Tag Archives: GC San Antonio

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.

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. . .

A Response to San Antonio

To those who like to hear something from me here every week or so, I apologize. Between several short trips and some extra challenges at the office I have not had the extra time to think through and process thoughts to share here. Hopefully I can be consistent again from here one.

People are asking for my reaction to the ordination vote at the SDA General Conference in San Antonio, so that seems like a good place to start.

Naturally, I am disappointed in the No vote on the question of allowing divisions of the church to assess whether or not ordaining women would be helpful to the mission in those divisions. I am disappointed because I feel the action was contrary to the Bible. As I have shown in the past, unity in the New Testament did not require all regions to have the same policies and practices. But the delegates felt differently. I am disappointed because the vote did not respect the doctrine of ordination already voted by the church. According to that doctrine, there is little difference between hiring someone and ordaining them. Both actions indicate the same thing, we trust that person to speak for us. So why we would hire a woman yet not ordain her doesn’t make sense to me. I am disappointed because I felt that my brothers and sisters around the world did not show respect for the conclusions of at least five divisions, several of which studied the subject more deeply than any other SDA group in the history of the church. I am disappointed because Adventists in some parts of the world will pay a heavy price for a decision largely imposed upon them by Adventists in other parts of the world. That doesn’t feel good and is hard to explain to my children.

But enough of disappointment. If I am wrong, my disappointment needs to be repented of. If I am right I need to forgive. Either way the above paragraph needs to be the end of my disappointment, lest I lose that which matters most; peace with God, others, and myself.

An emerging take-away from the recent General Conference is the realization that both sides in the ordination debate felt their way of reading Scripture was in harmony with Adventist understanding. That understanding was voted by the Annual Council in Rio de Janeiro in 1986: http://www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/documents/article/go/0/methods-of-bible-study/. Nevertheless, that traditional hermeneutic did not produce agreement regarding the Bible’s teaching on the subject of ordination. I have already shared my understanding of the two different approaches and the strengths and weaknesses of each. In my next blog I will summarize my earlier work before sharing a practical hermeneutic that all can practice and which might help us to see the Bible with fresh eyes. To move the church beyond the impasse we need to find a biblical approach that all can agree on. I have an idea about that. . . (but after I summarize the current situation).

Options for Unity

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

That leaves two options for attaining unity. One is being proposed by David Newman. He asserts that ordination as generally practiced is a tradition inherited from the Middle Ages. The word “ordination,” after all, is derived from Latin, it is not found in the Greek of the NT. Given that reality, Newman suggests we not ordain anyone and solve the problem in that way. I could live with such a position, but since the Adventist pioneers adopted ordination as a practical necessity rather than a biblical mandate, something like “ordination” is probably needed in the church.
I suggest, therefore, one other option. The simplest approach to honor the Bible and yet preserve unity is to affirm that the Bible does not directly address the question of women’s ordination. It neither mandates the ordination of women to the gospel ministry nor forbids it. Neither party would have to give approval to a theology they disagree with. Let’s just agree that the Bible doesn’t directly address the question and that, therefore, differences of opinion on how to apply the Bible to ordination today are to be expected. When differences like this are the norm, unity requires that decisions about ordination be driven by other evidences than the direct teachings of Scripture. Divisions and unions should be allowed to ordain women or not ordain them, based on the leading of the Spirit and the demands of mission in those territories. Circumstances alter cases.
Some might ask: Won’t such a policy itself destroy the unity of the church? Similar differences in policy did not destroy the unity of the New Testament church. Another question. What will happen if an ordained woman is called to a union that doesn’t ordain women? The same thing that happens now with female church elders. If an ordained female elder moves to a church that doesn’t ordain females as elders, she should not expect to be an elder in that church (for better or for worse). If an ordained female pastor receives an invitation to pastor in a union or division that doesn’t ordain women, she should understand that her ordination will not be recognized there, and respond to the invitation with that in mind. If an unordained female pastor is invited to a region that ordains women, she should not be compelled to accept ordination. While there will be relational challenges in the process, the overall unity of the church need not be destroyed on the basis of such an arrangement. Practical arrangements in one local church need not affect arrangements in another. Circumstances alter cases.
The good news is that this very outcome is a real possibility this coming July. According to the document recommended unanimously by top church leadership and voted overwhelming by the Annual Council, the delegates to the GC session can vote to allow “division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry.” A “yes” vote on this question respects the years of study that have failed to settle the question on the basis of the Bible. A “yes” vote on this question recognizes that the church in many parts of the world already calls women to fill pastoral roles, recognizing the Holy Spirit’s call to them. A “yes” vote on this question acknowledges that the Bible often allows circumstances to alter cases. A “yes” vote on this question allows the mission of the church to flow in each territory, while respecting the differences in the way we read Scripture. As Ellen White herself often said, “Circumstances alter cases.”


Proposed Solutions

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

As TOSC continued, the North American Division of the Adventist Church produced a remarkable document in favor of ordaining women (an even larger document was produced by the Trans-European Division). By way of contrast, divisions of the church opposed to women’s ordination seem to have done little fresh study. The one exception to this is the minority report of the North American Division, which broke some new ground. It suggested that male “headship” was a core element of biblical theology that limited ordination only to men. This was a new theological approach that had never been seen in Adventism before the mid-1980s (Sam Bacchiocchi) or even in Christianity generally before the 1970s. That doesn’t make it wrong by itself, but Adventism historically is rightly skeptical of such radical theological departures. I find it interesting that headship arguments were used against the ministry of Ellen White in the 19th Century. With that in mind, the faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary has concluded that headship theology takes a dangerous turn away from the Adventist understanding of the Bible, and I think they are right.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Instead of one “solution” to the division in the church on women’s ordination, TOSC came up with three. In short, the first proposal denies ordination of women to the gospel ministry and rescinds the ordination of women to positions of local elder. If accepted, this proposal would return the church to the position it was in before 1970. The second proposal affirms that the Bible supports the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, but that it should not be imposed in regions where it would be detrimental to the church’s mission. The third proposal affirms that the Bible exhibits a pattern of male leadership, but that such biblical patterns can be adapted to changing circumstances. Entities of the church that feel mission requires the ordination of women could apply to do so. The second and third proposals allow circumstances to alter cases. But I don’t think any of these three “solutions” would lead the church to unity. We have got to do better than these.
Two possible approaches favored by some seem almost guaranteed to destroy the unity of the church. One would be mandating that ordination to the positions of both pastor and elder be restricted to males only once again. Since the church first moved away from that position in the 1970s, the western world has shifted enormously in favor of full equality and inclusion for women. I remember the 1950s. In the 1950s nearly everyone assumed that some roles should be filled only by men: physician, soldier, lawyer, police officer, truck driver, President of the United States, and airplane pilot, to name only a few. Today women fill virtually all roles in the work place except ministry in some churches. For the Adventist Church to step back to the 1950s after all that would be devastating to the mission of the church in the western world and a few other places. Not only that, in my travels to parts of the world opposed to women’s ordination, I find the younger generation largely open to full inclusion as well, although the leaders of the church in those regions are still reluctant.
A second approach that would destroy the unity of the church would be to mandate the ordination of women worldwide. This would be devastating in many cultures where full inclusion of women is not yet the norm in society. For the church to move ahead in those areas would unnecessarily complicate its ability to share the gospel at this time. The Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia and South America likely fall into this category. It would hurt the mission of the church to force a global vote on women’s ordination either way. I am glad, therefore, that church leadership is not promoting either of these approaches at the upcoming General Conference.
The problem with all three “solutions” is that they presume the Bible is reasonably clear on the subject, one way or the other. Option One finds the Bible so clearly against women’s ordination that it not only takes the field but pillages the opposition. Not a formula for unity. Option Two presumes that the Bible, rightly understood, teaches women’s ordination, but that those who disagree can get permission to continue their traditional practices. Not likely to be accepted in many parts of the world. Option Three presumes that the Bible models male “leadership,” but those who want to ordain women can apply for permission to do so. What all these positions presume is that the Bible speaks to the issue with clarity, and that in the end it agrees with those who read it that way.
Whenever you have dueling positions on a topic, all claiming to be from the Bible, there are only two ways to make sense of the situation. Either one side is perverse (deliberately twisting Scripture to get their way) or the Bible is, in fact, unclear on the subject. I have good friends and many former students on both sides of the women’s ordination debate. I cannot look either side in the eye and say, “You are perverse, you are deliberately manipulating the Bible to get your way.” To do so would be to pass a terrible judgment on people I have enjoyed as colleagues for many years. But if the Bible, in fact, does not address the question, that fact should be the foundation of the church’s position, rather than according victory to one side or the other.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Ordination of Women

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

The hope a few years ago was that the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) would come to a consensus on the meaning of ordination and then on the question of the ordination of women. If after two years of worldwide deliberation TOSC remained divided on the latter, the committee was requested to offer solutions that would preserve the unity of the church in the midst of such division. Here’s what actually happened.
On July 23, 2013, by a vote of 86-8, TOSC adopted a very significant statement on the meaning of ordination. It defined ordination as “the public recognition of those the Lord has called” to church ministry. According to the statement, ordination confers “representative authority” rather than “special qualities” or a role in a “kingly hierarchy.” These are important distinctions. In other words, ordination is the church’s way of saying “this person speaks for us.” It does not convey unique power or place a person in a higher rank than others.
Based on these points, the question became whether or not “the Lord has called” Adventist women to church ministry. Can women represent the church in such roles? The reality is that in many parts of the world women ARE being called to ministry. They ARE serving in such roles. Unless ordination has some magical effect or promotes a kingly hierarchy, hiring a woman to serve in church ministry is simply the church’s modern way of saying “she speaks for us.”  Women serving in ministry at the call of the church are as good as ordained now.
As noted above, there is one aspect of this issue that I think doesn’t gets enough attention. There is one thing we should all be able to agree on. The Bible NEVER addresses the question of women’s ordination. No Bible writer ever asks whether women should be ordained. The issue simply does not arise in the text. That means that arguing the case for or against women’s ordination seeks expanded meanings from Scriptures addressing other issues. As a result, it is rare for anyone to change their mind on the subject based on Bible study alone. And if the Bible does not directly address a subject, then the conclusion will be driven more by culture, tradition and God’s providence (the sense of God’s working in a particular context) than by Scripture.
An example of such a process in the Bible is found in Acts chapters 8-15. Before Acts 8 Christians assumed that the church was a subset of Judaism and would include only Jews. But then Philip met the Ethiopian, Peter met Cornelius, and Peter had a dream. By Acts 15 it became apparent that the Spirit was working with Gentiles and bringing them into the church without circumcision and without making them Jews first. The church then took a fresh look at Scripture and saw possibilities there that they had missed before (see Acts 15:13-19). The mission of the church and the guidance of the Spirit, rather than the reading of Scripture, demanded the inclusion of the Gentiles. You didn’t have to become Jewish in order to become Christian. Through these experiences the church learned to read the Bible differently for a new situation. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Dealing with “biblical” Claims

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Both the Bible and the lessons of Adventist history (see the previous blogs in this series) demonstrate that circumstances alter cases. But what does all that have to do with the ordination of women? Is Women’s Ordination also an issue where circumstances alter cases? Before I get into recent events and the upcoming General Conference session, let me share an important distinction in biblical interpretation. When we say that a particular teaching is “biblical,” the evidence for such an assertion comes at two different levels. I draw a distinction between teachings that are exegetically compelling and teachings that are exegetically defensible. Some biblical doctrines are exegetically compelling. In other words, the Bible raises the very question we are concerned with and answers it with compelling clarity. Everyone sees clearly what the Bible is saying and either follows it or chooses not to.

On the other hand, many so-called “biblical” teachings are defensible from the Bible, but not totally compelling on the basis of the Bible alone. Such teachings do not contradict the Bible but require reasoning, tradition, experience, history, science or other sources in order to be convincing. For example, the Bible itself never addresses the issue of smoking. And no text in the Bible tells us that spinach is good for us and tobacco is bad. So while Christians may ban smoking on the basis of biblical principles, it requires non-biblical (mostly scientific and experiential) evidence to make the case.

When it comes to women’s ordination, there is no text that raises the question or addresses the issue directly. All biblical arguments are derived from texts addressing other issues. So any argument from the Bible on women’s ordination needs to be exegetically defensible (not contradict the Bible), but can never be exegetically compelling in the sense that all will be compelled to understand and accept the conclusion from the Bible alone.

The interesting thing about the observations in the previous blogs is that even exegetically compelling texts may not always apply in a new situation. The practice of circumcision in the church was based on clear, compelling texts. The rules on meat slaughter for Israelites in the desert were based on a clear, compelling passage. The ruling in Acts 15 was direct and clear, so was Paul’s counsel regarding civil authorities in Romans 13. But even when the texts are compelling and clear, circumstances can alter cases. How much more should the principle apply when neither side’s exegesis compels the other?

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood or misquoted on this point. I am NOT saying that anything goes. I am not advocating situational ethics, I am not advocating that all values and principles can be altered at will. But I AM pointing out that within Scripture, there are clear examples of circumstances altering cases. We cannot take the most straightforward reading and assume that it applies universally in all circumstances. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 10:15, when it comes to matters of church policy, we need to consider time and place and use common sense.

To be continued. . .

Some Illustrations from Adventist History

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

In the early 1800s William Miller’s attention was drawn to Revelation 10. Coming toward the close of the seven trumpets, this chapter had something to say about the period of earth’s history just before the Second Coming. That meant to Miller that Revelation 10 must be speaking specifically to the time in which he lived. Miller rightly saw that Revelation 10 built on Daniel 12 (Rev 10:5-6, cf. Dan 12:7). A sealed book (Dan 12:4) was now open (Rev 10:1-2). What was sealed in Daniel were particularly the prophetic time periods, the 2300-day prophecy (Dan 8:13-14, 26) and the 1260-day prophecy (Dan 12:7, 9). Since those time periods, in his calculation, ended in 1798 and 1843-44 respectively, Miller came to believe that Revelation 10 was talking about the very time period in which he was living, the last 45 years before Jesus’ return (1798-1843). If the cleansing of the sanctuary (Dan 8:14) was Jesus’ Second Coming, the world was about to come to an end. The message was electrifying, the biblical arguments were compelling, and a great movement arose, seeking to prepare the world for the soon return of Jesus.

Everything was in place except the coming of Jesus itself. But it never happened. When Jesus did not come on October 22, 1844, people began to notice that the open scroll in the prophecy would be sweet in the mouth but bitter in the belly (Rev 10:8-10). In other words, there were clear indications in the text that God knew about The Great Disappointment before it happened, but they had completely missed that part of the prophecy. The purpose of Revelation 10 was not to provide the date of the Second Coming, but to galvanize the final proclamation of the gospel to the world (Rev 10:11; 14:6-7). Adventist understanding of Revelation 10 had been perfectly clear and compelling before 1844. But after October 22, 1844, the Adventist pioneers were forced to re-read and re-think what the Bible had to say about their era. Circumstances alter cases.

The same thing can happen with the writings of Ellen White. According to records at the 1919 Bible Conference, the General Conference president was holding some meetings in the city we know as Oslo. Attendees had come from all over Scandinavia. One of the attendees was an extremely thin and pale colporteur based in Hammerfest, at the time the northernmost city in the world. Hammerfest back then rarely received any canned goods, and fruits and vegetables were extremely expensive when they arrived at all. A man on a missionary salary could not afford either. So when A. G. Daniells (the GC President at the time) asked the unhealthy-looking man what he ate back home the man replied, “Mostly the north wind.”

The primary food options in Hammerfest at the time were reindeer meat, fish, potatoes and starchy foods like corn meal mush. The colporteur was an ardent follower of Ellen White’s writings, so he refused to eat any animal products. But the result of his “faithfulness” was the opposite of good health. Daniells advised the man to center his diet on reindeer meat when he got back home. But on the long boat ride back to the United States, the GC President began to feel a bit guilty about his advice and how that might play around the world. So when he returned to the United States he made the long trek across the continent to visit Elmshaven and get Ellen White’s reaction.

According to Daniells, Ellen White’s response was, “Why don’t people use common sense? Don’t they know that we are to be governed by the places we are located?” After further conversation, she was concerned enough to wonder if her Testimonies should not be recalled and “fixed up,” in other words, written in a way that principles given to particular people in particular circumstances could not be absolutized in an unhealthy way. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Bible, Part 3

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Moving to the New Testament, we have another example of how circumstances alter cases. The council of Acts 15 reached a decision that Gentiles should not be troubled by practices like circumcision (Acts 15:19) but should refrain from eating food that had been “ceremonially polluted” (alisgêma) in relation to idols (15:20). This was one of several regulations that would allow Gentiles and Jews to more comfortably fellowship together. In disseminating the decision of the council, the leaders clarified their meaning with a different word; Gentiles should not eat food “sacrificed” or offered (eidôlothutos) to idols (Acts 15:29).

Paul addresses the same issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but does so in greater depth (he mentions food offered to idols [eidôlothutos] six times: 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19, 28). He asserts that “no idol in the world really exists” (1 Cor 8:4, NRSV), “an idol is nothing” (KJV), therefore offering or sacrificing food to idols does not in any way change the food or affect our relation to it (1 Cor 8:8). So eating such food is not an issue for intelligent Christians, in spite of the decree of the council in Acts 15. But not all Christians have this knowledge (8:7), so one must be sensitive to the impact one’s own practice will have on the faith experience of another (8:9-13).

In addition, while idols have no real existence, temple practices should generally be avoided by Christians as they may involve the presence of demons, which would make the temple a dangerous place to go (10:16-21). On the other hand, if an unbeliever invites you to dinner (10:27) or you are shopping in the marketplace (10:25), don’t worry about whether the food was offered to idols or not, go ahead and eat without asking questions. But if someone, likely a fellow believer, objects that the food was offered to an idol, then don’t eat it (10:28), not because an idol is anything but because of the conscience of the one who said it (10:29-33). You don’t want to damage that person’s conscience or walk with God (8:10-13). In matters like this, council or no council, it is important to use common sense (10:15). Paul was not opposed to the earlier action of the council, but was using common sense to clarify the council’s intention in various situations. In a different place, the policy should be applied differently. Circumstances alter cases.

In Romans (written in the 50s AD) Paul speaks very positively about the role of civil government. Christians should be subject to civil authority because such authorities have been instituted by God (Rom 13:1). To resist such authorities is to resist the same God who appointed them (13:2). In fact the civil authorities act as servants (diakonos or “deacons”) of God to keep order in society (13:3-4, 6). Christians should treat civil authorities with honor and respect, for the sake of conscience (13:5, 7).

But forty years later, the situation seems to have changed. In the book of Revelation (probably written in the 90s AD), civil authorities enmeshed with false religion can be described as vicious, persecuting beasts (Rev 13:1-2, 11) who are hurting and will hurt God’s people (Rev 13:7, 10, 15-17). They also blaspheme God Himself (13:1, 6). Since Romans was probably written from Corinth, in the same general region of the Empire as Asia Minor, we see a very different attitude toward civil authority in the same region, but at a different time (forty years later). Different times and different places call for a fresh application of biblical principles. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Bible, Part 2

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

In Daniel 2 and 7 we see God Himself making the kind of adjustment Israelites and the Church had to make in the previous blog. In both chapters a human being sees a vision of the future that involves four kingdoms followed by the kingdom of God. But to the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar this vision comes in the form of an idol (tselêm– Dan 2:31-33; 3:1-6). This is startling for God to do, but it makes perfect sense for communication. After all, for Nebuchadnezzar the great kingdoms of the world were beautiful, shining examples of the gods they worshiped. But when God gives essentially the same vision to Daniel, the Hebrew prophet, He shapes the vision as a replay of the story of creation. There is a stormy sea (Dan 7:2), then animals appear (7:3-8), then comes a son of man who is given dominion over the animals (7:13-14). Just as Adam had dominion over the animals at creation (Gen 1:26-28; 2:20), God’s second Adam, the son of man, would have dominion over the kingdoms that were hurting Daniel’s people. Circumstances alter cases. What is unique here is that God himself is the one doing the contextualizing. You can’t blame the change on the human author of the text.

These passages call to mind parallel principles to that expressed in the proverb “circumstances alter cases.” One of these is “God meets people where they are” and the other is “there is more than one right way to think.” When you think of the four gospels, it would be foolish to ask the question, “Which gospel writer was right, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” They were all inspired and they were all right. Yet each gives a unique and different picture of Jesus. There is more than one right way to think. Is Jesus divine or is He human? Wrong question! There is more than one right way to think about Jesus. That doesn’t mean that all ways of thinking are right. But truth must not be limited to one form of expression. Circumstances do not alter all cases, but absolutizing revelation in many circumstances undermines the very principle that is driving the text.

To be continued. . .