Author Archives: Reinder

Going forward, together

A few weeks ago the quinquennial constituency meetings of the Dutch Adventist Church took place. Delegates from the approximately 60 congregations and groups listened to the reports of the church’s activities over the past few years, and were given an overview of the financial state of the church. But the part that usually–and also this time—-is most exciting, is the election of the leaders for the next five-year term.

It is no secret that the Dutch Adventist Church is right now highly polarized. Nor is it a secret that during this past congress, the more conservative segment of the church led the way, and will also be over-represented on the new executive committee of the union. The officers of the union were re-elected, but both the president and the general secretary saw how about a third of the delegates voted against their return.

I came home from the convention with a severe hangover. A few days later a video message from the union president was shared with the church, calling on all members to move forward together. Regardless of whether we are conservative or progressive, he emphasized, we are all welcome and needed in the church. Well, it certainly didn’t feel that way during the meetings! I kept asking myself in the days that followed: Is this still the church in which I can feel at home? Have I dedicated my entire career to a church from which I now feel quite alienated? In the days following the meetings, several colleagues contacted me. They shared their concerns with me, and their feelings of being abandoned by their church. I also spoke with church members who said they were considering canceling their membership, or at least no longer wanting to financially support the union organization. I tried, despite my own concerns about the current direction of the church, to encourage these people and advised them in any case not to do anything rash.

Now, after about two weeks, my hangover is largely gone. I am determined not to let my relationship to the church depend on the persons who happen to be in charge of the union. I wish them God’s blessings and a clear insight in the issues they face, and I sincerely hope that the new executive committee will be less conservative in its policies and concrete decisions than I, and many with me, fear, given its composition. I will be as constructive as possible with regard the projects of the union (as long as it does not involve a door-to-door distribution of “The Great Controversy,” because that seems to me to be a very bad idea and an outright PR disaster).

I am pleased to see a good number of foreign speaking appointments in my calendar for 2023. And besides that, of course, it is mostly the local congregations that provide inspiration. Since the union session two weeks ago, I have preached in Groningen and in Harderwijk, and in both cases it was a very warm experience, and I am sure it will be the same this coming Sabbath in Leeuwarden. Yesterday I spent much of the day preparing a funeral service for a member of the Harderwijk congregation. It is a privilege to be able to support people in difficult moments.

The church is more than a meeting of delegates and everything around it. I sincerely hope that people will not drop out because they perceive that the church has made a big shift to the “right”, but that they will indeed experience that there is a place for everyone in their church, also in the years to come,.

All Souls Day

[November 3, 2022] Yesterday was All Souls’ Day. This week–and especially this coming weekend–in many places people pay special attention to loved-ones who are no longer among us. Like All Saints’ Day, which is celebrated one day earlier, All Souls’ Day has a Roman Catholic past. Around the year 1000 this day was first celebrated as a time specifically devoted to praying for all the souls who are not yet in heaven, but are still suffering in purgatory. The name “all souls day” dates back to the thirteenth century. For most people “all souls day” now has a broader meaning. Even for many non-Catholics it has become a day when we think especially of our loved ones who have gone before us. This is also the content of a ceremony that will take place next Sunday at noon at the public cemetery of the place where I live (the village of Zeewolde in the Flevopolder). I am not planning to go to this event, as my wife and I have another important appointment, but in the first week of November I also think more than usual of loved ones who have died. In this week were the birthdays of my mother and my youngest sister. My mother would now, if she were still around, be celebrating her 110th birthday and my youngest sister would have turned 72 a day later. Unfortunately, she only lived to age 33.

In the Adventist Church, it is not customary to publicly pay much attention to those who have died at same time in the past. Some church members might quietly light a candle somewhere, but they will not talk too much about this, since many fellow believers would tell them that lighting candles is a Catholic custom. In a number of places in the Netherlands, Adventists rent a Salvation Army building for their worship services. In these buildings there invariably is a sign somewhere on a wall with the list of the names of the corps members who have been “promoted to glory.” I like that custom, although, of course, our theology demands that we would phrase it differently.

I was struck a few days ago by what David R. Larson, an American friend (and professor emeritus of the theological department at Loma Linda University) wrote on his Facebook page. His comment was part of a discussion about what are the main Adventist doctrines. As expected, in such a discussion one hears mostly about the Sabbath, the Second Coming and the heavenly sanctuary. But, according to Larson, that is incorrect. By far the most important “fundamental belief” for us as Adventists, he wrote, is our view of death. There is no other aspect of our faith that we dwell on as often as our mortality and what awaits us at the moment of our death.

I quote a few lines from what he wrote:
“Few people go to bed wondering whether the true Sabbath is on the first or seventh day of the week, when the Second Coming of Jesus will occur, what Jesus is doing in the Heavenly Sanctuary, whether the Spirit of Prophecy was active in Ellen White or whether the term “Righteousness by Faith” properly applies to Justification alone or to both Justification and Sanctification.
Many go to bed wondering what happens to us when we die and how to live well before we do. People in all walks of life wonder this; however, there are also academic experts in many disciplines who are studying this as they research issues concerning mind and body, freedom and determinism, continuity and discontinuity in human identity. . .”

The Seventh-day Adventist view of death is no longer as unique as it once was, and is nowadays shared by many other Christians. However, it remains an enormously important element of what we have to say to the world around us. For, as Larson emphasizes: there is no other subject that people dwell on so often. And we can assure everyone: We do not have an immortal soul that leaves the body when we breath our last, but we “sleep” for a while, awaiting the moment we can begin our perfect, eternal, life.

Esther, Ruth and the union constituency meeting

Esther and Ruth

My wife and I are loyal viewers of the television quiz Twee voor Twaalf. It is a classic program that has been on the tube for over fifty years, and has been presented by Astrid Joosten since 1991. In each program there are two teams of two people who must answer twelve questions on a variety of topics. The initial letters of the answers must then be put in the correct order to form a twelve-letter word. If one does not have a direct answer to a question, one may search a series of reference books and, in some cases, consult the computer. One earns points with correct answers, but loses points for long searches for answers and in the process of assembling the final word. All in all, a lighthearted, but interesting, and often exciting game.

Many participants really know a lot, and some are also skilled at quickly looking up the answers to what is asked. But with regard to biblical questions, that come up with some regularity, they often fail miserably. Such was the case last night. Rather simple questions were asked about women in the Bible, after whom a book of the Bible is named. These were Esther and Ruth, respectively. The first team gave a wrong answer, and the second team also did not know who was meant, but managed to look up the correct answer. In the past, we also regularly watched the BBC quiz program University Challenge, in which student teams from various British universities compete against each other. In this, the questions are usually much more difficult than in Twee voor Twaalf, and it is amazing how much the students often know. But when it comes to simple Bible questions, they fail as a rule.

Our society is thoroughly secularized and only a small part of the population still has a solid knowledge of the Bible. Knowledge of the content of the Christian faith and interest in the church as an institution has steadily declined over the past decades. And, unfortunately, we must conclude that the church–and also most individual believers in the church–have no answer to that problem. This was also evident at the constituency meeting of the Dutch Adventist Church that is currently being held.

During a quintennial congress, the main issues are electing the church leaders and reporting on the work of the previous five-year period. The Corona pandemic did cause many things to go differently than planned! What struck me most during the reporting was the recognition that too little has been done on evangelism in recent years. Several delegates urged that this point should be given a much higher priority in the coming years. But how this should be done? That remained rather vague! The Dutch Union president rightly noted that we live in a highly secularized society and that reaching the secularized people is a huge challenge. Yes, indeed, how do we reach the people with the biblical message, when they don’t remember Esther and Ruth, and when they admit they never read a Bible?

For now, it remains a matter of searching for new ways. The traditional methods of evangelism no longer work in the Western world. The challenge is to “translate” and “package” the core of the gospel in such a way that our words will relate to the fundamental questions the people around us have. The church’s past can inspire us, but cannot serve as a model to be followed in everything. Unfortunately, that is too often still a starting point for many. To explore new ways requires faith, together with expertise and creativity, as well as boldness and a freedom to experiment. A growing church in our time, and in the future, is an open community, where people feel safe, even if they are “different,” and even if they have questions to which there are no immediate answers. Ours should be a church where secularized people are welcome, and where they feel comfortable because of the atmosphere of being accepted as they are.

The goal of reaching out to the secularized people around us will not be achieved overnight in the new administrative period ahead of us. But it all begins with the understanding that as a church we must, at all levels, be (and in many cases: we must become!) an open, welcoming community that attracts people and does not repel or leave them indifferent-as still so often happens. This is a prerequisite for keeping a larger portion of our youth on board and offering a place of faith, hope and love to those seeking meaning and security in their lives.

I continue to hope (sometimes against my better judgment) that in the coming years the church I love will take that path more clearly than is often the case today, and that the desire of reaching out to our secularized fellowmen will prove to be more than a pious slogan without real content.

Bert Haloviak and 666

On October 18, Bert Haloviak passed away at the age of 84. Bert was a wonderful person, and will be greatly missed by all who knew him. For many years he was the head of the department of the Adventist Church that takes care of the archives and of the compilation of statistics. To those interested in the history of the Adventist Church, Bert Haloviak was best known for his phenomenal knowledge of the church’s past. I got to know him in 1992, when I spent several weeks doing research in the archives of the denominational headquarters in Silver Spring, not far from the U.S. capital Washington. There, in the basement of the General Conference office, was the domain of Bert Haloviak. I was warmly welcomed there for part of the work on my dissertation, in preparation of my doctorate from the University of London (UK) in August 1993.

I was researching the relationship between Adventism and Roman Catholicism in the period from 1844 to 1965 (the time of the Second Vatican Council). Much of my work had already been done at the James White library at Andrews University and at the Catholic Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, about 20 miles from Andrews. But there were some specific sources I wanted to check in the church’s archives. Any researcher knows that, as you do your research, you often come across interesting information about things you were not looking for. For example, in sifting through the minutes of the board meetings of the Review and Herald Publishing Association, I discovered that shortly after Ellen White’s death, the board decided to pay one-third of her funeral expenses. Ellen was in considerable debt when she died, and the cost of her funeral was a major problem for the family. After considerable discussion, it was decided to split the costs into several portions, with the publishing house contributing one third. I was totally surprised: imagine, the prophetess dies and then a discussion ensues about the cost of her funeral! Shortly thereafter, in those same minutes, I found a request from William White, Ellen’s son who was now going to have an important role in caring for her literary estate. He received a negative response when he asked for reimbursement for a new typewriter. It was believed that his activities were not so extensive that he needed one.

However, I was concerned with other things that were much more directly related to the subject of my dissertation. After I had been intensely busy for a few days, Haloviak came to me with a sizable box in his hands. “This is my 666 box,” he said. The box contained documentation on how the church had dealt with the explanation of the mysterious number 666, which we find in John’s Revelation. “This stuff hasn’t been catalogued yet,” he said. “Take a look at it, there’s bound to be something of your liking.” Indeed, that turned out to be the case. Among other things, I found the minutes of two church-appointed study committees that had tried, in vain, in the late 1930s to find historical support for the traditional explanation, namely that the number 666 refers to a title allegedly used by the pope: Vicarius Filii Dei. The conclusion was that this title could only be found in a forged medieval document, and that Adventist evangelists should no longer use their beloved explanation that “the number of the beast” refers to a papal title. Even though all experts agree with this conclusion, this sensational argument is still often used in evangelistic lectures and popular publications on the Revelation.

I was, of course, very grateful to Haloviak for his help with my research. The weeks in the archives proved to be a very fruitful few weeks. Unfortunately, he had not warned me beforehand that I had better not prepare coffee in the kitchen, which is next to the archives department. When I pulled out my pot of instant coffee and wanted to brew a cup of coffee, there was a loud protest from someone at the nearby Ellen G. White Estate-the department that still cares for Ellen White’s publications. Making coffee in this environment was apparently a mortal sin. But I gladly forgave Bert Haloviak for failing to warn me about this

Afterwards, during the years when I was the general secretary of the Trans-European Division of the Adventist Church, I was in frequent contact with Mary, Bert’s wife. She was the administrative assistant of the person in the headquarters office who was responsible for the relationship between the division and the General Conference. As general secretary, one of my tasks was to recruit missionaries for the countries that were at that time under our care—notably Pakistan, most of the Middle Eastern countries and newly “opened” Albania. I was in very frequent contact with Mary about this aspect of my work. To her, in particular, I express my condolences. I wish her strength, now that she has to go on without Bert. Her loss is of course infinitely greater than that of the many people who, like me, got to know Bert mainly because of his professional passion and his extensive knowledge. But they too miss him for the exceptionally fine human being he was.

Is God in control?

A few weeks ago, I was the guest speaker in Adventist Today‘s digital Sabbath School. Each week about 130 to 150 computers connect, with probably a total of about 200 participants. In the recent past I have made several presentations in this weekly seminar, that is always followed by an intense discussion. This time my topic was how we, as postmodern people, must read the Book of Revelation. I defended my belief that this last book of the Bible offers a panorama picture that is painted by the prophet. This is what we should focus on, rather than being concerned with applying all sorts of details to historical persons or events. John, under inspiration, articulates the meta-story of the great battle between good and evil, with ever-changing players. In that cosmic struggle, the church of Christ holds center stage. The faithful of God often go through difficult times, but all ends well! Christ overcomes, for and with his church. In my conclusion I indicated that we need have no fear because God is ultimately “in control” of everything.

During the discussion period this final comment, that God has everything “under control,” was questioned. Because, it was argued, we see a lot of things around us that put this in doubt. The person who raised this point said that speaking of God’s ‘control’ sounds far too Calvinistic. Calvinists point very emphatically to God’s sovereignty. We are small, sinful people and should not be so audacious that we take God to task and ask Him why He allows all kinds of things.

The fact that God is in control of everything and that nothing happens without his express will, or without Him consciously allowing it is, according to the questioner, at odds with our individual free will. A few days later he sent me the text of an article he had written on this subject. I read it with great interest. The author is Jack Hoehn, who is certainly worth listening to him. (Among other things, he wrote the book Adventist Tomorrow, subtitled Fresh Ideas While Waiting for Jesus, which was published by the Adventist Today organization and can be ordered through Amazon.) He comments on the concept of the great battle between good and evil. We know with absolute certainty who will win this battle, but that does not mean that at any moment, before the final battle has been fought, the Winner knows exactly how each stage of the battle will proceed on the way to the inevitable victory. For much, Hoehn says, depends on the enemy’s choices and strategies. In this sense, then, God is not always “in control” of everything.

Richard Rice, professor emeritus of the Divinity school at Loma Linda University, is an advocate of what he calls the “openness of God”. He argues that God knows everything as far as He can know it. Many things are still “open,” however, because God has given us a will of our own, and He gives us true freedom, and thus must wait to see how we will use it. Jack Hoehn suggests that we should not think and speak in terms of “control,” “omniscience” and “sovereignty,” but in terms of God’s love. We can be confident that God in his love has arranged everything in such a way that his ultimate purpose for the world, and for each of us personally, will be achieved. As long as we do not doubt that love–however incomprehensible it is at times–we are on the right track.