciliation within the church on the issue of women’s ordination is even further away. I think that this is also true for a much-needed theology of cultural and theological diversity in the church. 

Neither biblical hermeneutics, as currently practiced within the mainstream theological community of the church, with its emphasis on academic formal methods, and scholarly expertise in both Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, nor ecclesiastical power structures, with its developing judicial arms of compliance committees, will settle the case. The church seems to be at ‘a point of no return,’ in the sense that the current conflicts of uniformity vs. diversity will never go away, if it is left to a majority-vote of the ‘Brethren.’

Where will the road forward be found?

I believe that the Church needs a biblical hermeneutic more sensitive to the concrete context of the plurality of lived human experiences, as a preferential option to a uniform, dogmatic theology. This implies a return to the theology of ‘Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ in contrast to the ‘theologies of the Greek philosophers.’

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the ceremony for the world-famous Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann. He was awarded a Doctor Theologiae Honoris Causa — an honorary doctorate — at my alma mater, the Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society, in Oslo. Moltmann, at the age of 92, had dedicated one of his lectures, “The Contribution of Feminist Theology,” to his late wife Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel. She passed away in 2016 and is recognized as a distinguished feminist theologian in her time.

Her feminist theology points in the right direction. It is deeply rooted in the discrimination of women from positions in society, and in the established churches in Germany at the beginning of the 1970s. The ‘truth’ of her theology comes to us not through power, but through vulnerabilities, suffering, and powerlessness. Given the present situation in the Adventist Church, I believe her perspectives are relevant to the question of power, and the role of women in the church. The controversy over women’s ordination is just the current backdrop of a larger (looming) crisis within the church.

But first, a warning: her theological road is a road less traveled in current Adventist ‘official’ theology.

In contrast to classical Christian theologies, influenced by Platonic-Aristotelian (dualistic) metaphysics, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel and Jürgen Moltmann stress concrete human existence as a basic premise for healthy theology. Both developed their theological thinking in the aftermath of World War II, as a way of coming out of the horrors of the Holocaust. Their theologies are therefore deeply rooted in a theology that takes human life and actuality as its basis. Likewise, their eschatology2 is a “theology of hope” — of change and possibility — sustaining life in the here and now. As Moltmann phrased it in one of his lectures: “Hope is the belief in the unfolding of the future in the current events.” A theology of hope is therefore a contextual theology; a theology of liberation, where “the context of social and political life becomes the text of theology.” It is a theology faced toward the world, implying that the need for justice and freedom from oppression is of greater importance than ‘pure’ theological, and identitarian needs. Consequently, it is a theology that is self-critical — of its past and present. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel and Jürgen Moltmann have both brought human experience back to theology.

She3, as an activist, and the author of numerous books and studies on feminist theology, insisted that we need a contextually based feminist theology to avoid oppression of women in church and society. That is a feminist theology on behalf of women, for men.4

Back in 1972, she experienced what she described as a ‘conversion experience,’ inspired by the invocation of the American Women’s Movement:

            “A new day is dawning for us.

            We see the Holy Spirit at work

            creating a new future for women.

            We see a new self-confidence, a new

            Confirmation of our Self,

            a new community of sisters

            a new freedom….”

In her first book, Human Rights for Women (1974), she describes the cultural tradition of women in Germany at the time: “women were valued above all for roles of ‘service,’ as mothers, kindergarten teachers, nurses, housewives.” Church ministry for women was called ‘Women’s Aid’ in the context of diaconal outreach. Yet, women were not admitted to ordination, but only allowed to be deaconesses. That was the male image of the women, which has haunted Christian theologies for centuries. At present, it haunts Adventist theology.

Moltmann-Wendel claimed that “Human Rights for Women” also means “Ecclesiastical Rights for Women”: “In Christ, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). In the title of her second book, she rewrote the male pathos of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Sisterhood (1978), omitting the ‘Brethren.’ In a comment on this statement, Moltmann said this in his lecture: “I endorsed the title, since the pathos of humanity was always ascribed to men: ‘Brother’s love’ binds man to man, and Church community was called ‘Brethren.’ Women were somehow included, but women like Elisabeth wanted to step out of that ‘somehow’ and take on responsibility of their own.” As she claimed: “It is more difficult to be yourself than to be anything else.”

Bible studies became the “workshop of Feminist Theology in Germany,” according to Moltmann, “beginning in Wiesensteig, a village in the region of Württemberg, in 1979.” About forty-five women gathered there, and “slept on the floor in sleeping bags,” discussing the “healing of the woman.” They touched on several feminist-theological issues, like the Self-discovery of women, Jesu-ology (in contrast to Karl Barth’s high Christology), “the taboo of blood and the problematic nature of the Cross, the search for rituals which would correspond to bodyliness.”

These women activists developed a new form of Bible Study, born out of critical reflection of a male-dominated society. In contrast to the formal hermeneutic of the ‘Brethren,’ they took the perspective of associating their lived experience with texts from the Bible. In other words, they developed “a new style of narrative Bible study,” denounced as “wild exegesis” by the dominant male theologians at the time. As Moltmann put it: “Feminist ‘Bible Study’ is an interpretation of biblical history by means of one’s own experienced or suffered life. It is not an academic hermeneutic, nor a historical, linguistic or materialist exegesis.…‘Feminist Bible study’ is a lay movement of women. An interpretation of the biblical story by means of the particular experiences of women.”

One of the leading empowering motifs was taken from Exodus-theology. For them, exodus was a liberation “from bondage and dependence into freedom and independence.”

“Through the Sea of Reeds with Miriam”:

            “And Miriam took a timbrel in her hand;

            And all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.

            And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord,

            For he hath triumphed gloriously;

            The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:20, 21, KJV)

Another empowering motif was taken from “the women around Jesus.” A key figure here was the self-confident ‘Johannine Martha,’ and “her confession of Christ, which does not correspond to Peter’s confession: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world’” (John 11:27). In contrast to the ‘Johannine Martha,’ she pictured ‘Luke’s Martha’ as a “Protestant kitchen-Martha, who was just good enough for the domestics and deaconess organizations.” Likewise, she also drew on the ‘unknown woman’ who anointed Jesus before his death. Jesus said of her: “Wherever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mark 14:19).

If Moltmann-Wendel had what can be called a ‘systematic theology,’ it was in the form of a “‘Jesu-ology,’ instead of a Christology.” It was centered in the story of Jesus’ life, “what in the Christology of the Apostle’s Creed is worth but a comma between born and suffered,” according to Moltmann. Her starting-point was Luke 4:18, 19:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (NIV)

Toward the end of the lecture, Moltmann commented on how his late wife’s theological legacy had impacted him. He confessed that “I was always an example of typical ‘male thinking.’ Elisabeth used me as a negative backdrop for her budding feminist approach, and I put up with it amusedly. Then I began to change.” And he goes on, “Elisabeth wrote, ‘In Feminist Theology,’ I had learned to speak personally, to say ‘I’…Jürgen was used to the lecturing style which aimed at conveying things factually.” Commenting on this, he said, “So I learned to not just convey my theological ideas objectively, but to also express myself as a subject and integrate theology with my own experiences of life and death.”

In conclusion, he shared a story from 1981, from the World Council of Churches, where he and Elisabeth had been asked to give a speech together, structured as a dialogue, on “The Communion of Women and Men in Church.” As she put it, “for two days, we walked along the rainy Swabian Alps, debated, despaired of each other and became exasperated with ourselves: I learned that I couldn’t reprogram him to be a feminist.” Instead, advocating a feminist perspective, she said, “It will be a matter of learning to listen and sitting at women’s feet — like Mary did at Jesus’ feet.” Responding to her, Jürgen said, “I spoke of the liberation of men from machismo and the desire to dominate: “The lord in men must die so that the brother can be born who is capable of forthright friendship.”

And he ended his lecture by saying, “We never spoke with one voice, but always in two. Our union was always a union in affirmed and relished diversity, and in love and respect — a deep and lasting friendship for life.”

The alternative to discrimination of women, and abuse of power for sectarian and identitarian purposes, is not to continue this coercive path of self-destruction, but rather to embrace a self-critical, dialogical spirit of love, respect, recognition of equality, and diversity.

Moltmann-Wendel and her sisterhood’s main theological concern was “how to get theology to the streets.” Their narrative biblical approach, shared as a group, was the key for this to eventually happen.


Notes & References:

2. Moltmann’s eschatology is not apocalyptic in the sense of the ‘end of the world’ through cataclysms and catastrophes. On the contrary, Moltmann claims that such apocalyptic visions “are not Christian. The Christian expectation for the future has nothing at all to do with final solutions of this kind, for its focus is not the end of life, or history, or the world. It is rather the beginning. See: “Is the World Coming to an End or Has Its Future already Begun?” in The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology, eds David Fergusson and Marcel Sarot (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), p. 130 and also his Preface to The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. xi.

3. I have not read any of Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s books or writings, but I present them here as presented by her husband, Jürgen Moltmann, in his lecture in Oslo, September 25, 2018. My citations of her are therefore based on Moltmann’s citations of her.

4. Moltmann listed the current need for several contextual theologies: Ecological theologies on behalf of the rights of the earth, liberation theologies on behalf of the rights of the oppressed, children’s theologies on behalf of the rights of children, and black theologies on behalf of the rights of the black (for the whites).


Ole-Edvin Utaker writes from Norway. He holds a MPhil. in Religion, Society and Global Issues from MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society, along with degrees in theology from Newbold College/Andrews University, and history from the University of Oslo. He is engaged in inter-religious dialogue and praxis at home and abroad — He is a member of The Church of Norway, and a concerned former Adventist, whose ‘Adventism’ never left him.

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