by Reinder Bruinsma  |  9 August 2019  |

A few days ago a professor I know who has an educational background in law and theology started a discussion on a Facebook group for pastors that I follow regularly, about the question of how pastors in their preaching might address some of the moral dilemmas that are currently hotly debated at all levels in the United States. How might they do this in a way that respects the separation between church and state? Whenever, in the United States, one speaks about the glaring inequality between rich and poor, the increasing influence of Islam, racial hatred or the refugee problem (and not to mention gun control, the LGBTI-issue and the controversy concerning climate change), one inevitably enters areas where Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided. A pastor who speaks about such topics from his/her pulpit will have people in the pews who belong to either party. Some are great admirers of Donald Trump, while others believe this president is not just a danger for the future of America but a great threat for the entire world. 

It is no secret that Adventists in the United States are just as heavily polarized on all these terrains as is the population in general. I have learned from experience during visit to the United States (and mixing with many American Adventists) that I must be rather guarded in my criticisms, since many do not appreciate any negative words. I have been utterly amazed to find, for example, even among well-informed Adventist friends whom I highly respect, a lot of resistance against a type of universal health care coverage that, for a considerable time, has proven to function quite well in a number of European countries (among those, my own country). When this approach is labeled “socialist” it surely betrays a definition of socialism that differs significantly from that of most people in western Europe.

Many people will refer to the need for absolute separation between church and state as soon as dilemmas are brought to the table that have political dimensions. It should be pointed out that there are many different ways in which the relationship between church and state can be arranged. The important thing is that church and state must each be able to function well in their own sphere, and that all faith communities share in the same rights and duties.

Americans will often claim that their country has realized a full separation between church and state, but looking at this as a European I am not so sure. Whenever I visit a church across the big pond, I see, to my amazement, a national flag on the podium. And I wonder why there is no protest when the president ends his speeches with the words: “God bless America!” And how is it that American leaders will host “prayer breakfasts” and that the Senate has a “chaplain”? I could mention many more things that make me wonder. And, certainly, the close contact between the president and some evangelical leaders does not seem to fit into a model of total separation between church and state. Or do I miss something?

But this may be as it is. My interest here is the prophetic role of the pastor in the pulpit. The studies of our Sabbath School quarterly of the current quarter remind us of the prophetic role of all Christ’s followers—and, thus, most certainly also of church leaders, at every level and most specifically at the level of the local church. Injustice and evil must be addressed in the light of the gospel. A Christian is called to protest against all evil in society and to do all he/she can to help eliminate this evil.

Of course, my concern does not just apply to the United States. I admit that also in the Netherlands, the country where I live, we find racist tendencies, and there are right-wing radical groups that flaunt their islamophobia and/or homophobia (sometimes in addition to their antisemitism). In the Netherlands also, the material prosperity is very unequally distributed (not as badly as in the USA, but nonetheless… ). Regrettably, we also find far too many church-going Christians who do not want to accept genuine refugees into their community, and would gladly see all assistance to developing countries halted tomorrow. 

So where does that leave me as a minister of the gospel?

I have to try to translate the gospel into the concrete situation of the society in which I live. I must have the courage to call evil by its name, even if this means that I fiercely disagree with some political parties and some popular opinion leaders. I realize that, in so doing, I will offend some (many?) church members, whether or not I will mention particular political movements or persons by name.

In extreme cases this may mean that some members decide to leave the church, or will stay home when I am scheduled as the preacher. Yet, this may not stop us from proclaiming the values of God’s kingdom loudly and clearly. In an ever more polarized environment this presents an enormous challenge. It may cause some to accuse us of violating the separation between church and state. So be it. To remain silent when hatred is being promoted, when large ethnic or racial groups are seriously discriminated against, when the rich become ever richer and the poor ever poorer, and when large groups of people in the margins of our society are overlooked, is no option.

It truly is no option when we decide to take God’s Word seriously with regard to love for our neighbors, equality for all, justice and tolerance. I wish my colleagues, everywhere—and especially in the United States—a lot of courage and wisdom from on high!

Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education and church administration on three continents, his last post before retiring as president of the Netherlands Union. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching and writing. His latest books are Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers “on the Margins” and In All Humility: Saying “No” to Last Generation Theology.