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Germany: Ausgezeichnet Adventures in Revival and Reformation

In his first year in office the newly elected president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ted Wilson, has spoken at five major events in Germany.

In some countries, especially in the United States, German Adventism is still perceived under the “Conradi-Syndrome”. L. R. Conradi, this highly gifted evangelist, author and administrator had managed church growth rates to rival and at times outdo those of the Adventist homeland in America. This, however, didn’t cause his schism from the world church. It was rather his independent direction in theology and church organization as well as his critical attitude toward Ellen G. White. This is the legacy with which we are still dealing in Germany. Additionally reservations are palpable that remain largely non-verbal, but we sense them distinctly from time to time. Lately however, reports und rumors seem to have spread in the U.S. painting a rather sinister picture of the church in Germany. This impression is amplified by publications like the BRI’s recent review of Rolf Pöhler’s book on the 28 fundamental beliefs (1). This scathing review has upset many in this country because Pöhler’s book is an official publication of the church in Germany. So when Ekkehard Müller denounces German-speaking churches as being “deeply polarized” (2), many feel that such generalized statements are of little help and accuracy.

In order to understand the current situation of the Adventist churches in Germany more accurately, a couple of preliminary remarks from church history are in place. In Europe, ever since the reformation, the adherence to a church or denomination has always been tantamount to a battle cry. The two major Christian faiths—the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran church—initially stood fiercely opposed against each other. Because the political powers played into the scheme, this led to much bloodshed. Add to this a phenomenon largely unknown to the American religious landscape: the difference between a church and a cult or sect. Up until recently (and quite commonly still in public perception), we Adventists here in Germany were being labeled a sect or cult in public opinion, with all of the painful prejudices. Only in 2009 have we changed our official name to “free church” (3) (Freikirche der STA) instead of the traditional label “community” (Gemeinschaft der STA) that we were called hitherto.

Another particularity of religious life in Germany is the geographical diversity of different forms of religiosity. In one part in the west of Germany, the Rhineland, Christian faith traditionally took on the form of conventicles, small house churches gathered around one leader, joining in bible study. This is where Adventism in Germany originated. The Lindermann-movement in Rhineland was the cradle of German Adventism. Equally located in this area is pietism. The northern and eastern parts of Germany are predominantly Lutheran. Additionally in the west and the south we have a strong representation of the Catholic Church.

For Adventist churches in Germany this means—and I write this as a church historian—that we are acquainted with a Lutheran type of Adventism, with the religiosity of conventicles, with pietistic Adventism as well as with so-called crypto-catholic Adventists. Additionally however one new element has been added to this, namely to use the terms Lutheran Adventism or pietistic Adventism in a somewhat judgmental demeanor. Sometimes the terms “liberal” or “conservative” are used, sometimes the label fundamentalist. Representatives of all these can be found in almost any church and for a long time they managed to coexist peacefully. That has changed lately.

Don’t misunderstand me: the majority of the churches in Germany are theologically healthy, mission-oriented, living harmoniously their faith. And in the past it was of minor importance whether a church was more Lutheran or more pietistic in their tradition, whether the stress lay more on justification by faith or on personal piety, with sometimes a bend towards perfectionism and an emphasis on just works, hidden behind the term sanctification. The differences were known, but the different groups respected each other. Up until recently.

Today we observe that those Adventists more inclined towards pietism (that is more in the tradition of Calvin than that of Luther) come to understand themselves as true Adventists. They insist on a more rigid traditional form of Adventism, fighting against a more supposedly liberal brand of Adventism. While there is agreement in the basic doctrines of our faith tradition, there are distinct differences when it comes to the Adventist specifics. As long as Jan Paulsen was president of the world church, conservative forces in Germany remained rather silent. Significantly, Ekkehard Müller’s book review was only published in 2011, though Pöhler’s book had been in print since 2008. The theological change of course, begun in Atlanta in 2010, has fuelled the controversy in Germany.

Which is the background for a phenomenon which to my knowledge is singular in the history of the Advent movement: the newly elected president of the General Conference, in his first year in office, has visited Germany five times, in order to preach in five major conventions. Perhaps he was alerted that Germany was in imminent danger or that German Adventists were on the verge of schism or at least heading towards disavowing Adventism. One or two visits would have been considered as normal, but five trips—that prompts further questions.

Analyzing one of his recent talks I realized that the subject matter has remained the same since his initial inaugral presidential sermon in Atlanta last year. The president’s massive commitment to stamp these topics into German Adventism lead me to conclude that there is an alleged deficiency perceived in our country. A fallacy certainly due to one-sided information.

The outcome of his addresses was predictable: the members in Germany were divided. Several cheered a message that they had missed for too long. Elder Wilson’s sermons were characterized by sincerity and a high sense of responsibility, but they tended to be full of old phrases and clichés. I don’t claim to judge the reactions of the individual listeners, but I found it disenchanting to hear a formulae that smacked of being regressive, leaving me with the distinct impression that they were uttered to satisfy the needs of the fundamentalists in the church.

Observing the aftermath of Wilson’s address, it appeared that many left the meetings deeply discouraged. Due to lack of objective data I am not able to tell if they represented the majority. Many had hoped to glean directions on how to deal with current situation in the world. Some perhaps hoped to gain new insights into the interpretation of difficult Bible texts. Those with a passion for theology (and there are many of them in Germany) know about theological differences within the world church. Did Ted Wilson admit that an Adventist theology could be worded differently for various cultures? No. All we got was the old stereotypical phrases. There seems to be a conflation of the term reformation with restoration. What is expected of us and what we are called to has little to do with genuine reformation and much with restoration. Every reformation bears in it the seed of something new, but restoration focuses on the past.

So I ask myself if I am big-headed in concluding that Ted Wilson never really addressed the issues relevant to us, but rather spoke to us from an altogether different tradition of faith and thinking. I may have overheard it but what was lacking was the theological bandwidth of the world church. The reflections we heard were one-dimensional and in writing this I hear the voices of old stereotypes labeling us Germans as notorious critics and wiseacres. But our official publishing press disproves this argument as there is nothing to be found except praise and affirmation (4). But I want to give my honest assessment and I don’t think it would change, should the editors of this magazine be faced with furious letters from Germany.

How did I understand Ted Wilson’s sermons? Allow me two comments about it. First, I noticed a dangerous version of endtime theology. He never ceased to emphasize the imminence of the Second Advent. Taking as a starting point the somewhat peculiar and overemphasized notion of the latter rain (which never played a significant role in Palestine), we are called to pray for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in order to speed up the final work resulting in the coming of Jesus Christ. Many will ask themselves whether elder Wilson was never informed about the twofold ways to translate the term that Martin Luther rendered with “soon”, since another possibility is to translate it with “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” (KJV: “quickly”), which accords much better with our eschatology. What will happen if next year in all the pastors’ conventions around the globe ministers are called to preach this message, but the longed-for cosmic event will not materialize? Wouldn’t that create something like a second great disappointment among Adventists?

The second observation listening to Ted Wilson’s sermons is that during the five big conventions at which he spoke, there was a discernible shift in emphasis. His first sermon in Mannheim was very much in the tradition of his keynote address in Atlanta (5). His last , in Friedensau, having visited the Wartburg and Wittenbergshows much more grace and theological depth. Deeply convinced in Mannheim that Christ’s return would be imminent, in Friedensau he dared to formulate that it is of little relevance whether Christ will return in five or fifty years (6). That was a new beat of the drum. His thoughts in Friedensau were much more contextually reflective and showed that perhaps his visits to the places of the reformation had deeply impressed him. The main thrust of his argument was still there, but with less pathos than in Atlanta.

So I conclude with delight that Ted Wilson is a learner like all of us and perhaps he should come back to Germany more often to discuss issues with our fine theologians in Friedensau and to get to know not only those churches with a pietistic slant, but also those in the heartland of the reformation.

—Lothar E. Träder is a retired pastor, teacher and former rector of Marienhöhe, an Adventist boarding school in Darmstadt. He holds a doctorate in church history and has served the Adventist church in Germany in many committees over the past 50 years.

Photo: Euro-Africa Division Communication Dept.

  1. Rolf Pöhler, Hoffnung die uns trägt, 2008, Advent Verlag
  2. Ekkehardt Müller, BRI Newsletter, April 2011, p. 11
  3. “Free church” is a term frequently used in countries with established state churches to denote independence and an adherence to a strict state/church separation. In German “free churches” this difference is often seen in the more derogative use of the word “church” (Kirche) as opposed to the more commonly used term “community” or “congregation” (Gemeinde).
  4. For instance in the official German church paper: Adventisten Heute, No. 8/2011
  5. See my critical review of that homily (in German):
  6. Morning devotional, July 8, with university staff and employees.
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