On April 14-16, 2016 the Adventist Theological Society held its Spring Symposium at Oakwood University, Huntsville, AL. The following are reflections from Dr. Timothy Nixon an attendee at the conference.
The Adventist Theological Society (ATS) held an important symposium this past April 2016 on a subject that is more relevant today than ever before. It attempted to tackle the issue of “Social Justice.” This was a groundbreaking event for the Seventh-day Adventist Church since our recent history has been poor in addressing issues of social justice. At best, the church has been a silent bystander during some of the most important cultural and social movements of our time. The question is, “Should our church have a prophetic voice in social justice issues?” The symposium sought to address that question.
As a first-time attendee of the ATS Symposium, it was difficult for me to gauge the attendance to the opening session, or the attendance throughout the symposium. After consulting others who have been regular attendees, one can say the attendance to this gathering was less than typical. It was a bit disappointing for such an important subject.
The lack of attendance, which was a disappointment, did not detract from the quality of the papers that were presented. However, the range of papers seemed to be limited to the past, from ancient Israel and early Adventism, as well as Biblical interpretations of Scripture that need to be reexamined and perhaps reinterpreted to reflect a more gender inclusive leaning than previously used. To that point, one glaring omission in the presentations was that there were no female presenters. There was one scheduled to present, but unfortunately she had to cancel for personal reasons. Without her presentation, the symposium had no female contribution on the issue of social justice, which was a great loss for our discussion on such an important topic. Throughout the symposium, there seemed to be a reoccurring need to affirm and defend the social justice position and record of Ellen White. At least three of the papers had Ellen White’s name in their titles and others alluded to her in their papers.
If there was one paper that stood out among the rest, it was the submission of Dr. Gilbert Okuro Ojwang, Religion & Theology Professor at Oakwood University. His paper was titled, ‘The Phrase “Weaker Vessel” in 1 Peter 3:7: Adverb or Adjective?’ It was truly a scholarly work. His basic premise was to question the notion that the phrase “weaker vessel” was intended by the Biblical author to be used as an adjective to describe the woman as the “weaker vessel” or as an adverb to describe the manner in which a man should live with his wife. Ojwang proposed that the woman was never the intended object of the phrase “weaker vessel” by the author but instead was imposed by translators who used their gender bias in coming to that conclusion. As an adverb his translation of the verse read:
“Husbands, in the same manner, each one should live in an understanding manner, that is, with tenderness, with his wife, by showing her deep respect and honor. This is befitting to both of you as fellow heirs of the grace of life. This will also result in a meaningful prayer life for both of you.”
Ojwang’s paper was groundbreaking and made the symposium worth attending, even if it were the only paper read.
If there was a topical omission, it was that there was no real critique of the church’s lack of involvement in social justice issues throughout its history following slavery. We know that our church’s founders had strong words of advocacy against slavery and could have been considered abolitionist, but after slavery that sensibility changed drastically and the church took a completely different tone, becoming a segregationist church that was one of the last institutions to integrate its schools, hospitals and administrative buildings, etc. There was no real examination of this issue during the symposium. Only one paper dealt with a contemporary social justice issue and made recommendations as to what the church’s position should be in addressing that issue. The lack of papers addressing pressing social justice issues when there are so many to choose from clearly shows the church’s need to develop its prophetic voice.
Notwithstanding its shortcomings, the symposium was a good first step in initiating a dialogue about a subject that the church has failed to address for decades. Hopefully it will be the first of many more such discussions that the church will have in the future.
 The Adventist Theological Society’s Spring Symposium, “The Prophetic Voice & Social Justice,” was held at Oakwood University, Huntsville, AL, on April 14-16, 2016. More information about the symposium can be found on the Adventist Theological Society website.