November 2015: #2b – the rejection of questions by SDAs

APOLOGIES for the paragraphing issues: nothing I try can fix them right now. But the text is correct!

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This is the second part of the second question in this series. Here’s a link to the first – for (necessary) context.

This is the question at hand:

Will any of the perplexities of life make sense without the framework of faith?

Now, this might seem like an unnecessarily large number of variant translations of a pretty well-known text, but this post is not for everyone. I’m writing it as a resource for those who are serious about getting to grips with a challenging reality. The updated KJV does use the same word as older KJV editions (yes brethren, there really is more than one edition of the KJV!) – ‘answer.’ But look at some other words that are used instead of answer:

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.
but sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear:
But in your hearts set Christ apart [as holy—acknowledging Him, giving Him first place in your lives] as Lord. Always be ready to give a [logical] defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope and confident assurance [elicited by faith] that is within you, yet [do it] with gentleness and respect.
But in your hearts set Christ apart as holy [and acknowledge Him] as Lord. Always be ready to give a logical defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you, but do it courteously and respectfully.
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:
Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.
but treat the Messiah as holy, as Lord in your hearts; while remaining always ready to give a reasoned answer to anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you — yet with humility and fear,
Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life. Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope.
but sanctify [the] Lord the Christ in your hearts, and [be] always prepared to [give] an answer [to] every one that asks you to give an account of the hope that [is] in you, but with meekness and fear;
but set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts, being ready always for a defense to everyone asking you a reason for the hope in you,
Will the perplexities of life make sense without the framework of faith? The truth is that this question has no fixed answer. Such an answer cannot exist. In the first post I pointed out that what makes sense to one person may well not make sense to another. The traditional over-emphasis (and indeed, over-dependence) on being able to ‘give an answer’ has meant that any type of answer given to a seeker for hope and truth is deemed successful just because it was given. But one can give ‘an answer’ to a question or challenge without really addressing the question in any real way. This is why we gain much from the other translations (above) which exhort us to be ready to offer:
  • A ‘defence’
  • A ‘logical defence’
  • A ‘reasoned answer’
Let’s get to brass tacks. Before I had the privilege of studying theology formally, I spent 29 years putting up with some quite terrible platitudes, the biggest being:
Young man, converted people don’t ask such questions!
In short, prototypical Adventism has focussed so much on ‘statements’ rather than ‘arguments’ that the majority of our church members have learned that asking questions in the hope of real answers gets you no-where. It now means that this question is especially vexed because ‘the framework of faith’ is anything but a framework of Biblical faith – for the most part.
On absolute principle, it can be argued that the framework with the greatest ‘explanatory power’ is that of what we Adventists know and refer to as ‘the great controversy.’ Here’s where we go wrong: we assume that people ought to accept this framework because it makes so much sense.
‘Sense’ is going to be determined by the presuppositions already held by a given individual. If a person has a materialistic worldview, then answers which posit supernatural activity will be deemed groundless at the outset unless a route is found to connect to the foundational presuppositions. SDAs are in no position to do that because if we take the point of the previous paragraph: something may have a totally plausible explanation, but that explanation might not actually be the ‘truth’ of what is actually happening (or has/is happening). So non-academic Adventist apologetics with its myriad undercooked theodicies has gotten stuck in a gum tree with no way up or down – because the ‘faith’ being offered is not a faith with teeth, and is not faith at all. It is what I call ‘glorified acceptance.’
The process of defending the concept of the necessity of faith in a good God who cannot be known through sensory experience is absolutely impossible unless an Adventist has wrestled with very hard questions posed by the perplexities of life for themselves. I remain baffled at how we still seem to think that if we can find the right ‘answer’ we will help to win more souls to the church (not always the Kingdom, by the way). I have news for us today:
WE – SDA church members – are THE answer – GOD’s answer – to the question of the efficacy of Biblical faith when challenged by the tragedies (and lesser perplexities) of life!
Glorified acceptance is not Biblical faith and so people are indeed finding answers that make more sense to them than those offered by a conceptually toothless and spiritually inconsistent Church. The ‘answers we ourselves give are often not linked to the Truth (John 8:32; John 14:6) that alone can set us free. Result: the world will have to find that Truth DESPITE the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, not because of us. Until we change, we will continue to lose 43% of all the members we baptise.

November 2015: #2a (Faith and meaning in life’s perplexities)

Our second question in this series is as follows:

Will any of the perplexities of life make sense without the framework of faith?

Some of the introductory remarks in the first post will be very helpful to readers looking to follow the thread of thought as deeply as they can. However, the context of this question: it was asked in response to this blog post by an SDA, and it is being responded to by an SDA, so this response is very specific to the Adventist community.

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I spoke about the fact that ‘sense’ in this context is determined by the recipient of an answer. This is a fundamental element of the so-called ‘apologetic task.’ Christian apologetics is not about ‘apologising’ for the faith (sick to death of hearing folks spout that claptrap – an inevitable consequence of using words the meaning of which we don’t know!). Have a look at the following conversation:

Skeptical Friend (SF): Hey, long time! How you doing?

Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA): Hey, good  to see you! I’m well thanks, what about you?

SF: Well, I’m okay, but I’m happy to see you, ’cause I’ve got a few questions.

SDA: Okay cool, let’s sit down over here, I’ve got a few minutes. (Both parties sit down.) So, what’s up?

SF: So this business of believing in the Bible…you say that the only way to know about God is through the Bible, right?

SDA: Yeah, it’s a major part of God’s revelation, probably the most important we have now.

SF: How come?

SDA: Nature is a big way that we know God exists, and Jesus came to show us what God is like. But the skies and oceans can’t actually talk to us about God – not in words – and Jesus is back in heaven! So, we need the Bible to know who Jesus was  – and is – and what God is like.

SF: Okay, I get that the Bible is a big part of the belief system for many Christians, but I have a big, big problem with the fact that many people have died without ever reading it. And I’m still not sure that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. I’ve met some Christian people who see themselves that way, and they are pretty vibrant to be around! But they’re not as into the Bible as you are. I don’t know what I think…

SDA: Okay, okay, well the thing is…for the Bible to make sense, you just have to have faith.

SF: Yeah, you’re always saying that, but I still have no idea how you get faith! Where does faith come from? I once heard a story about a primary school teacher who asked her class what they thought the meaning of ‘faith’ was and a nine-year-old boy put his hand up and said, ” believing what you know isn’t true.” So, why do you believe in the Bible? How do you know its true when you can’t prove so many things?

SDA: (smiling) Well, that’s why faith is so important. I know that the Bible is true because I have faith…

SF: …but that’s my problem! I’ve been meaning to bring this up for a while, but can’t you see that just because you have faith, that faith is not proof that the Bible is true?! Your faith is not proof of anything!

SDA: Yes, but I never said it was.

SF: So how then do you know that the Bible is true? How DO you actually know? What if you’re wrong and it is all lies, or at least parts of it? I think I’m readier than I’ve ever been to say that I believe in God. But I don’t think I can trust the Bible. Of course the Bible says that it is true…because whoever wrote it wanted people to think that! But because those words are in the Bible, that’s no PROOF that the Bible – or the whole of it – is in fact inspired! And if I’m going to follow the Bible, I need to know that I can trust it. How does that happen? Why do so many Christians emphasise some bits and ignore others? I’m fed up of this, it’s just so confusing!!

[…phone rings. It’s SDA’s phone…]

SDA: …erm, sorry, I have to take this call…

So, our SDA friend managed to get out of giving an answer on that occasion. My question and challenge: how would you respond to the skeptical friend? In #2b we will consider a number of different translations of 1 Peter 3:15 and become clearer on our mission in the context of ‘contending for the faith.’

 

November 2015: #1 (God, suffering, questions, answers)

So, our November season of basic Christian apologetics for Seventh-Day Adventists is a five-part series, beginning with this question:

Is it at all possible to give answers that will make sense to those who are experiencing such tragedy if they do not subscribe to the belief in an All Powerful and Loving God?

This is a great question for a philosophically-literate theologian, but this answer needs to be readable by as many church members as possible. That said, we won’t be skimping on the rigorous thinking itself – we’ll just have less plates spinning in the air – at least, for now.

However, there are a few things which need to be flagged. Some of you will not like reading this, but historically, US education has generally focussed on the accrual of information under the misguided notion that information = knowledge. This has led to a state of affairs in which all manner of questions are assumed to fit into a category where the answer is either black (thesis) or white (antithesis). Thanks to Antonio Gramsci we have a very useful concept to help anyone understand how certain culturally-specfic values and constructions can become celebrated outside their geographical starting point: “cultural hegemony.”

I am not anti-American in any way. But I am certainly against the values of US general education, and this is where the rubber meets the road. Global Adventism still looks back to the motherland for everything to do with what it means to be a ‘good Adventist’ and the sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of economic, ecclesiological (i.e. Conferences, Unions, Divisions, the GC etc) and intellectual powerbrokers in the world church are either American or American-educated in some way. And so they will naturally work within American educational values without questioning them.

While the roots of 21st-century USA lie in Europe, Africa, Asia (shall we spare a thought for the native American Indians here?!) etc, since the 19th century the USA has been able to assert its own identity with increasing clarity and force, and now that identity has been exported as a world value to every continent. The global SDA church is an excellent example, because here in British Adventism, we now export North American Adventism at such a rate that it is no wonder our own people never get to develop world-class ministries (how often do we export to the USA?) – because if someone with an American accept and sharp cloths and and even sharper haircut does not say it, we ain’t even listening. That is with apologies to our Anglo-European brethren, who tend to frequently question American Adventism in ways that African-Caribbeans do not. And what label do African-Caribbean British Adventists tend to apply to Anglo-Euro Adventists who drink coffee and wear more makeup and jewelry than some of us (though this latest generation is changing that – fast!)?

LIBERAL.

You’re now wondering what my point is, right? Fair enough, I’ll drop the hammer. We’re quick to do that sort of thing because we assume that all conservative Adventists will think in the same ways about all of the same things. We’ve failed to clock that a person may dress like a conservative but have the theology of a liberal, and vice-versa. And there are a whole slew of Adventist speakers out there who will have some serious problems at the judgment bar of God, because not only have their slovenly habits of mind reduced them to belittling others who don’t think as they do: they have infected many others with their own prejudices. And here in the UK, the North Americans now officially do our thinking for us, so if they’re not on tap, we’re scuppered…

NOT ALL QUESTIONS CAN BE REDUCED TO “EITHER/OR!” But alas, the damage is done, and now the result is that when we’re asked serious, searching questions by people who don’t believe as we do, if the answers I’ve heard (and seen) with my own ears from:

  • Sabbath school teachers (and students)
  • Elders
  • Evangelists (in some cases, so-called)
  • Bible Workers
  • (occasionally) clergy
  • local church celebrities (including on Facebook)
  • numerous famous presenters

are anything to go by, it is no wonder that we lost 5.9 million members between 2000-2013 as a world church – and in percentage terms, of all the people we baptised in that period, we lost 43% after baptism.

British Adventists have to think like Brits to survive in the workplace, but like Americans to survive in church, and so we are appallingly badly equipped to actually make friends with those who are not like us and bring those folk to church.

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The first thing you do when someone asks you a question is to make sure you’ve understood it. That’s a way of showing that you’re actually interested in them as a person, not as a potential Adventist. Here is how I personally break down every question that I am asked: I ask what I call ‘basic’ questions as follows:

  1. What are the elements in this question?
  2. What are the presuppositions?
  3. Are there any implications? If so, what are they?

So in this case, let’s start with the elements:

  • Answers
  • Therefore, questions
  • Sense (aka coherence)
  • Experience
  • Tragedy
  • Belief (itself)
  • Belief in something (Someone) specific – a deity, in fact – who is (apparently) all-powerful and loving

Now, the presuppositions: an SDA is posing this question to other SDAs. As such, it is being taken as read that:

  • this God is real
  • He is indeed all-powerful and He is loving
  • the tragedy that people experience is real, and not a figment of their imagination
  • it is a good and reasonable thing that people should receive answers to their questions that actually make sense
  • that there may be certain questions which may be much harder to answer if the potential recipient of the answer does not have a belief in an all-powerful and loving God

Here’s an example of an incorrect assumption of a presupposition: an inexperienced analytical thinker could assume that a presupposition behind this question is that such answers might actually not exist. Two rebuffs, one on a level of principle, and one on a personal epstemic level (i.e. I know something). First, just because a question is asked, do not assume anything about what the one asking believes about the potential of any potential answer. You have no idea what’s driving the question unless you know the person and have a starting point (and even then, people mess up on that all the time!). Second, I know this person well and I know that although they’ve asked this question worded: “is it possible….” that they DO believe that it must be possible.

Are there any potential implications? Yes. This is linked to both outreach and inreach. What a person believes will have an impact on what ideas they will be willing to receive and those that they will not. So in this case, a person who has no belief in an all-powerful and loving God is not necessarily an ‘atheist’ (please, go easy on these words unless you know what you’re talking about). They may well be a theist, but not in a Biblical sense. They may believe that God is love, but that His power is limited. Or they may believe in His omnipotence, but not His love. Or they may believe that God is the sole author of both good and evil (one of my very good friends is in this category having been an outright atheist for 34 years – makes for fascinating but very challenging interactions).

I hope that someone has begun to “join the dots” in their mind whilst reading this. This is an intriguing question because with no qualifications and caveats, there is no categorical universal answer to this question. ‘Sense’ can only be determined by every individual. Something may be literally and fundamentally wrong, but if it makes ‘sense’ to a person, then it is what they have chosen to accept. We may argue that certain beliefs (like certain of those held by JWs and Mormons, for example) are beyond sanity and logic, but those faith traditions are continuing to find new members and baptise them. Moreover, when we decide to use a stupendously weak framework for an argument to support our Scriptural interpretations, and then deny another Christian the right to use that same type of argument to defend their position, we lose credibiity as well as the argument. When we decide that something makes ‘sense’ because we like it – but then deny another person the right to do the same with a doctrinal issue that we have strong feelings about, we hinder ourselves from ever being credible to certain persons who have thought more about what they do not believe that most of us have about what we do believe.

~

But I know what the person meant. And the answer is: ‘yes’ – we can give answers which do make sense to people who remain living victims of tragedy who do not believe in an all-powerful and loving God. But most of you have fallen for American spiel, and you think that every question must have an answer. This is an information-based approach, where you want what you call ‘knowledge’ which could be bereft of genuine understanding. A significant number of high-profile Adventists are fully culpable for teaching many of you that you just need the right answers. Sometimes, you need to take apart the question (gently) rather than answer it.

But this is where I will finish: DO NOT EXPECT to be credible in giving answers to very challenging questions at times of great tragedy and loss to secular, educated Anglo-Europeans if you are not a person who regularly scrutinises your own thought and your own ideas. Unless you really and truly are a genuinely sweet-natured person filled with love – the kind who can be respected for being a lovely person to be around even if not much else is going on – you and I cannot expect to win in spiritual warfare on the merits of personality and sincerity alone – for one can be sweet, sincere, and totally wrong!

Secular people who actually think do know when they are talking to someone humble enough to question their own ideas and question their faith and when they’re talking to someone who just wants to be someone with the ‘right answer.’ And until you place a higher value on knowing God more through the life of the mind that He has given you, it is a waste of time searching for “answers that make sense to someone who does not believe in an all-powerful and loving God.”

 

 

Five major questions for SDAs in the aftermath of Paris last night

On October 19th 2015, a SDA church member from the SEC asked the following question on Facebook:

Can anyone explain how Christ dying on a cross or how his blood makes things right for mankind?

Can I challenge you to try explain in a short paragraph.

This post sparked a flurry of replies, a significant number of which aroused serious levels of wrath within me. I am simply not aware of another religious tradition which actually possesses as much truth as this church, but whose members are so painfully unable to explicate this truth to those outside their community. It is entirely reasonable for other communities to default to platitudes and soundbytes – in some cases, were it not for those, the religion would more or less cease to exist. In other cases, there is a corpus of more developed arguments which suffice for those who have set a limit on how much critical thinking they are prepared to undertake. Seventh-Day Adventists have become rather good at pointing out the holes in some of these traditions.

But the fundamental question asked by this church member is as old as the Old Testament itself. Were it not for the answer to this question, the New Testament would not exist. And if that did not happen, we would not be here, because Jesus would have failed the test.

This is an example of something that is literally inconceivable for us as human beings, because every aspect of our existence is intrinsically grounded on the reality that Jesus Christ passed the test. Perhaps that’s just it – ‘grace’ is all that we’ve known, and so, in the famous words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we self-indulgently bask in ‘cheap grace.’

Why DID Jesus have to die? And in such a cruel way? How DOES His blood make anything better? Please, do NOT tell me that the Bible tells you so! I’m not addressing secular people here, I’m addressing Seventh-Day Adventists. Why should anyone trust the Bible? Are we not the first people to say that if a statement is 99% true but 1% error, the whole thing is error? What if a person decided to believe something because they knew that 99% of it was true and decided to trust the 1% and found trouble that they could never have anticipated as a result? Sure, we can prove lots of things in the Bible. But we can’t prove lots of other things. And if you knew that what you could not prove might be more dangerous than what you know you know, why would you trust anything or anyone on that basis? Cheap, trivial answers are not the one, my brothers and sisters! What kind of madness is this?! Have we forgotten than back in April, 147 people died in a terrorist initiative that specifically targeted Christians? How can we comfort those who suffered in that tragedy with such simplistic answers?

Today is Sabbath November 14th, 2015. In response to the terrible atrocities in Paris last night, I wrote the following blog post:

https://alexanderdouglas.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/paris-13-11-15-more-questions-less-answers/

In response to that blog post, an SDA church member from the NEC posed the following questions, expressed below.

Interesting read. Some questions that came up in my mind as I was reading, not for you necessarily but on the back of what you have written they have arisen.

  • Is it at all possible to give answers that will make sense to those who are experiencingsuch tragedy if they do not subscribe to the belief in an All Powerful and Loving God?

  • Will any of the perplexities of life make sense without the framework of faith?

  • Will any answer we give make sense without said framework?

  • Is the point of the answers we give to promote belief or make sense out of nonsense?

Now, I am trying to write a book, but I will endeavour to answer all five of the above questions next week, one day at a time starting on Monday. I’ll begin with the bottom four and conclude with the first question at the top, because the answer to that first question will be more easily understood when we have built a more rigorous framework.

I will greatly appreciate your prayers and support as I embark on this task of apologetics for our community and beyond. I am truly sorry if anyone feels upset at the seeming harshness of what I have said, but you do need to understand that a religion which promotes only the ‘feelgood’ is a religion of the selfish and spineless, and this is not why Jesus Christ died. I know this is not for all of us; so please read and be edified, or find some other material that offers what you seek. God bless you all.

Can praise actually confuse Satan?

Today, someone (‘A’) asked this question on Facebook:

Is it really true that praise confuses Satan?

Is it actually possible to confuse Satan?

Here’s an edited version of one of the more helpful responses (from ‘B’):

Phrases like this annoy me. (Church buzz words/phrases). How do you think you can confuse the author of confusion, and with praise of all things? His job was praise. Lucifer was the praise giver of the heavenlies. His chest was like the pipes of an organ, he was entrusted to reflect the glory that shone from The Lord. Just because he got fired and we replaced him you think he or his angels have forgotten their first ministry (Ezek 28). That’s why they are so successful at disrupting Christendom. They know all the rules and regulations. They are fully aware of the purpose and power of praise and of worship. The only confusion is ours.

Now, this point is well made. It prompted this response from ‘A’:

I would also like to suggest that we cannot confuse Satan by just singing and dancing in the name of the gospel. He does not get confused by this. He studies us and is highly intelligent. He was a cherub. He is the last person to be confused. But we must praise regardless though.

At which point, ‘C’ said this:

When someone says, “Praise will confuse the enemy” I do believe they mean [the] true act of worship. Anything to the contrary is not ‘praise’.

And now, we’re headlong into confusion! ‘C’ believes that praise can confuse Satan and has already said so (earlier). ‘C’ is in good company.

So this is an attempt to help clear up that confusion (so help me God). I’ve been meaning to address this very subject in print for a long time..

~

Two songs in particular come to mind when I think of the phrase ‘praise will confuse the enemy.’ The most obvious is from a beloved Marvin Sapp album from 2007, Thirsty. Track 6, ‘Praise Him in Advance’ contains the following:

I’ve had my share of ups and downs, times when there was no one around,
God came and spoke these words to me, praise will confuse the enemy.

The second is actually from the Fred Hammond album Purpose by Design – ­one of the strongest albums ever recorded by this artist. The second verse of ‘When You Praise’ is as follows:

Praise will bind, confuse and break the enemy
And cause his hands to be still
So we raise our hands in total victory
We know we triumph in His will

Now, at one point I was attending a church in the SEC and the praise team just loved to sing this song. The pastor loved it too, but he insisted that the praise team never sang the second verse. The comment by ‘B’ points towards the reason why.

One of the reasons why this blog post is being written is because nine years ago I attended some seminars by the distinguished Australian SDA pastor and musician Dr. Wolfgang Stefani. At the beginning of a four-seminar series he said:

  1. “Church musicians have a DUTY to be theologically aware…”

  2. “…if you don’t like what you hear from me today, it is your DUTY to put something better in its place.”

I can tell you that while I disagreed profoundly with Dr. Stefani’s ‘musicology,’ I did not and do not disagree with his essential Biblical ‘theology.’ And that was when I KNEW that somehow, I was going to end up studying theology (although if I’d known how rough that journey would have been, I don’t think I’d ever have started…)

Seventh-Day Adventists are very good at clichés and soundbytes. We know that the crisis in the end times is ‘about worship.’ But Adventist theological thinking in general is not as strong as in other denominations. So we have these amazing truths, but we propagate them and defend them using arguments that a sixth-former should be throwing out (hang on, maybe THAT’s why our young people are very cold on this message!). We’ve never been taught to THINK through faith to faith, and so some of us have turned to TBN and Daystar for help. More and more church members are reading Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen and Noel Jones and Myles Munroe and Derek Prince than could ever be ideal, and you see the evidence in Sabbath School. ‘Mashup’ doesn’t begin to do it justice…

But for those who think I’m now off topic and having a little go on my soapbox, a newsflash: if there is a problem with non-Adventist theology crashing into our church from books, that is NOTHING compared to the unbiblical theology that has well and truly broken down the security systems of the church through music. And the fact that people have sought to defend the idea that praise can confuse the enemy is more proof that we are off the pace completely – which would make sense, given that we are a Laodicean church!

Pentecostal theology has an answer for Seventh-Day Adventists on this one, and it is found in a very specific translation of a passage from 2 Chronicles 20:

20 Early the next morning, as everyone got ready to leave for the desert near Tekoa, Jehoshaphat stood up and said, “Listen my friends, if we trust the Lord God and believe what these prophets have told us, the Lord will help us, and we will be successful.” 21 Then he explained his plan and appointed men to march in front of the army and praise the Lord for his holy power by singing:[e]

“Praise the Lord!
His love never ends.”

22 As soon as they began singing, the Lord confused the enemy camp, 23 so that the Ammonite and Moabite troops attacked and completely destroyed those from Edom. Then they turned against each other and fought until the entire camp was wiped out!

You will not find the word ‘confused’ in lots of more standard translations. That does not make it ‘wrong.’ People are going to abuse Scripture no matter what, so there is no safety in the right translation. The only safety is in the Holy Spirit, who can only guide your study if you commit to personal integrity in all things – including Bible study.

And Bible study – lots of it – will be very important for some of the readers of this post because having slowly built a basic framework, I need to accelerate.

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Read the whole of 2 Chronicles 20. When the Holy Spirit speaks to Jahaziel, the message is that God has already decided to give Israel the victory. That was His will on that occasion. And so when they went out and sang, it was an act of faith that what the Levite had prophesied would come true. Imagine if Jehoshaphat had rejected Jahaziel’s message. How would that story have ended?!

Let’s now go to 2 Samuel 12 and a bit of David’s story that we tend to gloss over:

13 Then David confessed to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Nathan replied, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin. 14 Nevertheless, because you have shown utter contempt for the word of the Lord[a] by doing this, your child will die.”

God spoke through His prophet and made an emphatic statement. Now, according to Hebrews 2:14, Satan does have the power of death – but the story of Job tells us that this ‘power’ does have to be subjected to God’s final authority. On this occasion, God chose to take the life of Bathsheba’s baby.

What did David do?

He WORSHIPPED.

He prayed. He fasted. For a week.

And the child died anyway.

Now, there are several possible responses to this. For example, it could be said that this was a death God ordained and that in another situation, praise would DEFINITELY confuse and break the enemy. Etc.

In terms of verbal theoretical argument, that is indeed correct. But is it conceptually valid? My point is ultimately a simple one: GOD is the author of life and death and times and seasons. He is the one who has defeated Satan.

If PRAISE as offered up by humans had any power whatsoever to break the enemy, Jesus would not have needed to die such a horrible death on the Cross. A rockin’ praise session would have sufficed. I’m sure the Aramaic speakers of those days had their version of ‘praise songs.’ But the theology of this is actually more serious and complex. Jesus DID defeat Satan by refusing to acknowledge that Satan’s lies were the final story. He continued to believe in God, and He refused the temptation to take back His divinity and destroy his tormentors and vapourise them into eternal non-existence right then and there.

There is a sense in which praise DID defeat Satan, but we really must think more rigorously. Jesus was SINLESS. As one SEC pastor once preached in my hearing, when on the cross Jesus did return to Psalm 22:1. We know those words well.  But if you look at verse 3, you see that it is a HOLY God who inhabits the praises of Israel.

The ONLY praise – in and of itself – that could EVER ‘confuse’ and ‘break’ Satan was the praise that the sinless, guilt-free Son of God offered up on the Cross in that moment when He was cut off from His Father.

~

There are many Adventists who think that no Adventist could agree with the Apostle’s Creed. Alas, more ignorance of historical theology. The phrase ‘he descended into hell’ is trying to achieve more than a simple one-shot statement of what happened when Jesus died for us with all the sins of the world fully on Him. There is a real sense in which he can only have ‘descended into hell’ because He had ‘become sin’ for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).

He didn’t just die. That’s the point.

And it’s the point here too. The ONLY way that Satan’s power is broken is through Jesus Christ. Our job is to ‘praise in the good times’ and ‘praise in the bad times.’ When we praise in the ‘bad times’ we recognise that ‘all things work together for good’ and so God may well allow Satan to win a few rounds…

…but there is a bigger picture.

Job held on, praised despite the pain and got a reward.

Paul served faithfully, but God never delivered him from the ‘thorn in his flesh.’ Who sent that? God or Satan? Who had the power to take it away, God or Satan? Should Paul have embarked upon some praise breaks to change God’s mind?

Stephen worshipped to the point of seeing God Himself – and died for it.

~

But now, slightly tougher theology for those of you still reading.

Satan is the second most powerful being in the universe, and sin has ALL of the power of its author. Satan’s power has been greatly reduced by the events of Calvary, but remember that John 8:44 describes him as the “father of lies.”

The father of lies knows the truth about God better than we do. He’s actually seen God. He’s been there. He knows what we will never know until we’re there. He understands what we may never understand because Gabriel himself could not defeat Satan.

One of the wrongest things Pentecostal Christianity has ever contrived is this song:

I went to the enemy camp and I

Took back what he stole from me (x3)

Etc.

The sound of our music and of our praise have NO power to do anything to Satan whatsoever. Only God can hold a conversation with the author of sin. Satan is a created being, but one with capacities that exceed ours in ways beyond our language. So the idea that human praise and worship will force God to act on our behalf is a form of witchcraft. Praise is the ‘abracadabra’ that unlocks God to defeat Satan, right? Sing the right songs and whatever problem you have, God will give you the win. And Satan will be broken and confused.

~

The time for eternal praise and worship is coming. But it is not yet. Indeed, our salvation is both now and not-yet. God may say ‘yes’ to some prayers. He will say ‘no’ to some others. He will protect from Satan today. He may let Satan take a life tomorrow. But HE alone is God.

Not us.

How dare we….?!

Why does the ‘gospel’ bring such despondency?

Today, the following question was asked by someone who is professionally involved in Adventist ministry in the UK. It began with the following text:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes…” Romans 1:16 NKJV

And now, his question:

Paul says that the gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone that believes. However, somehow, many people have walked out of the church, some feeling that salvation is not in their reach. Speaking to those who have left, I find that there is one recurring reason and that is, they have done too much wrong for God to forgive them… Now if the good news (the gospel),which is about what Christ has done to make us right with God is the power of God to save us, how is it that so many leave so despondent? Is it at all possible that we have been preaching a different ‘gospel’? Any thoughts anyone?

Here’s my response:

It has not been our intention to preach a different gospel, but there are a number of Adventist-specific cancers which have reduced our theology to ideology. Skip past the well-intentioned clichés about ‘head-religion’ and ‘heart-religion.’ Bottom line: twentieth-century global Adventism was dominated by the interests and concerns of the ‘baby boomer’ generation which expanded a biblically and theologically-unregulated framework in terms of what it actually means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ to something which became increasingly materialistic – and therefore more secular. The gospel was presented as only another lifestyle choice amongst another lifestyle choice. The blessings of God could be counted by health and wealth and pride in one’s children’s accomplishments. Adventist parents from 1975-2005 have been prouder of high-achieving children – even if they have left the faith – than they have been of those who remain with the faith but pay high prices for non-compromise. It is literally in the last ten years that Adventist parents have realised that their grandchildren are pretty far away from the faith, and that those grandchildren have seen right through the ‘do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do’ way of life.

This has in part been undergirded by what I have elsewhere referred to as a ‘circle of complicity.’ I know you have your issues, and I have my issues, but I won’t call you or expose you on your stuff if you leave mine well alone. So secular people know that we are Christian and compromised, but as long as no-one at church finds out…

…which, getting warmer and warmer, points towards one of the biggest factors to that which my friend has identified: this good news seems to only exist in the form of verbal propositions. It hasn’t transformed our churches into places in which people actually like each other. That means that we cannot trust each other. That means that our church communities are not safe spaces. Which in turn means that despite well-drilled praise teams singing “there is a sweet anointing in the sanctuary” we are committing spiritual perjury because Amos 5:22-24 (“…take away the noise of your songs…”) would now apply. We want to feel okay about ourselves because we’ve not left church, but you can leave God and lose our salvation without ever leaving the pew – fat KJV, quarterly, suit-and-tie, dress-and-heels to boot.

Because God is not as present as He would like, we resort to other ways to comfort ourselves. Distraction is a narcotic (clothes, again). So the lack of reverence in church? It’s NECESSARY for all those who are not in a good place with God but want to control the terms of their surrender to God. We’ll give up this. Sacrifice that. Moderate the other. On these days of the week. 5 weeks out of 7. We will not, under any circumstances, surrender control.

We have taught people that they are supposed to pursue the best of the world AND the best of God. The result: to paraphrase the poet George Herbert – we demand to be rich on earth as well as in heaven, which is more than God received, for he was ‘hungrie here.’

I’ll speak for myself. I was raised in a home with at least 80 (out of 130) of EGW’s published works, and l learned reams of KJV texts from memory.  I was a Pathfinder and more. I was a scrupulous Sabbath-keeper and learned to judge others for not being as prurient as I was. I learned that the most important thing was to have the right answers, eat the right food, use the right Bible – but none of those things gained me friends inside the church, where the emphasis was totally on external/material things (I suffered badly when I didn’t visit the barber or when my clothes were’t cool or when the church girls wouldn’t give me the time of day). So then as a late-teen Adventist, your job became to win affirmation from other teenage church members (and the older folks) – because if you didn’t have that, your church life WOULD be lonely.

The more ‘secular’ I was, the easier church was.

The more spiritual I became, the HARDER church has become.

We have re-made God in our own image. A God who, to use G.K. Chesterton’s expression (the book is called Brave New Family) is no longer “God the Father” but “God the Grandfather;” old, half-blind, half-deaf and totally benign. Whatever we say, goes.

If the gospel is correctly presented in a technical sense, but then points to a God who, in the words of Nietzsche, is ‘human, all too human’ then this gospel will not only fail to bring peace, it WILL bring depression. And for some people, that will be clinical.

We want the ‘rest’ of the gospel, but we refuse the ‘yoke’ of the gospel. And I have a strong word for all those limited preachers who make a lot of noise and ‘buke’ the members: if you had more security, you’d speak more quietly and be more concerned to ‘show’ people who Jesus is: not ‘tell them how it is’ and do all their thinking for them. Some of the theology that I’ve heard preached about ‘righteousness’ and ‘perfection’ is simply under-prayed, under-thought and under-studied. Salvation is more than we think. Discipleship is the kind of ‘simple’ that philosophers know is profound beyond profundity. Salvation is FREE. Discipleship costs EVERYTHING!

Last point: God has not actually called us to ‘discipleship’ and ‘obedience.’ Not in the primary sense of either of those words.

He has called us to relationship. And just as conjugal (sexual) relations are totally inappropriate between two people who are not married, WORSHIP is an intimate activity that is singularly inappropriate for people who are not prepared to ‘go down the aisle – all the way’ with Jesus.

“The Lord is my Shepherd…” But if Jesus is going to be your shepherd, He must also be your Lord. If you want Jesus to be Saviour and Redeemer and Prince of Peace, then He must also be Lord.

A gospel where God is not Lord is no gospel at all, and peace is impossible. Give me an honest atheist over a hypocritical Christian any day…they’re less likely to damn you to hell when you fall short.

WO @ #GCSA15 – a postscript

And so, one of the most-closely-followed ecclesiological sagas ever within Adventism is now closed – in the sense that more delegates voted ‘no’ than ‘yes.’

It does not matter which way the vote has come, however, because elsewhere the jury is well and truly in: Seventh-Day Adventists cannot do theology.

But long before we start (ab)using words like ‘exegesis’ and ‘hermeneutics,’ I have a simple thought: if we brothers of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had been the kind of men that God has called us to be – the kind who would give our lives for our wives (and others) even as Christ gave His life for the Church – then our womenfolk would have been so busy submitting to us that no-one would ever have had time for this debate.

That may sound like the naïve rumination of a simpleton, but I do believe that half the time when we accuse others of making things over-complicated, that’s a cop-out for serious thought. But as someone who is frequently accused of making things more complicated than they ought to be and who daily fights against feelings of raging contempt for all those who have made a home for themselves in an intellectual wasteland and then have the audacity to levy accusations at me, I could not be clearer on the fact that at times we DO make things more complicated than they ought to be.

As other SDA thinkers have observed (and not all ‘seminary-trained’ by any means), the whole panoply of constructions that governs our approach to ordination in and of itself is far less Biblical than most have dared to consider. Indeed our approach to the ordination of elders and the appointing of pastors would very likely horrify our pioneers, were they to be alive to see what has become of us. All sorts of things are to blame for this madness, and solutions are cheaply proposed and expensively ignored…

It is beyond dispute that in Biblical terms the man is the head of the household. Good. This means that by the way some Adventists reason, we should tell the mother of a single-parent family that she cannot be the legitimate head of her own house because she possesses the wrong sexual equipment.

Good luck with that.

What, you’d never say that?! Really?! Are you sure about that?!

Let me propose a framework for understanding God’s will:

  1. God’s IDEAL will
  2. God’s PERMISSIVE will
  3. God’s ULTIMATE will

The easiest – and hardest – of these in terms of our limited human comprehension is the last. We have no business talking about ‘God’s will’ as cheaply as we do.

God’s ideal would have been an earth that remained sinless.

His ideal was also that humankind be free in the truest possible sense of the word. And so we have a very under-rated English word “volition” which is defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as follows:

The faculty or power of using one’s will

Now, this concept is totally crucial to the gospel. It is totally crucial to an understanding of God. God has a will as well as a plan and a purpose. We too have a will, which can itself be bent towards different plans and purposes. Not for nothing does EGW talk about this in Steps to Christ!

God is allowing all of humankind the freedom to use the capacity inherent within humanity to exercise ‘volition.’ Sometimes, we will use this appropriately. Sometimes, we will use this destructively (notice that I did not use ‘creative’ as an opposite of ‘destructive’ because that would be a loose and superficial binary construction; one can use and abuse God’s gift of creativity for both good AND bad!).

Either way, we get to use our own wills and choose. And God works with our choices. That means that when we get things wrong, He has to fix as much as He can – and as much as He chooses – without impugning our own free will.

So the single-parent family is a break from God’s design.

Families make up churches, and so a serious argument exists to say that churches were also originally designed to be led by men.

But that’s the IDEAL.

I already said that Seventh-Day Adventists cannot do theology. Here’s a concept to bend some people out of shape: God is not fair.

He’s really not.

Because if He was, there would be no scope for grace. ‘Fairness’ means that we would get what we deserve. And given the contents of a) Romans 3:23 and b) Romans 6:23a, we would not be in existence right now.

God is not fair. But He IS just! And as far a paradigms go, ‘justice’ trumps ‘fairness’ in pretty much the same way that ‘joy’ trumps ‘happiness.’

Do I think that women being ordained is God’s ideal will? No, I do not. While certain ‘conservative’ Adventists continue to use words the meaning/s of which they have scarcely understood (I’m now talking, for example, about ‘feminism’ and ‘postmodern’), I personally believe that this is very simple. If families are designed to be the mini-microcosms of which churches are comprised, then the church itself is  – in paradigmatic terms – a family. And men lead families! We are not close to NT Greek thought, but we are even further away from OT Hebrew thought. We frequently give the Pharisees a bad rap, but they had something over most Seventh-Day Adventists I know: they actually understood that whatever it was they they believed and understood, they had a duty to live in line with that.

Paul would not have recognised our  ‘modern’ social phenomenon whereby I can ‘say’ that I am x or y but then ‘live’ like I am in fact a or b. For him, what you said about yourself could only be in conjunction with how you lived. A man who has prepared himself to be a husband and father and who has executed these duties with diligence and grace is God’s ideal for pastoral leadership.

But if God legislated solely on the basis of what was ideal (fairness), we would not be in existence to be having this argument. That does NOT give us the licence to abuse grace, but it does mean that every time we wield a legalistic approach to truth and practice, we condemn ourselves. The proof that as a denomination in general we are terrible at ecclesiology can be found at every level of church life. We have a more rigid approach to ‘hierarchy’ than the New Testament church ever did. We have a more formalistic approach to liturgy than the New Testament church ever did. God in His patience and mercy works with us, but in the final analysis, the same God who has called a woman to prophetic ministry of the magnitude that we see in EGW is the same God who may well choose to call a woman to be a pastor.

Scripture has given us no authority whatsoever to presuppose that in the 21st century, God could not and would not choose to call a woman into pastoral ministry. I have yet to meet a single fellow Adventist who believes that God has indisputably called every male minister who is ordained by the church. The sad truth is that the ministers are the greatest liability of the church, and that fact was highlighted by a certain prophetess who announced that a very significant role would be played by laity in finishing the work (some of you need to read the last seven verses of Isaiah 43 VERY carefully!).

The work needs to be finished. Children need to be raised with authority and love.

The latter is true whether the family has a husband/father or not. And the former is true whether the church is led by a man or by a woman. If we did not believe women should be ordained, we should never have allowed them to become pastors in the first place – but that is typical of Adventist ecclesiology, and that’s why our credibility is not what it might be under God. We’re pretty good at lots of things, but our ecclesiology suffers because our general theological literacy is woefully underpowered. And that lack of conceptual consistency does us no favours when we try to reach people who have actually thought more rigorously about what they do not believe than we have about what we claim to believe!

It is impossible to show from Scripture that God does not want WO under ANY circumstances. I submit that WO may well be in the category of what would be His PERMISSIVE will.

The ‘no’ vote is not a sign of God’s true word on the subject of whether or not WO is right. It means that no division can take it upon itself to deviate from our historic position and start ordaining women. But I hope that those who rejoice in this decision do not forget that the vote at GC 2000 (Toronto) to allow people to divorce for reasons that were about more than adultery was its own radical departure from what any literate person could perceive as the clear testimony of Scripture, and we have now accepted what God may have rejected.

Not only that – by insisting on tradition and personal sentiment over rigorous Biblical theology (“…but it simply cannot be God’s will to have women be ordained!” or “I’m a woman and I don’t need to be ordained to do the work I’ve been called to do”), we have in fact become increasingly close to all sorts of other denominations that last I checked we were trying not to be like… And – more interestingly still – our approach to hierarchy, our insistence of distinctiveness at the cost of engagement with others and the force with which we defend beliefs rather than principles makes us more like the Roman Catholic church than we’d like to consider.

This is why I say that we cannot do theology (and OF COURSE this is a hyperbolic overgeneralisation designed to make a point!). When we put ‘being distinctively Adventist’ over ‘being scrupulously and consistently Biblical’ we deviate from the path set by our pioneers. The decision to widen the parameters for marriage at GC 2000 was not an easy one and while I understand it, it means that we have opened the door for church members to embark upon marriage with less covenantal seriousness than would have been the case before. Interestingly, some observers were convinced that the ‘yes’ vote on that occasion would open the door to WO, but this has been proven to be false. Both the GC 2000 and GC 2015 decisions are hermeneutically flawed in very different ways, but for those of us who take Bible prophecy seriously, it is more proof that we are in the Laodicean church.

I have learned that whoever the church ordains and overlooks, only God’s approval matters, and His ULTIMATE will is: whatever takes place. So whatever God has called you to do, if it really is He who has called, then human systems are not going to hinder His work to save the world. God will work with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church wherever He can, but He will use other people and communities where He can if – and when – we fall short. The Laodicean church has already failed in so many ways. Read EGW and weep.

“…God’s will?” Careful now, my brothers and sisters, careful…