Category Archives: Current Events

I’ve Changed My Mind on Women’s Ordination

I interrupt the “guest blog” series from Graham Maxwell and Lou Venden to offer up some thoughts on how my mind has changed or stayed the same on the issue of women’s ordination. Hopefully these thoughts will have some value as the Seventh-day Adventist Church approaches a fateful Annual Council on October 5-11. As the two sides in this crisis harden their positions, I have considered, for the first time in my life, the possibility of a significant church split and it saddens me deeply.

In this context, let me review where I was in San Antonio (2015) and how my mind has changed since then. For forty years (since 1975), the best theological and administrative minds in the church studied the subject of ordination and the role of women in the church. While some were convinced the Bible supported women’s ordination and others were convinced that it opposed it, many or most of us drew the conclusion from all this study that the Bible never actually addresses the question. It neither mandates nor forbids the practice. I know that Seventh-day Adventists on both sides will disagree with me, but their honest disagreement actually helps make my point. I believe I was and am on solid ground in this assertion, as it was voted by the Annual Council in 2014.

Another area of consensus concerned the meaning of ordination itself. The same vote asserted that ordination is not the conferral of special powers, nor a superior position in a hierarchy. It is simply the conferral of representative authority. When we ordain someone, the church is essentially saying, “You speak for us, we trust you to represent us wherever you go.” And such a conferral of representative authority is necessary in a worldwide church. The church can’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry claiming to speak for it. It has the right to confer that authority on those it trusts. Hence the tradition of ordination.

The problem with that position is that ordination doesn’t really mean a whole lot in contemporary terms. When the church hires someone to preach, male or female, they have as good as ordained them already. No church entity hires a pastor they don’t know and trust to some degree. To hire a person and pay them out of tithe money confers representative authority. So the vote of the Annual Council in 2014 denied that ordination has “magical powers” that should be limited to select groups, ordination is simply a public recognition that a person speaks for the church. In saying all of the above I do not assume that every voting delegate read and/or understood the action and its implications. But it was voted as the consensus of church leadership, and I support that consensus.

In light of those actions, I came to the conclusion that the only logical step left was to encourage a “Yes” vote in San Antonio (2015), allowing divisions of the church to decide on the basis of mission whether or not to allow ordination of women in their territories. Since some Adventists’ consciences compelled them to ordain women and other Adventists’ consciences forbade them from ordaining women, a Yes vote seemed Solomonic to me. Let each church, congregation, conference, union and division consider carefully whether ordaining women would enhance or detract from the mission of the church in their local areas. Let each area of the church follow its conscience on these matters. No need to split the church on a matter that the Bible did not either mandate nor forbid. It made perfect sense to me. It was a win/win solution, like Acts 15. Everyone gets to follow their convictions and their conscience (Rom 14:5). No one loses. The mission of the church wins. But I was wrong. I had completely overlooked one or two really important realities that change everything in my mind. I think I now understand why a “No” vote has led us into such difficult circumstances. I now believe a “Yes” vote would have been equally problematic. Why? Let me explain.

In large parts of the church, particularly in the southern hemisphere, conscience not only compelled people to keep their churches and local regions from ordaining women, it was for them a matter of conscience that women should not be ordained anywhere in the church. It was something like Achan in the camp. To ordain women anywhere was to bring God’s curse on the church everywhere. A “Yes” vote would have violated their consciences just as much as a “No” vote has violated the consciences of others in the church. In other words, the problem was with the vote itself. It was a win/lose situation. Whether the vote was Yes or No, someone would lose, someone’s conscience would be violated. This was a tragic reality that I did not see at the time and I suspect neither did most of those who voted to set up this choice in 2014 (its passed with some 85% of the vote).

Is this clash of conscience intractable? Is there no way to maintain the unity of the church in the face of its diversity on matters of conscience? I think not. A second insight I have recently come to may point the way to a resolution of the impass. Most people who favor the ordination of women do not do so because they believe women need the “magical powers” that ordination will provide. They realize ordination is one way for the church to determine its authorized representatives, nothing more. What is a matter of conscience to those who favor women’s ordination is treating women equally, as is enshrined in the 14th Fundamental Belief of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In light of this Fundamental, to ordain men and not women is to create an unbiblical inequality. But ordination in itself is not an overwhelming value, particularly in the West. That is evidenced by a number of male pastors who have requested Commissioned credentials, even at some potential cost to themselves financially, in order that they have no advantage of position over women.

It seems to me that there is room for negotiation here. It is possible to honor the consciences of all. What exactly that solution is would come from the kind of listening to each other and praying together that the Annual Council action of 2016 called for. One possibility is the Scandinavian approach. They dropped the terms “ordination” and “commissioning” for a Scandinavian word that means something similar but does not have the biblical and historical overtones that make “ordination” discussions so problematic. Since the Scandinavian unions are not coming under discipline for this action, it seems leadership may see some possibility of a middle ground here. Those compelled to ordain who they wish would be free to do so. Those who want to treat women equally would be free to do so. The church would stay united. The mission would move forward.

I have no idea exactly what is going on among church leaders in the run up to Annual Council. I have no idea what will happen there. But experience has taught me that while the leadership of the church DOES make mistakes (witness the many rebukes of church leadership when Ellen White was alive), the collective wisdom of church leadership tends to correct itself and end up in a wiser place. I trust my leaders to do the right thing, all of them. Let’s hope that they will hear each other and the voice of the Spirit next month. Let’s pray for the Council. And above all else, let’s pray that regardless of the decisions made there, Adventists will not lose their faith in God and their fellow believers.

Another View of Women in Ministry

One of the regular contributors of my Facebook page, Linda Hoover, has sometimes taken issue with my position on women’s ordination (that the Bible neither requires nor forbids it). Being more interested in what the Bible actually says than in what I think about it, I have often challenged her to share biblical evidence for her confidence that I was wrong and recently she sent me a piece that is fresh and interesting, so I thought I’d share it with those who might have missed it at the bottom of a discussion on my Facebook page. Linda does not claim to be a biblical scholar, but shows creativity in addressing a subject that has been analyzed to the nth degree. I have edited just a bit for format and clarity but believe her views come through clearly. I share the following from her without comment for your consideration and welcome your feedback:

I formed my position from several SDA sources including WO (women’s ordination) proponents, and some outside sources, including an article from Answers in Genesis ( non-SDA on FB), and maybe the most influential source is the spiritual application of an article shared with me by my daughter. That article presented a detailed account of a large corporation that was sinking rapidly into failure as it was run by the top-down model of management. By suddenly changing the management model to the new team management approach, the corporation was rapidly turned around to give us an amazing success story. Even at the time of reading it I had immediately seen the application to church management, but I had heard nothing of the WO dispute at the time. This article resurfaced in my thinking during this WO discussion, inspiring me to review all of the direct Bible texts on the topic of the position of authority in the church.
I will share a few spiritual concepts I gleaned from the article since I cannot find it at present. This I would rather do before giving you my other sources, for the understanding gleaned from that article helped me hear terms such as headship, authority, rule, equality, submission, and roles with different ears.

I see God as the prime example of the owner of a huge corporation which He runs on the team leadership model. He illustrates perfect team leading in Himself as three in One, so that every team leader under Him will have His example to follow in their position of responsibility. The product of His corporation is love, joy, peace, unity, and redemption for fallen mankind. So when He creates man in His image He wants us to be part of His team in production of the same. Adam was to be the team leader of earth and was given Eve as co-leader. Together they ruled earth as part of God’s huge corporation. The team leader, Adam, was primarily responsible for working in cooperation with his equally essential and perfectly matched assistant. He first provided for her as a spiritual guide and protector, as she then was better able to assist him in bearing and raising children. He was the lawgiver; she was the nurturer. He had extra physical strength and natural leadership drive; she had more emotional, nurturing, and counseling skills. They were each perfectly adapted to their roles as husband/father and wife/mother. And they perfectly complemented one another as they co-ruled their family and the earth.

As team leader Adam is not the owner of the corporation but is responsible for forwarding the goals of the CEO/owner. But this he must fulfill by also developing a successful cooperative team–his family. So he also becomes their servant leader. His goal was to serve their needs and guide them in ways to benefit the company and forward its goals. He has responsibilities both to the company owner and those on his team, for no team is successful without leadership that pulls people together in cooperation, inspiration, and motivation to make the company successful and the owner happy.

The pastor/elder is to be a team leader. He does not own the company. He does not make the policies without approval of the owner/CEO. He is not a boss but a guide to protect, inspire, encourage, and strengthen the abilities of the team members–men, women, and children. For it is they who do the work together in production. He teaches them the principles of the company (kingdom), protects them from error, and empowers them to do the work of pastoring, Bible studies, spiritual visitation, evangelizing, public speaking, health work, and whatever other gifts the members may have. If any devote themselves to full time work in their ministry, they should be paid accordingly. But that does not make them the team leader.

The servant-leader asks for and receives counsel, correction, and recommendations from his team members as needed, for his authority is limited to team leading–he does not make arbitrary decisions on his own, but seeks the mind of the whole team. Besides ongoing teaching/training and guidance, at times he may have to remind the members of company rules set by the owner, but otherwise the collective wisdom and action of the team is what drives the company’s success.

So the team leader pastor/elder is a servant leader. If he is not training those under him toward the kind of leadership that forwards the work of the company, then he has missed his calling. He is not called to do the work by himself, but to develop the team’s ability to do the work. Every team member that has gifts or talents should be encouraged to put them to work for the company. Some of those team members may become leaders over their own assigned area and given as much responsibility as they can to benefit the company. Some may become spokesmen for the organization, advertising agents, support personnel in various ways, etc.
With this model the pastor multiplies his efforts by developing a whole team full of workers and even some “pastors” to the flock. He is a “pastor” trainer. Both men and women can do this work, but as Ellen White stated, women are often more effective in this personal work. They can reach hearts and families in ways that men are not as effective. Can you imagine a church full of “pastors”? Instead of women taking the position of team leader, they should be free to minister where they are most effective.

Along with team leader responsibility there will of necessity be the degree of authority necessary to serve in that capacity. This is why we see words like “rule” and “authority” used in Scripture. It is servant leader authority. He is at the “head” of the church family activities, but he is not the owner/CEO. He is an under shepherd responsible for leadership-service to the church members. He stands on equal ground with all the other church members, but has a specific role to fulfill. This role is similar to the one a husband fulfills in the home. That is the reason his success at home is criteria for judging his effectiveness in the church (1 Timothy 3). If his family love and respect his leadership, this indicates he should succeed with a church family also.
As for references I like Clinton and Gina Wahlen, Women’s Ordination – Does It Matter? And “WO Overview,” http://ordinationtruth.com/…/womens-ordination-issues…/. Ingo Sorke has a good compilation of Ellen White statements. https://www.ingosorke.com/…/7118…/Ordination-Trifold.pdf.

Thoughts on the Inauguration and Bible Prophecy

I’ll do my best to be non-partisan in my remarks below. Some have wondered if the election of Trump and the threats to the inauguration would have prophetic significance. I would suggest that we tend to blow current events out of proportion, simply because they are what we know and our fears for the future magnify them. A lesson or two from history may be helpful.

John Adams was so contemptuous of Thomas Jefferson that he left the White House in the middle of the night on March 4, 1801, refusing to attend the inaugural ceremony of the man who had vanquished him.

Democrat Samuel Tilden, who won the popular vote in 1876, was urged to lead an army into Washington to stop the “corrupt” handover of power by Congress to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes; luckily, Tilden declined. Nonetheless, Tilden and his backers insisted they had been robbed. President Hayes was thereafter called “His Fraudulency.”

So bitter was the rivalry between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt that they said not a word to each other during the 1933 inaugural drive from the White House to the Capitol. Hoover and Roosevelt never reconciled, and they hurled insults at one another with regularity. The last three paragraphs are are deeply indebted to a brilliant essay posted earlier today: http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/political_commentary/commentary_by_larry_j_sabato/the_end_of_the_beginning.

As riveting as the current election and its aftermath have been, in many ways it is nothing new, so breathe out slowly everyone, relax, and enjoy the ride, wherever it leads. Prophecy is not concerned with the ins and outs of political intrigue. It is written to provide direction and hope to the people of God. No matter how out of control things appear, God is still in control.

Disappointment with the San Antonio General Conference Session

Last weekend was spent at the Calimesa SDA Church Retreat at Pine Springs Ranch in the San Jacinto Mountains of southern California. During the Sabbath School time the teacher was addressing the weekend’s theme of “When Things Don’t Turn Out. . .” He was addressing how we should respond when things don’t turn out the way we expect, personally, in local communities, and worldwide. He invited me to be prepared to say something about the General Conference Session and the big thing that didn’t “turn out” there, the vote to give official endorsement to divisions of the church to consider mission as a key factor in decisions regarding women’s ordination. Time ran out before I was able to speak, but I thought my notes there might be useful or encouraging to someone here. My apologies if this blog is annoying to those who might disagree with my conclusions.

Let me begin with the history of ordination. While the word “ordination” appears in the King James Bible, that English word comes from the Latin, it is not found in the New Testament. Ordination as we know it developed gradually over the early centuries and became fixed in the Middle Ages. Ordination of women did not occur then on two grounds: 1) the Bible nowhere required it, and 2) no one had ordained women before, so tradition supported the Bible’s silence on the question. These two reasons also sufficed for the Adventist pioneers, who adopted male ordination from their previous churches. This was not a theological act but a practical one, providing credentials to those who spoke for the church. When I entered ministry in the early 1970s, the traditional situation remained in place and the lack of biblical clarity meant I was neutral to negative on the question when calls to ordain women began in the 1970s.

In the years since, society in many parts of the world has completely changed on the role of women. In the 1950s nearly everyone assumed that some roles should be filled only by men: physician, soldier, lawyer, fireman, police officer, truck driver, President of the United States, and airplane pilot, to name only a few. In more and more places today, women fill virtually all roles in the work place except for ministry in churches like ours. Absent a clear “thus saith the Lord” on the matter, a tradition was threatening to present the church as completely irrelevant to society in many parts of the world.

So I took a fresh look at the Bible in light of the new situation. Acts 15 provides encouragement to do that. The earliest church believed that the Bible (the Old Testament at the time) taught circumcision as an unchanging requirement for salvation. But God’s providence in their experience led them to re-read the Bible and open the way for uncircumcized Gentiles to participate in the church. Things that once seemed obvious from their study of the Bible were no longer so in light of the Spirit’s leading. In my own fresh look at the Bible it dawned on me that the Bible nowhere asks the question “Should women be ordained?” It doesn’t address the issue directly. That means that the “answers” people were finding on both sides of the issue lacked the clarity of direct speech from God. Why doesn’t the Bible address the issue directly? What does that tell us about God? Evidently God never addressed the question in Scripture because He could live with the situation as He found it (male ordination). It was not the most important thing to challenge people with in those days. God addressed people on issues when they were ready to hear it (John 16:12) or when the mission required it (Acts 10-15).

This was the conclusion of the majority of members of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee. For many it was a change of mind. They learned that the Bible does not settle the matter in an absolute sense. Where mission requires it, women can be ordained. Where mission suggests that ordaining women would harm the church in a particular society, it should probably not be done. There were holdouts on both sides who believed the Bible clearly forbade or required universal women’s ordination, but the clearest trend of Bible study was in the direction of mission being the determining factor in any part of the world. That meant the world church allowing local jurisdictions to decide what was the best approach for their areas. This was not a pro-women’s ordination conclusion, it was a pro-mission conclusion. And it seemed to me that this was the only reasonable outcome at the General Conference session in San Antonio (July, 2015). I realize that there are many on both sides who still disagree with me on this. And I affirm them as brothers and sisters who have the same right I do to study and seek the mind of God on this question. Where God has left room for differing opinions, we dare not cut each other off.

Having said this, the denial of the TOSC conclusion and process in San Antonio was heart-breaking for many of us. I was heartbroken for the many women who felt the action showed disrespect to their perception of a call from God to do ministry. I was disappointed for those parts of the world who felt distrusted when their local judgment on the matter was rejected. I felt distrusted and disrespected when my earnest attempts to bring reason into the discussion were summarily dismissed with assertions and condemnation, rather than collegial debate.

But I realize that in the ultimate scheme of things my disappointment and that of others does not matter all that much. If I am right about Scripture and about God, God has been waiting a long, long time to see His people come to their senses on many issues. He has been waiting a long, long time to see healing of the divisions in the universe. He has been waiting a long, long time to see the ministry of women being affirmed by us in the same way He affirms it. If that is true, things in San Antonio didn’t turn out for God either. . .

Review of Adventist Churches That Make a Difference, by Gaspar and May Ellen Colon

A new book is coming out shortly by a couple of friends of mine. I thought you would want to know about it. The book Adventist Churches That Make a Difference, by Gaspar and May Ellen Colon, was designed as an enhancement to the Third Quarter 2016 Sabbath School lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist world church. As such, the book was subject to many constraints. It was held to a brief and fixed length. Each of its thirteen chapters had to be similar in length. And each chapter had to correspond to the topic of that week’s lesson. The format has been a popular one, since many members and teachers are eager to supplement the Sabbath School Quarterly with additional resources.

Given the constraints of the format, I didn’t expect the book to break any new ground. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. This is a landmark book. It not only advocates that every Adventist church should be deeply engaged in its community, but it provides dozens of specific illustrations of Adventist churches around the globe who are doing just that. These kinds of ministries are divided into four types: 1) relief, 2) personal development, 3) community development, and 4) confronting injustice. Colons use a fishing analogy to describe these ministries. 1) Relief is giving a hungry person a fish, 2) personal development teaches people how to fish, 3) community development provides the fishing tools, and 4) social justice makes sure everyone has equal access to the fishing pond.

Gaspar and May Ellen Colon are eminently qualified for the task they take on in this book. For many years she has been in the General Conference Office for Sabbath School/Personal Ministries and Gaspar has been director of the Center for Metropolitan Ministry based at Washington Adventist University. In these capacities they have traveled all over the world encouraging community outreach and observing first-hand the many success stories that are out there. While most churches in the Western world are stuck in neutral, some have actively filled recognized needs in their communities, causing these churches to be highly valued by those outside the church. These success stories are a gold mine of fresh ideas that stimulate thought and provide readers with options that their own churches can consider.

The book is extremely well written and easy to read. The variety of stories keeps the reader’s attention. But the stories are not just random and entertaining, they are structured into a carefully crafted philosophical foundation. That foundation is built on both Scripture and the best scientific evidence of how groups of people relate to each other. While the Colons are not specialists in the Bible, their use of Scripture is measured, solid and persuasive. The stories illustrate how real churches in real communities apply both biblical and scientific principles to real-life problems.

This book is MUST reading, not only for SDA Sabbath School teachers, but for pastors, local and worldwide church leaders and all members who desire that churches make a difference in their local communities.

The Status of ISIS

In the wake of the Brussels attack (and Paris and San Bernardino and Istanbul) people are wondering if ISIS is getting too strong to stop. Actually the opposite is the case. I believe that ISIS as a traditional caliphate is on the ropes. The recent attacks in Europe are a sign of weakness rather than strength. Let me explain.

The core theology of ISIS is an eschatology grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. It envisions the end-time re-establishment of the caliphate, a form of government which is ruled directly by God through a designated caliph, the religious and political successor to the prophet Muhammad. In order to establish a caliphate, you need a trans-national entity (ISIS only declared a caliphate after expanding its territory out of Syria and into Iraq, thus evaporating the long-standing border between the two) that fully implements islamic law (Sharia). And the ruler of that entity must be an adult male of Qurayshi decent (the tribe of Muhammad) and a person who exhibits morality and integrity. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A crucial element that distinguishes ISIS from al Qaeda is the possession of a trans-national territory, the Islamic State. In the theology of ISIS, as soon as the end-time caliphate is established, all faithful Muslims are to come to it and pledge allegiance to the caliph. Leaving it for nearly any reason thereafter is considered apostasy. So the fact that they are now sending people on terror missions to Europe is an act of desperation that goes against their own theology.

By declaring a state, ISIS in a sense planted the seeds of its own demise. To run a state, one is actually forced to govern; to collect taxes and provide services, including the kind of conventional military defense that is necessary to hold and govern territory. Governing territory has taken the bloom off the Islamic State dream. The citizens of the Islamic State are becoming increasingly restive. At the same time, the bumbling alliance against ISIS in Iraq and Syria the Levant is now beginning to close in on all sides. Many cadres of ISIS are deserting their forces and sharing their knowledge of ISIS with its enemies. This gives Western intelligence the location of top leaders, who are being picked off one by one.

As a trans-national entity that governs and wages traditional warfare, therefore, ISIS’ days seem to be numbered. But as a force capable of spreading terror outside the Islamic State, they will probably continue for the foreseeable future. The question, therefore, arises, how can Muslims themselves combat terror? What type of theology may be persuasive for those considering jihadism as a way of life?

To be concluded. . .

What about the “Muslim God”?

According to the Bible, there is only one God, the One worshiped by Abraham. Other gods do not exist. Satan and his associates are imposters, God’s rivals in name only. Jews, Christians and Muslims agree on this.

This one creator God is known by various names in different languages and those who worship him in all these languages and cultures have very different ideas of who He is. So while we disagree about his nature, the fact remains that there is only one God, whom we all (Muslims, Jews and Christians) worship with greater or lesser insight into his true character and mission.

Are Muslims worshiping a “different god,” meaning a different spiritual entity? No, that is not even possible; because we do not believe a different god exists, unless we are prepared to believe that Muslims worship Satan unknowingly.

Jesus’ example towards the Samaritan woman is instructive here. He did not tell her, “you worship the wrong God.” Instead He told her: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know, we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” And then he led her into a full understanding of who he was in comparison with that which she did not know. This is what I mean when I say that we move from common ground to higher ground.

From Waco to ISIS: The Road Back to Sanity, Conclusion

What is the biblical response to religious violence? I would suggest at least two things. First, it is important for every follower of God to be aware of their own ignorance in spiritual matters. There are some things we can know about God, but there are also many things we don’t know for sure (Deut 29:29). In many religious groups certainty is a higher value than truthfulness. People won’t necessarily admit that or even be aware of it. But as you observe their interactions with others it becomes clear that once they have made up their minds, people of differing opinions become the “enemy.” But this behavior flies in the face of Scripture and is a symptom of human pride.

The apostle (Rom 11:13; 1 Cor 9:1-2; 15:9) Paul was one of the great thinkers of the Christian church. Among other things, apostles were the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament prophets (Luke 11:47-50; Eph 2:19-22). God spoke to Paul in visions (2 Cor 12:7-10), so he was an inspired writer, who was later added to Scripture (2 Pet 3:16). Nevertheless, Paul makes this startling and candid admission: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor 13:9, KJV, ESV, NIV). Although Paul received special revelations from God, he was ready to admit that his knowledge was partial and even his prophesyings were partial. Full knowledge of spiritual things is not a present reality, but something attainable only in eternity (1 Cor 13:12). This conviction harmonizes with the teaching of Jesus, which include the assertion, “I have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now” (John 16:12). It is healthy to have religious convictions and act on them, but when those convictions lead one to kill people in the name of God, something very twisted has occurred in the name of conviction.

From an Islamic perspective, a similar caution can be found in the Qur’an itself (Al ‘Imran 3:7): “It is He Who has sent down to you the Book. In it are verses that are entirely clear, they are the foundation of the Book: others are not entirely clear. But those whose hearts deviate (from the truth) follow that which is not entirely clear. They seek discord and search for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.” From this passage it is clear that absolute certainty in religious matters can lead one to deviate from the truth by seizing on hidden meanings which God did not intend.

A second response to religious violence is to understand that the divine answer to the world’s problems is not political, financial or military. Whenever religion mixes with politics and economics, true religion is the loser and human pride is exhibited in corporate ways. The spirit of Jesus, taken from His own testimony in court, is clearly stated in John 18:36, NIV: “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.’” Peter somehow missed the memo and endangered Jesus’ legal defense by his violent actions in Gethsemane (John 18:10-11). The true religion of Jesus does not live by the sword. His kingdom comes from another place. Jesus spoke even more pointedly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:43-45, NIV): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Ultimately, behind religious violence is a picture of God as a violent, blood-thirsty tyrant. Jesus here says that those who love their enemies are like their Father in heaven. That is what God is really like. He is really like the One who was beaten, slandered and killed, yet said “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In the words of Jesus, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).

From an Islamic perspective, the violent approach to religion should struggle much more to reconcile itself with statements like the following in the Qur’an (Al Nahl 16:125-128): “Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance” (16:125). This text suggests trusting the outcome of one’s witness to God, who alone truly knows the heart. Violence takes away another person’s choice and implies that God is pleased with forced submission. “And do thou be patient, for thy patience is but from Allah” (16:127). The key here is the character of God. The Muslim’s religious convictions cannot ignore the fact that the core portrayal of God’s character is as the merciful and compassionate One (Al Fatiha 1:1, repeated in the opening line of nearly every sura in the Qur’an). We are to be merciful, patient and compassionate to those who disagree, because that is what God is like. “Allah is with those who restrain themselves, and those who do good” (16:128). There are times and places where communities may need to defend themselves. But such actions are “emergency measures,” they are not for the purpose of exhibiting the character of God. Such actions, even when necessary, are to be regretted. They are not the substance of true religion, even for Muslims. To murder innocent people “in the name of Allah” is to bring shame and disrepute on God Himself. Such actions do not draw unbelievers to God, they drive them away in disgust.

Whether one is an Adventist or a Muslim, the solution to religious violence is centered in two things, humility and the character of God. Humility arises not out of God’s limitations, but ours. Humility is simply recognizing the truth about my own limitations. My ignorance about God is greater than my knowledge about Him I have many things to learn and many, many to unlearn. To take the life of another on the basis of my own understanding of truth is foolish arrogance in the extreme. Words fail.

The centrality of the character of God is evident at the heart of both Adventism and Islam. The central question at the heart of Islam is “What matters at the end of life?” When you come to the end of your life or the end of the world, what will truly matter? Will you wish you had played more video games? Will you wish you had binge-watched more TV series? Probably not. The Islamic answer to the question is found in two things: What really matters is God and good works. In other words, the two things that truly matter in Islam are submission to God (the word “islam” in Arabic means “submission”) and developing a character that does the things that please Him (good works). At the core of Adventism one finds the same basic question and the same answers. If you read the Conflict of the Ages Series from Ellen White, it begins and ends with the phrase “God is love.” The character of God is what the whole thing is about. And the same Adventist author says that the one thing we will take with us into eternity is our character (DA 331; RH, Dec 13, 1892).

The ultimate “jihad” is not political or military, it is a battle for the mind and the heart. Muhammad seems to have understood this principle, in spite of all the literal battles he chose to or had to fight. It is reported that after one campaign he announced to his soldiers. “We have now completed the lesser jihad. We now go home to the greater jihad.” The battle of faith is not about guns and tanks and fighter planes, it is the battle to control ourselves and to love one another. For sinful humans beings hurting others is relatively easy, controlling ourselves is difficult. If religion is to mean anything in this world, it must make us better people than we would be without it. Our study of Waco and ISIS does not suggest that they offer promising paths toward peace and self-control. Turning the other cheek is a true miracle that you won’t find in Waco or Raqqa (capital of the Islamic State). Genuine religion is more needed than ever in this world.

From Waco to ISIS: The Road Back to Sanity

When we view the horrible excesses of ISIS we may be tempted to believe that the movement and its followers are not sane. But our review of the events at Waco reminds us that no true believer is totally remote from spiritual insanity. Human nature is seriously flawed on account of sin, and sanity is often a miracle of God when it occurs. Every one of us should be grateful to God if our mental processes are reasonably sane. My purpose from here on is to explore how Waco and ISIS occurred and discover the path the Bible suggests we follow if we are to avoid the kinds of abuses that have occurred in both situations.

As noted in prevous blogs, Islam is divided today between what one could call Political Islam and Spiritual Islam. On the political side you have the jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood and many others who believe that the will of God in this world requires political and sometimes military action on the part of God’s followers. God’s way in this world depends on aggressive and sometimes violent intervention on the part of His followers. On the spiritual side, the mission of Islam is to restore the true faith of Abraham that has been distorted by political forms of Judaism and Christianity. In that scenario, Islam is a religion of peace, whose mission is to draw all believers back to the true God and to achieve harmony and peace. This divide between political and spiritual Islam goes all the way back to Muhammad’s day. Some would even see it in the Qur’an, where there is a difference in flavor between the Meccan (earlier) and Medinan (later) suras.

Most of the Muslims I know are clearly on the spiritual side of the above divide. That is what I perceive in the two religious leaders I introduced to everyone on my Facebook page earlier this month, Dr. Mustafa Kuko and Dr. As-Salaam Abdullah. That is one reason Dr. Kuko was so distressed about the events in San Bernardino, that someone who listened to his teachings could veer so far off the spiritual track into senseless violence.

For readers from a Seventh-day Adventist background, there is no room here for smug self-assurance. “Thank God we are not like those violent Muslims.” History tells us that while the peaceful, non-combatant side of Adventism is more prominent in most people’s consciousness, a more political side has shown itself in the past. A prime example is the Waco compound under David Koresh’s leadership, which I outlined at the beginning. Far less known at that time and a little before is a guerilla army in Southeast Asia that did not attack on Sabbath. Looking further back into Adventist history is the interesting case of John Harvey Kellogg. A colleague of mine has traced a line of thinking that runs from Battle Creek to Auschwitz. Kellogg was deeply engaged with purging the human race from inferior elements by what he called “biologic living.” He was an active player in the American eugenics movement that had significant ties to European thinkers who laid the foundation for fascism and nazism in the first half of the last century.

Whenever religion and politics mix, the dark side of human nature creeps to the fore and religion itself is transformed into the image of another master. Religious radicals (whether the Waco or ISIS variety) are driven by a combination of two things: 1) The absolute confidence that they are right, to the point that they are willing to die for every detail of what they believe. And 2) The answer to the world’s problems requires political and/or military action at some point. When these two elements are combined, it creates a toxic mix that can turn a peaceful religion into a monster that exhibits the character of Satan rather than the character of God. Is there any way out? To be concluded. . .

From Waco to ISIS: What Is So Appealing About ISIS?

For people in the West it is hard to understand why perfectly normal teen-agers or young adults who grew up in England, Germany or the US would leave such privileged lives and places to travel to what seems a repressive backwater filled with harshness and cruelty. They exchange comfortable lives for danger, combat and an uncertain future (people asked some of the same questions with regard to Waco). What could possibly be so attractive about ISIS?

One has to understand the power of eschatology, a compelling vision of the future. The eschatology of ISIS is grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. In a sense, ISIS is almost like a “Back to the Bible” movement in Christianity. People are called to exchange modern values for a vision based on the original sources of Islam. The goal of ISIS is the re-establishment of the caliphate, the form of government that existed in the early centuries of Islam. The caliphate is somewhat like what scholars of the Bible call a theocracy, when a nation is ruled directly by God through a judge or a king (see the biblical books from Joshua through 2 Chronicles). The idea of the caliphate is similar to what modern-day Israel would be like if it consistently implemented and enforced the laws of Moses today.

In order to establish a caliphate, you need a trans-national entity (ISIS only declared a caliphate after expanding its territory out of Syria and into Iraq, thus evaporating the long-standing border between the two) that fully implements islamic law (Sharia). And the ruler of that entity must be an adult male of Qurayshi decent (the tribe of Muhammad) and a person who exhibits morality and integrity. The Turkish Empire declared itself a caliphate from the 14th through the 19th Centuries, but it never truly applied islamic law, so purists today don’t consider the Ottoman Empire a true caliphate. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Why is Sharia (islamic law) so attractive to many Muslims? For one thing, it is guidance for a whole way of life. It offers clarity in how to live and how to behave, and such clarity is very attractive to some personalities. More than this, life under Sharia is portrayed as a secure existence. All citizens of the Islamic State get free housing, clothing, food and medical care. In other words, all the basic human needs (1 Tim 6:6-9) are taken care of, no questions asked. The health care include full vision and dental care at no cost. If a citizen of the Islamic State requires specialty care in Turkey or Europe, that is fully paid as well. Those who wish to are free to seek riches through business or employment, but basic needs are cared for regardless.

The goal of the Islamic State is to establish a spiritually pure community. One way to accomplish that is medieval-style punishments, which provide a strong motivation to toe the line. Included in the ISIS theocracy is execution or enslavement for unbelievers. Where things get really dicey is that for ISIS most Muslims are counted as unbelievers, hence the shocking cruelties toward captured people of nearly all backgrounds. Nevertheless, the sense of spiritual certainty is very attractive to some personality types (as witnessed at Waco), in spite of the abuse that often comes with it.

The core of ISIS’ attraction to many muslim youth is its vision of the “apocalypse.” According to ISIS, the Islamic State is written into God’s script for the end-time. According to the scenario, there will be 12 legitimate caliphs in the course of islamic history. Baghdadi is considered the 8th in this line. The goal is to establish a trans-national state (combining at least two currently accepted nations). For this two work geographically, two “failed states” (where central authority has broken down or disintegrated, as in Somalia) need to be located next to each other. Syria and Iraq now qualify.

For ISIS eschatology, the establishment of the Islamic State will draw out the opposition of “Rome” (in the 7th Century that was the Byzantine Empire). The armies of “Rome” (representing Europe and the USA today) will mass in northern Syria. There will be a great battle in the region of Dabiq (NW Syria, the islamic equivalent of the biblical Megiddo). In that battle the Islamic State will be victorious. The caliphate will expand, capturing Istanbul and Jerusalem. At that point the Antichrist (called Masih ad-Dajjal in Arabic, or “false [dajjal] Messiah”) will arise, probably in eastern Iran. His forces will destroy vast numbers of Islamic State fighters. Dajjal will corner the last 5000 ISIS fighters in Jerusalem. At that point Jesus, the true Messiah, will return to earth, kill Dajjal and lead the Islamic State to the final victory.

In this kind of scenario, defeats may only encourage people to join ISIS because they will be fulfillments of the prophecy. So military solutions for defeating ISIS as an ideology have their limitations. ISIS is a theology that thrives on defeat. Every setback is confirmation that the scenario is true and will be fully fulfilled at the end. In fact, ISIS soldiers were excited recently when they heard reports that American soldiers had been spotted in a battle. They fully expect a coalition of Americans and Europeans to attack them. That will be a sign to them that the battle of Dabiq is at hand. It would likely draw even more fighters to ISIS from around the world.

So defeating ISIS through traditional political or military strategies may not work. The scenario would only be undermined if ISIS was defeated by Turks, Jordanians and Iraqis. Al Qaeda never appealed to muslims generally the way ISIS has. It has always hidden in the shadows. The power of ISIS lies in its eschatological vision combined with the seizure of territory. The ISIS idea can only be defeated by an equally compelling islamic vision. I will explore what that vision might be like in the concluding blog(s) of this series.