by Smuts van Rooyen | 15 September 2020 |
“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.…” Galatians 2:11
How does one get rid of a sense of superiority over others, whether it be racial or religious? For those of us who are not sociopaths or narcissists, our supremacy is not brazenly overt, but subtly covert. The awareness of our primacy sits only halfway down a deep cave where it is not quite subconscious, but accessible to us as a numb complacency with wrong. How can discrimination be brought from the twilight zone into sunlight?
One good answer is by means of a crisis, or what psychologists call a Significant Emotional Event (SEE). A SEE is a deeply felt experience that is so intense and mentally engaging that it forces people and institutions to look at themselves and consider change. For example, the Chernobyl disaster brings Gorbachev and Reagan to the nuclear negotiating table. Or, seeing a black man with a knee on his throat plead for his life can be the critical turning point for a nation in terms of its institutional racism.
On a much smaller scale a painful spiritual failure helped one Adventist pastor give up his sense of denominational superiority.
A Disturbing Remark
When I was the pastor of the Helderberg College congregation in that glorious Cape at the tip of Africa, I was reprimanded by a kindly, older gentleman for a problem that blindsided me. Professor Johannes Lombard was visiting our campus from the University of South Africa (UNISA) where he headed the Faculty of Theology. The old prof had been personally taught by Karl Barth in Basel, could preach a sermon second to none, and above all, had brought together a team of theologians (among them David Bosch) at UNISA who discredited apartheid on the basis of Christ’s life and teaching.
To say the least, I was in awe of the man. At the door of the church as the congregants were leaving, he shook my hand and said, “My little brother, I sense something that is different in you from many Adventists I have known. Your sermon this morning indicates that God has delivered you from the shackles of legalism. But your liberation is stunted. You still suffer from the bondage of elitist denominationalism. Won’t you let God complete his work in you and set you free from your ecclesiolatry as well?”
What had he seen that disturbed him? I had not preached on the need for other Christians to come out of Babylon, or on the Mark of the Beast, or on the Adventist advantage when it comes to health, or on Adventism as God’s final remnant, or any such a thing. But the old gentleman had long antennas that delicately probed the tone of my sermon, the flavor of my spirit and had somehow found me to still be in bondage to the superiority of my church. I cannot nail it down for certain.
At that time his remark confused me. Should I be pleased or insulted? What he gave with one hand he seemed to take away with the other. Did he not understand that my church was my life? It had given me “the truth,” a home where I belonged, and a value system that embraced the importance of family, health, work, education, and religion. I did not clearly see the elitism, the sense of spiritual superiority over other Christians he saw in my life. So I graciously thanked him, and dismissed his observation as a misreading of me by a distinguished professor.
But how is it possible for a dyed-in-the-wool Adventist person to be rid of such pernicious, semiconscious pride?
A turning point
Then this troubling event happened—for which I thank God.
I was in Finland on a preaching tour of the Scandinavian countries. At the time I was no longer working for my beloved denomination, but for an independent ministry called Good News Unlimited (GNU). GNU had sponsored my speaking trip. Adventism had by then defrocked me for questioning a cluster of doctrines I believed to be unbiblical and oppressive, and GNU had graciously given me a job.
Despite these events, I’d been invited by the administration of the Seventh-day Adventist college in Finland to speak to their students. Upon arrival at the Helsinki Airport, however, I was informed that the appointment was off because of pressure on the college from the church’s world headquarters. But, fortunately, alternate arrangements had been made by friends for the meetings to take place at a youth camp several miles from Turku, which is a city about a hundred miles due northwest of Helsinki.
So far so good. But what I did not know was that the camp was owned and operated by a group of Pentecostal folks, who would be the majority of the attendees.
The meetings were held in a tent that seated about two hundred individuals. Faculty and students from the college graciously drove to the camp for the services. My preaching on Romans seemed to be well received, as I reminded the audience that we are accepted in Christ and never by any of our own accomplishments, that God’s love for us is unconditional and never discriminatory. Everything was going as planned.
Then came that night
On that night the Pentecostal leader of the camp stepped up to the pulpit just as I finished my sermon, and immediately piggybacked a sermon of his own on mine. He did so with great enthusiasm and skill. The audience responded with loud amens, individuals raised their arms heavenward, and began to simultaneously speak in tongues—very loudly. It seemed like utter bedlam to me. At this point, a group of five or so people surrounded me where I sat, laid their hands on my head and shoulders, and prayed intensely that I would receive the Spirit right there and then. I sensed that they wanted me to break out in an ecstatic language, but I felt no urge to do so, and certainly was not going to make any effort to accommodate them. I could not breathe, and painfully endured the ordeal. When this was all over, I saw the Adventists from the college cowering on the fringes of the tent as they witnessed the affair in dismay.
And suddenly, I got robustly angry.
As the congregants began to leave, I cornered the charismatic preacher and informed him in no uncertain terms that he had greatly embarrassed me. I told him that he had hijacked the meetings that had been advertised in my name for his own purposes. I let him know that the Adventists from the college, and my employers at Good News Unlimited would now see me as Pentecostal. Finally, I demanded that he have a car ready to take me to the Turku airport by nine o’clock in the morning. I was done here. Period.
Back in my room I packed my bags, and tried to get some sleep, but I was in pure misery. God, I think, was rummaging around in the deep cellars of my Adventist soul. I tossed and turned interminably, and when in the late darkness of the night I heard someone slip something under the bedroom door, I was too exhausted to get up to check it out. When I awoke shortly after sunrise, I retrieved a folded letter on the floor (that I still have) and read this:
Dear Pastor —
You know you’re a chicken—you don’t need me telling you that. All you’ve done is switch your allegiance from one sectarian bunch to another. And if you leave now, who is going to believe what you said yesterday about unconditional acceptance? Who is going to believe what you said about not worrying over how others judge you? When Jesus spent his time associating with all the whores and the publicans, do you suppose he was concerned about his disciples’ reputation, if not his own? Not a bit.
I share a lot of the traditional Adventist concern about charismatic Christians, but I realize it’s only my conditioning, and that God loves them so much that if Jesus were here, he would spend time telling them about it without concern over what the Jews or his followers think about it.
Who do you think the “Good News” is for anyway? I know that in your heart you probably agree with me, but you’re worried about your friends at “Good News Unlimited”, and their reputation. If this is indeed the case, then your “good news” is limited and I’m afraid that’s entirely your problem.
Thank God it isn’t mine.
Although I could not make out the signature, I could easily put two and two together. Because the letter was written in a woman’s hand, on a sheet of music manuscript-paper, and in perfect English, I concluded it had to be the work of the organist, an attractive young woman visiting Finland from Canada.
Her unabashed confrontation of me accomplished what Professor Lombard had not. Now I clearly saw the ugly, ecclesial idol I bowed before, despised my arrogance and elitism. I knew that by walking away from the table of believers I had denied the Gospel. I sat down at the wooden desk and prayed for God’s pardon. When I’d finished, I went out to find my Pentecostal brother so as to ask him to cancel the transportation to the airport, to request that I be permitted to stay the course, but above all to beg forgiveness for my shabby behavior.
But he was nowhere to be found, not in his room, not in the cafeteria, not in the lounge. Strangely, no one seemed to be around. The place seemed abandoned until I went out onto the campgrounds to the meeting tent. There I found many kneeling in small groups praying together. I sat down on a vacant chair on the platform and waited for the prayer session to end.
What I did not know was that the entire camp had been called to an emergency season of prayer so as to implore the good Lord to move me not to leave them. I had absolutely no idea of why they were there, or what their prayers were about. None whatsoever. As each little group finished their intercession and looked up, amazement filled their eyes. The low hum of prayer subsided and was soon replaced by murmurs of excitement, and then awed silence. The organist came over and explained to me what was occurring. It was now my turn for utter wonderment. I can only say that there is an in-depth satisfaction of the discovery that you yourself are the answer to someone else’s prayer, that you are an anticipated miracle.
Finally their leader, using the young Canadian woman as his interpreter, turned to me and said, “Pastor, I want to apologize to you for last night. Not because we spoke in tongues—that is our belief—but because we embarrassed you. We don’t think the Spirit would do such a thing. We ask for your forgiveness. Your spiritual gift is preaching, and we want you to keep instructing us from Romans, if you feel you still can do so.” Before I could render my apology for my sin against them, he turned to the congregants and added, “Now I ask those believers who have been given a thought by the Spirit for Smuts to come forward and to edify him.”
And the folks came forward, row by row, and patiently waited in line to speak to me. Most of them. Some had words of encouragement, others a Bible text or two, some just introduced themselves and then smiled. The truth is, I remember very little of their verbal affirmation. What I do remember is that over a hundred followers of Jesus kissed me on the cheeks, or on the forehead, and at the back of my neck. I remember our copious tears, which washed away my Adventist arrogance, and my shameful ecclesiolatry. The Holy Spirit was present in the power of love and finally made me ecumenical.
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
And make me love you as I ought to love.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies;
No sudden rending of the veil of clay;
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.
Smuts van Rooyen is a retired pastor living in Central California. He holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Andrews University. His ministry was divided between teaching undergraduate religion and pastoring. He retired as the pastor of the Glendale City Church. He has been married to Arlene for a long time.