The Legacy of Luther and Adventist Authority

Calling out power abuse is just as relevant today as 500 years ago.

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Anniversaries always come short of the actual event. How do you do justice to the magnitude of the Reformation, which began 500 years on this day? Answer: you don’t. Not in a single blog post, at least. Others have celebrated and commented throughout the year, for the legacy of the event is pervasive and has many threads.

The impact of the Reformation on Western thinking is indisputable, and not just in the field of religion. Max Weber’s thesis on the spirit of capitalism, while disputed, remains seminal in understanding the world we live in, for instance.

Dealing with Adventist dissent

In this post, however, I will comment more specifically on the issue of religious power. It is ironic and sad that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am a member of, this issue should become one of full-blown conflict this year.

Adventists proudly see their movement as a continuation of Protestant ideals, continuing to question the status quo and search for ideas and theologies truer to the original Biblical intent and free of centuries of human degeneration.

Ellen G. White, the thought leader of the movement in the 19th century, described Luther’s adversaries with descriptions like this: “Crafty ecclesiastics, interrupted in their work of sanctioning crime, and seeing their gains endangered, were enraged, and rallied to uphold their pretensions.” And on his banishment from the Church, she penned: “Not a trace of Christian principle, or even of common justice, is to be seen in the whole document.” (GC, pp. 130, 134)

JanPaulsenThis is not far from the words of former church president Jan Paulsen, who recently stated: “I do not see the hand of God in this.”

His words came during a recent debate on how the world church deals with ‘dissent’. The apparent issue is the ordination of women, but that issue has become almost secondary to how the global leadership chooses to approach the discussion.

Matthew Quartey summarized it bluntly in the independent magazine Spectrum: “Our president’s seven-year leadership has been a continuous tugging at the seams of our togetherness.  He has prioritized his antipathy toward women in ministry over the church’s higher goal of mission. He has spent more time and resources engaged in this private campaign than focusing the church on what truly binds us.”

Open or closed leadership?

While women’s ordination is the battle ground, the overarching point here is authority. Any organization needs leadership, sure. But you can choose to lead like a dictator or like an apostle.

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The sitting president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is an American, brought up in the system, and his actions convey an overarching goal of not rocking the boat. He pursues unity at any cost, ignoring the paradox that forcing unity destroys openness, which in turn damages commitment and encourages more dissent.

Even more alarming is the apparent ignorance of any limitations to his power. You will find this tendency anywhere, but perhaps it is especially American: If you are given any position of power, you believe you have the right and mandate to do and decide anything.

Donald Trump also acts like this, neither understanding nor accepting the democratic ideal of checks and balances. If you claim to listen to the people, then you need to do it properly; otherwise call a spade a spade and eliminate the illusion of democracy altogether.

The Adventist Church has prided itself in its ‘democratic’ institutions, but there are many limits to how much the people actually decide. And these years even those institutions are under attack from a leadership who wants to centralize, dictate, and enforce.

The Lutheran Church in Denmark, for all its shortcomings, may have chosen a better path. It has a collective of bishops, but no central leadership. Its political leader has no say in matters of theology. While the church is defined as keeping to the Apostolic Creed and Luther’s writings, nobody is able to speak on behalf of the church.

I can see the Biblical and Reformation merit in this approach. Power to the people – a priesthood of all believers – nobody is exalted above others.

Pope or no pope?

George Knight, a well-known figure in the church and arguably a ‘prophet’ for our times, has given a thorough analysis of the situation in a recent paper. He describes the predicament of the church president thus:

“Obviously, what is needed is a new policy that allows the General Conference president to initiate actions against anybody deemed deserving of such attention. Such a policy, of course, would be a major step toward papalism and unrestricted kingly power. […] The October 2017 meetings may help the worldwide Adventist Church decide whether it wants to move more toward an Adventist Ecclesiology or toward a more Roman Catholic variety.”

I am no expert on the theology of the Papacy, but seen from the outside, it makes sense as a coherent system. Putting the authority of the Church over, or alongside, that of the Bible is a valid belief, and if you hold that belief you also accept that authority.

Protestants, however, have no such luxury: putting the Bible unequivocally as the highest authority does not allow for an authoritarian system. Rome claims a legitimate authority over all believers. Protestant denominations may very well represent the body of Christ, but with sola scriptura any attempts towards papal authority in these institutions are theologically void, and must be called out as human power-grabs.

I don’t really want a pope. But if I had to pick one, I would choose the one in Rome, not the one in Silver Spring, MD.

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The great convergence of fear

As Halloween transcends borders and beliefs, everyone but Rome is becoming more catholic.

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Pope Francis visits Lund, Sweden today, to ‘celebrate’ the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Ironic? Welcome to 2016.

It is no coincidence that this happens on Halloween. Because when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church (sic) in Wittenberg, breaking the Catholic Church’s monopoly on salvation, it is believed to have been on exactly this date, 499 years ago.

So what is it with Halloween? The feast has come full circle, with roots in Celtic harvest festivals as well as early Christianity, crossing the Atlantic, and now hitting Europe full force as a dumbed-down, Americanized celebration of saints, death, fear, scariness, candy, and pumpkins (at least we’re now also eating the pumpkins).

This is convergence – everything melting together. And nobody seems to remember that Danish Protestantism had actually retained an All Hallows’ Eve event in its curriculum with church services and the like.

Which in itself is strange, since the whole concept of Saints was one of the things the Reformation rebelled against. Nobody, living or dead, should have ‘special status’ according to God. And the Church should not wield its power by installing fear (of Hell) in its subjects.

As a good protestant I was brought up to fear Rome, not spirits. Halloween becomes a non-event when you don’t believe in ghosts, but await a physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time. The Catholic Church, however, was seen as a real, potential enemy, distorting the ways of God. Clergymen should not be people of power, and any human should have direct access to God.

When Catholics and Lutherans attempt to bridge the centuries-old gap today, it will be a cause for alarm for some. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has changed a lot since 1517, and burying the axe is not a bad thing.

Breaking down barriers – convergence – is true to the original meaning of the word catholic: universal; all-encompassing. Catholic uppercase has a different connotation, however.

An editorial in the usually very secular Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has some interesting points: They note the fascination with the pope, but also remind us that “in Lutheran eyes the pope is no more, no less Christian than the congregation.” They also remind their readers that “the [Danish] Lutheran People’s Church differs from the Catholic Church  by having room for differences, and that nobody can speak on behalf of the church.”

While the Pope is reaching out across differences, my own Seventh-day Adventist Church is becoming more and more Catholic in its actions; at least at the top organizational level it is no longer a movement, but an elite of the few with the ‘correct’ views, attempting to wield undue power over their flock.

Convergence. Old fault lines disappearing, organizations becoming that which they rebelled against, and new consensuses appearing.

My reaction is not to fear, even though today is Halloween. Rather, I will quote the “Litany of fear” from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Also that is convergence – finding inspiration in a fictional religion set in a distant future. Where will we be 500 years from now? Let’s not worry about that.

Women treated badly

On Donald Trump, women’s ordination, and basic human dignity.

Last week was not a good week for women.

Even as Poland’s government listened to the massive public outcry and backed down on their demeaning anti-abortion law, the good news did not continue.

It began with the surfacing of Donald Trump’s degrading remarks which amount to nothing short of sexual abuse. Understandably, the old radio clip caused outrage among Republicans and Democrats alike, while the nominee himself not only didn’t back down, but fanned the flame with further outbursts.

Then Nigerian President Buhari said, during a visit to Germany, that his wife belongs in the kitchen. She had had the nerve to criticise him in public.

And finally, back in Washington, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am (still) a member of, held its ‘annual council’, a synod of sorts. On the agenda was perceived dissent among several local constituencies, the issue being women in church leadership. The world church officially rejects the ordination of women; however churches in Northern Europe and elsewhere have tried to circumvent the decision to allow for equal rights. The end-game has yet to conclude, but there is a real fear that last week’s decision is essentially a power-grab by the elected few, which brings this movement many steps closer to the papacy they claim to reject.

It defies logic that something as random as your gender should have such a big impact on your destiny. For millennia – with varying excuses – men have felt justified in treating women as inferior, one way or another. In some countries we have come some way in rectifying the issue, but the global challenge remains in applying basic dignity to half of our fellow humans.

Last Tuesday marked the International Day of the Girl. And as the father of two, the fight is now also personal. We all want to create a society for our children that is better than the one we inherited ourselves. Let us do just that – and once and for all break away with the glaring inequalities that remain.

When Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” he was referring to anyone wrongly deprived of their place in society. Obviously, this should also apply to gender.

It seems fitting to quote newly honored Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: “As the present now will later be past; The order is rapidly fadin’; And the first one now will later be last: For the times they are a-changin’.”

Let’s hope so. At least Michelle Obama got it right in her speech:  “It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any – not for another minute, and let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”

Not the End of the World

Do you know what happened on May 21? Not a whole lot. The world didn’t end, as Harold Camping and his followers would have had us believe. Which didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Camping and his doomsday prophecies come off as lunacy, and reality proves him wrong. The world moves on. Nobody cares.

Nobody cares. Except that as Seventh-day Adventists we’ve grown up with a message that the world will actually come to an end one day. Back in the 1800’s when people believed all sorts of things, a small group of Christians believed that Jesus would come back to Earth on a particular date. He didn’t. They were wrong. And from the ashes of that movement, Adventism emerged. The ridicule abated (somewhat), they dealt (somewhat) with the issue of 1844, and they laid a foundation (somewhat) within classic Christianity.

Despite clear Biblical counsel to the contrary (“For ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh,” Matthew 25:13), the obsession with dates and numbers didn’t quite end there. So when the movement known as Jehovah’s Witnesses came around some 30 years later, it was partly an Adventist minister (Jonas Wendell) who spurred them into setting dates and interpreting numbers and years. I know of individual members of my church who have tried to calculate dates for the Lord’s coming, and although mainline SDA theologians would never do that, there’s still a widespread passion for timelines and figures.

The problem is, that to the general public all these ideas are ridiculed equally. Some churches that I know of use Harold Camping as a marketing gimmick to get people to church and tell them  the “real” version of final-day events: Come to our church and hear why Camping was wrong, and why we’re right. I think this is doing the church a disservice. In trying to distance themselves from his interpretation, in the public eye they’re actually joining his boat of crazy, end-of-the-world lunatics.

Camping’s own interpretation, post-May 21, is that Christ’s judgment did actually begin on that date, we just didn’t see it. As the independent Adventist magazine Spectrum points out, this is scarily reminiscent of what Adventists did, post-1844.

For good and bad, the apocalypse is an integral part of Adventist identity, as also Lars has recently reflected upon. I’m not suggesting we eradicate this completely, even if that were possible. But in the wake of Harold Camping and his obvious failure, I would suggest that a proper course of action would be… nothing. We shouldn’t put ourselves in the line of fire attacking him. And if we must talk about the Second Coming, I would suggest forgetting the when (because we don’t know the date), and forgetting the how (because Revelation is much too deep a book to be reduced into a cartoon depicting factual events). In stead, we should focus on the why: if/when the Second Coming occurs, it will be because God loves the world and wants to recreate (not destroy) it for the good of all mankind. That’s why Jesus came to Earth the first time. Let’s talk more about him, and less about the calendar.

The Randomness of Adventist Cuisine

How Midwestern agriculture conquered the world

Recently, I spent some time in Michigan – my childhood home, my parents’ home, and, not incidentally, the birthplace of Seventh-day Adventism. And somewhere (it may well have been Wikipedia) I came across a random fact about the state. “Leading crops include corn, soybeans, flowers, wheat, sugar beets and potatoes.” Not surprising, remembering the corn fields we used to play in as kids. Not really interesting, either, unless you’re a farmer or commodities trader.

But wait. Look what’s first on the list. Corn and soybeans? And then consider the history of Adventists. As you know, health and diet were (and are) a big part of the church’s mission. A calling for healthy eating, vegetarianism, and abstinence features prominently in the identity of traditional Adventists. The most famous product is, of course, corn flakes, invented by Adventist John Harvey Kellogg, and subsequently the whole breakfast cereal genre. Why use corn in a breakfast cereal? Because it was locally grown, and abundant. The same goes for the humble soybean which was an essential source of protein for vegetarians trying to come out in a meat-dominated society. Being cheap, efficient, and a major Michigan crop, soy became the ingredient of choice in the many meat substitutes produced by Adventist-owned food companies. Wheat also features prominently on the Michigan high-score list, and interestingly enough, gluten has also been a staple of the Adventist diet.

Now a lot of Adventism’s lifestyle advice is actually pretty sound. And multiple studies in the U.S. and elsewhere (including Scandinavia) show that adhering to some of all of the advice enhances your lifespan significantly. This is worth noting, and remembering.

But I find it interesting that the agriculture of Michigan should come to have such a big influence on the world. After all, the advice is to eat less meat, not necessarily eat more corn and soy. Still, as Adventism spread to the rest of the U.S. and abroad, it promoted not just the lifestyle advice, but also the specific remedies (meat substitutes) to go with it. So as Adventists in Denmark, we faithfully produced and consumed a wide array of soy products, even though soy wasn’t very abundant in these latitudes. Localization never played a big part, so essentially Adventist diet became Adventist cuisine (thus the title of this post). Certain staple ingredients and recipes epitomized Adventists’ dietary identity, regardless of their commitment to health issues in general.

How would it have looked if Adventism arose not in Michigan, but in Louisiana, or Russia, or Thailand? The focus on health might have been the same, but we definitely would have eaten very different things. Fortunately, as vegetarianism gains a stronger foothold in many places, so does the will and the means to diversify. We may still eat our soy sausages, courtesy of the MDA, but hopefully their importance will diminish as we discover local and/or more authentic alternatives.

Finding a Church, Part II

A year ago to this date, I wrote the entry Finding a Church, voicing my frustration about the too difficult task of finding a new church family. So what has happened since?

In short: too little. We put paper behind our actions and moved our membership to the Café Church in Copenhagen, after realising that this was the church we were primarily attending, and we got tired of treading water. Being a member hasn’t changed everything, though. Sure, some things have grown to the better, but it’s still not a perfect match. I can still have doubts as to whether this is the right church for me. I still don’t feel fully a part of the fellowship. I still find myself unmoved way too often. And I still have a hard time figuring out what the church is and wants.

So what is wrong? It seems fair to start by blaming myself.

For one, my own personal spiritual life has been somewhat lagging. I know this may be a chicken-and-egg issue, but it certainly plays a part. For this reason or others I have never been fully enthusiastic, and I have maintained a degree of dissociation – just in case. I could probably also have done more on my own part to integrate myself. And I have definitely been too focused on what others should do, and what the church should do, instead of what I could do.

I have tried my hand at some involvement, though. Playing the piano has been one thing that I have helped out with a bit. And more recently, I have taken the initiative to raise the level of fellowship dinners. This project had its debut two weeks ago, and is a great success so far. More than anything else it was started because I see a need for closer integration between church members. Eating together could help.

My own failures may be the greatest. However, there are also points where I have not been impressed with the church. Some may be a matter of match – things that work out fine for others. If so, then by all means carry on. I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all churches. But here are my observations.

It has been surprisingly difficult to break into the social side of being church, i.e., making friends. Especially surprising since I knew a lot of people beforehand. There are one or two exceptions, but most of our meaningful relationships are with people we know from elsewhere and happen to meet at church. There are a lot of cliques in the Café Church, and most people seem content to be with their own.

I have grown increasingly indifferent to the worship. Some of this may be personal taste or lack of spiritual engagement on my part. But it’s very rare that I’m actually moved by anything that goes on in church. Which is kind of sad.

Finally, for all its merits and entrepreneurial achievements, this church still doesn’t have a clue what it wants. Sure, some individuals, even within the leadership, may have ideas and visions. But there’s no common goal. No shared vision. No long-term planning. Why does the church exist? To some it seems like the raison d’être of the Café Church is the fact that it’s different. It may be less explicit than previously, but there is still somehow a prevalent sense of “we’re better than the others because we’re different”. Wake-up call: you’re not all that different. At least not to merit this kind of separation. So what’s the point? Why are you here?

Frankly, I’m tired of having to choose between Café Church and traditional church. At least in the Copenhagen area the options are divided to a degree that doesn’t make sense. I feel at home in both settings, but would like to see someone aiming for the middle ground. Who will lead into a Third Way?

DUCH Session – Once Again

Exactly three years have now passed. Once more it’s time for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to meet in session. This means electing (or re-electing) officials, hearing reports, voting on various business items, and of course gauging and debating the state of the church.

As many readers may remember, the session three years was somewhat turbulent, but ended on a positive note. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the new administration has set a new tone. There have been unforeseen challenges, especially financially, and unfortunately my own position has been cut away, and I now find myself in search of new job by the end of summer.

But the current leadership has, in fact, managed to draw us closer together and refocus many churches on doing what churches should be doing: good for other people. Like many others, I am hoping for a reelection of the current leadership.

Previously mentioned on this blog, the great controversy this year will be the inclusion of new churches as full members of the union fellowship. Café Church in Copenhagen is the most well-known of these. My prediction is that the vote will pass, but not without some painful outbursts from concerned brethren and others. While the conservative wing is still active, there is now a much broader consensus that new initiatives and expressions are not evil, but should be accepted and even encouraged. Or so I hope.

Currently I’m still employed by the church. And my job at the session is keeping the world updated. I’m in charge of writing press releases, news item, tweets, and more, hopefully satisfying those at home wanting to follow the news, and others who might gain knowledge of the church from my work. You can follow all this in Danish at www.adventist.dk/gf (here, you’ll with links to Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, and live streaming of the meetings).

Thus, my blog will remain dormant during the session. But I’ll probably post some thoughts afterwords, so stay tuned. Good night, and good luck.