Last week I actively participated in the bi-annual study conference of Adventist theologians in Europe. Some 75 women and men assembled at Friedensau University in Germany, not far from the city of Magdeburg. The theme of the meeting was ‘Freedom’. In this year of Luther commemorations the focus was in particular on the small book of Luther on ‘the freedom of a Christian.’
One of the speakers was Dr. Zack Plantak, who currently teaches theology and ethics at the Loma Linda University in the USA. In the first part of his challenging paper he emphasized the reality of our times in which many people do not feel free, but suffer from a threefold tyranny. First of all, he said, there is the tyranny of the past: the feeling of guilt that keep us prisoners. The tyranny of the present is our self-centeredness. And, thirdly, our freedom is constantly threatened by a form of tyranny that concerns the future, namely fear. I suspect that some of Zack’s thoughts may surface again in one of my sermons in the near future.
It is undeniably true that many of us are burdened with fears regarding the future. Parents worry about their children, and that anxiety does not stop the moment they become independent. Young adults have many fears about their future–they worry about their job, their mortgage, their pension. Those who face old-age are afraid they will lose their physical strength and their mobility (or their mind).
Unfortunately, however, fears do not always only concern the things that may yet come, but also affect the present. And this–sad to say–is increasingly true even in the church–most definitely also in the Adventist Church. We must face the fact that our church is characterized to a major extent by a culture of fear.
I receive many comments from readers of my latest book (FACING DOUBT) who tell me that they recognize their own doubts and concerns in my book. But they also often state how difficult it is to talk about these with people around them. Many are afraid that by talking about their views that deviate in some respects from standard Adventist teachings, they may no longer be able to function within their local church.
Church members who do not belong to the heterosexual part of mankind are often afraid to talk about their sexual orientation. The truth is , indeed, that in many Adventist churches you cannot be a full member if you are gay or lesbian, let alone be elected in a church office.
I hear from many Adventist academics how they fear that their academic freedom is increasingly under threat–and this is in particular true for theologians. They must adhere to all aspects of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs and are only allowed to approach the Bible in one prescribed way. Those who voice other views easily become suspect and may even lose their job.
And then there are people in leading positions in the church who tell me that they must be ever so careful in what they say, and must often remain silent, because otherwise they may come under scrutiny and that might mean they will not be reelected in their position.
It is clear to me that this is a deplorable situation. It is not good for a human being to be afraid. And fear should not be part of the life of a Christian or of the atmosphere in a community of believers. The faith experience of a Christian is not to be characterized by fear but by love. (See 1 John 1:14: Perfect love will make all fear disappear.)