Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: Adventist Women + Equality = Unity

Meet Pastor Brenda Billingy from Spectrum | Adventist Forum on Vimeo.

Spectrum is rolling out a new video series documenting stories of Adventist pastors who have been ordained—pastors who happen to be women. I've discussed the women's ordination controversy in the Adventist Church before, so I won't retread that path except to say that I don't think women should be ordained, but neither should men.

In this post I will comment on the documentary itself—what I hope it accomplishes and what it cannot.

The production quality is high as expected. (Isn't it nice to be able to expect Adventist media to be well produced?) The director and editors pulled off the packing of one pastor's story into 7+ minutes of run time. You come away feeling that you have a relationship with this woman in some way, or at least that she's the kind of person you would like to get to know—warm, energetic, and capable—in other words, a good pastor.

So why should she not be ordained? Who could possibly oppose this, when, apart from gender, she is clearly an equal among her male colleagues?

Here is where theology by story falls short. In Adventist theology, the Bible is the primary authority, because we believe that is where the will of God is now most clearly discerned. Our experiences are important for helping us understand scripture, but scripture is the standard by which we judge our experiences. So if God instructs us through the written Word not to ordain women, we must defer to that revelation. We cannot use a compelling story to sidestep Scripture.

The fact is that there are Bible texts indicating we should only ordain men, texts indicating that we may also ordain women, and texts indicating that we shouldn't be ordaining at all. Our church is currently in the process of figuring out just how these texts relate to each other and what they mean for the Adventist movement today. So what then is the the use of telling stories like Pastor Brenda's?

As much as it's critical that we understand God's prior revelation in Scripture, it's also important to understand what God is doing in the world today. If we miss the second part, we will surely make the same mistake as the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Mark:3:22-20). No one who has watched this film will be able to gainsay the fact that God is working powerfully through women who are also Adventist pastors. This must send us back to the Bible to seek understanding of how God wants us as a church to cooperate with what he is doing through Adventist women pastors.

I realize that doesn't settle the issue, but hopefully it clarifies it. And that is what I trust this documentary series will accomplish.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tolerance or Love?

On Canada Day, my family set out on a rainy morning along with other like minded Fort McMurrians to celebrate the 145th anniversary of this great nation. Standing curbside with my two-year-old in my arms, I encouraged him to enthusiastically greet the cultural and religious groups passing by in the parade.

Then I saw the rainbow banner of a gay pride group. Now, the church I represent promotes a traditional sexual ethic — sex is only to be practiced by a man and a woman who are committed to each other in a marriage relationship. In other words, the gay pride group and my church group differ at a core belief level on a politically fraught issue.

So the moment I recognized the gay marchers in the Canada Day parade I faced a dilemma. Do I encourage my son to smile, wave, and shout, "Heh-wo!" to the people holding the rainbow banner, or do I look away and ignore them?

In 1689 the Parliament of England passed the Act of Toleration, allowing religious liberty for Protestant groups who dissented from the Church of England. That Act represented a widening of English civil society to accommodate groups with opposing core beliefs on the basis of tolerance, inaugurating a tradition of tolerance that extends down into Canadian-style multiculturalism today.

The word "tolerance" comes from a Latin word that means putting up with something you don't like. Since the 1530s, tolerance has meant permitting that which you consider wrong, but which you don't think should be prohibited. In our society, tolerance means that even if I oppose all you stand for, I will not deny you your right to exist and participate in society. It means that churches espousing a traditional sexual ethic may not seek to have gay people thrown in jail, and that gay pride groups may not seek to penalize clergy whose conscience will not allow them to perform gay marriages.

This is good as far as it goes, but where does this state of tolerance leave me and the gay pride group during the parade? If we merely tolerate each other, shall I stand in silent protest at those promoting a wrong I am tolerating? In turn, shouldn't they vow never to darken the door of a church that promotes a traditional sexual ethic? After all, we would not want to appear to support each others positions, would we?

Fortunately, those of us who are followers of Jesus are called to a higher principle than tolerance. Jesus taught, "You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you …."

According the principle of tolerance, smiling and waving at ones ideological opponents is about the most one can do. But when measured against the principle of love, smiling and waving is the least one can do.

Andrew Marrin is a evangelical Christian who was prejudiced against gay people until one summer when three of his best friends came out to him. This prompted Andrew to reevaluate his attitudes in light of Jesus' love. He started a group to build bridges of understanding between the evangelicals and gays. Christians from his group attend gay pride parades holding signs saying, "I'm sorry," for the ways Christians have abused gays.

Sometimes, an apology is the only way love can start. So let me begin by saying sorry, to the gay pride marchers at the Canada Day parade, for even thinking of not greeting you. Why don't we get to know each other better?

This article was originally submitted for the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (July 13, 2012).

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Open Letter to Mike Allen, MLA Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo 63 is the most direct and important land link between Fort McMurray and Edmonton Alberta, a five hour trip, if you stick to the speed limit. Many don't, and compound the problem by passing dangerously on the two-lane, undivided highway. On Friday, April 27, someone was in a hurry and pulled out to pass a double-long semi-trailer truck during a blizzard. He couldn't see the other vehicle headed straight for him. I've put up a picture of the resulting inferno below. Among the victims was a local pastor, his wife, baby, and their pregnant friend.

The loss of seven lives in one day galvanized public opinion on the need to twin the most isolated stretch of Hwy 63 between Fort McMurray and Atamore—a promise the provincial government made in early 2006, but has only completed 16 of the 240 kilometers by 2012.

On May 22, Primier Allison Redford named local MLA Mike Allen a special adviser to the transportation minister on the issue of Hwy 63. Mike Allen is seeking public comment on solutions to the problems on Hwy 63 through his Facebook page, which is where I wrote him this letter.

In my humble opinion, the solutions are clear: Accelerated twinning and enhanced policing. Both require funding and funding on a scale disproportionate to most other similar cities in Alberta (e.g. Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat) due to the remoteness of Fort McMurray. In order for funding to happen on that scale there needs to be a shift in the mindset with which our province regards to Fort McMurray.

Fort McMurray needs to be conceived of less as an internal colony and more as an integral part of the provincial community. If you're running a colony, you only invest those resources necessary to extract greater resources. In this case, a twinned Hwy 63 won't increase oil production enough relative to the cost of construction, and therefore it is not considered worthwhile.

However, if you're running a community that's an integral part of the provincial community, you invest in twinned highways, because highways provide vital transportation links for two-way commerce and for citizens to interact across the province. The investment may not even pay financial returns, but you do it because it keeps people safe as they travel back and forth. And travel is necessary for there to be a community.

Having lived in Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray, it's clear to me which city is considered part of the community and which city is considered a colony. As Fort McMurray's voice in government on the issues surrounding Hwy 63, I expect you to make that difference clear, and demand that this city, which contributes so much to our province, be fully included in the provincial community, even if it proves costly.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sexual Freedom?

Anyone who has seen two children fighting over a single object in a room full of other equally fun toys can appreciate what philosopher René Girard was getting at when he described the human predicament as "mimetic desire"—we do not want what we want, we want what others want. While we would like to think that our deepest desires are unique to us and in some way define who we are, in reality, we are usually mimicking the desires of those around us. We all want someone else's toy.

With the advent of easy-access pornography delivered anonymously through the internet, the desires of others are increasingly controlling our sexual desires. Most of us assume that what we like or don't like sexually, our sexual preferences, come from within us, from latent desires we discovered as we gained sexual experiences. The reality is the opposite. Our sexual experiences accumulate as desires, training us to prefer what we've previously experienced. So as we vicariously experience sex-acts through pornography, we are training ourselves with powerful rewards of pleasure to mimic porn-like preferences.

The results are not pretty. Pornography is training more and more men desire sex-acts with women that are embarrassing, uncomfortable, or even painful for women to perform. Some people are discovering that they cannot orgasm while having partner sex but only through masturbation. They have trained themselves to enjoy masturbation more than anything else by having the majority of their sexual experiences that way and enhancing the experience through pornography.

When human beings open themselves to a broad range of sexual experiences, real or vicarious, the end result seems to be people who desire sexual experiences that are not mutually satisfying. This individualistic pursuit of pleasure through sex is commonly thought to be the way to enjoy sex to the fullest. But contrary to what most assume, research shows that it is married, not single, people who have the most sex on average, and married women are more likely to experience sexual satisfaction than single women.

What if, instead of becoming slaves to the influence of others desires, we reserved our all sexual experiences for one person with whom we shared a mutual, lifetime commitment; trained ourselves to prefer sex-acts that brought that person pleasure; and devoted a lifetime to getting better and better at pleasing each other sexually? Wouldn't that be (in the sense of developing unique sexual desires and fulfillment) true sexual freedom?

Of course, this is what Christianity, teaching sex only within the marriage relationship, has promoted for millennia. And not just that sex should be reserved for marriage, but that it ought to be regularly enjoyed in marriage. Perhaps it's an idea whose time has come.

This article originally appeared in the Clergy Comments column of the Fort McMurray Today (February 25, 2012).

Cross-posted to true love is....

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sabbath in the Pastor's Schedule

The following is a summary of the devotional I presented at the Fort McMurray Christian Ministerial Association on February 7, 2012.

God saw all that he had made–and it was very good! There was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.
The heavens and the earth were completed with everything that was in them. By the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day all the work that he had been doing. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he ceased all the work that he had been doing in creation. (Genesis 1:31-2:3, NET)

We begin at the beginning. Here in Genesis we find the first mention of Sabbath. (The Hebrew word for "ceased," is the verbal form of Sabbath.)

Human beings without their creator are "very good," but they are not complete. They are finished, but they are not perfect. The essential meaning of Sabbath is that six without seven is incomplete. (The number seven in the Bible symbolizes perfection.) Human beings were created on the sixth day, but in order to move on to perfection, they need the seventh-day.

Pastors without God are not complete, and having God takes time. The call of God is foremost a call to himself. Jesus did not call his disciples to fish for men. He said “Follow me” and as a result "I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). Our first priority is to be with Jesus.

Jesus was simply reinforcing a massage of Sabbath, because Sabbath is the first place in scripture where we encounter God as a person who desires a relationship with us. Everything else God has done up to this point in creation, could have been done by an impersonal deity. But the Sabbath indicates the desire of God to be in relationship with his creation, and his creation with him.

This emphasizes the importance of human being above that of human doing. Ministers face the constant temptation to base our spiritual value on how much or how well we serve. But when Adam and Eve their first full day of life was not spent tending the garden, it was spent in rest.

As ministers, our first duty is to rest in God, and let our ministry flow from that. Sabbath is where we acknowledge total dependence on God, because for 24-hours we do not try to make our own way in the world. On this day God sustains us and prepares us to depend on him in the coming week.

The way we keep Sabbath, as I see it in scripture, is a paradoxical combination of feasting and fasting—at once an ascetic and a celebratory practice. I will share how Adventists keep Sabbath in the hope that you will take something that is helpful to you.

On Sabbath we abstain
  • From regular work.
  • From commerce.
  • From secular media/entertainment/sports.
And on Sabbath we engage
  • With God.
  • With family.
  • With church family.
  • With God's creation.
  • With service to humanity.
Minister’s dilemma lies in the tension between the first point on the first list and the last point on the last list—our regular work is service to humanity. So how can we pastors rest on Sabbath and at the same time serve our people who gather on this day to receive a blessing?

To answer this question I refer you to an excellent article ("From Workday to Rest Day: One pastor’s journey to Sabbath renewal") that was published in Ministry magazine about this time last year. I will summarize the conclusion.
  • Don’t put off until Sabbath what can be done before Sabbath.
  • Don’t put off time with God until Sabbath
  • Consider your family's Sabbath experience
  • Be prepared to let some tasks go undone (or be done by others)
  • Be prepared to say No.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I Support Men's Commissioning

On October 10, 2011, church leaders announced a timetable for studying the theology of ordination over the next few years, the latest action following a promise at the 2010 General Conference session to study the issue.

Artur Stele, a world church vice president and director of the Biblical Research Institute, said the process would examine the foundation of ordination as well as its implications for church practices. (Adventist Review)

This is the latest in a series of debates, studies, and panels that have polarized the Seventh-day Adventist Church on the question of women's ordination since, by some accounts, the mid 1970s. (I've written previously on this topic here.) Opponents rest firm in the General Conference vote at Utrecht (1995), which shut down a move to allow the practice. Proponents continue to agitate for equality, most recently through the ONE (Ordain Now Equally) in Christ website.

Meanwhile, a proportionately small number of women continue to serve capably as Adventist pastors, and in some cases their ministry is exceptionally blessed. Rather than being ordained, these women are "commissioned," which affords them the authority to do almost everything an ordained (i.e. male) pastor does except ordain elders and deacons or organize and disband churches.

This state of affairs seems to me untenable. On its face, there is no biblical support, and it is morally disingenuous. Either women can be pastors, or they can't. Either women are allowed to have authority in the church, or they aren't. In the scripture there is no such thing in scripture as an under-shepherd who has partial authority in the flock.

I don't intend to rehash the arguments pro and con women's ordination here. For me it boils down to one issue: Spiritual gifts come with the authority to use them. If a woman has been equipped by the Holy Spirit for pastoral ministry, the church is poorer for not recognizing this.

For this reason I fully support equality of men and women at all levels of church ministry. But, I hasten to add, I do not support women's ordination.

I have come to the conclusion that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church the term "ordination" has changed into something other than a simple recognition of God's blessing on a pastor's ministry. Ordination is now a word that is used to either attain or maintain power.

Those opposed to women's ordination are focused of defending the term in a way that excludes women from power, and those in favor of women's ordination are focused on expanding the term in a way that gains women power. Both sides of the debate are in a power struggle.

Yet according to Jesus, in His Kingdom you don't gain power by fighting for it but by giving it away.

“The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.  Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. ... They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’

“But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly.  Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher.  But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant.  All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up." (Matthew 23:2-3, 7-12, CEB)

“Do you know what I’ve done for you?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am.  If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example: just as I have done, you also must do. (John 13:12b-15, CEB)

“Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35b, CEB)

“You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around.  But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave—just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Matthew 20:25b-28, CEB)

Church offices and leadership structures are clearly necessary, as the apostolic church quickly discovered. But when an office or title becomes the focus of a power struggle, it's time to step back and recover Jesus' simple message of servant leadership: Instead of trying to elevate yourself, focus on elevating others. Instead of trying to be first, go serve those who are least. Instead of joining the race to the top, start a race to the bottom.

In that spirit, I propose the following: That Adventist pastors of both genders be, not "ordained," but "commissioned." After all, neither term is applied to pastors in the Bible, so we're free to change the terminology when warranted.

In fact, the term "ordained" comes from the Roman ordering of their society into plebs and patricians, the Gentile lords Jesus condemned. In the early Roman Catholic Church, ordination developed as the means by which a layman joins the elite order of the clergy.

On the other hand, "commissioned" carries, to my ear at least, the implication of "commissioned to serve," which is what a minister is supposed to do in the first place. Changing the term would also connote, in the context of the ordination debate, that Adventist pastors are less obsessed with their own power and position than they are with empowering and elevating others. It would signify that male ministers do not advance in God's upside-down Kingdom by allowing women to join them up on their level, but instead by moving down to a level where all can serve according to their gifts.

Therefore, I do not support women's ordination; I support men's commissioning.

Cross-posted to Adventist Today.