Brexit and oecumenism

 

It was predicted to be very close. Would the 46 million Brits who were entitled to vote decide that the UK should remain in the EU, or would they turn their backs on Brussels?  Many polls of the last few weeks and days suggested that the Brexit could well become a reality, and, indeed, a small majority of those who cast their votes decided that leaving is better than remaining.

A much heard argument during the campaign that preceded the referendum was that it is high time for the British to regain their national identity. Many are convinced that its national identity is at severe risk when a country has very strong ties with an international organization in which a group of countries together make rules and decide on common economic and political policies. As a result of EU membership a country can no longer make its own sovereign decisions, but is taken hostage by Brussels, it is argued. The British uniqueness will slowly but surely disintegrate even further than it already has.

Of course, cooperation with others requires accepting compromises and giving up certain aspects of one’s independence. That is true for all member states of the EU. But is this a serious threat to the national identity of those states? I doubt it. The British people are unique people, who live in a unique country. That is great. I have lived a number of happy years among them. Yes, I have at times been irritated by some British customs and by the way in which many things are organized. But never for a moment did I get the impression that there is any risk that the British will give up their British ‘identity’ and their British traditions. And that would also not have happened if they had voted to remain in the EU. Admittedly, there is a degree of tension between total sovereignty and close cooperation with others. But so far, I believe, the history of the EU has not shown that members states are in any real danger of losing their own identity!

The discussion concerning Brexit in some ways resembles the issue of Adventism and ecumenism. So far the Adventist Church has never become a member of, for instance, the World Council of Churches. And in most countries the Adventist Church has been reluctant in seeking full membership in national ecumenical councils. At the basis of the negative attitude of many Adventists with regard to ecumenical involvement is the fear that their church might lose its specific identity. Being a member in ecumenical organizations, it is argued by many, will inevitably result in compromises and loss of freedom to make our own decisions and, when necessary, take our own independent stand.

As in the case of Brexit it would seem that (mostly irrational) feelings of unease and emotions play a major role, rather than a solid knowledge of the relevant facts. One might say: The British have so much in common with other Europeans that it is utterly logical to do things together in some form of European unity. One might (I think) also say that Seventh-day Adventists have so much in common with other Christian faith communities that some forms of dialogue and cooperation are logical and must be actively pursued.

However, I am not calling for a referendum in which all Adventist members can vote on ecumenical involvement of their church. I am in principle against this type of plebiscite. In the realm of politics, as well as in the church, I prefer the kind of democracy in which we elect  representatives and leaders, who merit our trust and take decisions on our behalf (and who we replace by others if we are not satisfied). It is not a perfect system, but I believe it is quite a bit safer than organizing referendums.

Would closer contacts with other christians endanger our Adventist identity? A definite answer to that question would presuppose that we can define what this identity exactly is. That in itself is quite a complex issue. However, I am convinced that the ‘Adventist’  element in our christian faith is strong and flexible enough to withstand any possible danger in our cooperation with others. If our ‘Adventist identity’ is not strong enough to maintain itself in dialogue and cooperation, we might well ask ourselves whether this identity has, in fact, enough substance. I am sure it has!

 

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Donald Trump and the land-beast of Revelation 13

 

Adventists have long been fascinated by two strange symbols which we encounter in the book of Revelation. In chapter 13 we are confronted with the ‘beast from the sea’. An adventism this ‘beast’ has traditionally been linked with Roman Catholicism. Admittedly, in the recent past the Adventist Church has become a bit more careful in its anti-Catholic rhetoric, but this interpretation continues to be defended by many church members.

A bit further on in this chapter another beast enters the scene: ‘the beast from the earth’. It is stated that this beast will at some point in time support the sea-beast, even to the  extent that it will force humanity to worship the sea-beast. In traditional Adventist exegesis the land-beast symbolizes the United States of America. Eventually, it is argued,  the US will decide to link up with the pope and his cronies. Together they will target the relatively small group of believers who, in the end of time, will remain loyal to God (i.e. the ‘remnant, that keeps all God’s commandments and has the ‘testimony of Jesus’)The traditional prophetic interpretation of the Adventist Church is based on the historicist approach. This ‘school’ of interpretation maintains that the books of Daniel and Revelation predict events from the time of the prophet Daniel until the Second Coming. Another approach suggests that the content of these two Bible books must first of all be applied to the time in which they were written. The most important question is what they meant for their first readers.

Yet, even those who defend a historicist application have, by and large, become more circumspect. Many things did not happen as they were predicted. It has, in particular, become a bit quieter with regard to the ‘land-beast’. Many American Adventists have often found it rather difficult to imagine that ‘God’s own country’, this promised land of unparalleled freedom, would change into a tyranny that will utterly deny its fundamental principles.

I have some problems with the historicist approach to apocalyptic prophecy. But I might be inclined to drop a few of my objections at this point in time, when the American people are in the process of choosing a new president. I have been a keen follower of the primaries, and, together with millions in the US and elsewhere, I wonder how in high heavens it is possible that a man as Donald Trump is firmly on his way to become the presidential candidate of the Republican party. The thought occurred to me that the symbol of the ‘land-beast’ may perhaps be applied to Donald Trump. In any case, in past months he has thrown many horrendous ideas around. America and the rest of the world could be confronted with ‘beastly’ surprises, if Trump would become president. Many freedoms might be at serious risk.

I am rather surprised that so far I have not heard any Adventist voices that see a connection between Revelation 13 and Donald Trump.  Also, when dr. Ben Carson decided to enter the race for the GOP candidature, it also remained ominously silent in the camp of prophecy interpreters. When in 1928 the Catholic Al Smith became the Democratic candidate, there was a lot of commotion. Many Adventists argued that this was what prophecy had predicted: a close cooperation between he US and Rome. And when in 1960 the Catholic John  F. Kennedy aspired to become the president of the United States of America, many Adventists instantly knew how to interpret this in the light of Revelation 13. However, when in 2016 an immoral windbag, in the person of Donald Trump, is constantly in the news, I find no comments in the official denominational Adventist media. Has the Bible nothing to say about many of Trump’s detestable opinions? Never mind that he insults entire ethnic and religious groups, fosters hate, discriminates against women, criticizes the judiciary powers, wants to be friends with men like Putin and Kim-jong-un, and utters the most bizarre and contradictory statements.

I agree with the principle of my church that church and state should remain separate. However, this does not mean that the church must always remain silent in political matters. In the past the Adventist Church had a definite opinion when a presidential candidate had the ‘wrong’ religion. In the context of past times this may have been somewhat understandable. But does the church in 2016 not have the moral duty to speak up when someone with a totally dysfunctional moral compass wants to have the highest position in the United States? And would criticism of this ‘land-beast’ in the person of Trump (at least at this moment in time) not be much more relevant than just repeating the traditional interpretation of Revelation 13? In any case, this traditional interpretation is not to be fulfilled any time in the immediate future, while in just a few months a decision must be made that has far-reaching consequences for our entire planet!

 

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Respect and tolerance

 

On Sunday June 5 the Adventist church in the Netherlands held an extraordinary union session. A group of ‘concerned’ members used their statutory right to demand such a congress. In a ‘members manifesto’ they had published their views regarding a number of areas in which, they feel, the Netherlands Union is sadly amiss.  The fact that the Dutch Adventist Church has decided to ordain women pastors remains a sore poin to them, the more so, since the General Conference had closed that route. How then does the Netherlands Adventist Church dare to go its own way, against the will of the world church?

I did not attend the meeting last Sunday. I was (and still am) in Sweden. But, of course, I made sure to use all available channels to be informed about what happened.  I was relieved to hear that the motion to revoke the earlier decision to ordain female pastors failed. Some of the comments that I read suggested that the vote was too close for comfort (76-88). That the delegates who wanted to revoke the earlier decision were almost as many as those who wanted to continue with ordaining women pastors, may well (at last partly) be due to the fact that the ‘concerned’ members were more eager to participate in this session than the majority of the members, who tend to trust the current Dutch church leadership and support its policies.

Those who say that the Dutch Adventist Church is painfully divided, and that this does not bode well for the future, surely have a point. No one can deny that the polarization between those who are ‘concerned’ (the ‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists’, or whatever label one wants to apply) and the other members deserves close attention. But we must not over-dramatize things. The situation in the Adventist Church in the Netherlands is not unique and certainly not hopeless. Below are a few points I think we should consider:

1. In most religious movements of past and present one finds a diversity of currents of thought. The former Dutch Reformed Church is a good example. This church had a number of different ‘modalities’, from quite liberal to extremely orthodox and everything in between. Today one can see the same pattern in the new United Protestant Church of the Netherlands and other denominations. These churches function well, in spite of the internal diversity.

2. Churches with a strong international presence often have considerable problems in arriving at a consensus between all members worldwide, due to major cultural differences between countries and world regions.

3. In many western countries the influx of immigrants from non-western countries had resulted in a large measure of diversity. This has contributed to the present polarization, also  in the Netherlands. However, it also brought a major enrichment to church life.

4. A  church that is alive will inevitably experience a degree of tension between its tradition and the changing society in which it is called to live and to communicate the gospel. Not all are able to deal with this tension in a balanced way.

5. With regard to the Adventist Church in the Netherlands it cannot be denied that there are significant differences in theological opinion between the ‘right’ and the ‘left’, and in the way people value the organizational structure of the church. But this is not something new and it will undoubtedly remain with us in the future. We all come with our own background; each of us is in his/her own stage of spiritual growth, and we all read the Bible through our own lenses.

6. The greatest priority is that we learn how to give more space to one another, and to listen more intently to each other, with a willingness to learn from other points of view. This is true for those on the ‘right’ as well as for those on the ‘left’.

7. In spite of the undeniable polarization it remains important to keep in mind that, with all our differences, we have certainly enough in common to be one people with one common goal.

8. The problem that appears to be so immense will become much more manageable when we respect the opinions of those who differ from us, rather than immediately condemn those who have another view than we have.

The extraordinary session of the Dutch Adventist Church is now in the past. I sincerely hope that as a faith community we can find the grace to observe a truce in the current discussions and focus on the many other challenges that face the Adventist believers in the Netherlands.

 

 

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Getting a PhD – at any price?

 

For some time rumors had been circulating that some African Adventist church leaders were less than truthful in the way they acquired their PhD. Now the truth has come out. On April 14 the South African newspaper The New Age published an article in which it was stated that Paul Charles, the communication director in the regional office of the church for the southern section of the African continent, and Paul Ratsara, the president of this region (South Africa-Indian Ocean Division) had acquired their doctorates in a fraudulent manner, with the aim of furthering their church career.

I followed the unfolding of this piece of news (mainly as the result of some excellent investigative journalism of Spectrum) with more than ordinary interest. I got to know Paul Ratsara some 25 years ago, and once you have met someone you automatically pay attention when that person’s name surfaces in the news. At the time I worked in the division office for Francophone Africa in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (The division structure in Africa has since been changed considerably). I was invited to conduct an evangelistic campaign in Madagascar. It was a very special experience. During an entire month I preached every evening in the largest lecture hall of the university in the capital city Antananarivo. Every evening Paul Ratsara,  then a pastor in the church in Madagascar, was my translator. Through the years I have seen his ecclesial star rise. He was elected secretary of the division, and then president of the division of which also the church in his home union is a part.

At first it seemed as if Paul Charles was the main culprit. His doctoral degree appeared to be quite phony. It was a worthless piece of paper supposedly granted by a spurious, non-accredited institution in India. In acual fact, Mr. Charles did not even possess a regular bachelors degree. Paul Charles was extremely ambitious and believed that a PhD-title would be advantageous for his church career. It seemed to work. He was about to move to the United States, where he was appointed as an associate leader in the communication department of the General Conference. Of course, that offer is no longer valid.

Paul Ratsara received his doctorate from UNISA, a respected South-African university. But after close investigation it became clear that  there was a serious problem. The rumor that Paul Ratsara did not actually write most of his dissertation himself was found to be true. A church worker named Hopeson Bonya came forward and confessed that he had written five of the six chapters of the dissertation. When the story further developed Ratsara’s credibility had been so much damaged that he felt he had no option but to resign from the division presidency.  At this point GC president Ted Wilson became more actively involved, since a division president is also a vice-president of the General Conference. At first it appeared that Wilson did not think Ratsara’s mistake had been such that he would have to resign from his position. Wilson’s role in this affair is highly questionable. It raises the question whether the General Conference does not place high importance on the moral integrity of his colleaques. But Ratsara felt he could not remain in his office and he did resign, however without admitting any wrongdoing.

The whole story makes you wonder why people—especially those in high church leadership roles—want to have a PhD so badly, that they are even prepared to sacrifice their integrity as a Christian leader.

A completed academic education is a ‘must’ for those who aspire to teach in an institution for higher learning. And there may be other valid reasons a person would want to pursue a doctorate. However, I know from experience that writing a dissertation is fram from easy while holding a fulltime church office. If at the time I had not been able to take a year’s study leave, I might still be working on my degree. Pursuing a PhD at a reputable university demands sacrifice, usually also by the partner. Anyone who has this aspiration must decide whether it is worth all the sacrifice, and whether it is a realistic project.

Most importantly, one must realize that a person’s value, and his competence in his work depends on many different factors and not just on whether or not one has a PhD. And if a person thinks he needs a PhD to further his international church career, he is totally misguided.

After the recent incidents the discussion should not focus on the importance of doctoral degrees, but on personal integrity. I assume many have by now understood this. Hopefully this also applies to the highest echelons of church leadership. Regrettably some leaders did not give a clear moral signal when confronted with the recent events. It makes one wonder.

 

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Three Adventist worlds

 

If you are a regular reader of the Adventist Review on line, you will have noticed that lately the focus has been on Africa, and especially on Rwanda. A nationwide evangelization campaign in this Central-African country is currently being conducted, with a number of key Adventist leaders from the division and the General Conference as active participants. One week ago already almost 30.000 people were baptized. It is expected that on Saturday May 28 approximately 70.000 more men and women will also enter a baptismal font somewhere in the country. This means that as the result of this campaign the church in Rwanda will grow fifteen percent, from 700.000 to 800.000 members. Recently in Zimbabwe on one day 35.000 were added to the church. African leaders are confident that these results can be duplicated elsewhere in Eastern and Central-Africa.

[I will here not enter into any speculation whether all these new members are fully aware of all twenty-eight Fundamental Beliefs or whether this is only a requirement that is imposed by the church’s leadership on the Western world.]

The enormous growth of the church in Africa (and other areas in the world) is in sharp contrast with developments in most places in the western world. If there is any growth in that part of the world at all, it is mainly the result of migration from developing countries. At times I have the feeling that the Adventist church in Europe is no longer a factor that is aken seerious by he rest of he world. For the leaders of the General Conference, it would seem, the church in the often small and unruly Europe has little future. And we have to admit: the role of European Adventism is numerically becoming less and less important within the world church, when we consider that in one evangelistic campaign in Africa more members join the church than the number of the total membership in the entire Trans-European Division.

Whatever be the case, one can hardly avoid the impression that the worldwide church is gradually split in a fast growing church in the ‘South’ and a small, stagnating church in the ‘North’. These more and more seem to be two different Adventist worlds. However, lately I have become more than ever before aware of the fact that there is also a third Adventist world, besides the two I just mentioned: that of the people who find themselves ‘on the margins’ of the church. In recent months I have invested a lot of time and energy in writing of a book that targets those Adventists, who are drifting away from their church and who worry greatly about recent trends in the church and the way the church has been dealing with issues as women’s ordination and the Fundamental Beliefs. I have been in touch with lots of people about my current project. I have asked over twenty people to read the manuscript and to provide me with their input. Repeatedly I was told: ‘ In fact, I also am in the group of those “marginals” you are targeting!’

It becomes ever clearer to me (also after I devoted my blog a few weeks ago to this project) that this book is important and that the group of ‘people on the margins’ of the church is much bigger than I initially thought. I hope I will be able to encourage many of those who are ‘on the margins’. Maybe I can put into words what for many mostly remained a sense of unease that they were often not able to describe.

The English version of the book is in its final phase. As I write, the manuscript has been copy-edited and is with the firm that will take care of the page lay-out, before it can pass through the publisher to the printer and then to Amazon.com and other distribution channels. The aim is to have the book ready by August 1, as a paperback as well as in digital format. The Dutch version is scheduled to appear 2-3 months later. Work has started on a French and a Russian edition. Possibly other languages will follow.

It would, I think, be a disaster if the great success in the ‘South’ would result in less attention for the church in the ‘North’. And it would be tragic if this third Adventist world—of Adventists ‘on the margins’—would be gradually drifting further and further away from the rest of the church. More than ever before the church also needs people who dare to ask questions and are willing to admit that they do not know all the answers. I hope I will be given some more years in which I can put a lot of my energy in this ‘ministry’ for fellow-believers ‘on the margins’.

 

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