When I was just a boy, maybe seven or eight, my family would take me to the Hendersonville Seventh-day Adventist church. I would attend my Sabbath School class and then attend church with my parents.
Each week our pastor would stand in front of the pulpit and greet all the members with a hearty, “Welcome to the friendliest church in Hendersonville!” and with that we would begin our divine service.
Naturally, my friends would often ask me where I go every Saturday morning. I would triumphantly tell them, “I go to the friendliest church in Hendersonville!” At age seven, I was Christ’s evangelist.
As I grew up and moved away, I slowly began to realize that there is some variety in the Adventist Church. Not every Adventist pastor agreed with another Adventist pastor’s exact beliefs and not every conference was in agreement with the neighboring conference. It was sad to see the conflicting differences, but it also caused me to search the scriptures daily to see if what the pastor preached up front was correct (Acts 17:11). I learned how important it was to listen for references from inspiration and scripture.
Last Saturday while attending my local church, I read a flyer in the bulletin that invited me to attend a soup and salad study by La Sierra University professors Kendra and Gil Valentine. The flyer said they would be considering "ways of reading the Bible that allow texts to live anew in our contemporary world and in our particular stories. Implications of this approach will be explored for the Theology of Ordination Committee, Ellen White, and the Fourth Gospel." I was intrigued, but why would they drive all the way up to our little town just to talk to 20 people at my church?
With lentil soup served to our tables, the event began with Spectrum Editor Bonnie Dwyer introducing the guest speakers. Gil works in the School of Education and his wife Kendra is a former pastor that now teaches New Testament Studies at La Sierra University.
After a short history of how the Bible has been passed down from generation to generation, the subject quickly turned to the Ordination Study Committee and how “Adventist extremists” were oppressing women by saying the, “Church manual of our time is the Bible." My ears tingled and my brow furrowed.
They continued, “There is even an extremist pastor on the study committee that believes slavery isn’t wrong," she said, without confirmed references. The brow beating started to make me feel uncomfortable. Soon afterward she invited her husband to speak on the ways to interpret Ellen G. White’s writings.
The main focus of the meetings were to show how we must interpret the Bible and Ellen White's writings through the culture of their time and then apply that interpretation to our time. Without validating his sources or presenting references, Gil continued to speak of the problems with interpreting Ellen G. White’s writings. He called her sick, depressed, in deep debt and poorly compensated by the church which was similar to a “pastor’s salary." He also told us that when Ellen White was in Australia helping to establish a church, an economic depression began, and in order to keep Battle Creek Publishing House alive, they lowered salaries and royalties. Ellen White had to borrow money from the bank while waiting for her royalties to come, but being in debt would often make her lose her sleep. He continued, saying that Ellen G. White used shrill tones in her letters, was disgusted with leaders at the Battle Creek Publishing House, and advised E.J. Waggoner to wage civil disobedience on management while he was in England.
Although he said that his intent was to show that God can use anyone with flaws, he also successfully discredited Ellen White's writings by subtly suggesting that only a clergyman or the well educated can interpret spiritual writings correctly--without proper citation it was hard to believe him.
Soon after, Kendra returned to the podium to help us understand John 5:1-9, which tells the story of Christ healing the invalid of 38 years. She requested someone from the audience that had a family member with a health problem the church had prayed for to aid in an emotional response. The church member read John 5:1-9 with a quivering voice. Kendra thanked her and chose her words very carefully, “How does hearing D_____ reading change the story?”
The truth was, it didn’t change the story at all. A better way of stating her question may have been, “How does D____ reading this story make you feel?” An appeal to the heart can skew our vision. The Bible plainly teaches the heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9).
Finally, they began a Q&A session through community conversation. One member asked, “How do we know what you said about the times and places isn’t just speculation?” Kendra said that a lot of what she was saying came from authors: "Raymond Brown, Bruce Malina, Mark Allan Powell, Marianne Meye Thompson, Joel Green, and Paul Achtemeier."
Jokingly she said, “But I guess you might ask, How can we trust that these people interpreted the Bible correctly?” Good question, I thought.
Sometimes I wish I could return to the “Friendliest church in Hendersonville," where there are no sides, no competition, no brow beating, and no teams. It will happen someday soon, be ready for that great day of the Lord!