Wednesday, November 23, 2011

God, Rocks, and Souls

This is an introduction to John McLarty’s book in progress, GOD, ROCKS, AND SOULS, a memoir of an “old, white, liberal Adventist pastor”.

What follows is a “chapter…not in its final form” from that book in progress.

Chapter 48. Ordination Exam: Part 1

In spring of 1983 Elder Kretschmar called and invited Karin and me to meet with the ordination committee. I was excited–and troubled.

Ordained ministers are the guardians of the church, the guarantors of continuity, stability and orthodoxy. I had a hard time seeing myself in that role. I more often saw myself as an iconoclast, a reformer, a gadfly. How could I pledge unreserved allegiance to the church organization given what I thought about Ingathering*, the Davenport scandal*, the sometimes irrational emphasis on evangelism as the only reason for the church's existence, the institutional racism, the culture of moral and administrative incompetence? I loved the church. It was my family. I found its theology a wonderful resource for thinking. But could I really devote my entire adult life to promoting the institutional church? Was accepting ordination hypocritical? Did it suggest a kind of agreement that I could not, in good conscience, give?

I considered canceling my appointment with the ordination committee. Perhaps I could postpone the whole thing for a year. But what would be the point? I didn’t have any fewer questions now than I had the year before or the year before that. The questions never went away. And then there was the matter of my calling. I sometimes wondered if God existed. Atheism seemed a reasonable alternative to belief. But I could not shake the sense of call. It had hounded me for thirteen years. I had broken up with more than one girlfriend because of my call. I had not pursued a career in science because of the call. If God had called me, then making a deliberate choice to avoid ordination would be an affront to God. But how could it be right to accept a title under false pretenses?

After stewing over this for a week or two, I finally decided to appear before the committee and simply present myself as transparently as I could. If, with full knowledge of who I was, they still decided to ordain me, then I would accept it as God’s will. It would be a hopeful sign of openness in the church.
From what I had heard, with some guys the ordination committee merely went through the motions. They asked a few questions, received the answers they expected and moved on the next candidate. Other candidates told of intense grilling about everything from the guy’s theology to his marriage to his eating habits. Some candidates I knew were put on formal probation after their interviews and given a year to make improvements. The pastor who interviewed before me came out of the room smiling and relaxed. It was a good sign.

A few minutes after he left, Elder Kretschmar invited Karin and me into the committee room. There were seven on the committee. The president, vice-president and treasurer of the conference, several pastors–Israel Gonzalez, a sweet, gentle pastor I greatly admired; the pastor of the Old Westbury Church, John Smith, a Midwestern good old boy without a seminary education, James Murray, the flamboyant pastor of a large, rapidly-growing Jamaican church in the Bronx. Also present was Elder Kurt Schmidt, the ministerial director of the Atlantic Union (the denomination's administrative unit for the Northeastern USA).
“I believe you know everyone here.” Elder Kretschmar said to me, once we had taken our seats. “Have you met Elder Schmidt, our Union ministerial director?”

I nodded to Elder Schmidt. I didn’t know him personally. His body language made me wary.
“John,” Elder Kretschmar continued, “you have done good work in this conference over the past three years. We’ve appreciated your commitment and hard work. But the work of the gospel ministry is a high and exalted calling. Ordination is a formal recognition by the church that God has called you to serve his church by preaching the gospel and winning souls. It is our responsibility to make close inquiry of those we are considering for ordination. Thanks for being here. Let’s begin with prayer.”

After prayer the questioning began. Elder Kretschmar was first.

“John, tell us about your call to the ministry.”

I told them my story–my plans to be a doctor, the irresistible sense of calling to ministry, my final yielding to the call and subsequent certainty. They liked the story.

“John, many young ministers have been greatly unsettled by the controversies surrounding Dr. Ford. Do you have confidence in the doctrines of the Adventist Church?

“While I was in seminary and in the year or two immediately following graduation, a number of my friends left the church because they no longer believed the Adventist interpretation of the judgment and our teaching about 1844. When I talked with them, I realized that all of their reading, one hundred percent of it, was in literature that was critical of the church’s position. So naturally they were persuaded by the critics. I decided to go back and read what the founders of the church had written. I read books by James White and Loughborough and Andrews. When I looked at the Bible passages through their eyes, it made sense. I saw how they derived their views from the Bible. In addition, the Adventist concept of the Great Controversy–the idea that God is unwilling to “get on with eternity” until he has responded to every human question–I don’t see that kind of respect for human intellect in any other Christian theology. It helps me live with my own unanswered questions. And our rejection of eternal hellfire–wow, that is incredibly helpful in sharing Jesus with people who are not Christians.

“So do I have confidence in the doctrines of the Adventist Church? Yes.”

I could sense the social warmth in the room. These guys, except for the Union minister, were my friends. They knew me. They wanted to ordain me. They were going to do their due diligence. They were going to ask real questions, but they weren’t out to get me.

“What about the Spirit of Prophecy? Do you believe Ellen White was inspired by God?” This was from Elder Gonzalez.

“That’s an easy one. Sure. It seems to me in the Bible the dominant role of prophets is to rebuke people, to challenge the status quo, to unsettle people. Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Amos, Ezekiel–all were famous for their stern calls for repentance. Mrs. White certainly gave plenty of rebukes–both to individuals and to leaders. And we see the fruit of her work in our hospitals, schools, healthy life style and the world-wide distribution of the church. So yes, I believe she was inspired.”

Everyone around the circle was smiling and nodding as I talked. I continued. “But I do think we need to be careful about context and setting. Some of our members use Ellen White like a club to hit each other and visitors over the head. In Sabbath School class these folks quote Mrs. White instead of the Bible. I think we need to be careful about that.”

Elder Gonzalez agreed. “Yes, we are all aware of those challenges in our congregations. We do have a responsibility to help our members to use the Spirit of Prophecy in the right way, as the lesser light pointing to the greater light.” The mood didn’t change. They continued nodding and smiling.
Then the minister from the Union took his turn. “John, I want to ask you about tithe. I have three questions for you: Do you believe it? Do you practice it? Do you teach it?”

“That’s easy,” I said. “Yes, definitely.” I paused a long moment, then added, “But if I were you I would ask more than that.”

He was visibly taken aback, but he didn’t hesitate more than a couple of seconds. “Okay, so I’m asking. What else do you have to tell us?”

“I know some pastors will not allow any one to hold a church office if that person does not contribute ten percent of their income to the church through the regular tithe fund. I have someone in my church who dedicates ten percent of his income to God, but he does not contribute all of it to the tithe fund. He uses some of it for various charitable purposes. I have told him this is against the policy of the church, but I cannot, in good faith, tell him that what he is doing is contrary to what the Bible teaches. He’s a leader in our church and I see no reason to press the issue beyond informing him of the voted policy of the denomination.”

I could see emotion rising in Elder Schmidt’s face. I had assaulted a sacred cow. “Our tithing system was established under divine guidance. It provides the financial support for our world-wide church. This tithe system enables us to maintain missionaries in over two hundred countries around the world even though we are a small church. If you weaken the tithe system, if you allow members to do what they think is best with their tithe dollars, it would cripple our ability to fulfill our divine commission to take the Third Angel’s Message to the whole world.”

“I understand your point.” I said. “But how can I show from the Bible that the only way to fulfill your obligations to God is to put a tenth of your income in a tithe envelope and give it at church? I know someone who is wealthy. He gives his tithe once a year. And he always gives it as tithe, but he doesn’t always give it through his own local church. Sometimes he sends it directly overseas to a mission field. Is that wrong?”

“Yes.” Elder Schmidt insisted. “The only right way to manage your tithe is to give it to the tithe fund through the local church where you are a member. Anything else is wrong.”

“But can you show me how to prove that from the Bible?

“The Bible in Malachi says that we are bring all the tithe into the store house. That means we should give our tithe through the local church.”

“Wait a minute. If we use that text as the rule, then every church member in the world should send their tithe to the General Conference. This text does not say ‘store houses.’ It mentions only one storehouse which was the temple in Jerusalem. We have four thousand congregations in North America and fifty conferences. They all accept tithe. So how can I use Malachi’s words about a single storehouse to prove anything to my church member?

“And what about Ellen White? She didn’t always give her tithe through the regular church process. When she thought the church was underfunding some particular ministry–especially her son’s ministry to Blacks in the South–she gave her tithe directly to him and didn’t make a secret of it.”

“What do you mean?” Elder Schmidt demanded. “Are you telling me Ellen White diverted tithe money? Where did you hear that?”

“Elder Schmidt, it’s common knowledge.” I answered. “I read her statements defending her practice in the Ellen White Research Room at the seminary. All of her 'irregular' gifts of tithe money that I remember reading about were to support either the work of her son Edson who was working among the Blacks in the South or to Black ministers in the South who were grossly underpaid.”

I could see Elder Schmidt was upset. He couldn't concede my point, but others in the room were nodding in acknowledgment of what I was saying. So contradicting my statement of historical fact might show his ignorance. If Ellen White had actually done what I said she had, it gave the question a twist he had never thought about. He was stuck. Elder Kretschmar came to the rescue.

“John, we can’t use Ellen White’s personal behavior as an example for us in every instance. She was prophet. She had special guidance from God. If all our members were to give their tithe wherever they felt like, how would we pay the salaries of the ministers? How would we support our schools?” (I smiled inwardly at Elder Kretschmar's defense of church policy. A year earlier he had helped me arrange for “special” receipting of $40,000 of tithe funds from a donor in another part of the country. If the money had been officially received as tithe, the conference would have been obligated to pass on thirty percent or more to higher levels of the church organization. Instead, through creative receipting, the entire $40,000 was kept locally and used to hire an assistant pastor for the Huntington Church.)

(to be continued)


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