Monthly Archives: April 2021


Because I knew it would be a busy week, I had already written my blog for this week. But that blog has been put on ice until next week, because I want to focus on a special event that really took me by surprise. On Monday morning my wife and I were more or less abducted to the town hall of Zeewolde, where we were received by Gerrit Jan Gorter, the mayor of our town. It slowly dawned on me what was going on. The last working day before the King’s birthday is the traditional “rain of ribbons” and two friends had, as it turned out, nominated me for a royal decoration and they had the pleasure of seeing that my name had come through the selection process. And as a result, the mayor could announce to me and my wife, and the ten guests who had been secretly informed and were already waiting in the council chamber at the prescribed Corona social distance, that it had “pleased” His Majesty to appoint me as “knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau.” Because of the Corona restrictions, he was not allowed to pin the decorations on me, but asked my wife Aafje to do so.

The Mayor gave a fine speech that showed personal involvement. It was clear that he had done his “homework”. The enumeration of my qualities and of a whole series of things I have been able to do in my life, could have been a little more modest. Perhaps those who made the nomination had embellished certain things a bit too much, in order to increase the chances of my getting through the selection. But it was all very pleasant and the Mayor had even delved into my weekly blogs to find some more background material for his speech.

The Order of Oranje-Nassau was established on 4 April 1892, to honor Dutch citizens in our Kingdom (including the islands in the Caribbean), who have “rendered exceptional service to society.” In the Mayor’s words, the work of the church is also very much part of society. This year, 2,832 citizens received a royal decoration, of whom over 86% were appointed “members” of the Order, and 325 persons received the rank of “knight”.

The local and regional press of our hometown and surroundings paid extensive attention to the decoration of four Zeewolders, including Helma Lodders, until recently a member of the Parliament, who received the decoration in The Hague from the hands of the chairperson of the Dutch Parliament. To my surprise, I found myself listed in the Nederlands Dagblad – a Christian national newspaper – with a short article, amidst some thirty others from Dutch church life, who had also been decorated this year.

I will have to explain to my foreign friends that being a “knight” in this Dutch order does not have the same meaning as receiving a “knighthood” in England, and that they do not suddenly have to address me as “Sir”. Nor will I be allowed to flaunt my decorations on a daily basis, as there are clear rules for wearing it. There is a small badge for daily usage that can be pinned into the buttonhole of a jacket.

I was very touched that two of my friends-Bert Slond in Naaldwijk, whom I have known for about 65 years, and Dr. Wim Altink, one of my most valued colleagues and my successor as the president of the Dutch Adventist Church-had taken the initiative to nominate me and to put a lot of time and energy into it. The large number of warm reactions from home and abroad also did me good. It is nice to hear from time to time that your efforts have meant something to a lot of people. Inevitably, there will always be a few people who find the whole thing rather questionable. On the denominational facebook page, someone expressed concern that accepting a worldly medal crosses the line that brings the recipient into the sphere of the much detested Catholicism. How that works is not clear to me, but investigating it is not a high priority. With all the praise, a single critical note might not hurt.

Writing this blog had to be done in some haste, because this week (from Monday to Thursday) there is an (on-line) symposium on “Adventism and Apocalypticism”, organized by the German Adventist University (Friedensau University). This keeps me (and over 200 others) behind my laptop for a large part of the day. Every day I write a report for the Spectrum website, and today I also have the privilege of giving a lecture. It is a good thing that I always try to prepare for these things in good time. Nonetheless, this week has become a little stressful . . .

The Spring Meeting of the Church: “So what?” . . .

Last week the Executive Committee of the General Conference held its Spring Meeting. It is one of the two major annual meetings of this committee, with representation from around the world, although the union presidents, who (in non-Corona-times) are physical present during the Autumn Council, are not invited to attend the Spring meeting, unless there is a special reason to divert from this practice. This Spring Meeting was, because of the ongoing pandemic, once again conducted via Zoom.

During this Spring Meeting two items dominated the agenda: the replacement of two top leaders and the decision to schedule a one-day special General Conference session. As I tried to follow the proceedings as best as I could from across the ocean, I came away with some serious questions regarding both items.

Shortly before the Spring Meeting was to take place, both the current general secretary of the General Conference and the treasurer of the General Conference announced their desire to retire. According to the policies of the church, the replacement of leaders in the GC normally takes place when the world church is assembled in a General Conference session. However, there is a provision that, if needed, such a replacement can be arranged in between sessions. At the division level “officers” (president, secretary and treasurer) may be replaced through a nominating committee (with the involvement of the GC president or someone he has designated to represent him), and through a vote taken by the division executive committee. The process is similar when a GC “officer” must be replaced. A nominating committee is chosen from among the members of the executive committee. The nominating committee then meets under the chairmanship of the General Conference president and the recommendation from this committee is put to a vote in the executive committee. Thus, the process that was followed last week to elect a new general secretary and a new treasurer was perfectly legal and correct.

Nonetheless, what happened does not feel good. Unfortunately, it has become quite common for leaders in a division or in the General Conference to announce their retirement relatively shortly before a regular GC session. Admittedly, at present things are somewhat different because of the Corona-restrictions which have led to a postponement of a regular session. However, I (and many others) feel that as a rule leadership changes in-between-sessions should be kept to an absolute minimum. It is feared that at times, however, making changes in between sessions is preferred. It is widely recognized that current leadership has a much greater influence on the process when the changes are made in-between-sessions than they would have at a general GC session. And, if this is not a fact, it is, at any rate a perception that should be avoided.

So, I am left with the question: Could the two retiring officers not have been persuaded to stay at their post until next year? Or, if a change had to be made, could there not have been an interim-arrangement until the church would have a regular session (possibly on ZOOM) with much broader world-wide representation?

One aspect must not forgotten. The church is usually very reticent to consider new names when only recently people have come into an office. And when you have two brand-new officers, it will no doubt be argued that, for the same of stability in leadership, the one other officer should be re-elected. This means—I believe—that the net result of the vote at the Spring Meeting has significantly increased the changes that the current GC president will be re-elected for another term when the church meets about a year from now at the GC session (in its re-organized format). Some may be happy about this prospect, but for others this smells a bit too much of church politics.

The other important item that the Spring Meeting considered was of a technical nature. The GC Constitution currently does not have a provision for a General Conference session that is –at least partly—held virtually, with many people participating electronically. Therefore, it is proposed to organize a one day special GC session with just one item on the agenda, namely to change to Constitution in order to make virtual attendance and full virtual participation possible. A rather artificial construction must make that possible.

I am at a loss to understand the reasoning behind this. Due to the current travel restrictions, this one-day special session must happen mainly with people who happen to be in and around Silver Spring, who are then expected to rubber stamp the proposal. However, if a virtual Autumn Council and a virtual Spring Meeting can be justified on the basis of current rules, why cannot a virtual session meet for the first half hour or so as a “special” session, which deals with the Constitutional item, and then go on with all other business? If needed the decisions can be considered provisional, to be ratified by a future “normal” session. Does that not seem rather logical?

But, having said all this: Perhaps our main concern should be something else. If the higher church organizations do not want to be become more and more marginal (as certainly seems to be happening in many parts of the world during this pandemic), it must be seen as a spiritual force that inspires us and sets the church on a path towards the future as a community that has a faith that is relevant and a mission that responds to the real needs of twenty-first century people. It must not be seen as being mainly pre-occupied with issues of a technical-organizational nature. The real danger is not that many people will protest against the decisions that were reached during the Spring Meeting, but that more and more church members will say or at least think: “So, what.”


Does being a vegan increase your chances of being saved?

An article in the March issue of Christianity Today caught my attention because of its title: “Many Adventists in Asia and Africa believe you must be vegan to be saved.” Often the title doesn’t quite cover the content of an article, and this is also true in this case. But the title triggered me enough to find out where the writer of this article got her information. It turns out to be a study by Dr. Duane C. McBride, who since 1986 has been a researcher and professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Andrews University in Berrien Springs (Michigan, USA).

If you want to read the entire report, which was recently published and runs to about 60 pages, you can easily find it on the Internet. McBride wanted to find out what the members of the Adventist Church worldwide think about the importance of the health message of their church and to what extent they actually adhere to its principles. But more importantly, he also wanted to know whether or not Adventists believe that adhering to the health principles affects their chances of being saved for eternity.

The survey was conducted in 2017 and 2018 among a population of over 63 thousand people in all “divisions” of the world church. The questionnaire was translated into approximately 60 languages. Over eighty per cent of those surveyed indicated that they believe the Adventist health message is one of the most important beliefs of the Church. Many survey participants admitted to being selective in their adherence to the health principles, but 91 per cent said they do not consume a drop of alcohol and only three per cent confessed to finding it difficult to abstain from tobacco. The results did differ significantly between divisions with regard to vegetarianism and veganism.

The results are surprisingly positive, but in interpreting them one must bear in mind that in most cases this questionnaire was completed by churchgoers during a church service. This means that the answers come mainly from active members and that a significant group is not represented. But what really surprised me about the results was that, according to this survey, some 47 per cent of church members believe that compliance with health principles in some way affects whether or not they will be saved. How exactly this fits together remains (at least for me) largely unclear. For, when asked, some 95 per cent of all participants also said that they believe that people are saved through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Here we encounter a contradiction that continues to define the profile of much of the Adventist Church. On the one hand, Adventists are Protestants who stand on the Reformation foundation of sola fide (by faith alone). At the same time, however, there seems to be a widely held notion that whether we are saved or not also depends on our own behavior. Throughout its history, the Adventist Church has always had to struggle against legalism, work-righteousness and perfectionism. This study shows that this is still the case, especially in the non-Western segments of the church. While in North America only 4.3 per cent of church members believe that their salvation depends in part on their adherence to the church’s health principles, and this percentage is similarly low in Europe, in South Asia and East Africa, respectively, 80 per cent and 74 per cent believe that this does affect whether or not they will inherit eternity. The percentages in the other divisions are somewhere in between.

To be honest, I was truly shocked reading this report. It raises the question: What can we do globally (but also near home) to correct this situation? How can we promote and apply the health principles in such a way that they can be a blessing, without feeding the idea that our salvation is not only through Christ, but that we ourselves must also lend a hand? This is an enormous challenge if we really want to be a Protestant church with people who believe for the full one hundred percent that their salvation comes from Christ.

Hans Küng – the death of a “cross-thinker”

This week, on Tuesday 6 April to be precise, one of the greatest theologians of our time died. Hans Küng breathed his last last breath at the age of 93 in his home in Tübingen, Germany. He was a Roman Catholic, but his many (and often voluminous) books were also read by Protestants. In one of the many obituaries which appeared this week in the newspapers, he was rightly called “the opposition leader within the Roman Catholic Church”.

Those who want to know more about Küng’s long, and full, life should read his autobiography of three thick volumes, the last of which appeared in 2013. When he was still working on it, he fervently hoped that he would be given enough time to finish that work. He received that time!

At the age of 11, Küng already wanted to become a priest. His wish was fulfilled in 1954, at the age of 26, and he remained a priest all his life. This was not without its hurdles, because he came into conflict with his church. He studied theology, obtained his doctorate four years after being ordained as a priest, and soon became a lecturer at the University of Tübingen, where he obtained his doctorate at the age of 30 with a dissertation on the theology of Karl Barth. One of his fellow students, and later a colleague, in Tübingen was Joseph Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI. Their theological paths separated more and more as the years went by, with Ratzinger leaning more and more in the conservative direction and Küng developing in the opposite direction.

Küng and Ratzinger were not the only well-known theologians with roots in Tübingen. Jan Paulsen, the former president of the Adventist world church, also spent there several years there and obtained his doctorate at the same university. [There may be Adventists who find it questionable that an Adventist leader should have such an academic background; they do well to realize that the current world president, Ted Wilson, also received a doctoral degree from a non-Adventist university].

Initially, Küng was highly regarded in his church. He became one of the Pope’s leading theological advisors during the Second Vatican Council. But the love of the Catholic hierarchy for Küng cooled quickly afterwards, especially after the publication of his book Infallible in 1970. In this book he made it clear that he had great reservations about the way the papacy had developed. He also rejected other aspects of Catholic doctrine, such as compulsory celibacy for priests. Küng’s book ended up on the desks of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The final result was a kind of inquisition in which Küng lost his “teaching license”, i.e. he was no longer allowed to teach theology on behalf of his church. He remained at the University of Tübingen throughout his life, but without this ecclesiastical seal of approval.

Hans Küng remained a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church. You could call him a “cross-thinker”. I was reminded of the beautiful Dutch word Dwarsdenker, when I bought the new biography of Erasmus this week, written by historian Sandra Langereis. She called her work: Erasmus: Dwarsdenker. [It is hard to find an exact equivalent of this word in English; "cross-thinker" is the best I can come up with.] The famous Dutch philosopher, theologian and linguist Erasmus was a contemporary of Luther. He was in many ways a church reformer, but he never left his church. Hans Küng was also such a “cross-thinker”, a “reformer” who remained loyal to his church. It is a combination that strongly appeals to me. Of course, there can come a point when someone has to leave his church for conscience sake, but never before he/she has done everything in his/her power to change the church’s thinking and actions from within.

Every denomination needs such “cross-thinkers”: critics who love their church and want to remain loyal to it. This can cause great problems for the person involved, as, for example, “cross-thinker” Desmond Ford experienced in the Adventist Church. Johannes A. van der Ven, a Dutch professor of practical theology, once wrote that the church is always in need of reformation but that reformation will never take place without conflict. “In fact,” he writes, “the reformation of the church depends on conflicts and their balanced treatment. The absence of conflict is often a sign of low frequency and meagre intensity of interactions between members in the church” (Ecclessiology in Context; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p. 381.) While it is true that a community cannot exist without a considerable degree of consensus about what it wants and what it is, disagreement can have a healthy influence, and need not threaten the unity of the church. Differences of opinion force a community to reflect on what and who she is. It is therefore also important for a community to create channels for the expression of the opinions of “cross-thinkers.”

There is certainly a field of tension. Those who are members of a church or who work in a church must pay attention to what the church says, but at the same time the church must also listen to what individual members say. Hans Küng has during his entire working life lived and worked with this tension. His church and many others have been greatly enriched by it.