21 Dec

WHAT DIFFERENCE DO DOCTRINES MAKE IN OUR DAILY LIFE?

In my first church, one of the members regularly told me that he had been attracted to Adventism when he heard about the different time periods in our prophetic explanations. He was a bookkeeper, and figures and graphs were the kind of thing he could relate to! I thought of him when, the other day, I saw on Facebook an extremely convoluted schema of dates, lines, and arches indicating the beginning and the end of several periods of prophetic days, equaling as many literal years.

I had not seen anything like that for a while, but, after a bit of Googling, I found that the fascination of our brother-bookkeeper with numbers, and this schematic approach to our doctrinal heritage is still very much alive in many Adventist circles. It points to an aspect that was very characteristic of our church life in the past and has left its stamp on the excessively rational approach of many Adventists to their faith, even today.

Seeing this, it brought again to my mind a question I have increasingly been asking myself: Supposing all Adventist teachings are correct, what difference does my belief in them make to my life every day? Does knowing when the 1,260 “days” began and ended make me a better Christian? Does my ability to explain the meaning of the 2,300 “mornings and evenings” make me a more balanced and pleasant person?

This question does not just apply to the Adventist explanations of apocalyptic numbers and other symbols but to all “fundamental beliefs.” How do I become a more lovable person by my ability to carefully separate and define the different stages of my faith journey: justification, sanctification, and glorification. And how to explain to others how imparted righteousness differs from imputed righteousness, and how a pre-fall concept of Christ’s human nature differs from a post-fall concept? And so on.

By saying this, I am not suggesting that theology and doctrines are unimportant, and that genuine faith has nothing to do with statements of fundamental beliefs. But, in this short article, I want to emphasize that the role of doctrinal statements is often misunderstood.

A Christian Worldview

First of all, it is important to recognize that knowing a lot of Bible facts and being astute with regard to doctrines and theological fine print, has only limited value if it does not fit into a larger framework and does not provide an overall perspective for viewing life, its goal, and values. To be a genuine Christian requires having a Christian worldview.

There are many definitions of the concept of worldview. One may define it simply as a set of presuppositions which we hold about the makeup of our world. It is “a collection of attitudes, values, stories, and expectations about the world around us, which inform our every thought and action.” 1

Our worldview is the lens through which we view reality. It has to do with our convictions about the nature and the source of knowledge; with our beliefs about the origin of the universe, the world and us as human beings; and with the meaning and purpose of life. It also relates to our values: what is good and bad, what is right and wrong.

Many people have a materialistic worldview, which has no place for God or for ideas and ideals that surpass the purely human sphere. A Christian worldview, however, places God in the center of everything. It provides a specific framework for all our thinking about past, present and future. Our worldview guides us in making political choices, and in the way we spend our money. It gives us a particular perspective on our work and the kind of career we pursue. And it furnishes us with a basis for making ethical decisions and determining our priorities regarding how we use our time and talents.

Being an Adventist Christian means, first and foremost, that we have a view on the world and on our life that is based on the underlying values of God’s Word and that is nurtured by our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Doctrinal knowledge is important, but what counts most is that we are able to connect our theoretical beliefs with the praxis of life.

“What does it do for me?”

Adopting a Christian worldview is closely connected with a statement of Christ about the essence of Truth. In John 8:32, Jesus tells his followers that the truth will set them free. I especially like the rendering of this text in the MESSAGE paraphrase by Eugene H. Peterson, which captures the meaning of these words in an incomparable way: “Then Jesus turned to the Jews who claimed to believe in Him: ‘If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourself the truth, and the truth will free you.’ ” 2 In other words: biblical truth and doctrinal propositions must be integrated into the activities of daily life. If that happens, this will affect our life in a very concrete way.

Learning about the truth should not just be an intellectual exercise and a matter of absorbing a quantity of theological knowledge, but the truth must do something for us. It must change us into better, more balanced, happier, and more fulfilled human beings.

As we think about our doctrinal heritage, this one question must be uppermost in our minds: What does it do for me? How does the doctrinal content of my faith help me to become a more faithful follower of my Lord and a more caring neighbor? If doctrine remains only a matter of mental assent and does not translate into a way of life, we have sadly missed the mark!

Christ told us: The truth will make you free! But let’s face it: the faith of many Christians—Adventists most definitely included—is more closely associated with a lack of freedom than with the actual enjoyment of freedom. Regrettably, many Adventist Christians in past and present have allowed themselves to be locked into a legalistic frame in which faith deteriorated into a system of do’s, and especially of don’ts. And while they claim(ed) to be obedient to the Word of God, their actual conduct was/is more conditioned by traditions than by a Spirit-infused freedom, with social control (what other people would think) severely restricting them.

The life of a true Christian is characterized by freedom. The apostle Paul tells us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). Contrary to what many believe, God’s law does not force us into a straitjacket of limitations but provides us with freedom (James 1:25). It just depends, the apostle Peter says, on how we use our God-given freedom. Do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but live as free people (1 Peter 2:16).

Our belief in God as our Creator should remind us every day anew that we are his creatures, with freedom of choice. Created in his image, we can enjoy the creativity with which He has endowed us. Our conviction that Christ is our Savior and that He stands ready to forgive our countless mistakes and shortcomings, makes it possible for us to be free from guilt. Our past failures no longer hound us, as God’s grace opens up a future of freedom. The Holy Spirit guides us in our life of discipleship and stewardship. He does not force us into a particular regime but helps us to bear personal responsibility for the free choices that we make.

As Seventh-day Adventist Christians we enjoy the gift of the weekly Sabbath, which helps to distance ourselves from the stress and pressures of daily life and, thus, to experience a special kind of physical and spiritual freedom.

The church in the Galatian region of Asia Minor faced challenges that were similar to what many Adventist churches are still struggling with today. Factions in the Galatian church demanded that all members would abide by particular rules and traditions, which they considered essential if one wanted to be a true Christian. Paul told them, in no uncertain terms, that they were wrong. Read Galatians 5:1: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Surely, doctrinal teachings are important. But they must be far more than theory. They must do something for us! They must inspire us to stand in the freedom that Christ, who is the Truth, has opened up for us.

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]

 


1  Sire, J. W. (2004). Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Intervarsity Press.

2  Peterson, Eugene H. (1993). The Message. NavPress.

24 Jul

ARE YOU FOR REAL? BEING (OR BECOMING) AN AUTHENTIC BELIEVER

Last year, the Southern Baptists denomination in the United States lost half a million members. This means that in just twelve months, roughly one of every 25 members decided to walk away from their church. Although there are some specific reasons that contributed to this extraordinary exodus, in recent decades most Christian denominations in the western world had to face a constant and intensifying hemorrhage of members, suffering an even more dramatic decline in church attendance.

Numerous books have been written about the reasons why people leave the church, and, indeed, there are many different factors that play a role. But one element is mentioned more often than any other reason—in particular by members of the younger generations—namely: hypocrisy. David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group which researches developments in Christianity, wrote: “Whether we like it or not, the term ‘hypocritical’ has become fused to young people’s experience with Christianity.” He added that 85 percent of all young people who have had at least some exposure to Christians and to the church have concluded that Christianity is hypocritical (p. 42).1

Countless people give up on the institutional church—and often also on their faith—because of the glaring inconsistencies between the words and the actions of fellow believers and, in particular, of church leaders. The sexual scandals in the Roman Catholic Church as well as the numerous cases of sexual indiscretion, or worse, among prominent pastors in Protestant churches, have done colossal damage to the credibility of Christianity. Also, many erstwhile strong believers have become totally disillusioned about the church, as they observed the dubious lifestyles and selfish behavior of many faithful churchgoers. And the fact that extreme piety often disguises serious moral problems does not go unnoticed.

In addition, other forms of hypocrisy leave many believers wondering to what extent they can still trust their leaders. Too often, they discover that there is a substantial discrepancy between what pastors teach and preach and the convictions they privately hold. Is it a matter of not wanting to jeopardize their job and their career opportunities? Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that the Adventist Church is faring any better in this respect than most other faith communities.

An Issue of All Times

Hypocrisy is not a new phenomenon. We find it already in Bible times. Jesus did not mince words when He accused the spiritual leaders of his days of hypocrisy. He called them “blind guides,” “snakes,” and “white-washed tombs” (Matt. 23:13-36). They sadly lacked what should have characterized them most: authenticity.

Even in the earliest days of the Christian church, hypocrisy raised its ugly head. Ananias and Sapphira appeared to be generous people. They decided to sell a piece of land and to give a large chunk of the money to the church. But their generosity was phony. They wanted to look good and enhance their reputation as pillars of the newly established church. They pretended that they were giving the entire proceeds of the sale to the church, while in reality they kept part of the money for themselves. Their lack of authenticity cost them their lives (Acts 5:1-10).

But let’s be honest. Hypocrisy and pretense are not just things of the past and do not only occur in other faith communities. There is also much window dressing among Seventh-day Adventist Christians. As church members, we know we are supposed to act in certain ways. We must do certain things and abstain from particular activities if we want to safeguard our reputation as members in “good and regular standing.” Alas, when other church members are in sight, we may behave differently from when we think we are “safe.” But the critical question is not who we are when we are on the platform of our church on Sabbath morning, but who we are when no one is looking!

A Corporate Issue

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has tended to pride itself with various complimentary labels. We have called ourselves the “remnant church,” meaning: We are the only last-day community of people who are truly loyal to God. We have pointed to ourselves as members of a global missionary movement who are “totally involved.” And we have often claimed to be a “caring” church. But how true is that?

I have no doubt that there are many local Adventist communities that do indeed “care” for their members and for those they come into contact with. But what do we see when we take a more comprehensive look? What is the quality of pastoral care in many of our churches? How inclusive is the average Adventist congregation when it concerns men and women (and others) with a “different” sexual orientation or with some “liberal” theological ideas? How much care do local congregations manifest towards the people with specific needs in the wider community? Must we not regretfully conclude that many (if not most) Adventist churches have a long way to go in practicing what they preach?

What Our Church Needs

The church needs authenticity and, as individual members of the church, we must be authentic. Dictionaries provide us with many synonyms for the term authentic, such as real, genuine, worthy of trust, not fake or phony, pure, credible. In the past, the first question most people asked when choosing a church would be whether that church teaches biblical truth. Today, this is still an important aspect, but the question “What do you people believe and preach?” has taken second place to: “What kind of people are you? Do you practice what you preach?”

My mother once (now some decades ago) told me about the quarrels and bitter disagreements between members in the small church in which she grew up. I asked her why she decided to stay in that kind of a church. Her answer was quite straightforward: “Because, whatever happens, our church has the truth.” Today, many react in a different way. They turn their back on a church where people cannot get along with one another and miserably fail to reflect the attitude of the One they profess to follow.

As a church—globally, regionally, nationally, and, foremost, locally—we must radiate authenticity if we want to be a living, attractive, and growing church. We must do away with all false pretenses and all the promises we cannot keep. The reputation, programs, slogans, and strategies of our church must, at all times, be credible and genuine. Our message is to be based on biblical truth, but it must also embody true love and care. Our church must be an authentic beacon of positivity and hope in our community.

What I Need

My individual challenge as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian is directly linked to what I just said about our church: How can I become, be, and remain, an authentic person?

The Old Testament story of the anointing of David as the king of Israel reminds us of a crucial fact. The prophet Elia preferred Eliab, an older brother of David, as the royal candidate, but God told him that David was the one He had chosen. The lesson of the story is summarized in just a few words: “People look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

This is in many ways reassuring. God does not build his assessment of me on my external qualities and on what people say about me, but on what I really am deep down. However, it remains true that people do get a particular impression of me when they meet me and talk to me. When they interact with me, they will wonder whether I am for real, or am I hiding behind a façade. When they wonder whether my Christianity is make-believe, will they somehow sense that it is genuine?

If we want to share our faith with others in the western world of 2023, it remains, of course, essential that we have something important to say and that we are able to say this in words and images that can be understood by people around us. But, beyond anything else, the key for any meaningful sharing of the gospel is that we are authentic. People—and especially young people—nowadays smell phoniness from miles away. As I try to live as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I have to take a good look at myself.

Am I someone who is for real? Am I honest about myself, not only willing to talk about my successes, but also about my shortcomings? Do I have the courage to tell other people about my faith, but also about my doubts? Am I prepared to listen to the stories of the people around me, but also to make myself vulnerable by telling my own story? This is all part of being authentic.

What counts in the end is not primarily whether people see me as a pious person with a lot of Bible knowledge, but rather, first and foremost, as a genuinely nice person who models acceptance and forgiveness. Christ was and is the true I AM. He was perfect in his authenticity. It should be my most earnest wish to reflect my Lord’s authenticity to the best of my ability in all I do and speak.

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]

 


1 Kinnaman, D., & Lyons, G. (2012). Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity—and why it matters. Baker Books.

20 Apr

The Adventist Calling: Nurturing a Culture of Hope

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
– Jeremiah 29:11

This article is about despair and about hope—in the personal realm, in the society in which we live, and in what is happening on a global scale. It is about the culture of despair that dominates the context of our twenty-first century lives. And it is about the culture of hope that flows from the good news of Jesus Christ.

A Culture of Despair

Dictionaries, and books that analyze our time, provide us with various definitions of despair. Some authors point out how despair results from being so much concerned with the present that it clouds people’s eyes for the future. Others emphasize that despair is, first, a deep discontentment with today’s culture and with our own role in it. All descriptions have in common that despair is a total loss of hope.  Former pastor and author Rob Bell pointedly said, “Despair is believing that tomorrow will be just like today!”

As I write this article, it was twelve days since the powerful earthquake destroyed parts or Turkey and Syria and left thousands of men and women in utter despair, silently waiting till the bodies of their loved ones are recovered from under the rubble. They have no idea where and how they will live a month or a year from now. Tens of thousands of wives and mothers in Ukraine and in Russia are despairing about the fate of their husbands and sons who are fighting in a war that is as terrible as it is senseless. A culture of despair envelops the western world as one crisis follows the other, and as leaders are unable to provide political and economic stability, while ever-increasing polarization rips nations and societies apart.  In his book The American Culture of Despair, sociologist Richard K. Fenn (b. 1984) writes about the cycles of crisis that create wide-ranging despair and are undeniable evidence that America, like other parts of the world, is running out of time. The recent Covid-pandemic caused millions of people world-wide to wonder in desperation whether they would also fall victim to this sword of Damocles that was hanging over our world.

Despair has assumed global proportions as wars, natural disasters, hunger, and poverty ravage entire regions of planet Earth. But beneath these global dimensions is the anguish of the millions of individuals who have lost all sense of hope: people who have no roof over their head, as well as men and women whose relationships have been shipwrecked and who experience unbearable loneliness. Annually, in the United States alone almost two million people get the devastating diagnosis that they have cancer. Each year more than 800,000 people world-wide see no other escape from their misery than to end their own lives—that is: one suicide every 39 seconds!

The Antidote for Despair

Christians maintain that there is another way of looking at the world at large, and at our personal lives. They claim to have a message of hope, and echo what the apostle Paul wrote to encourage the believers in the city of Rome, May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13). For most non-Christians these words may sound quite hollow. Can there really be hope amid all the hopelessness they see around them, and which they so often experience themselves? The reply of the Christian is: Yes, there can be hope! The words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah are as true today as when they were first spoken: there is a God who looks after us, and this God wants nothing more fervently than to provide us with a solid hope and firm trust in the future (Jeremiah 29:11).

It is crucial, however, that we have a clear concept of what real hope consists of.  For many, hope is little more than wishful thinking. Hope often is the unrealistic expectation of winning a big prize in a lottery, or it is focused on tomorrow’s weather. For others hope equals optimism. True hope, however, goes far beyond this. It is certainly good to be an optimist and to be able to see the good aspects of a given situation and not be entirely absorbed by its negative elements. True Christian hope is inextricably connected with our faith—with our trust in the One whom we have accepted as our Lord. Hope is, therefore, not just a matter of feelings. It is primarily an attitude, a state of mind. In some sense it may even be called a decision. It is a divine gift that can change our outlook on life and deliver us from anxieties. Vincent McNabb (1868-1943), an Irish poet and priest, expressed it like this: “Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace, that God gives to control our fears. Not to oust them.” 1

Christian hope is centered in a Person—in the risen Christ. Faith in the risen Christ means the inner certainty that there is life after death; that there is a new world, even though many things seem to indicate that our present world is hopelessly falling apart. Our hope is not based on an idea. It is not based on a clever philosophy, but it is anchored in a Person. Not just in any person, but in the God, who created us, who sent his Son for us as our Redeemer, and who continues to guide us through his Holy Spirit. Our hope is based on our trust in who He is. With such a God there is always reason for true hope. Charles Allen (1913-2005), a well-known American Methodist minister once said, “When you say a situation or a person is hopeless, you are slamming the door in the face of God.”  The poet who wrote Psalm 147 assures us, The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope
in his unfailing love
.2

A Culture of Hope

There is a widespread misunderstanding that hope is primarily a matter of emotion. It is difficult—or it maybe even impossible—to hang on to an emotion when circumstances deteriorate. In his book Making Hope Happen, psychologist Shane J. Lopez (who has been called “the world’s most preeminent expert on hope”), argues that true hope is active. People who have hope can imagine the future and dare to set goals. Hope precipitates action. Our faith allows us to harness the kind of hope that enables us to endure the present and set realistic goals for bringing about change in the future. At the beginning of this article, despair was defined as “believing that tomorrow will be just like today!” This is in stark contrast with hope, which is the trust that tomorrow can and will be different.

Seventh-day Adventists enjoy singing the hymn that Wayne Hooper (1920-2007) wrote as the theme song for the 1962 Adventist world congress, and has ever since been the favorite of countless church members: We have this hope that burns within our hearts … The sad reality, however, is that, for many Adventist believers, their hope is mingled with a firm dose of despair. They believe that Christ is coming back, and that He is the hope for our eternal future in a new and perfect world. But they have also been taught that before He appears on the clouds, when the dead of the past will be resurrected and those who are alive and expect Him will be changed from mortal into immortal, lots of terrible things must first take place. For many Adventists the prophecies about end-time events have been a source of deep-seated fear rather than the basis for a joyful expectation. Unfortunately, Adventist eschatology has often been part of a culture of despair, rather than the epitome of a culture of hope.

Seventh-day Adventists face the momentous challenge to create and nurture in their community a culture of hope. It is only when genuine hope becomes the main denominator of the Adventist fellowship of faith, that the Advent message of hope become attractive and credible.

Adventist Christians are called to first foster a culture of hope in their local churches. The ways in which they express and live their faith, and how they share it with others, must emanate hope in such a way that it can chart a path of positive Christian action—for the individual believers and for the denomination.

Surrounded by a culture of despair, Adventists are called to be a people of hope, who impact trends and events by their counterculture of hope. Bringing hope to others will continue to strengthen their own hope—as the prophet Isaiah so powerfully underlined, Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint (Isaiah 40:31).

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]


1  https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/vincent_mcnabb_105844

2  I lifted these two paragraphs from one of my recent books: Bruinsma, R. (2019). I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Autumn House.

31 Jan

DO YOU PLAY THE ADVENTIST LANGUAGE GAME?

When I lived in England and watched the part of the BBC news in which the results of the day’s cricket matches were announced, I was totally lost. I had (and have) no idea what is meant by “wickets,” “innings,” and “overs.” Many people likewise feel totally excluded when computer nerds discuss their current cyber activities, since they have no idea what is meant by such terms as “cloud,” “cookies,” “IP- address,” “terabytes,” or “spyware.” Although I am using my laptop very intensely, I must confess I have only a vague idea what most computer terms mean. 

For most of the people in today’s secular society, religious language is just as mysterious as the cricket lingo is for me, and the cyber language is for most seniors. Terms like “atonement,” “justification,” “sanctification,” “covenant,” and “salvation” often mean very little, if anything, to them. And many do not have a clue about the difference between imputed and imparted righteousness, nor do they have any idea who Jacob, David, Solomon, James, or Nicodemus might have been. 

Unfortunately, many Adventist communicators have not adequately mastered the art of communicating to secular people who have little or no knowledge of the Bible. No genuine communication can take place when the language used by one party is “foreign” to the other. Communication is a complicated process in any case, and much of what is “sent” by the “speaker” is often lost in the “noise” of the communication process, and not “heard” by the “receiver.” It is vital that, at the very least, the speaker and the hearer use the same language. However, the fact that both may use a form of English, Dutch, or Spanish is no guarantee that communication actually takes place.

Language Games

Experts in linguistics have pointed out that groups of people tend to create their own language, with its own peculiar vocabulary, in which words may acquire a meaning that is unknown to outsiders. This applies to members of a particular profession, to those who study a particular discipline, or have the same hobby. But it is also true for people who share a body of religious teachings. Such groups, philosophers of language tell us, “play” their own “language game.” 

The famous Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) developed this concept and argued that words, and even sentences, have a meaning that results from “rules” which have been agreed upon by the members of such a group. I would certainly not agree with Wittgenstein’s view that our words are nothing more than that, and that they do not actually refer to any kind of reality behind them. I simply want to stress the point that a religious community, like that of Seventh-day Adventists, creates its own language.

The fact that Adventists have their own peculiar jargon can be a serious obstacle, not only when we connect with non-believers, but also in our contacts with other Christians and even with new Adventist Christians or those who are on the fringe of the church. Let me mention just a few examples of words and expressions that seem like gobbledygook to “outsiders”:

Adventists are called to help “finish the work.” The “loud cry” must be heard, and the “latter rain” must fall before Christ can come. Of course, the world will have to face the “great tribulation” and “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” before the believers can ever hope to stand on “the sea of glass.” The “pioneers” have given a bright example in “stewardship” and “health reform,” but the core of the “present truth” is found in ‘the ‘three angels’ messages.” We are guided by the “Spirit of Prophecy” and are expected to know all about the “seal of God” and the “mark of the beast,” about the “dragon” and the “little horn.” 

And so on. Most non-Adventists wonder what this is all about.

The Three Angels’ Messages

Lately, Adventists hear frequent appeals that they must “go” and share “the three angels’ messages” as widely as possible with other people. For many of us, the term has become so common that we hardly stop to think what it actually means. We are accustomed to pictures of three angels flying in close formation, with trumpets, or hands cupped around their mouths, indicating that they raise their voices with their important messages. 

When I worked in the office of the European regional office of the Adventist Church in St. Albans (UK), our family doctor had his office right across the street. One day, he asked me where I worked, and when I told him it was in the building he could see from his office window, he said: “That’s a nice place, but what do these three rabbits on the front mean?” He referred to a sculpture of the three angels but had no idea what this symbolized. Until a few decades ago the official logo of the church featured the three angels, but in 1996 the denomination decided to adopt a different logo, since it was clear that the former one was quite meaningless for the public at large.

Yet, the concept of the three angels’ messages remains an essential part of the identity of our church—regardless of whether the denominational logo refers to it. During a recent important meeting of the executive committee of the world church, it was linked to all aspects of Adventism. The expression is found in virtually all mission statements of denominational entities. We read in the Mission Statement of the General Conference—Our Mission is:

Make disciples of Jesus Christ who live as His loving witnesses and proclaim to all people the everlasting gospel of the Three Angels’ Messages in preparation for His soon return (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, Rev 14:6-12).

But let’s be honest: Do most Adventists understand what the words “three angels’ messages” actually mean, or is this expression for most members just part of traditional Adventist jargon and of the Adventist language game? Do they know what they must tell people when they want to respond to the appeal to “go” and “proclaim the three angel’s messages”?  

Effective communication presupposes that you know what you are talking about. And, also, that you know the language of your audience and can express yourself in that language. And, equally important, that you are able to translate the message in words and images that are part the other person’s world and fit with his/her level of understanding. It seems that many leaders, who emphasize the “total involvement” of all church members, ignore these fundamental principles. As a result, no real communication can take place. Preachers who ignore these basic elements will soon discover that most people fail to respond. Moreover, many church publications do not use the kind of language that most of the intended audience understands.

I have from time to time tried to find out how much the average church member actually knows about the “three angels’ messages” by asking some questions before I embarked on my sermon. Simple questions, such as: Can you summarize the message of angel number one? And of angel number two and angel number three? In each case the response was quite disappointing. Most church members know that the expression refers to a few texts in John’s Revelation. A fair number connect the words “everlasting gospel” with the message of the first angel. But knowledge about the content of the messages of the three angels is very meagre indeed. 

Communicating What the Angels Say

How can we get beyond the stage of simply using Adventist jargon? How can we intelligently talk about this topic with those who do not know the rules of our language game? First, we must understand what we talk about. At this point, the church faces a momentous challenge: How do we make sure that the people in the pew not only know that they can find the passage of the three angels in the book of Revelation 14:6-12, but also in what broader context this passage is situated. And how do they learn to explain in twenty-first century language what these messages mean for our times—and why other people must know about their content.

What is the core of these three messages? What is the essence of what we must share with others once we understand it ourselves? This, I believe, is the core:

  1. The gospel of Christ has abiding significance: Followers of Christ are called to worship God as their Creator and must therefore show themselves conscientious stewards of the environment which He has created and entrusted to their care.

  2. Coming out of Babylon means: Followers of Christ must be very selective in what they believe and preach, as well as in the lifestyle they adopt. They must resolutely turn their back on everything that clashes with sound biblical teachings.

  3. Following Christ means: Making a clear choice, for or against a life with, and in, Christ. Followers of the Lord must know where their ultimate loyalty lies, with all the concrete implications this involves.

We can only hope to communicate the messages of the three angels if we have truly understood them ourselves and have grasped how they impact the way we live and worship. If we decide to spend time and creative energy in translating the message of the three angels into realities of the twenty-first century, we may trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us in our endeavor.

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]

21 Oct

ADVENTISM’S SELF-IDENTITY – WHAT ARE WE?

I grew up in the Netherlands in a small village some 20 miles north of Amsterdam. The population was almost equally divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Most Protestants belonged to one of two denominations of the Calvinist variety. One lady, who lived a few doors away from us, converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then there were we!

It seemed that most people did not exactly know how to classify us. We were Seventh-day Adventists, which was a strange name people could hardly remember. But we seemed rather “normal”, except that we went to church in a nearby town on Saturdays and did not eat pork, did not smoke or use alcohol. A few, who had taken the trouble to consult an encyclopedia in search of some information on Adventists, were sure that we belonged to a peculiar sect, which did not only read the Bible but also looked to guidance from an American prophetess.

I must admit that as a child, and as a teenager, I felt quite ambivalent about being an Adventist. Why did we have to be so different? Could it really be true that our church was the only true one—as our parents told me and my siblings? When we occasionally visited regional, or even nationwide church meetings, I discovered that our community was not so small after all. And when, at a given moment, it was announced that Adventism, world-wide, had passed the one-million-member mark, it actually gave me a sense of pride to belong to something quite big!

How do we see ourselves?

Of course, we want to know how others around us look at Adventism. At the different organizational levels of our denomination, a PR department, which later developed into the Communication Department, was tasked with fostering a positive image for the church. Its message was, and still is: The Adventist Church is not a cult or sect at the fringe of Christianity, but a bona-fide Protestant denomination.

However, important it may be how others see us, there is the (at least as important) question of how we see ourselves. Who and what are we as Seventh-day Adventists? In some countries, Adventists long preferred to refer to themselves with words that translate into English as “community” or “congregation”. They felt the term “church” was too loaded with ritual and tradition and smelled too much of a stale past. In some places, the word “movement” has long been the preferred term. It was thought to express the ideal of being a dynamically growing world-wide faith community rather than a static organization that shows little or no “movement”. More recently, however, the use of the word “church” has also become more commonly accepted in those countries where it was earlier frowned upon.

Some Adventist mission experts have suggested that we should, perhaps, see ourselves as a world religion and not just as a part of Christianity. We are sufficiently unique, they claim, to warrant that label. Of course, in numbers, we cannot compare with such world religions as Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, but the size of world-wide Adventism is about the same as that of the Sikhs or of Judaism, and these qualify as world religions. I have never been convinced that it would be a good idea to differentiate ourselves in this way from other Christians. In fact, I believe Adventists should always self-identify as Christians first, before pointing to themselves as Adventist Christians.

Church or sect?

Adventism has not yet completely shed its sectarian image, especially in areas in the world where it has so far numerically remained quite small. Many other Christians continue to see significant sectarian (or even cultic) traits in our church. However, most Adventists regard themselves as a church and not as a sect. So, let’s look a bit closer at the differences between a church and a sect.

Definitions of what a “sect” is differ very considerably. For most people, the term “sect” evokes rather negative associations. A sect, they say, is a religious group that turns secondary matters into main issues. This is, of course, a rather subjective approach, because who determines what is essential and what is not? Others claim that sects are the lice in the church’s pelt. Sects are mainly characterized by their critical attitude towards the “established” churches, without contributing anything significant themselves.

The famous German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) gave a definition that, over time, has been used as a basis for many other descriptions. Weber said that the church is a religious organization in which membership is determined primarily by tradition. In most cases one becomes a member of a church by birth. In a sect, on the other hand, membership is the conscious choice of the person joining the group. With many other denominations, Adventists reject such a definition, as they do not practice infant baptism, but baptize people who have themselves chosen to be baptized. Should that make them into a sect?

Often the word “sect” is used primarily for religious groups that are quite aggressive in their recruitment strategies and/or are strongly influenced by a powerful, charismatic leader (in which case one often tends to speak of a ‘cult’). Probably the most important characteristic of a sect is that their adherents are convinced that they are in sole possession of Truth.

Many religious communities have undergone a development whereby they slowly, but surely, lose their sectarian characteristics and, as a result, are no longer labeled as a “sect”. This has happened in many areas of the world with Seventh-day Adventists.

A Church or the church?

The word “church” can be used in many and varied ways. One frequent meaning is that of a “denomination.” The word “denomination” is derived from the Latin verb denominare, which simply translates as “giving a name to something”. Many (how many no one exactly knows) groups of Christians have organized themselves as separate denominations with a specific name. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate for us as Seventh-day Adventists to call ourselves a church. We are a denomination—a church—among thousands of different denominations or churches, large and small, all around the world.

But can we, with confidence, claim that we are not only a church, but rather the church that can self-identify as God’s remnant church? Are we the only church with full Truth? Are we the group that will form the nucleus of those who are going to be saved when the Lord returns?

To these questions, many others could be added. And to many of these questions, we do not yet know the answers. History tends to surprise us, and prophetic interpretations are not intended to give us precise predictions of how end-time events will turn out in every detail. One thing is, however, certain: it has never been official Adventist teaching that only members of our church will be saved. But Adventists do believe that their church has emerged as a community with a special message, with specific emphases that want to correct particular theological standpoints and to apply biblical principles to a number of lifestyle issues.

As Adventists think about their identity as a Christian body, they must always ensure that they build on the biblical view of the essence of “church”. Although the New Testament stresses the bond that unites all local Christian communities, and the fundamental fact that all believers, anywhere, are one in Christ and form a universal priesthood, the emphasis is consistently on the church as a congregation in a specific place. For the apostle Paul, the believers were “the saints in Rome” or “the saints in Ephesus”, etc. Translated to the twenty-first century, this means that, although an organizational system such as Adventists have adopted is useful and will facilitate the church’s mission outreach, the Adventist Church is not primarily the General Conference, the North American Division, or the Rocky Mountain Conference, etc. The Adventist Church is, first and foremost, the “saints” in the 80.000 or so local communities of Adventist believers.

Becoming a sect?

 Some time ago I read in my newspaper an interview with the Belgian Roman-Catholic Cardinal Jozef de Kessel, who has now been archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels for several years.[1] The 75-year-old Catholic leader comes across in the interview as an optimist, but also as a realist, and as a man with a strong faith. He acknowledges that the Catholic Church in Belgium is decreasing in size, but firmly believes that ‘a more modest church’ can be more ‘faithful to itself’ and to its vocation in the midst of today’s secular culture.

What particularly struck me in this interview were de Kessel’s comments about sects and sectarian characteristics. According to him, even a large church can in many ways be sectarian. The bishop is looking for a “confessing church that is carried forward by an inner core of active believers . . . But the church must remain open and avoid being focused on itself”. The interview concludes with this notable statement:

In a sect, you know exactly who is inside and who is outside. Moreover, a sect does not tolerate dissent. If you disagree with something you can go. So, you can be a majority church with sectarian traits, and you can be a smaller church with an open mind. It’s nice when the door of a church is open. When you enter, nobody asks: what are you doing here, why are you sitting here, why are you walking around here? Are you a believer or a non-believer? We must be a church that is open and welcoming, without imposing itself.

The cardinal’s words also apply to my church—the Seventh-day Adventist Church. With our twenty-two million members, we may have become a relatively large church. We may, over time and in most places, have shaken off the sectarian characteristics of the past, but the danger of reverting to some sectarian, or even cultic, traits always remains ‘a clear and present danger. In whatever terms we define our church, it must be an open church. It must be a church that is not just focused on itself but knows the problems and the language of the secular world around it. It must be a church that warmly receives all people without imposing itself. It must be a faith community where all are welcome.

Ask yourself: When I look at my church, do I see that kind of open, welcoming community? That remains the most important question.

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]  

[1]  Nederlands Dagblad, June 11, 2021.

01 Jun

SHARING THE GOSPEL WITH THE ENTIRE WORLD: Will the job ever be finished?

In some parts of the world, traditional forms of Adventist evangelism still “work”. A nation-wide evangelistic campaign was held in 2016 in the Central-African country of Rwanda. Within a few months, about 110 000 newly baptized members joined the church. However, in other parts of the globe—notably in the Western world—similar evangelistic methods have lost their effectiveness. In recent times, despite generous budgets and extensive advertising, few people come to a public evangelistic series, and keep attending after the first meeting. Other forms of traditional evangelism, likewise, fail to produce significant results.

Challenges

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has always believed that Christ’s commission to proclaim the gospel “to all nations” must be taken with utter seriousness, and that “the end” will not come until this task has been accomplished (Matthew 24:14). Until quite recently, it seemed that the Adventist mission was a real “success story”. In 1970, there was one Adventist in this world for about 3,000 people. In 2020, just fifty years later, the ratio of Adventists to non-Adventists had improved to 1:308.  However, lately the growth of the world-wide Adventist Church is stagnating. The dream of further exponential growth that would result in reaching the 50 million-member-mark within another decade or so, now seems unrealistic. One of the sad reasons is a dramatically poor retention rate. The church’s statistical office tells us that we lose over 40 percent of our new members relatively soon after their entry into the church!

The growth of our denomination reflects a pattern that many other denominations are also experiencing. There is a general trend that Christianity is moving “south”, that is: away from the more developed countries to the developing world. The western world is becoming more and more secular, and no longer interested in institutionalized Christianity. Many denominations in Europe see a steady decrease in their membership, and an even more dramatic decline in church attendance. In part, this trend is camouflaged by the arrival of Christian immigrants—refugees, students, and millions who are looking for a more prosperous future for themselves and their loved ones. In several countries, the Adventist Church would have no future, were it not for a reinforcement by brothers and sisters from “the south.”

Any Adventist who follows the official church media regularly meets the expression “10-40 window”. It is a missiological term which refers to the segment of our globe between roughly 10 degrees and 40 degrees north of the Equator. Most people in this part of the world are Muslims or belong to one of the other major non-Christian world-religions. The Adventist world leadership considers this “10-40 window” to be one of the greatest mission challenges. However, despite all recent evangelistic initiatives, the church-growth results remain rather paltry.

Another enormous challenge is presented by the large cities of our world. The percentage of the world’s population that lives in an urbanized environment keeps growing and has risen to about 68 percent. But Christian missionary work—that of Adventists included—in the ever-growing urban centers, remains to a large extent, a matter of “plowing” and “sowing” on the rocks.

Will the job ever be completed?

Around the year 1900 about thirty percent of the people in the world identified themselves as Christians. A century later the population of the world had vastly increased, but the percentage of Christians remained virtually the same. Two decades into the twenty-first century, mission experts report that the percentage of Christians in the world has slightly increased—from around 30 to just over 32 percent. But, as the world population keeps growing, this means that the number of non-Christian people in the world, in actual fact, keeps going up. Each minute 266 persons are born, which makes for a total of 400.,000 extra people per day—all of whom must be reached with the gospel.

Looking at these and other key mission statistics, one wonders whether the job of preaching the gospel to “the whole world” will ever be completed. And, if it is true that Christ will not come until the mission mandate has been fully implemented, one wonders whether He will ever be able to return . . .

Together, but with a special responsibility

I have no answers to many of the questions concerning the completion of the gospel commission, and how this relates to the Second Coming of Christ. However, let me share a few thoughts that may help those who, like me, struggle with these issues.

Let’s remind ourselves that the gospel mandate has not only been given solely to the Adventist denomination. All Christians share in the task of “proclaiming” the message of Christ and of telling others of what He has done for us. It has never been the official position of the Adventist Church that Adventists are the only agents in the preaching of the gospel. As early as 1926, a very significant statement was included in the GC Working Policy book. It can still be found in the ever-growing “black book.” Policy number O 100 reads: “We recognize those agencies that lift up Christ before men as a part of the divine plan for the evangelization of the world, and we hold in high esteem Christian men and women in other communions who are engaged in winning souls to Christ.”

This does not mean that the Adventist Church is simply one voice among a plethora of other Christian voices. While we recognize that we hold many of our beliefs in common with other Christians, we believe we enrich the Christian testimony by our emphasis on several “special truths”. The Adventist focus is found specifically in the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14. The first message underscores the importance of our worship of God as the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of all that is. The second message contains a stern warning about a progressive disregard, all around us, for biblical principles and ethical norms, while the third message concludes that all men and women in this world must ultimately make a choice: Who will they serve? How will they live? Will they decide to follow God’s instructions with all their heart?

Is it all about doctrine?

For many Seventh-day Adventists, proclaiming the gospel message equals giving doctrinal instruction. And, certainly, doctrines are not unimportant! They help us to provide structure to our faith and to our witness, just as grammar gives structure to our communication through language. The famous American theologian Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) underlined, in a frequently-quoted statement, that the gospel proclamation has often lacked the substance that it should have: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement, through the ministry of a Christ without a cross.[1] As Adventist Christians, we must, however, not just focus on the doctrinal correctness of what we bring to the Christian table, but more than ever, on its relevance. Postmodern people want to know—more than the modern generation before them—what the Christian message can do for them. What can the words of Christ mean during the week for our daily life of work and recreation? How do “fundamental beliefs” translate into a life of meaning and true happiness? How do doctrinal truths nurture the relationship with the One who is Life and Truth? When Jesus spoke about the Truth, He told his disciples that the Truth would make them free (John 8:31). The Truth must do something for us. In other words, it must be relevant and relate to all aspects of who, and what, we are. This realization adds a vital dimension to an already gargantuan task.

God’s project

So, will this assignment of bringing the message of Christ to “all the world” ever be accomplished? The answer is: Yes, it will. Somehow, and at God’s time. We must allow God to surprise us. In the meantime, it is our responsibility to do all we can to share our faith with others in ways that are relevant to them. It means that we must translate our message in ways that remain true to the essence of God’s Word, but can be understood and will be appreciated by the secular, postmodern men and women of today.

While we do this, let us ever remember that we are not dealing with something we can refer to as our project. It is God’s project. The words of George E. Ladd, who was a prominent teacher at Fuller Theological Seminary (1911-1982), seem particularly apt for the present generation of Adventists in the western world: “Christ has not yet returned; therefore, the task is not yet done. When it is done, Christ will come . . . So long as Christ does not return, our work is undone. Let us get busy and complete our mission.” [2]

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]  

[1]  Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988 ed.), p. 193.

[2]  George E. Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), p. 137.

 

28 Mar

THE BEAUTY OF DIFFERENCE

By Reinder Bruinsma … Dutch Adventists are often described as rather liberal, but eating out on Sabbath has always been a no-no.

Great was their amazement when in 1995, tens of thousands of fellow believers descended upon the city of Utrecht for the General Conference session, and great numbers were seen to spread out all over the city on Sabbath in search of a restaurant. Those Adventists who have done a fair bit of traveling and have been in contact with church members in countries with different cultures have noticed that the praxis of Adventists varies considerably from place to place.

Nowadays, in most places, my wedding ring no longer causes offense, but when preaching in a rural church in Costa Rica, the pastor implored me not to create a problem in his church by wearing my ring. When I occasionally preach in the Ghanaian Adventist Church

in Amsterdam, my wedding band is no problem, but my wife’s simple necklace is frowned upon. To the dismay of many visiting fellow believers in Scandinavia, Adventists usually equate “low-alcoholic” with “non-alcoholic,” and the way some Australian pastors are dressed when they enter the pulpit would not go over well with most Adventist audiences elsewhere in the world. When serving for several years in tropical Africa, I learned that I must wear a tie and a jacket in church even when the temperature is in the upper eighties. This is what our African brothers and sisters were taught by western missionaries (from whom they also learned the still popular song: Whiter than snow, o Lord would I be!).

A world church must expect diversity

I could cite numerous other examples of how Adventist practices around the world vary, not just from country to country, but often from region to region within a country, and between population segments with different ethnic origins and cultures.

In her e-book From Sundown to Sundown, Dr. May-Ellen Colón, an assistant director of the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries department of the General Conference, compares Sabbath-keeping practices in fifty-one different countries. She concludes that, if you make a composite list of all things that in some places are deemed inappropriate to do on the Sabbath, and adopt that list, you can do virtually nothing, and if you make a similar list of all things that somewhere are considered okay, virtually nothing seems taboo!

Often people, when first confronted with practices elsewhere that would be frowned upon in their own Adventist milieu or when hearing and reading about customs that differ considerably from what they have grown up with and are used to, wonder how the church can remain united if we practice our faith in so many ways. Admittedly, there may be practices that are questionable in the light of some of the church’s teachings. But in most cases, we are dealing with culture and tradition rather than principle. In a church that has become truly global and has spread to almost all countries of the world, with countless differ- ent ethnicities and cultures represented, we must expect significant diversity in the way people translate their faith into everyday life. It means, in fact, that the church is alive. Enforcing total uniformity in the way people express their beliefs would not only be impossible, but also an unnatural sign of rigidity!

The reality of doctrinal differences

Some readers may react with a “so far, so good,” but would be adamant that diversity in the church must be restricted to practices and customs. They may agree that ethnic and cultural differences are acceptable in a global denomination such as ours, or maybe even enriching our community if we remain united in our theology. Adventists around the world should share, they say, the same approach to Scripture and the theology that results from this, as is expressed in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Well, the reality is quite different. Whether we like it or not, there is plenty of theological diversity in our church. In fact, this is not a recent development, but despite a growing consensus over time regarding our main teachings, diversity has existed from the beginning.

To say that the membership of the church is divided between conservatives and liberals is not very helpful. There are many shades of conservatism and many degrees of liberalism. Moreover, some are conservative in their theology, but not so in their lifestyle. And vice-versa. It may be better to speak of different streams or modalities. This is not unique to Adventists. As time has passed, most denominations have experienced the development

of different theological streams. This often led to schisms in faith communities, when the gaps between the various groups of believers became so wide that people felt they had no option but to go different ways. The Adventist Church is, in fact, quite an exception in that it has stayed together without many major secessions. Perhaps we could say that some of the independent ministries provide a haven for individuals and groups which feel that the denomination allows for too many voices which defend or even promote ideas that do not fit with traditional Adventist orthodox views.

What are some of the areas in which we see a diversity of theological opinion? In the first place, we do not all read the Bible in the same way. On the one hand, there are those who maintain that a “plain” reading of the Scriptures is the only safe way to find Truth, whereas others have a totally different view of inspiration. For many, it means that everything was created by God in “recent” times within a period of six literal days. But an increasing number of church members, while firmly believing that God is the Creator, argue that the Bible is not a book of science, but a book of faith and theology and that it does not inform us about the “how” of creation but about the meaning of creation.

It does not take much effort to detect that the relationship between faith and works is approached in different ways. There are those who are sure that sinful people, such as we admittedly are, can reach a state of sinless perfection, while others consider this a blasphemous idea. Much discussion (and, unfortunately, much controversy) divides Adventists about such topics as the true human nature of Christ, and the issue of the Trinity. Views about the prophecies which, together with the input of Ellen G. White, have shaped the traditional Adventist end-time scenario, are widely divergent. For some, the old-time views are as valid as ever, while others feel that a re-evaluation is a matter of urgency. Aspects of our sanctuary doctrine, about the ordination of female ministers, and about gender identity, are other hotly debated issues.

What to do?

Unfortunately, we often find that people have come to a particular conclusion and are no longer willing (or able?) to listen with an open mind to the standpoints of others. The doctrinal positions have led to a serious degree of polarization, dividing (in many minds) the members into “genuine” Adventists, who are loyal to the Truth, and “apostate” Adventists, who undermine the Adventist message and mission.

It would be unrealistic to deny that this doctrinal diversity does not pose a challenge for the denomination. Understandably, church leaders want to keep us all together; they want peace and emphasize that unity in our thinking and in the way we present our message is a prerequisite for maintaining a vigorous mission outreach. However, they must also face the sad reality that members (young and not so young) leave the church in droves, because they feel that their church has left them and no longer answers their questions and fails, to a large extent, to connect the Adventist faith with 21st-century life.

A faith community will inevitably become a museum if its major concern is to conserve the past. Instead, while traditional ways of understanding the Bible remain an important source of inspiration, in a living community, there must be an ever-ongoing search for a deeper understanding of what believing in Christ, and being an Adventist, means today and tomorrow. This process can create unrest and even a sense of uncertainty. Not all members will at any given time be on the same page and share in identical developments—including doctrinal development—and the church will not everywhere proceed in the same manner and at the same pace. Yes, a living community will be characterized by an underlying unity but will, at the same time, also exhibit diversity. The existence of different modalities in the church is not a sure sign of confusion and theological decay, but an inevitable, and even healthy, indication that the church is alive.

An acknowledgment that not all doctrines are equally important and that, perhaps, we should have fewer, rather than more, fundamental beliefs would reflect the thinking of a large number of (or possibly most) Adventists. Allowing for a responsible degree of academic freedom

for our theologians and for a measure of diversity in denominational publications, and for experimenting with non-traditional ways of being church, and with new ways of “translating” our message to reach new kinds of audiences—all these things certainly carry risks. But enforcing a one-and-only correct interpretation of what we consider to be biblical truth is no option—simply because experience has shown that this can never work!

Finally, one aspect must be highlighted. It is time to take another good look at global Adventism. We see strengths and weaknesses. We discern polarization and much theological diversity. However, if we analyze what is happening within the various “modalities,” we continue to see, behind all diversity, an underlying unity. We may think differently about the nature of Christ, but for all of us, Christ is the Lord and the “Author” of our salvation. We may keep the Sabbath in different ways, but we all continue to believe that the seventh-day Sabbath is a precious gift to mankind. We may disagree on aspects of end-time prophecies, but we are united in our conviction that “a great controversy” continues to rage and that history moves, maybe slowly, but surely, towards the climactic Coming of Christ. And this applies to most doctrines: we can gratefully acknowledge of a fundamental unity behind the significant diversity. Moreover, we must give one another the time and the space to grow in our understanding of biblical truth and be willing to learn from others as we prayerfully seek answers to our questions.

Keeping this in mind, we do not have to be obsessed— or even concerned—by the existence of modalities, but we can see the various theological streams as expressions of the rich Christian-Adventist experience that we want to share with people around us.

–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]

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]