10 Jan

DO YOU KNOW AND FEEL WHAT YOU BELIEVE?

By Reinder Bruinsma — In the first small church which I pastored in the north of the Netherlands was a peculiar gentleman. Brother K. was a loyal member of the congregation. He was friendly and active, but he was definitely one of a kind. Soon after I met him, he told me what had attracted him in Adventism. As an accountant, he understood numbers and, lo and behold, here was a church that also appreciated numbers: 2300, 1260, 666, etc. That was the kind of religion he could relate to! It was something he could understand.

Some years later I had other assignments in the Dutch Adventist church. At that time, I was a member of a congregation in the center of the country. I soon learned to expect at regular intervals a call from Els, a mid-aged woman who truly suffered from her inability to understand the details of several Adventist doctrines. She would often be in tears as she asked me: Would I please explain something to her? And, more importantly, did I think God would accept her even though she did not grasp all the doctrinal small print in the church’s publications?

I was reminded of these two persons as I considered the topic of this article: What role does our reason–our understanding or the lack thereof—play in our spiritual life? Could there be a danger that we sometimes overemphasize the role of studying and knowing things about God and about our faith, and undervalue the importance of other aspects of a healthy spiritual life?

Entry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is by baptism through immersion upon the confession of one’s faith. This confession is meant to be more than a simple statement that the candidate has accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Prior to her baptism, she is expected to “study” the Bible and, more specifically, accept the doctrines the church has distilled from the Scriptures. In many cases the process that precedes becoming a church member, and that continues after baptism, is of a highly cerebral nature, characterized by such elements as reading, thinking, studying, understanding, being convicted, and making decisions.

Often people who first connect with Adventism, have very little or no knowledge of the Bible. They may have some vague sense that there is a God, and as they are searching for more meaning for their lives, they may wonder whether having a faith and belonging to a church will help them along that path. Usually, from the first, the contact with them has a predominantly intellectual character. Evangelistic sermons and individual Bible studies about key church doctrines tend to be the main spiritual diet that must prepare them for their migration into the Adventist world. Others are already Christians before they discover Adventism. They are expected to compare the teachings of the faith community they are about to leave with those of the “remnant” church, and to conclude from what they “learn” in their Bible “studies” that the Adventist Church has “the Truth” or is, at least, closer to “the Truth” than other denominations. Studying, understanding, and knowing seem to be some of the key words.

As the centuries went by, the Christian Church defined its doctrines in ever greater detail. We see this same pattern in the history of most denominations. Remarkably, in its earliest phase, the Adventist Church was reluctant to develop a body of doctrines to which all members had to sub- scribe, but over time, that reluctance dissolved completely. When I was baptized in the 1950s, I gave my assent to 22 Fundamental Beliefs. Since then, the number of Fundamental Beliefs has increased to 28, and some of them have been much further refined.

In addition, we recently discern a tendency in our church to emphasize full doctrinal purity even stronger than before. We may wonder whether this is a wholesome trend. Regardless of how we want to answer that question, let us not too quickly jump to the conclusion that doctrines are actually not very important for our spiritual well-being.

What is this God like? What has He done in the past? What is He currently doing for us, and what can we ex- pect Him to do in the future. What does it mean that Jesus died for our sins and that He is coming a second time? And what is the role of the Holy Spirit? Etcetera.

We need doctrinal language to structure our beliefs and to be able to talk with others about our faith. Doctrine may be compared to the role of grammar. Grammar is not the same as language. But we can only use language effectively if we employ grammar in such a way that our language gets structure. This enables us to think and talk about things. Likewise, in order to give words to our faith, we must have a doctrinal framework. It is, so to speak, the grammar of our faith language. But let’s not think that doctrine and faith are identical. Doctrine is primarily just a tool to think and talk about our faith.

Having said that, we must stress another important point. Doctrine is never perfect; it is and remains a human project. Moreover, doctrines are always constructed from a particular perspective and inevitably reflect the time in which they are formulated. We must, therefore, never forget that, as soon as we think we understand the tenets of our faith, we ought, in humility, to take a step back, realizing that our knowledge and insights will always remain partial. Our understanding will always remain tentative. As the apostle Paul says: “For now we see only reflections as in a mirror!” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Thank God that we have brains and that we can serve God with our intellectual capacities. But let’s also thank God that we are more than our brains, and that we cannot only think and argue and (to some extent) understand, but that we also have feelings and emotions. All that we have and are should be involved in our walk with God. God wants us to serve Him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind’ (Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5).

Doctrines can easily remain mere theory—interesting constructs, but little more than that. Some academics defend the idea that one can study theology without being a believer. I refuse to believe that. Faith (and theology, doctrine) has to do with my entire being. How can I think about God’s gracious gift of salvation without being emotionally touched? How can I meditate on the love and sacrifice of Christ without feeling? Moreover, what good will it do me that I have doctrinal knowledge if it does not personally affect me?

When Christ referred to himself with the term “Truth”, He did not emphasize that He has “the Truth”, but that He is the Truth (John 14:6). In other words: divine Truth does not just have to do with intellectual knowledge but is relational in its very nature. And link this to another core concept. The divine Truth, Christ stated, “will set you free” (John 8:32). This means that the truth will not just satisfy our curiosity and provide us with intellectual knowledge, but it will do something for and in us. It will change us and make us new, better and happier, people. As this happens, we acquire a unique kind of knowledge— perhaps better referred to as total inner certainty: “We know that we are children of God!” (1 John 3:2).

This new, inexplicable certainty is not totally detached from our intellectual knowledge. But it goes beyond some- thing we can prove. Even as we do not find a firm intel- lectual foundation for everything, we can rest assured that there is enough for us to build on as we seek answers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegard (1813-1855) was, I believe, right when he wrote that we can never prove that God exists by purely intellectual proofs. In the end, we become fully convinced that God is there, and that He is there for us, and that we are His children, in our worship.

As we worship our Lord with all aspects of our being, we do not only gain a better understanding of God’s dealing with the world, and with us individually, but we also experience relief of guilt, because we “know” that our sins have been dealt with. We also experience inner peace and find comfort in times of distress and difficulties. Our faith provides us not only with doctrinal information, but also, with power and moral courage, and with perseverance.

Serving God with our heart, soul and mind means worshipping Him in a balanced way, with our intellectual knowledge supporting our sense of security and peace, and our love for God ensuring that our study of the Bible and our intellectual pursuit of theological knowledge has the right motivation. The heart and the brain must never be played off against each other. When the balance is impaired, our faith loses much of its spiritual power. As Adventists, we sometimes suggest that feeling plays too prominent a role in the life of particular religious groups. That may be so, but Adventists easily run the risk of letting the intellectual aspect—knowledge and the doctrinal element of their faith—obscure other elements that are just as precious.

Surely, we must continue to ask, “What is truth and to mine the Scriptures for the things that God “has revealed to us and to our children” (Deuteronomy 29:29). But let us not only ask the question: “Is it true”, but also: “Does it give me peace” and: Does it strengthen my inner certainty that I am a child of God?

In conclusion, I suggest you ask yourself: Do I not only know what I believe but also feel what I believe?

–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. His latest book is He Comes. Why, When, and How Jesus Will Return (Autumn House Publications). Email him at: [email protected]

29 Sep

JUST IMAGINE WHAT THE CHURCH COULD BE LIKE . . .

By Reinder Bruinsma — Imagination is a wonderful gift. Children use their imaginations as they play and transform a few cardboard boxes into a castle. Walt Disney once stated that Disneyland will never be completed but will continue to grow if there is imagination left in the world.

As a ten-year-old Dutch boy, my imagination worked overtime as our schoolteacher told us about his vacation trips to Hungary, and as he mentioned that very few people had ever been to Albania. Little did I know that what I imagined would just a few decades later become reality when I represented the church in numerous meetings in Hungary and Albania and in dozens of other countries.

William Blake (1757–1827), the famous English poet, painter, and printmaker, already stated in his days: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” The nineteenth century adventurer and novelist Jules Verne (1826-1905) imagined that people would one day build a vehicle that would allow them to travel through the air at great speed. As I write this article, the ultra-rich businessmen of this planet compete with their rockets and space capsules to show the world which of them can reach the farthest beyond the earth’s atmosphere. And they imagine how their expensive hobby can he turned into a money-making tourist industry.

Illusion and Imagination

Dictionaries define imagination as the faculty of the human mind to form new ideas or concepts of things that are not present to the senses. Imagination has to do with what can become reality through visionary thinking, commitment, and perseverance. It is more than mere optimism or wishful thinking. It also differs from illusion, which results from fantasy and will often mislead us rather than take us to our eagerly desired destination. Imagination provides a mental picture of what may become reality. Christians see imagination first and above all as God’s gift to successfully navigate this life, with the Holy Spirit as their compass. God created human beings with the capacity for imagination, to enable them to unlock their full potential.

The Bible uses several words for the concept of imagination. Different Bible translations employ different terms—some use the actual words “imagine” or “imagination.”

As with all God-given possibilities, men and women have not always used the gift of imagination as God intended. In the time just prior to the great flood, people had lots of imagination, but of the wrong kind. “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (KJV). The New Living Translation tells us that, what the people in Noah’s day “thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil.” The apostle Paul reports that many whom he categorized as belonging to “the wicked,” had become “vain in their imaginations” (Romans 1:21, 21, KJV). And Jeremiah refers to false prophets who “tell a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord (Jeremiah 23:16, NASB). These and other texts in the Bible warn us to control our imaginations, and to direct them to whatever is positive and in line with Christian discipleship. Philippians 4:7 (NLT) is very clear: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” This is the basis of the right kind of imagination.

Holy Imagination

In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul directs the imagination of believers in the church in Colossae to “things above.” He refers to what we might call “holy” or “sanctified” imagination: “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1, 2, NIV).

These words apply to all of us, but especially to those who are leaders or aspire to lead—in society at large as well as in the church. We do not need the kind of leaders who will just “look after the shop,” but leaders who have imagination—who see possibilities where others can see only challenges. The church can only flourish if it has leaders who possess a large measure of creative imagination, and who allow the Spirit to guide them in transforming their vision for the church into a blessed reality.

If there is one topic which invites the use of our sanctified imagination, it is the eternal future that God has in store for His children. There is no limit to where our imagination may lead when we contemplate the bliss of salvation: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard and no one’s heart has imagined all the things that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, Complete Jewish Bible).

The Church I Imagine

I remember how, in my teenage years, the pastor of our small congregation mentioned in his sermon that “our” church had now passed the one-million-member mark. I could not imagine that our small denomination (our family were the only Adventists in the village where we lived!) would in my lifetime develop into a worldwide denomination of more than twenty-two million members, who worship in some 90,000 congregations.

The Adventist Church has been my life. I have seen many wonderful things in my church. During my long denominational career, the church has been good to me and given me a very interesting and satisfying life. I acquired a large international network of colleagues and friends. But now, in my retirement years, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that the church faces many problems and that an unfortunate degree of polarization causes severe tensions. And while the denomination continues to grow in many countries, we note that the rate of growth is slowing down, and that large numbers of young, and not so young, members leave the church. At times this depresses me and makes me wonder whether the best days of Adventism are behind us. However, I keep telling myself that these thoughts of disappointment and concern must not be allowed to dominate my thinking. The church continues to have a promising future. Why? Because, when all is said and done, the church is not “my” church, or “our” church, but it is God’s church.

It is at this point that our sanctified imagination comes into play in a special way. What the church can be in the future depends to a large degree on what we imagine the church can be like. Our imaginings can inspire us to invest all our energy and spiritual power into making the church truly a place where God meets us and where the sense of being a community of Christ-followers fills what we believe and practice.

Let me share with you, who read this article, how my imagination helps me to envision the Adventist Church of the, hopefully near, future. First, I imagine a church that is able to change and to adapt in such a way that it responds with 21st century answers to 21st century questions. I long for a church where genuine fundamental unity prevails at all levels of our denominational structure, exhibiting a rich diversity in the way we express our convictions and practice our principles—in a fruitful dialogue with the cultural world in which we happen to live.

My imagination is focused on what it means to be a faith community, in which people have a sense of true belonging. I imagine a community that has a “safe” space for all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical or mental handicap, profession, education, or economic status. I imagine a community that will inspire seekers for meaning and truth and welcomes doubters; that will not constantly judge the doctrinal orthodoxy of its members but recognizes that we all carry a different kind baggage and are at different stages in our spiritual pilgrimage. In my imagination I see a group of believers who want to serve the wider community, inspired by the values of justice, equality, and peace. I imagine church services that are innovative, inspiring, and deeply spiritual; that attract new believers and are meaningful for those who have never been regular churchgoers, while they are also by long-time members.

This vision may seem an unrealistic illusion to those who no longer see a future for the church. They may regard it as no more than pie in the sky. They may feel that the present condition of the church in many places around the world gives us little reason for hope that the church can change and become more relevant. But I continue to believe that God will not forsake His people. He wants us not to give up on His church, because He will not abandon it.

However, our imagination must not be built on the idea that we have the required skills and the capacities to turn our imaginings into reality. It must be based on the biblical principles of what the church is in its essence. It is the body of Christ, of which we all are members, with different roles. Together we form a “kingdom of priests”—whatever our gender or status in society may be (Galatians 3:26-28). Together we are God’s extended family.

Let’s never forget that our sanctified imagination can give us a vision of what can happen to the church if we leave enough space for the Spirit.

–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books are “I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine” and “He Comes.” Email him at: [email protected]

23 Jun

HOW DO MY BELIEFS MATTER IN REAL LIFE?

By Reinder Bruinsma … It was more than twenty years ago, but it is an experience I will not easily forget. I received a message with an urgent request. Would I please come and visit brother Jones (not his real name)? He was terminally ill and was eager to see me before he would die. Our brother was a member of one of the Adventist churches in Amsterdam, but I was not his pastor. I was, at the time, in charge of the Dutch Adventist publishing house. So, I wondered why my visit was important to our brother.

I knew who brother Jones was, but, frankly, I did not like him. He was one of those persons who are always right in their interpretation of the Bible, who always wants to have the last word in Sabbath School, and who knows exactly how a real Adventist should live.

But what could I do? I went to see him the day after receiving the message. When admitted to the room where he lay in his bed, he wanted no one else to be present. He told me to look under the bed for a tin box. When I found it, he instructed me to open it and to look inside. I saw a pack of 1000 guilder notes. (This was before we had the Euro.) “You may use this for your ministry,” I was told.

Somehow, I knew instinctively that something did not add up. I therefore asked my treasurer to put the money in the safe. I wanted to know where the money had come from before we would use it. Brother Jones lived for about three more weeks and during a few pastoral visits, the local pastor discovered how brother Jones had acquired the 30,000 guilders (worth about 15,000 dollars at the time). Just a few months earlier, brother Jones’ older sister had died. He had been appointed to care for her estate. Her savings were in the tin box that I had been given. The sister of our brother was a Roman Catholic, and she had left instructions that the money should go to her parish church. But, brother Jones, being a truth-filled, prophecy-loving, Catholic-hating Adventist, did not want to see any money go into the “Babylonian coffers” of the Catholic Church. He knew a much better destination and decided to re-route the money.

Of course, I made sure the money ended up with the local Catholic parish. However, the experience made a deep impression on me. Here was a church member who was convinced of the truth of every syllable of the Fundamental Beliefs, who was an avid reader of all the Ellen G. White books that had been published in the Dutch language, and who would spend a good number of hours every week in mining all the “present truth” from the Sabbath School lesson quarterlies—but what good had it done him? On his deathbed, this one hundred percent ultra-orthodox Adventist was prepared to lie and cheat. Of course, it was for the good of “the work of God”, but it was despicable deception, nonetheless.

It’s time to find out what difference it makes

The experience with brother Jones inspired me to write a little book. It was published by Pacific Press, and the editor who guided the manuscript through the pre-press process, gave it one of the longest titles in recent Adventist publishing history: It’s Time to Stop Rehearsing What We Believe and Start Looking at What Difference It Makes. The experience with brother Jones has stayed with me. I asked myself the question: How can one be so religious and so focused on being doctrinally correct, and yet, at the same time, so blatantly ignore the moral principles of the kingdom of our Lord? Is it possible that we constantly ‘rehearse” our doctrinal beliefs, but that this remains a useless exercise and makes no difference in how we live?

I decided to take another good look at each of the Fundamental Beliefs—27 at that time; the 28th would be added in 2005—and to ask in each case: What difference does it make in my every-day life that I believe this? It became a fascinating exercise. I must admit that there are a few Fundamental Beliefs that did not seem to make very much difference in daily life, whatever way I looked at them. But I was determined to find some element that made a difference. For if a doctrine does not make any difference in the Christian praxis, it might as well be eliminated from the list.

Let me just mention a few examples. Fundamental Belief No. 3 is about God as our heavenly Father. So, I asked: How does a better understanding of the Fatherhood of God help me to be a better father for my children? Belief No. 4 is about Jesus Christ. This raised the question: How does a better grasp of who Jesus was help me to become a person who resembles Him? How will becoming aware of how Jesus broke with traditions as He served the people He met, give me the courage to be a non-traditional person in my support for others. Belief No. 10 deals with the Sabbath. Worshipping on the seventh rather than on the first day of the week surely makes me different from all the other fifty or so people who live in our apartment building. But does the experience of celebrating the Lord’s Day add an extra dimension to my life? Does it not only make me stand out from the crowd, but does it make a difference for me by importing divine peace into my busy life, and by providing me with the unique time slot that I need to cultivate my relationship with God, with my loved ones, and with God’s creation?

Wrestling with this pivotal question, what real-life difference my doctrinal beliefs make was extremely meaningful for me, but, apparently, it also struck a chord with many readers. This small book brought me more reactions than anything else I wrote before or after. Again, and again, people wrote me or told me that what I had written had given their faith a real boost and had made their religion into something more than a set of religious teachings to which one is supposed to give intellectual assent.

“The truth will set you free”

In John 8: 31 we read how Jesus is in a conversation with a group of Jews “who had believed him.” Jesus tells them that they will be real disciples of His if they “hold” to his teachings. Then follows a crucial statement, when Jesus declares: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (vs. 32). Note that the truth will not simply give additional information, and that it does not just satisfy our intellectual curiosity. No, the truth will do something very special for us. It will set us free. It will make us a better person. It will make us more balanced, more tolerant, more outgoing and more content. How? Because it is that the kind of truth that comes from Above and is, first, personal, and relational. This is what Jesus underlined when He told his disciples: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Knowing Jesus is not limited to knowing about Jesus. It is more than theological learning and more than saying “yes” to several Fundamental Beliefs. Knowing Him is having a personal relationship with Him; it is being guided by the hand of our heavenly brother (Hebrews 2:11).

The apostle Paul is the foremost theologian of the New Testament. At times, his theology is rather complicated. Even Peter acknowledged that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). But for Paul, theology as a system of beliefs—important though it may be—never stands by itself. We consistently find in his letters that Paul’s theology is translated into praxis. The question “What is the content of our faith?” is linked to the question, “How does our faith change us into a better human being, in the service of others?

Perhaps the Letter to the Ephesians illustrates this principle most clearly. After having given a theological explanation of what “living in Christ” means and underlining the importance of unity in the Body of Christ, Paul switches gears and urges the believers in Ephesus to live as children of the light: “Be imitators of God . . . and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1). In the remainder of the letter, there follows lot of advice that guides us in our various relationships. Or, if you want another example of how faith is linked to praxis, go to the Letter to the Colossians. Some issues in the earlier part of this letter continue to puzzle many theological minds, but then the apostle focuses “on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:10).

God will judge our brother Jones. He may well have possessed some redeeming qualities that I did not detect. But he helped me to look beyond truth as a system of theological statements to Truth as a relationship with Jesus Christ, which gives meaning to my life as I continue to “grow in Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He recently received a royal decoration for his contributions to the life of the church and to society. His forthcoming new book is about the how, when, and why of the Second Coming of Christ. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Mar

WE NEED A FRIEND NOT AN ENEMY

By Reinder Bruinsma … Some twenty years ago, I attended a meeting in Miami about evangelistic strategies organized by the leaders of the Inter-American Division. In most countries in that part of the world, the majority of the population belongs to the Roman Catholic Church. To my surprise, one of the top leaders of that division appealed to the participants to be much less aggressive in their attempts to “convert” Roman Catholics to Adventism. He argued that by constantly criticizing the leaders of the Catholic Church in the evangelistic programs, we lay the basis for, or reinforce, a critical attitude, which the new members are likely to maintain once they have joined the Adventist denomination.

I doubt whether this strong advice led to any major change because many of the evangelists in Inter-America and elsewhere continue to use confrontational tactics to get the attention of their audience. This may well contribute to the unfortunate reality that for many Adventists the ideal of defending the Truth implies aggressively confronting “the enemy,” who supposedly is bent on destroying God’s Truth and will, ultimately, fiercely attack those who have accepted and defend that Truth. In traditional Adventist thinking, the enemy is first and foremost found in the Roman Catholic tradition, but also in other Christian movements that have adopted some of the Catholic dogmas—Sunday keeping being, of course, paramount among these.

Where Did This Come From?

Not all Adventists think alike. Some feel that the time has come to end all bashing of other Christians, Catholics included. Others believe that protecting our Seventh-day Adventist identity, as the commandment-keeping remnant church, requires that we carefully maintain our traditional stance. No doubt, this discussion will continue, but it may be useful for a better understanding of the issue if we look at its historical context.

To say that early Adventism was rather combative in character would be a strong understatement. Admittedly, nineteenth century Adventists needed to be combative in the world in which they lived. The denomination began when a number of small groups of (mainly) former Millerite believers started to hold meetings, studied their Bibles and gradually reached consensus about a number of biblical truths that the members of other denominations regarded as totally unfounded or even as horrible heresy. During the first decades of their emerging movement Adventists were usually viewed as weird and not as bona fide Christians. In particular, their conviction that God wanted them to keep the seventh-day Sabbath rather than Sunday—which they denounced as a “popish” invention—created a lot of opposition.

As the nineteenth century progressed, a strong movement emerged that wanted to make America “a Christian nation.” One key element in this process would be legally enforced Sunday worship. As a result, several states enacted “blue” laws that made Sunday keeping obligatory. As this occurred, in several places Seventh-day Adventist were fined or even incarcerated for disobeying these laws. Ever since, there have been attempts from various political and religious groups in the United States (and in some places in Europe) to enforce Sunday keeping. And ever since, Adventists have feared that one day these tenacious attempts will succeed and make life for Sabbath keepers very uncomfortable indeed.

The Influx of Millions of Catholics

Also, as the years went by, the growing strength of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States was seen as an immense threat. Originally the United States was staunchly Protestant. From a mere 50,000 Catholic believers in 1800, they had increased to 200,000 by 1820 and 2 million by 1860. And by the turn of the century, the number of American Catholics stood at 12 million (in a total population of 76 million). No wonder this created a lot of uneasiness. Moreover, it was widely believed that some countries exported their most undesirable citizens. Also, the newly arrived immigrants were often prepared to work for lower wages and this was considered unfair competition on the labor market. But what was perhaps even more important: people feared that the ultimate loyalty of these Roman Catholic newcomers would be to the pope rather than to American democracy. Perhaps the anti-Catholic sentiment of that time among Protestants in general, and Adventists in particular, can be compared to the resistance of many people of Western countries today to the arrival of large numbers of Muslims.

As the nineteenth century changed into the twentieth century, most of the strongly anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestants had gradually disappeared. But not so among Seventh-day Adventists. Their prophet—Ellen G. White—had developed a five-volume series of books about the conflict between good and evil. The books covered the Bible times, while also sketching the story throughout the Christian era. In her depiction of the history of Christianity, Ellen White vividly described the high points of faith and commitment and the low points of moral decay, the unbiblical notions and rebellion against God. As we look back and try to see her work in the context of the time in which she lived and wrote, we easily understand how for her—in her context—the Roman Catholic Church became the culprit par excellence. Her book The Great Controversy, which appeared in its more or less definite form in 1888, did not, however, significantly differ in its criticism of Catholicism from that of many other contemporary Protestant authors.

Ellen G. White was part of a nineteenth-century Protestant American environment, which differed greatly from our present globalized, multi-religious and multi- cultural world. Quite naturally, she saw Roman Catholicism as an ever-growing menace. It should also be noted that her thinking, in line with the attitude of most of her contemporaries, was almost exclusively focused on what happened in the United States and in Europe. She had very little to say about spiritual developments in other parts of the world or about the non-Christian world religions. In all her printed works one can only find a handful of references to Islam!

The Great Controversy Theme Is as Valid As Ever

What does this mean for Seventh-day Adventists in 2021? Does this mean that all traditional Adventist criticism of Roman Catholic dogma and Catholic history must be forgotten? And do I want to suggest that Ellen White’s The Great Controversy has totally lost its value? Certainly not. The fundamental theme of The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan is, and remains, a fundamental aspect of Adventist theology and of its perspective on past, present and future. However, we must try to discover how the principles of this basic philosophy apply to our current situation.

Looking with twenty-first century eyes at Ellen White’s The Great Controversy, we may wonder whether she might have changed her appraisal of Roman Catholicism if she were still alive today. In fact, already during her life, with her express approval, the anti-Catholic rhetoric of her book was toned down, as the 1911 edition shows. But, apart from this, just as the Bible needs to be interpreted to make sense for us who live so many centuries later, this is also required when we read the works of Ellen White. The trouble is that we may find this rather self-evident when we read the Bible, but many forget that this principle also applies to our reading of Ellen White. When I read in the Ten Commandments that I should not “covet” my neighbor’s donkey, I understand that, for me, that means that I should not look with jealousy at my neighbor’s Jaguar. And, even though some Bible texts clearly condone slavery, we do not take this as a recommendation for us but fit this into the biblical context.

The “great controversy” is still a very relevant theme, but in our time, it may play out in a way that differs substantially from what Ellen White and her contemporaries experienced and then extrapolated into the future. An important part of their future expectations was the prediction that Sunday laws would soon be enacted on a global scale. Today, there are still many church members who expect that a coalition of Catholics and (especially American) politicians will use some, as yet unforeseen, opportunity to put these Sunday laws into effect. This will then, it is argued, be the beginning of a series of actions which will eventually make life unbearable for Sabbath keepers, culminating in terrible persecution and even a “death decree.”

It has often been said that it is difficult to make predictions, especially when they concern the future. This certainly also applies to this matter of Sunday laws. Global enforcement of such laws might have been a credible future panorama, but as we look at currents in our contemporary society, this looks highly unlikely. All around us we notice that interest in a weekly day of rest and worship has been waning, with no signs that this trend will be reversed.

We must come to terms with the undeniable fact that the Western world is no longer dominated by Catholics who are bent on destroying Protestants—and especially Seventh-day Adventists. Today, the main threat to the Adventist Church does not come from other Christians, but from the rampant secularism that has pushed God to the margins of our society, while non-Christian religions and sheer paganism are constantly gaining territory. Let us remember that in plotting the prophetic scenario we have often been overtaken by actual events in the world. It remains to be seen how the great controversy will eventually take shape.

Hope

Finally, our Adventist hope cannot be based on a triumphant conviction that we belong to a movement which claims loyal adherence to biblical truth, over and against all those who are part of the machinery of the arch-enemy. Our hope is based on Jesus Christ, who has already defeated the enemy for us. In following Him, we must not be propelled by aggressive combativeness against what we consider false teachings, but by love for our Lord and for all people around us, without regard to their religious persuasion. After all, although we hope that many will feel attracted to our faith community, our ultimate mission is to “win” them not for our church but for Christ! They need a Friend, not an enemy.

— Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife, Aafie. Among is latest books is “I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Email him at: [email protected]

05 Jan

ACTING JUSTLY, LOVING MERCY, AND WALKING HUMBLY

By Reinder Bruinsma — During the recent Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, some 300 participants from all around the world voted two official statements. One of these expressed the church’s continued confidence in the ministry of Ellen G. White. It was agreed to put this on the agenda for the next World Session of the General Conference of the Church in Indianapolis (May 2021) for endorsement by the world church.

The other official statement was the response of the Adventist Church to recent social developments in society, in particular in the United States. It was titled, “One Humanity: A Human Relations Statement Addressing Racism, Casteism, Tribalism, and Ethnocentrism,” and dealt with the issue of social justice.

The statement reads: We maintain our allegiance to the biblical principles of equality and dignity of all human beings in the face of historic and continuing attempts to use skin color, place of origin, caste, or perceived lineage as a pretext for oppressive and dominating behavior. . . . We accept and embrace our Christian commitment to live, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as a Church that is just, caring, and loving.

Some will undoubtedly wonder what impact such official denominational statements have. Will they be read by a major portion of our worldwide membership, let alone be noticed by the society around us? A few members, here and there, will probably analyze every word of the statement and ask some critical questions. Is the document clear enough and complete enough? Or does it fail to mention some important injustices—for instance, the widespread discrimination against those who have a “different” sexual orientation?

Some church members may also wonder whether accepting full gender equality does not require that female pastors receive the same status as their male colleagues. Others will welcome the statement as it was voted and consider it important that the church raises its voice to make clear where it stands in this time of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and amid continued global injustice at a horrendous scale.

Perhaps the recent statements about social justice and confidence in the ministry of Ellen G. White are more closely linked than many might think. After all, Ellen White was quite outspoken about a number of important social issues in her time—an aspect of her work that some of her loyal followers today could pay more attention to.

Rules and Church Policies

Dictionaries define justice as the quality of being just and as pursuing righteousness, equality and moral rightness. To be just is to uphold the justice of a cause. To maintain justice in a society requires a judicial system, that operates on the basis of a body of just laws.

When we speak of social justice, we refer to fair and just relations between the individual and society. It has to do with such elements as equal opportunities, regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, and with such things as a defensible distribution of wealth and uniform access to education and health care. A democracy must develop a legal system that provides a solid basis for administering the kind of justice that is, indeed, “just,” and applies in the same way to every citizen and inhabitant of the country.

Churches must also operate on the basis of a clear set of rules. In the Roman Catholic Church and some other denominations, internal laws have, through the centuries, developed into a body of canon law. This has become so complex that ecclesial lawyers and ecclesial courts are needed to administer it. Most mainline Protestant denominations have a “church order” which regulates the way in which the church is governed and may be updated from time to time. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has collected its internal rules and regulations in two basic documents: The Church Manual and the General Conference Working Policy Book.

The focus of the Church Manual is on the inner workings of the local church and on its relationship to the conference to which it belongs. Its history goes back to 1932 when the first edition appeared. Amendments and additions are voted when the world church meets in its quinquennial world congress. It is no secret that in much of the non-Western world, the Church Manual plays a much more important role than in most of the western world. In some parts of the world, the Church Manual seems to have acquired a semi-divinely in- spired status!

The origin of the General Conference Working Policy Book (and its derived division and union policy collections) also goes back almost one hundred years. It has grown over time from a modest pamphlet that summarized the past decisions of the church’s leaders into a book of more than a thousand, fine-print pages. Each Autumn Council of the General Conference has a policy section on its agenda—as part of the constant updating of the “black book,” as the corpus of “Adventist canon law” is often referred to by church leaders. Increasingly, the issue of “compliance” with the policies by all organizational entities in the Adventist Church has become a hot issue, particularly with regard to financial management and the matter of ordination.

Acting Justly, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly

Applying the rules of the Church Manual and the regulations of the denomination policy book demands a consistent concern for justice. This is, in fact, what God demands of us. In a famous Old Testament text, the prophet Micah is adamant that God requires that we act justly (Micah 6:8). This most definitely applies to leaders at all levels in the church. But the prophet immediately adds that God is not interested in mere outward compliance with a set of rules. “Acting justly” must be integrated with “loving mercy.”

Christ taught us to look at principles and to always apply justice together with mercy. Uppermost in our mind should be the thought that God is never in the hurting but always in the healing business. Acting justly does not first and for all mean that we follow the letter of the law, but that we apply rules in such a way that they will ultimately benefit and bless the people involved.

During my years as a church administrator, I appreciated the fact that the church needs rules and regulations, but I never felt that the letter of church policy was the ultimate answer in every situation. In some cases, I concluded that a statement from the Church Manual needed a creative approach, and that a strict application of church policy would not be fair or in anyone’s interest. In some instances, I have always felt, it may be even morally questionable to go by the letter of the policy book. “Acting justly” demands not just sternness and determination, but also intelligence and “loving mercy.”

Micah reminds us that another important aspect is connected with “acting justly” and “loving mercy.” God also requires, the prophet says, that we “walk humbly” with our God. Church boards, pastors, conference and union officials, and other church leaders may at times be confronted with complicated matters when no existing rule seems to provide a good solution, but a decision must be reached. They must always realize that having been called to a leader- ship role does not make them infallible, and in all humility, they may have to admit that they made a mistake that needs to be corrected. It is never easy for leaders (or, for that matter, anyone else) to admit that they did not “act justly” and/or failed to “love mercy”. However, “walking humbly” is a key aspect of what God requires.

The Long Term

“Acting justly” implies looking at the long-term impact of what we do. We see this powerfully illustrated in the story of King Solomon, when he was asked to adjudicate a case that involved two prostitutes. Both women had given birth to a baby. One baby had died, and then hell broke loose. Each of the women claimed to be the mother of the baby that was still alive. Solomon had to act justly. And he did. Reading and analyzing the story in 1 Kings 3:16-28, we discover that Solomon had a long-term view.

His aim was not just to satisfy one of the two women. His concern was: What is in the long-term interest of the baby that is alive? How could the future of the child be best protected? Who was the “real” mother? The woman who agreed to the extraordinary suggestion that the child be killed so that they would each get part of its dead body? Or the woman who was prepared to do anything to ensure that the child would live? This is an important consideration whenever we seek to “act justly”: not to focus on immediate short-term answers that push the real issue toward the future. Some of us are good at that, but we must look further ahead. “Acting justly” opens up a future for those who suffer and seek justice.

There is one further important aspect: Voting a statement about the importance of social justice remains a public relations gesture if those who voted it are not determined to put the principles the statement emphasizes into practice as they seek, in all humility, to “act justly” and to “love mercy” in their decision-making practices.

–Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books is “I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine.” Email him at: [email protected]