Small beacons of hope

I do my very best to stay informed about religious and church events in the Netherlands. This week three things caught my attention. First, I saw an item in my newspaper about the planned fusion, in the Dutch village of Langerak, of two congregations belonging to different orthodox Reformed denominations. These denominations were split-offs from the larger Reformed bodies and date from 1944 and 1967, respectively. Most Dutch people would not know in what ways these various Reformed denominations on the right side of the ecclesial spectrum actually differ. And I must admit that I am also not always totally sure. But, fortunately, here and there people discover that differences can be bridged, and that there often are many more things that unite than divide, and that it is possible to step over the shadows of the past.

The second item that was reported in the press concerned a few Roman-Catholic women who were baptized by immersion in a place in the center of the country. They belong to a charismatic current in the Catholic Church and wanted to confirm their bond with Christ in this biblical manner. This did in no way jeopardize their membership in their church, even though it was emphasized by the authorities that immersion is, of course, a beautiful symbol, but must not be viewed as a real baptism. But even so . . . there is, apparently enough space in the church to tolerate the decision of these women.

A third event during this week was especially impressive. After four centuries the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands declared that their church had been wrong in its historic attitude toward the Remonstrant Church and that the age-old controversy should not have escalated as it did. In the seventeenth century a bitter conflict erupted about two opposing views regarding the road to eternal salvation. The traditional Calvinist view that before all eternity God already decided who would be saved and who would be lost, was vehemently opposed by the supporters of Arminius, a theology professor at the University of Leyden, who maintained that the Bible teaches that every human being has a free will and can decide to accept or reject the offer of salvation. When national politics got heavily involved in the matter, things escalated beyond control.

The famous Synod of Dordt condemned the Arminians. The end result was the establishment of a new denomination—the Remonstrant Brotherhood—which exists until this very day. However, developments in the church did continue. Most Calvinist Protestants (except spme smaller orthodox denominations) in the Netherlands nowadays only pay lip service to the original ideas about predestination. And, as far as the Remonstrants are concerned, they gradually moved to the very liberal part of the ecclesial spectrum. Many of its members are attracted by the fact that they may write their own personal confession of faith!

Seventh-day Adventists, with their belief in man’s free will, are Arminians. It should be noted that Protestant America—which for a major part has its roots in Calvinism—has been quite reticent in embracing the doctrine of predestination. This teaching did not fit well with the American pragmatic ‘do’-culture, in which every person must be responsible for all aspects of his life.

What do I take away from these three items that appeared in the Dutch press of this past week? They do have something in common, namely that space was given to diversity. These three events show that, apparently, at times it is possible to distance oneself from earlier standpoints and to provide space for thoughts and practices that differ from traditional views. This inspires optimism. Much that happens in the church is very human, but now and then it is clear that the Spirit is still at work. That gives hope when one, all too often, is confronted with seemingly unchangeable standpoints.

Freedom of religion

Last Friday afternoon I was in the building of the UN High Commission of Human Rights in Geneva. Together with the other participants of the conference of theologians that was held, just across the border into France, at Collonges-sous-Salėve, I took part in the excursion to the headquarters of this section of the United Nations that has it headquarters in the Wilson Palace in Geneva. It proved to be an educational afternoon. First we received a detailed explanation of the work of the section that monitors the implementation of the Treaty against Torture, which was signed by about 170 countries. Then we moved to another large meeting room where we received detailed information about the Faith for Rights initiative of the UN, which underlines the important role faith communities can play in the promotion and implementation of human rights. This visit, however, was not the only time in the past week that I was confronted with human rights issues.

The worldwide implementation of human rights remains, also in 2019, an important priority, and it was good, once again, to be made aware of this. I consider it a privilege to live in a country where the human rights situation is quite good. People in the Netherlands are free to hold meetings, and to express their opinions; they are also free to organize protest demonstrations–just to mention a few of the human rights. The Dutch also live in a country where freedom of religion is cherished as a fundamental human right. However, there may at times be situations when these rights must face some restrictions. According to the Dutch authorities the plan of the American pastor Steven Andersen to come to the Netherlands, and to preach on May 23 in Amsterdam, was such a situation.

What was so special about the plans of this pastor? The fact that someone has outlandish ideas or preaches a bizar form of religion is, in itself, no reason to block him or her from entering the country. Members of the ‘flat earth society’ may freely promote their theory and wicca’s and even Satanists are free to say what they want as long as they do not endanger the public order. However, pastor Andersen is known as someone who denies the holocaust. It baffles me how someone can claim that the holocaust never happened, but the danger of this belief is that it fits into an ant-Semitic pattern. In the light of history the authorities are fully justified in ensuring that a person who will, directly or indirectly, incite anti-Semitic sentiments, does not get a platform. Pastor Andersen also believes that people with a non-hetero sexual orientation should be executed by the government. This pastor is free to believe that homo’s will not get to heaven, but he is not free in inciting hatred towards homosexuals. The authorities should not lightly decide to silence people with generally unwelcome opinions, but in this case we can only regard it as positive that the Dutch government decided not to allow the pastor to enter the Netherlands. In this instance, the rights of the people in general carried more weight than the right of free speech of pastor Andersen.

Very recently something else happened in the domain of human rights, specifically the right to religious freedom. It was a great moment when in 1965 the Roman Catholic Church, during the Second Vatican Council, declared that it would henceforth recognize the right of religious freedom. The document that  was adopted in 1965 has now been revised by the International Theological Commission of the Vatican, and approved by Pope Francis on April 23. The document supports unequivocally full religious freedom for Christians and for all other people. The report states that there can be no return to a church which once upon a time was opposed to religious freedom! Of course, there will be those who totally mistrust the Catholic Church, and who will maintain that these words are simply meant to mislead the world and disguise the Vatican’s true intentions. I believe, this is an unchristian attitude. Non-Catholic Christians should rather be grateful that the road that the church entered upon over half a century ago has not proven to be a dead-end street, but has now been newly paved.

 

Among theologians

It is Wednesday morning. I am sitting at Schiphol Aiorport near Gate B 36, from where one hour from now my flight toi Geneva will depart. I am on my way to the Adventist College for Higher Education, just across the Swiss-French border, at the foot of the characteristic Salève—an elongated mountain range that is often referred to as the ‘balcony of Geneva’. This is the place where tonight the bi-annual European Theology Teachers Convention will start. One might say that I do not really belong to this group. Indeed, I retired a considerable time ago, and I never was a full-time theology professor for any length of time. But I am happy to be  among the group pf Adventist theology professors who are invited for this event and I very much appreciate the fact that the Trans-European Division continues to extend this invitation to me (and allows me to report my expenses to them).

Conferences such as these are extremely useful, not just because of the many interesting papers that are presented around a particular theme, but also because of the opportunity to network and the possibility to talk freely about theological and ecclesial matters that are hot in current Adventism. The theme for our meetings in the coming days is: Pastoral Ministry and Ecclesial Leadership, and thus concerns the relationship between the pastoral ministry and the church administrators. My paper for Friday morning is entitled: The Freedom and Influence of the Pastor.

A few days ago the theology professors of the Adventist universities on the West Coast of the USA met for a few days. Their meetings had as its motto: ‘Conversations among Colleagues’. This could in fact also be used as the sub-theme for our conference, as it points to the atmosphere and the nature of our meetings. Our conferences must provide a safe environment where open conversations can take place, without anyone having any fear that tomorrow some statements, usually taken out of context, will appear on some critical website.

The work of an Adventist theologian is scrutinized through a number of magnifying glasses. Colleagues provide critical comments and indicate to what extent they agree or disagree with what a fellow-theologian says or writes. That is as it should be. The dialogue between theologians sharpens insights, inspires towards further study, and shows that some things may not be clear or that different approaches are possible.

However, the work of the church’s theologians is also put under the magnifying glass of the church administrators. It is a good thing that they want to stay informed about theological developments in the church. It is also essential that they themselves have a theological education, for leading a church is quite different from managing an insurance company. The leaders have the responsibility, when needed, to stimulate certain developments, to put the brakes some developments or, at times, to correct. At the same time, the administrators should never forget that professional theologians play an important role in the continuous process of re-thinking what we believe, what we want to communicate to others, and of helping the church to connect our faith with ecclesial practices and the daily life of the believer. In order to do their work well the theologians need to have the trust of the administrators and must get the space to ask new questions and take another look at traditional answers. Unfortunately, they do not always have that trust and are not always given that space.

The work of the theologians is also viewed critically through the magnifying glass of the church members in general. But they often hand their magnifying glass to people who are mostly on the edges of the church, and who follow the work of the ‘official’ theologians with great suspicion. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people who are constantly looking for what they consider to be ‘heresy’ and who find great satisfaction in searching for anything that even slightly differs from the Adventist Truth. A significant number of websites, a flood of dvd’s and various publications warn the members for the dangers that are invading the Adventist Church. I must, however, say that I usually cannot find much spiritual food that nourishes my sould when looking at these websites, dvd’s and publications.

I believe the theologians in our tertiary educational institutions should simply just carry on with their important ministry and not waste too much energy and time in reacting to the critics at the margins of the church. They are seldom listened to with an open mind. The negative activities at the extreme right side of the theological spectrum should perhaps inspire the professional theologians to try harder in making the results of their work more accessible to the church membership at large.

Whatever be the case: the group of theologians that is gathered at Collonges will in the coming days be able to enjoy ‘conversations among colleagues’ in a safe environment.

Easter: The “mother of all facts”

I recently completed a book manuscript about the topic of the resurrection. In this Easter blog, I simply want to quote a few paragraphs from the book that will, if all goes well, be available just a few months from now. If the publisher (Stanborough Press Ltd) follows my suggestion the title will be: ‘I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Our resurrection depends on the great Life-giver who died and was raised—as we remember once again in a special way during the Easter season.

In this book I do, of course, raise the question how we can be sure that Jesus did indeed come back to life? Do we really have hard facts? Can we be sure of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection? In my book I devote a long chapter to this crucial question. Below I quote the few final paragraphs of this chapter: 

Speaking of hard facts, there is one fact of irrefutable historicity: a group of people, who were totally exasperated after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, became convinced that Jesus had risen and that they should no longer seek the Living One among the dead (Luke 24:5). Some might say that this conviction was based on a cleverly concocted conspiracy or a collective hallucination. But another explanation, namely that the resurrection actually happened, sounds far more reasonable and credible. Let me quote a few lines from a book about Jesus by Philip Yancey, who catches the amazing development in a few powerful sentences:

That Jesus succeeded in changing a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists, that eleven men who had deserted him at death now went into martyrs’ graves avowing their faith in a resurrected Christ, that these few witnesses managed to set loose a force that would overcome fierce opposition, first in Jerusalem and then in Rome—this remarkable sequence of transformation offers the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection.[1]

N.T. Wright put it succinctly in these words: “The disciples were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that was not firmly anchored in fact.”[2]Many other authors have stressed the same point. What made a man like Peter who, in Jesus’ darkest hour had avowed that he did not even know the man who was arrested and tried by the Jewish elite, change into the apostle who, only a few weeks later, told a large multinational, multicultural crowd in Jerusalem that Christ was alive? What convinced the doubting Thomas that the Lord was truly risen and gave him the courage to become a missionary to India, where even today some four million “Thomas Christians” are a testimony to his radical conversion? Not all ancient traditions are reliable, but there is good reason to think that most, if not all, of the original apostles, except John (who for a number of years was banished to the Greek isle of Patmos), met a martyr’s death. What propelled them to pursue a career that would end in opposition, torture and ignominious death? How do we explain that James, one of the half-brothers of Jesus, became a prominent leader in the early church, while he earlier flatly rejected Jesus’ ministry? (John 7: 5; Acts 15:14-21). The explanation lies in the extraordinary, undeniable Easter event.

This is echoed by a rather unexpected voice, namely that of the Jewish theologian and Israeli historian Pinchus Lapide (1922-1997). He did not become a Christian, but he did firmly believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. It is, he said, the only explanation for the birth and further rise of Christianity. He confronts his readers with these pressing questions:

How can it be explained that, against all plausibility, his adherents did notfinally scatter, were notforgotten, and that the cause of Jesus did notreach its infamous end at the cross?

In other words: How did it nevertheless come about that the adherents of Jesus were able to conquer the most horrible of disappointments, that Jesus, despite everything, became the Saviour of the Church, although the predictions were not fulfilled and the longed-for Parousia did not take place?[3]

Lapide concluded that the explanations of many resurrection-denying theologians fail miserably to explain “the fact that the solid hillbillies from Galilee . . . were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers.” He continued: “When this scared, frightened band of the apostles, which was just about to throw everything away in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when the shepherds, peasants, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their Master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.”[4]



[1]  Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 216.

[2]  Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope(London, SPCK, 2011)., p. 73.

[3]  Pinchus Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Augsburg: Fortress Publishing House, 1982), p. 123.

[4]  Ibid, p. 129.

15 million and counting . .

This past week the executive committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Church met in Silver Spring for its second most important annual session: the Spring Meetings. This two-day meeting was also attended by the presidents of the world divisions. (Most other committee members who live outside the USA, as e.g. the union presidents, only attend the autumn meetings in October.) These Spring Meetings were sandwiched between two special conventions. On Wednesday afternoon a conference started about the traditional Adventist view that those who enter military service should, if at all possible, opt for a non-combatant status. It is gratifying to see that this theme is once again put on the agenda.

The Spring Meetings were preceded by a study conference on the issue of membership losses as a result of people leaving the church (the Nurture and Retention Summit). This concerns a very serious problem as the statistics underscore. Dr. David Trim, the official in the church’s head office who is (among other duties) responsible for the compilation of the denominational statistics, reported that since 1965 no fewer than 15.132.555 persons left the church—often within a short time after their baptism. This is a huge number and explains to a major degree why the church has not grown as exponentially as was predicted a few decades ago.

Membership of the Adventist Church now stands at about 21 million. This means that the denomination is a religious organization of considerable substance. There are more Adventists then Jews in the world, and we have now almost surpassed the number of Sikhs. Both groups are normally categorized as world religions! Also, there are now considerably more Adventists than either Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons. And while most Protestant churches continue to decrease in membership, Adventism still shows significant growth. These positive indicators should not, however, blind us to the fact that official church statistics show that within a few years after their entrance into the church around forty percent have again disappeared.

And, unfortunately, this is not the whole story. In many countries membership statistics are extremely unreliable. The church books list millions of names of people who are no longer actively involved with the church, and many of them are even no longer alive! And being an official member does not guarantee regular church attendance. Worldwide the percentage of registered members that attend church services on a regular basis is about 60 percent. Moreover, there is a large group (worldwide no doubt several million) of people who grew up in the church but never actually joined.

Clearly, it is a good thing that the church studies this issue and wants to come up with ways of halting this continuous hemorrhage. At the end of the discussions of just a few days ago the president of the General Conference spoke. As we have come to expect, he focused on a number of quotations from the writings of Ellen White—this time from the book Christian Service. These statements were put forward as the remedy of the problem. They emphasize that people must be put to work. When people become active, they will not leave the church.

It is certainly true that being actively engaged in the promotion of an ideal and to be active in an organization are important in giving a sense of involvement. However, I do not believe that this is the key issue. When working on my book Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventists ‘on the Margins’I saw how complex the problem of church leaving is. I saw ever more clearly that many, either slowly or more suddenly, move towards the back door, because they feel that their church is no longer sufficiently relevant for their everyday life, and because they do not experience in the church the space they need in order to be who they are, with all their questions and doubts.

I would like to suggest to brother Wilson that he should talk more with the people who have left the church, and to read more about this topic and consult more intensely with experts in or outside our denomination. Perhaps this will convince him that the massive exodus from the church has many causes and that people will only respond to his call to become active if they feel truly ‘happy’ in their church. This is, I believe, the question that must be addressed: How can we become a church that the people will experience as a warm spiritual home, where everyone is welcome and where we can all have the space to translate the Christian values and Adventist principles to fit our own situation, in an atmosphere of freedom and respect? Those who become part of such a community will not want to leave and will become active and will, with the support of others, keep growing in their faith.