Editorial: The Cancer We Must Defeat

“No one dared Disturb the sound of silence” —Simon and Garfunkel

Art Garfunkel explains “The Sound of Silence,” the blockbuster song he recorded with Paul Simon, like this: It’s “about the inability of people to communicate with each other…, especially emotionally, so that what you see around you is people unable to love each other.”

Doctrinal jousting is Adventism’s signature passion, or one of them. When joined with fear and arrogance, however, it bears ironic fruit: those with the upper hand try to keep the lid on conversation. And then, as the song says further, “Silence like a cancer grows.”

As chair of the Adventist Forum Board, I am pleased with our various ministries: our magazine, an indispensable resource for thoughtful readers, not least scholars and artists; our website, with its 75-95,000 “unique readers” every month; our meetings and conferences, with, at least arguably, conversations as forthright and arresting as anywhere in Adventism. We just finished our annual conference for 2016, and it was wonderful (full report forthcoming).

I am pleased with all these things, but I am far from satisfied.

One trouble is that we cannot (at least so far) defeat the cancer of silence. One person we invited to present at the just-completed conference, a denominational employee, couldn’t accept because he was forbidden (!) to do so. The Adventist Forum welcomes speech from all sides, but we clearly have a reforming—a self-critical or “progressive”—point of view, and some Adventist leaders discourage participation in our kind of conversation. Educators—see my “Are Our Teachers Fit to Teach?” in the current Spectrum magazine—are even hearing that all revisionary consideration of Adventist doctrine is inappropriate in church college classrooms. Employees notice such things, and many have convinced themselves that they should not associate with us publically, not write for our publications or even contribute comments on our website articles. Despite analytics that show high website activity around Silver Spring, we never (but for the rarest exceptions) hear from any current General Conference employees, or from all but a few others around the world who have high profiles in Adventist life. Either people are afraid to comment, or they just don’t want to, and silence like a cancer grows.

William Johnsson is the much-admired former seminary teacher and editor of the Adventist Review who in his early 80s is still writing books and articles and still addressing Adventist audiences around the world. Just a couple or so weeks ago, on the Spectrum website, he poured out an essay called “The One Project: Why I’m Mad.” It crackled with exasperation and was at the same time a cry of a heart aching with sorrow and desire for change. Johnsson has as many influential Adventist friends as anyone alive, and his essay got more than 20,000 page views. It generated nearly 70 comments, including one from his former pastor. But so far as I can tell, only one person known far and wide in Adventist circles chimed in, and that was Reinder Bruinsma, the now-retired missionary, scholar and administrator from the Netherlands. I recognized no comment from any of Johnsson’s colleagues at the seminary or at church headquarters in Silver Spring.

But if that disappointed me, it was not, unfortunately, surprising.

Several months ago I proposed to some people more conservative than I am that we write and publish several brief responses to this proposition: The Bible is inspired, so if there is polygamy in the Bible, I can be a polygamist; if there is slavery in the Bible, I can own slaves; if there is war in the Bible, I can wage war. The proposition was meant to evoke reflection on how to read the Bible, and although it sounds like something you could address in a debate, I emphasized that I was envisioning a symposium. We wouldn’t argue with each other. We’d just state our responses to the proposition, and readers could chew on what we said. With upcoming General Conference discussion of biblical hermeneutics in mind, I thought we could aim for publication in either Spectrum or Ministry. I wrote to a figure well-known for his work with the church’s Biblical Research Institute. I wrote to the current director of that organization. I wrote, at the latter’s suggestion, to the seminary professor who is now president of the Adventist Theological Society. Two of these persons demurred; another, though I sent repeated emails, ignored me. A seminary friend I also contacted thought my proposition was too informal-sounding. The upshot, of course, was that I could practically feel the sound of silence, and I let my idea go, not forever, perhaps, but at least for a while.

Someone may say that this is not about refusal to discuss, it’s about distaste for the point of view I represent; or say that people like me are a tiny band, without much relevance, so I should grow up and stop whining. Well, Spectrum’s ministry has in fact made a substantial impact over the years, and has attracted a substantial circle of followers. But be that as it may, the point is that thinking any community within Adventism needs to be or deserves to be ignored only proves the point Garfunkel made: the sound of silence shows our inability “to love each other.”

1 Peter 3:15 advises readiness to answer those who ask an “accounting” for what we believe. In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes a community disturbed by intellectual divisions, but never suggests that ideas don’t matter or that they should be the basis for ignoring or excluding anyone. Instead, he writes that “love” is the most important virtue of the Christian life. So if we don’t want to talk to each other, or if we put up with a culture of fear that disables honest conversation, we are failing at what matters most of all.

For our recent conference, planners tried hard to include influential, conservative presenters as well as ones who could push us to revise our understanding. And as you can see, I have myself made efforts to engage conservative points of view. Spectrum publications extend the ideal of community through conversation to people who need breathing space, and people do find it in our company. But many who are influential in the church do not, or dare not, participate. Is this due to the over-corporatization of Adventism? Is it because some totalitarian impulse has taken hold? Is it just indifference or discouragement? I am no more sure than you, but I wonder. (And I also know, of course, that my whole thesis could be rebutted in moments if a phalanx of currently employed, influential Adventists actually responded, here and now, to what I am saying.)

Since at least as far back as 1980, I have again and again declared, in print and in person, that we Adventists are called to be the Remnant. And even if the sound of silence is the death knell of love, that call remains, I believe, in place. But it is simply idle—perhaps it is wicked—to make casual references to ourselves as “God remnant church” unless we love one another. We cannot fail at what matters most and go on thinking so well of ourselves.

In our imperfect way, we who embrace the ministry of the Adventist Forum will continue to make space for neglected voices and to engage, as best we can, those who represent majority points of view. I suppose we should be trying even harder to accomplish these things, and I suppose, too, that we should be calling to account, in some cases perhaps even by name, persons who amplify the sound of silence by ignoring or stifling Adventist conversation. If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, it is also, perhaps, the cost of fighting for a faithful church.

If we wish to have a church that matters, we should bear that cost together, without forgetting, of course, that love—Christ’s love—is the final measure of all we think and do together.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7650
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As long as the Sabbath rather than the Cross is the primary focus, You will be dealing with a closed community. Tom Zwemer

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I don’t think any organization whose success is measured in numerical outcomes, be it members or money, will ever be comfortable second guessing itself in public. Corporations, religious or secular, don’t want discussion about ends and means–or anything that might detract from the pursuit of its designated outcomes. Nobody is as hated in the corporate world as the whistle blower, the teller of inconvenient truths.

The SdA church, from the very beginning, was an authoritarian structure that dealt harshly with those who had questions about established orthodoxy. (I remember my sardonic laughter when Richard Hamill told Newsweek in 1980, prior to Glacier View, that the church had a history of dealing gently with its creative people.) Debates were settled by administrative fiat, and those who refused to put away their concerns out of regard for the hierarchy’s desire for peace and quiet, were not dealt gently with.

But it was not only ideological questions that were suppressed, so were questions of social justice and plain morality. The SdA church, from the beginning, refused to take a public stand on any issue that might impact its sacred numerical outcomes. It never challenged segregation (in fact, was a willing participant in society’s white supremacy policy) and it refused to say anything good about Martin Luther King before it was safe to do so. The GC only condemned aparteid in South Africa five minutes before the system imploded and it was clear that membership outcomes were no longer in danger. And for the privilege of riding government limousines in Moscow in the 1970s, the GC, headed by Neal Wilson and Alf Lohne, blithely threw the independent and illegal SdA underground church under the communist bus. When Vladimir Shelkov, the hero of the SdA underground, who had done altoghether 27 years in prison for his faith, died in yet another concentration camp in 1980 at age 84, the GC instructed its editors around the world not to refer to him as an Adventist, no doubt out of concern for the delicate sensitivities of the Soviet leaders on whose good will the GC depended in order to work with the official but compromised SdA church in the USSR.

Corporations have no conscience. They are not people. They chase success and that is the only currency they are comfortable dealing in. The SdA corporation has no more regard for “truth” than General Electric or Wells Fargo and hate inconvenient truths just as much. And those who work for it are keenly aware of what happens to those foolish enough to believe that stated ideals provide room for openness and debate. In the end the stock market rules, the place where outcomes are at the mercy of expectations.

The only hope for churches that have been swallowed up by corporations and subjected to the tyranny of numerical expectations is to reclaim their status as church–a church that can afford to have a conscience and adopt the Gospels as its guiding lights. But how do you make that transition from soulless organization to a community of believers talking ethics around the bonfire of faith? It certainly will not be with the help of the corporation.

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An avid reader of the magazine and now website; denominationally employed. I’ve posted a few times when it seemed facts and processes were not well understood. Given my personal convictions I’m far more likely to speak up in solidarity with those who point to Jesus alone, those who know the arc of history is moving towards justice even if in fits and starts. Where I am this seems the majority point of view, but I realize that’s not the case everywhere. Being relatively quiet is not only my personality trait, it is a degree of circumspection that what I say is my own, not an official point of view.

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This is a very ugly history for “the remnant church.” Or is the remnant church actually not a
denomination, but a group of people who respond to the Spirit of God moving upon their hearts to “do justice, love mercy, and be taught by God” - even if they’re atheists or agnostics? There would be 7th Day Adventists in the “remnant church” to be sure, but it was E. White herself who said the majority of God’s people are in other communions.

Charles Scriven has proposed a wonderful way of presenting various perspectives - “We wouldn’t argue with each other. We’d just state our responses to the proposition, and readers could chew on what we said.” No coercion - no social or theological pressure - just an interaction between the reader, various perspectives, and God. A proposal based upon transparency and freedom - the ways of God. God has never censured his adversary. God’s stance is, in essence - “Every idea in the world is available for you to weigh. You may hear them.” Truth can stand up against the closest of scrutiny. What would any person or organization who believes they enjoy truth have to lose? Absolutely nothing. On the contrary, there would be everything to gain.

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My first response to Charles’ article is an overwhelming sigh. Don’t people know that in 100 years (if Jesus doesn’t come) we will bury over 6 billion people? Every generation has buried the previous one since the fall. But, most importantly, how does the truth of Jesus get passed on to the next generation who don’t even exist today? It obviously isn’t through orthodoxy, piety, language, or hierarchy! We’ve been there and done that. Tradition might be a way if it only came packaged in knowledge, wisdom, and passion. Conversation seems to be the only avenue to the comprehension of the gospel. What it is and what it isn’t!

After all, we aren’t discussing anything new. As a wise man once said, “What is new is rarely true and what is true is rarely new!” We are simply having the same conversation that Paul did in every one of His epistles, that Peter did in building the new Christian faith into a unified body, that James did in comparing faith to works in a different way than Paul, that John did in emphasizing the individual personal relationship with God Himself through the knowledge we received from Jesus, and that they all had in discovering that love for God and others is the pinnacle of the Christian faith tradition and the measurement of our connection to God.

Any attempt to stifle the conversation is anathema to the cause of Jesus. Could the sound of silence be that of fear not being able to express one’s faith? Could it be the consequence of not having one’s own faith, but that of his church? Or maybe it is arrogance to think someone’s ideas are beneath comment? But the core of the silence must have something to do with being satisfied with one’s own previous conclusions and refusing to be taught something new.

Without the conversation, the next generation won’t have the tools to discover truth for themselves. To be religious will constitute only blind obedience or take the second option and abandon religion altogether.

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“The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what.” (Testimonies, volume 5, page 707)

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Is a family a corporation? Isn’t a family a person to some extent? The story of Israel is the story of God choosing a family, a real family. This choosing has a corporate dimension. You want to expunge it from the church but I don’t think you can and I don’t think you want to. We are corporately responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and the invitation to sinners is to unite with his corpus, his body, his family and be saved.

Corporate anything - is sinful - full of sin - as long as man is involved. In short you will never transition, it can’t be done. But there is still hope in the one sinless man at the head of the corporation.

As an aside: In 1977 I called Roland Hegstead and told him I had read about the arrest of Vladimir Shelkov. He told me Shelkov was not a real Seventh-day Adventist. He was a member of the True and Free Seventh-day Adventists.

The “real Seventh-day Adventists” had absolution from Neil Wilson to be able to break the Sabbath and participate in the military - in return, the Soviets gave Wilson permission to be able to run some sort of printing press to publish SDA health material. So,let’s see, it’s OK to villify Adventists who didn’t bend to the Soviets, just so the church could get a foothold into the Soviet Union - collateral damage.

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I am a retired associate superintendent of education within the SDA system (retired one year now). I am a survivor, having lost my teaching/principal positions at two different times in two different conferences, but in the end bouncing back to finish my career within the church structure. I didn’t have theological differences that I made public, but I did disagree vocally about employment issues such as tenure–or rather the lack thereof–within the SDA church. When I lost my position the first time, I was both on the conference and the union executive committees. I bought in to the rhetoric that we were all part of the team and that we all needed to speak freely and contribute, and I did, on educational issues and other conference/union issues. I cannot “prove” it, of course, but the loss of my job and that of my husband, both of us in the education ministry, came during that time w.hen I was a strong advocate for proper procedure within our educational system among other issues. Of course, there are many reasons one can lose a position, but mostly administrators tend to go with the one that says “termination without cause”. That way, an employee can be let go with little recourse, except perhaps paid a termination settlement. This is devastating to employees in their 40’s or 50’s. Securing employment in the public sector after being in denominational work all one’s life is not easy at that stage of life. The first time it happened to us, two of our children were in an SDA college and two were in academy. We had supportive family who helped us out financially and we both took casual work substitute teaching in the public system plus government employment insurance to cover the gaps. There is a price to be paid for speaking your truth within the church. I don’t regret speaking my truth–though I do regret the price my family and I paid as a result. But I do understand why there is silence in the church, particularly from church workers. It is simply not safe. I learned the hard way. If it were not for other good people within the church structure who advocated for me, I would never have “bounced back” into the church structure, nor would I have received the termination settlements I received. Yes, I wish the church were a safe place for church employees, but it is not, I have every sympathy for my colleagues who would like to speak out, but dare not.

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I’ve been attending the Adventist Church for over three years and my main reason for not being baptised into the church is the (what to me seem) outlandish interpretations of prophecy and current day events by some prominent church members, usually with an anti-Catholic paranoia. On the other hand, I very much admire the faithfulness and dedication to mission that I see in the Adventist Church which is why I keep attending and supporting church programs. Should church dogmas be questioned? I guess it depends on whether you belief that salvation is ONLY through the SDA church. If you believe that you are saved by faith in Jesus regardless of your denomination then there is always the option of going to a different church. I personally see myself firstly as a theist, secondly as a Christian, thirdly as a Protestant, foruthly as an Armenian (arther than a Calvinist) fifthly as more conservative than liberal and only sixthly as a (would be) SDA. If ever I found the teachings of the church sufficiently disturbing I would simply go to another evangelical church (most likely the Salvation Army). The real question is: is that what the church wants? On the one had ‘liberalism’ has been the death knell of a number of other churches (e.g. Episcopalian church, Uniting Church); on the other hand, free discussion on non-central doctrines seems to be essential to continuing relevance and seems to be implied by the idea of ‘present truth’. As one old writer put i what we need ist: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

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I read this article with a sense of sadness and recognition. My recent book (FACING DOUBT: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’) is being purchased and read widely. I have received a few negative comments (like the scathing review by Clifford Goldstein on this website), but I have been overwhelmed by positive reactions from many different countries. Many people tell me they are grateful that I am dealing with issues that few dare to talk about.They tell me they recognize themselves in my book and that this in itself is helpful to them. To my joy some readers also say the book has been helpful in finding a new way of relating to their faith and to their church. However, there is a deadly silence from church leadership, with only a few exceptions. I do hear through the grapevine that some leaders (though not neceseearily agreeing with all I say) find the book useful and hope their colleagues in leadershio will also read it. However, they will not say, or write, so openly. By and large one cannot escape the impression that freedom of expression within the church is nowadays in many places extremely limited and a widespread fear for repercussions if one appears to be be critical of the party-line, reigns supreme. I am convinced that those who want to protect the church against ‘wrong influences’ and supposedly ‘liberal’ ideas, are in fact harming the church in many ways and cause many to turn their back on the church. It is sad indeed.

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Yes. What a terrible irony. Freedom of expression must die if a member is truly loyal to his or her church or its institutions of employment.

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Tom, I have belonged to several larger Adventist congregations, and not one of them has put the Sabbath before the cross. I now belong to a tiny congregation where laypeople—many of whom feed on Doug Batchelor’s ruminations—do a substantial part of the preaching. Here, too, there is no sign of preoccupation with the Sabbath as opposed to the cross. But if we think official ideology, or some key players in the church’s life, we may agree that your comment raises questions we need to address.

Several of you mention the True and Free Adventists in Russia, and I agree with your outrage. As someone who has had a couple or so administrative jobs, I do see how complicated it can be to deal with political reality, whether at a small or larger scale. Too-easy, armchair self-righteousness should offend, but so—thanks for the reminders—should too-easy resort to compromise.

Aage, the church DID challenge segregation, and you can read about it in Samuel London, Jr.'s, Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement, published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2009. Adventism’s whites-dominated establishment failed, it is true, to challenge segregation, so you are right in a way that should be deeply challenging. But courageous black Adventists, some ministers included, did stand up for Jesus on this issue, and it was a move that required them to challenge not only American society but also their own church’s establishment. Still, let’s remember that the church is not JUST the church’s establishment.

Thanks, Victor, for the comment from Ellen White. Efforts to stifle conversation betray her legacy. And thanks, William, for reference to the (very biblical) church-as-“family” metaphor; we all know families suffer when their members fail to communicate. Your stories, Janet and Ian, are touching and summon us to the deeper truths that are hard, it seems, to actually embody. Again, to all of you so far, thanks.

Chuck

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In my experience, one of the factors contributing to this “silence” (well done Chuck) is the feeling that open discussion of contentious issues always results in more quarreling and division. Witness the Desmond Ford kerfuffle and the recent women’s ordination debate. Adventism developed a narrative which claimed that “we” had the truth for these times; therefore, no “change” was possible. The chink in our armor really began in some respects when Walter Martin and Donald Grey Barnhouse insisted on “official” statements of our beliefs. Dissatisfied when they discovered that our historical literature contained contradictory theological material, we responded with Questions on Doctrines. Its publication caused a breach with M. L. Andreasen on the meaning and relevance of the Sanctuary Doctrine and Investigative Judgment for the atonement.

Prior to all this was the 1952 Bible Conference, proceedings published in a remarkable volume in SDA history. Edward Heppenstall was accused of nailing the law to the cross because of his papers on law and grace (I think in Galatians).

Well, the moral of this “story” is that we do not do conversation comfortably at all, especially when new “intellectuals” and “liberal” so-called scholars ask questions or challenge the received texts, even if in an effort to strengthen or clarify Adventist thought. Their efforts may help our members with similar questions, but they infuriate those on the other side. The current partisan divide in the media is replicated in our divide. So, we end up in either silence or warfare.

Perhaps a partial answer is to provide private, unannounced gatherings in which the silence can be broken, one of which Chuck himself organized several years ago. As helpful as the Forum conferences have been, they cannot fill the silence which Chuck laments. So I would encourage all of us who long for increased study, prayer and conversation to organize private ones, retreats perhaps which are by invitation only. Perhaps those settings can bring the grace of God into our theological “mist” and “midst.”

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Many Conferences deal with budgetary issues. So do Unions. Sometimes the math says lose so many FTE’s and there is no other way. Someone has to go. The human mind has a need to know why. In the face of simple answers it is sometimes hard to accept and ulterior motives/rationales are made the reason.
Its sad that your kids were in the most expensive part of their education when this happened but since prior to that we were paying for our kids AND yours education while you paid a pittance its hard to be too sorry for you since your “bad luck” was simply being lowered to the level the rest of us are already at. How many of us have the benefit packages you had?
A tenure mindset is an entitlement mindset. What about conference employees is so special that they alone deserve something the rest of us dont have and never will? Its this type of thinking that makes our institutions as poor with finances as they are.

Most Adventist doctrines should be settled, and thus beyond attempts to change or abandon them. This is a liberal/conservative divide. We conservatives certainly do not want to be arguing with purported fellow Adventists over pillars of the faith, like a literal six day creation or the substitutionary atonement. Liberal attempts to constantly relitigate settled doctrine do not strike us as loving, helpful, or constructive, but as corrosive, vandalistic and destructive. I view liberalism as the universal acid that ultimately corrodes and destroys every human institution.

David speaks of “liberalism as the universal acid that corrodes and destroys every human institution.” I imagine the descendants of slaves saying, “Yes, and thank goodness.” But on this point I am sure, David, that you’d agree. (I should add, though, that I have no interest in being what is called a “Protestant liberal.” I am interested in being an Adventist who is self-critical and bent on “progressing” toward deeper understanding and faithfulness.)

On my phone I saw here a useful exchange between Jim Londis and another commentor that was apparently–alas, the one comment policy is good but not perfect!–deleted. (I think article authors can jump in more than once…but we’ll see.) One question, indirectly put to me in that exchange, was what happened at a private event I worked on that brought conservatives and “progressives” together for a weekend.

I will not publish names, but the Kettering College religion faculty and one similarly minded colleague from elsewhere spent Friday night through Sunday morning with persons well-known for conservative perspectives on the reading of the Bible. Their spouses, some trained scholars themselves, came along. Everyone arrived with a short (one piece of paper and a reasonable font size) essay, and we read and discussed them together. We shared meals. On Saturday night, agenda flung aside, we sat around a table at my house, eating popcorn and related fare, and enjoying one another’s company.

Of course we came to realize, in a more full-blooded way, that despite our differences we share the vulnerability and disappointment, as well as the proclivity to dream, that attend all human existence. We remain, all of us, better friends than we were before.

Later, in Tennessee, I later helped organize a similar conversation, pursued under similar circumstances, on the theme of the “emerging church.”

Such events provide no easy remedy to differences of outlook. But they enrich understanding and make us more sympathetic than we would otherwise be, and less given to insults and anger.

Chuck

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Charles, you wrote two replies to my short comment, that the sabbath obscures the cross in many Adventist minds so as to limit conversation. My primary hero within Adventism has been Dr. Heppenstall followed by Graham Maxwell, Wilber. Alexander, and Fritz Guy. I was impressed to learn that the Church at La Sierra has a cross on the platform. But frankly S.A. With the Ted Wilson’s emphasis reinforce s my comment. To me least, Paul in Galatians. Speaks to Adventism and a broad. Range of evangelicals. regards Tom Zwemer

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CHUCK

Above, you speak of Bill Johnson’s madness at the supposed muzzling of the ONE PROJECT in Australia. At least 3 of us from Australia have now given evidence for the fact that the Division and Conference leadership in Australia have not prevented the ONE PROJECT from being advertised and promoted.

IMHO Bill Johnson has superimposed the North American sensitivities to the ONE PROJECT on the Australian situation and come to very incorrect conclusions.

WHEN will you Chuck, as well as Bill and the whole Spectrum outfit acknowledge that they were absolutely incorrect in their surmisings??