As the new General Conference executive secretary, Erton Köhler holds one of the most influential positions in the worldwide Adventist Church. What do his record and past statements reveal about his thinking and leadership?
In some of his classes, a former professor at the Adventist Theology Seminary in São Paulo, part of Brazil Adventist University (UNASP), used to repeat a phrase about the man now executive secretary of the General Conference: "Erton is a young man with an old man's mind." Despite Erton Köhler’s activity on social media, the professor’s comment reflects Köhler’s approach as a leader in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America.
In fact, in 2007, when he began to serve as president of the South American Division, a controversy arose about his competence for the position because of his age—at the time, he was in his late 30s. Compared to his predecessors, Köhler was very young, and aware of some discomfort with this, Revista Adventista (Brazil’s Adventist Review), in an interview with the new leader, asked whether “the fact of being young represents any concern.” The pastor assured that being young is a call for divine dependence. He explained that “if the choice comes from God, there should be less room for worrying and more opportunity for prayer.” Köhler also noted that in the past, God had chosen young people to lead in mission, and that the church should do the same in the last days. Such a promise, for him, “may be starting now.”
In the same interview, Köhler showed much enthusiasm when talking about young people. Not only did he express a desire for them to be more involved in church activities, he saw in them a potential for creativity. However, he set limits. Highlighting what should be the commitment of young people to the institution, he stated that “the strength of young people within the church is directly linked to their involvement with the church program and its needs.” It was, he emphasized, “a time for less ‘novelty’ and more depth.”
Prior to his presidency, while serving as youth ministry leader for the South American Division from 2003-06, Köhler authored a series of articles in Revista Adventista titled “You Ask,” and later, “Compass.” In it, he devoted space to answering questions sent in by readers, some of a controversial nature, others more personal. The material provides a look into some of Köhler's views on theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural matters.
On Adventist Entertainment
Of the many topics covered, a number involved themes related to the media and, therefore, to the types of entertainment common to Adventist youth during the period. When asked, for example, about the practice of playing video games—especially sports games—Köhler advises his readers to abandon the habit, even though, at first, it might seem harmless. From his perspective, the biggest danger of video games is addition, which would ensnare the player in two ways. First, it involved the time spent on them (24 hours a day, or 100 hours for each game, according to Köhler). Second, because of their strong visual appeal, they deeply immersed the player in the game. To strengthen his argument, he drew on a quote from Ellen White in Testimony Treasures, in which White predicted “distressing times” that would entangle human beings in a series of vices.
For Köhler, video games are harmful because of a number of reasons. They cause physical and visual fatigue, create social isolation, lead to difficulties in concentrating, shrink vocabulary, and lessen the desire to read. Furthermore, they dehumanize their players by stimulating aggressive behavior and desensitizing them to real problems, and by blocking logical thinking, resulting in poor school performance. Physically, they increase blood pressure, trigger repetitive stress, cause various injuries, and create spinal column problems. Ultimately, they may stimulate a fascination with demons (zombies, shamans, vampires, dragons, etc.).
Besides video games, Köhler also ventured into the subject of “good music,” even offering an interview in Revista Adventista after the vote on the official Adventist document on music. In fact, he espoused a strong sentiment when it came to discussing musical styles. “You have to be very careful when choosing or condemning any Adventist music or musician,” he stated, adding, “We don't have a list of ‘forbidden’ or ‘authorized’ musicians.” Even so, based on an analysis of four criteria that he presents, he seems to have a personal list.
The first one concerns the message of the music. He assumes that it alters the behavior and beliefs of the listener, in addition to being easily memorized. Therefore, “songs with secular lyrics, which present values different from those we believe (spiritualism, infidelity, ridicule of God, sensualism etc.), should not be listened to.” The same, according to Köhler, should be applied to religious music with “empty biblical messages” or that which is “theologically mistaken.”
The second principle relates to the “performer,” that is, the singer or members of the musical ensemble. According to Köhler, they should exhibit morals consistent with their Adventist faith. To do this, you need to assess “the lifestyle, beliefs, and behavior of the singer you hear.” If by any chance you find evidence that the performer fails in such matters, “the music should not be listened to, because it is empty and has no power. In fact, the singers themselves can have a malevolent influence on the lifestyle of their audience.”
The third principle involves the “rhythm” of music. While good music can sound upbeat or reflective, for Köhler, it doesn't put rhythm above the message. That is, worthwhile music appeals to reason. “When the music moves the body more than the heart, it becomes dangerous […] it opens the door to other styles of music that are not healthy.” The problem of rhythm is linked to the last principle, reaction. One must also evaluate what kind of result the songs may produce in a person’s life. If they evoke sensualism, anger, insomnia, or revolt, for example, the songs must be rejected.
Also involved in the discussion about music was the issue of “gospel shows.” Köhler believes that true worship of God cannot take place in such environments for at least five reasons: (1) The focus of such productions is not on God but on the promotion of an artist. (2) They echo secular programs with “the colors, the lighting, the instruments, the personal appearance, the applause, the whistles, the groupies,” etc. (3) They weaken Christian music by limiting it just to an artistic expression. (4) They secularize Christian music by using it for commercial interests. (5) And they present danger because of the incentive to “physical or emotional agitation of the public,” precisely because they are linked to “charismatic movements.”
In May 2004, Köhler published an article in Revista Adventista titled “Going to the movies: the best choice?” In it, he disapproves of Adventists attending movie theaters—even though he does not demonize the use of TV or DVDs. All arguments revolve around his main statement: “We need to consider that cinema is part of a larger reality, which involves the great controversy between Christ and Satan. This battle has to do with influencing thoughts and desires.” Considering that images and sounds can powerfully impact the human mind, cinema becomes, for Köhler, a satanic instrument.
At first, after affirming the theological context of the great controversy, Köhler tries to refute one of the arguments used by Adventist moviegoers, the claim that “cinema is no longer the perverted place it was in the past.” In response, he reminds his readers that society's moral values have become increasingly degraded—that is, what was regarded as perverse in the past may be currently seen as normal. “What was not accepted a few years ago and parents did not offer to their children, today is not seen as a problem. So, the families are there [at the cinema].” To strengthen his argument, he offers another example. “About 20 years ago, homosexuality was not well regarded by society or families. Today the reality is completely different, and it is not even necessary to go into details. Because the position of society has changed, must our concept of right or wrong change as well?”
Later, Köhler defends his opposition to cinema because of its impact on the human mind. “The size of the screen makes the influence of the film much stronger.” The problem, obviously, is related to the type of message communicated, which, according to Köhler, includes sex, violence, and the occult in 80 percent of the content. “Usually, Satan uses this whole structure to make sin interesting and attractive, as is always his strategy.”
In a final appeal, he compares the movie theater to a church, explaining that the church is “a public place where the will of God is taught and He is worshiped.” The cinema, on the other hand, “because of what it presents publicly, becomes a teaching center for the messages of the enemy of God.” Even though many Adventists at the time claimed to go there to watch movies such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), Köhler assures the reader that our criteria of right or wrong are dubious, and going to the cinema to see a good movie can lead to bad ones.
On Worker Politics in Adventism
When asked about the struggles of agrarian reform in Brazil, at first Köhler states that the Adventist Church has no official position on the issue because it involves diverse motivations and contexts. However, he then disapproves of such movements based on their “revolutionary” ideals. Köhler suggests that the struggle of the landless in Brazil is motivated by “acts of violence” and “disrespect for laws and authorities.” With that, he reflects the opinion—very common in Brazil among those of the far right, or supporters of Jair Bolsonaro—that the struggle for agrarian reform is illegal and aggressive. From this perspective, he discourages Adventists from participating in such movements: “We cannot associate with groups that, however much they defend important causes, use improper means or motivation to do so.”
His opinion on the struggle of the landless not only reflects his lack of understanding of the subject but also his misinformation about the number of Adventists in extreme poverty who fought (and still fight) for a piece of land in Brazil. Zelota showed that between 1995 and 2001, there were at least 12 such settlements with Adventists spread across the country. Zelota also interviewed members who participated in such movements, all determined not to use violence in acts of protest. The Revista Adventista article itself makes it clear that church members and leaders participated in such movements.
Not satisfied with just disapproving of the struggles for land reform, Köhler devotes a few paragraphs to discrediting the political left. He states that, as Adventists, “we do not believe in revolutions or struggles, because we have Jesus Christ on our side, who set the example of not taking justice into our own hands.” He also makes a distinction between “revolution” and “social transformation,” claiming that the latter does not aim to change the system but to transform people's hearts. Finally, from a personal ideological perspective, he states, “We cannot allow our personal, political, or ideological interests to be stronger than our message or the Christian identity we possess.” He reflects the same sentiment, albeit mildly, in an article titled “The Christian and The Strikes.” In that piece, he responds to a question about Adventist participation in seeking labor rights. Even assuming that the citizen has the approval of the law to protest for his privileges as a worker, Köhler says that the Adventist should distance himself from such political activities, since the Christian “does not take justice into his own hands.”
Much of his argumentation consists of quotes from Ellen White on the situation of labor and trade unions, which, in her time, reacted aggressively to the violence committed against workers. On this point, Köhler is aligned with the Spirit of Prophecy and does not strive to “demonize” the union movements but to assume that Adventists associating with them could lead church members to give up their Christian principles—in this case, the rejection of violence.
In general, when commenting on Adventists' association with strikes, one senses his unease toward the left, especially when he says, “Our greatest example must be Christ who, in a time of profound injustice, created no movement of social liberation, not a political revolution, let alone a group of activists.” Erton Köhler believes that the “instrument of social justice more efficient than strikes” is “faith and prayer,” and that “the testimony is more important than the vindication.”
As stated in the official South American Division policy document, Köhler believes that Christians must comply with their legal obligations until they conflict with divine laws—which, presumably, would not apply to the situations mentioned above. However, even though he claims political neutrality, like many South American Division church leaders, he expresses the typical viewpoint of the Brazilian far right, especially on occasions when he questions social movements and struggles.
On Adventist Christian Modesty
In the April 2006 Revista Adventista issue, Erton Köhler was asked about wearing jewelry, specifically about wearing graduation rings. In short, he explained that “there are two types of jewelry: ornamental and functional. Ornamental ones only beautify, while functional ones have a defined purpose, as is the case with the wedding ring. The biblical position is different for both, and the church reflects that stance.”
Much of his explanation takes into account what Ángel Manuel Rodríguez presented regarding the use of ornaments, with the aim of teaching that “the way we adorn ourselves declares the values we have as Christians.” In short, in addition to disapproving of ornamental jewelry and questioning the use of possible functional ones, Köhler concludes that the graduation ring would be classified as “ornamental jewelry” and therefore advised against by the church.
On another occasion, while commenting on waltz dancing at debutante balls, Köhler added another argument about the use of jewelry: “Dance appears in the history of the people of God in the Old Testament, but it gradually disappears. In the days of Christ, the New Testament period, it no longer appears. It is not part of the formation of the Christian church. This issue is similar to that of polygamy and the wearing of jewelry, which were also part of God's people in the beginning, but were naturally withdrawn and also do not appear in the formation of the Christian church.”
Erton Köhler manages to be clearer about his view of modesty in an article on clothing. He concludes that “the biblical principle about personal appearance involves two key words: modesty and decency.” Using some biblical texts as well as quotes from Ellen White, Köhler offers his definitions: modesty “is not extravagant, does not have an exaggerated cost, is not intended to draw attention to itself,” and decency “is covering the body without drawing attention to it.”
In modern times, he concludes, “fashion, for the most part, is appealing and sensual, and that is why it is dangerous.” Given this difficulty, when it comes to Christian modesty, Adventists must avoid any ostentation that feeds their vanities. “When we talk about jewelry, makeup and other accessories, the point should be: who is the most important or who will show up?” Otherwise, in terms of decency, “clothing exists to cover and protect, not to shape, highlight, or imply something else. In this context come the discussions about the length of skirts, the use of pants by women, etc.”
Also regarding appearance, in the Revista Adventista issue of May 2005, Köhler takes an unusual position about long hair among men. A young man asked the magazine if he could let his hair grow. In response, Köhler replied that “long hair for men is not just a matter of personal taste or aesthetics.” In short, it would be an unnecessary appeal to vanity and a reversal of feminine and masculine standards in society and culture.
First of all, Köhler claims that men with long hair pay a lot of attention to their external appearance. As a Christians, one’s commitment “is to have a discreet appearance, to the point of calling attention to the interior, to what we are.” So, for a man, letting his hair grow is a show of vanity and could even cause “malicious comments” or “bring questions.”
“The Bible always defends that man and woman must maintain distinct characteristics,” he maintains. Thus, long hair should be exclusive to women, as it “is a feminine characteristic.” Furthermore, long hair also risks associating the Christian with what Köhler considers dangerous ideologies: “hippies, outlaws, Afro-ritualist movements, and others cultivate the image of the man with long hair.” Therefore, he says, it can also connote rebelliousness.
On Sports in Adventist Christian Life
In July 2005, Revista Adventista received a letter from a young man who practiced martial arts and who had received criticism for it from his fellow church members. Undecided, he turned to Erton Köhler for advice. The church leader was blunt: “This is dangerous grounds in which Adventist youth should not get involved.” While acknowledging that wrestling is often done as an Olympic sport and communicates benefits such as self-control, self-confidence, and self-defense, Köhler warned, “You have to understand what’s behind things.”
His arguments against martial arts can be summed up in two points. In the first instance, martial arts carry a strong influence of Eastern and New Age philosophies. In other words, to practice them, it is inevitable that the martial artist will come into contact with mystical and philosophical knowledge contrary to the Christian faith. “The Bible […] teaches that we are not gods, but that we depend on God. The idea that we could become like God was the first deception presented by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.”
The second argument explains that we struggle against at least two real forms of violence throughout life: the spiritual and the social. Against the spiritual, the Christian must use suitable instruments such as the Bible and prayer. Against the social, according to Köhler, experts advise “don't react.” He adds: “The problem is that any of these self-defense tactics can become a weapon. In a moment of anger, tension, threat, or aggression, the fight intensifies, causing irreparable damage. That's why most people buy a firearm.”
Erton Köhler also addresses soccer. When asked in the August 2003 issue of Revista Adventista about its practice among Christians, he recognized the intensity of the controversy, especially when he considered some passages in which Ellen White “condemns” American football. Therefore, he argues in the following sense: “It is important for you to evaluate how the sport has been practiced by the young people in your church.”
For Köhler, soccer presented at least five problems. It is a sport (1) usually played passionately, like an addiction, with unnecessary excesses (2) that lead people to direct confrontation, aggression, and arguments. (3) In addition, it causes misunderstanding among its participants, (4) encourages competition and rivalry, and (5) conflicts with Ellen White's guidelines, which would advise against such games.
To make soccer a suitable sport, Köhler devotes the other half of his article to teaching readers how the above difficulties could be overcome, and soccer played correctly. According to Köhler, “The great reality is that the evil of soccer is not in the sport itself, but in the way it is conducted, promoted, or practiced.”
In addition, he also comments on another physical activity, which may or may not be directly associated with sport: dancing. When asked about the matter in the March 2006 issue of Revista Adventista, he acknowledges that the Bible mentions the subject of dance on 27 occasions. But he argues that “the Hebrew meaning of the word ‘dance’” carries a different meaning than the current one. “This type of dance consists of movements such as tapping the feet, jumping, turning, and making small jumps with the feet together.”
He explains that while there is a correct way to dance, even in church it would be unfeasible. “If you start jumping and dancing in the center aisle of your church next Sabbath, don't expect to be warmly received.” It would, in his view, act as a “stone of stumbling” to the other members. Furthermore, Köhler also understands that dancing, as it is popularly known, was perverted by Satan. In ancient times, people used it to worship false gods while sexually stimulating the participants. Today, “dance halls are often crowded, smoke-polluted places where alcohol and drugs are used.”
When specifically commenting on waltz dancing at debutante balls, in addition to the previous arguments, Köhler presents some quotes by Ellen White in order to discourage the practice. He advised a father not to waltz with his 15-year-old daughter, claiming that would not be the best paternal example for a Christian. “You have to ask, though, is this the best reference for this moment? Is this the habit she should take as a stimulus for this new phase? There are so many beautiful habits with more useful meaning for a daughter's life. Why make an exception on dangerous grounds?”
Old Wine for Old Wineskins
The advice Köhler offered to Revista Adventista readers between 2003 and 2006 covers a wide range and could not be summarized in a brief article. He also addressed such topics as theatrical exhibitions, Saturday night activities, relationships, masturbation, depression, perfectionism, Sunday Laws, among other topics common among Adventist youth at that time.
Since almost two decades have passed since he presented his previous positions, it would not be wise to associate them with his current opinions. After all, it is possible that with time and with study he has refined his viewpoints on the mentioned topics and given up some of his old beliefs. But this can only be proven if he demonstrates evidence of new viewpoints, or more pragmatic attitudes that indicate a change of perspective.
Still, some things continue to be troubling. In mid-2012, for example, Pastor Therezinha Barbalho received an invitation to preach at the Brazil Adventist University Engenheiro Coelho (UNASP-EC) Church. Originally from Brazil, she worked as a pastor in the United States (and is now the pastor of the Silver Spring Church in Maryland). As reported at the time, Erton Köhler, then the South American Division president, contacted the university's administration and demanded that they ban Barbalho from speaking at any public meeting. He allegedly claimed that the pastor was part of a “renegade conference which ordained women as pastors.” According to a source from the UNASP administration, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the information published on that occasion was based on Barbalho’s testimony on the matter, and the invitation extended to the pastor did not have the objective of discussing women’s ordination.
Regardless of the details related to the case, what happened reflects a modus operandi common to the functioning of the South American Division, centered on the decisions of Köhler as president, and reflecting his theological thinking on cultural and ecclesiastical issues.
During the past 10 years, the church in South America has recorded a significant number of young people 17–30 years of age leaving its membership. Church sources have openly acknowledged this reality. Between 2011 and 2020, around 674,408 left the Adventist community against 534,136 who became members in the same period—a balance of negative 26.3 percent.
This data shows a worrying rejection by young people. It is from this Latin American perspective that the world church should evaluate the past performance of the new General Conference secretary. Was Erton Köhler's administration, as he asserted in 2007, a call for young people to lead in the last days, or did it merely reflect, once again, an attempt to pour Adventism into old wineskins?
Notes and References:
 IASD. “Entrevista: Desafios e sonhos do novo líder.” Revista Adventista, January 2007, pp. 6, 7.
 Erton Köhler, “Videogame,” Revista Adventista, September 2005, p. 19.
 Idem., “Boa música,” Revista Adventista, August 2006, p. 19.
 Idem., “Entrevista: Parâmetros para a música,” Revista Adventista, August 2005, pp. 5, 6.
 Idem., “Show ou louvor?” Revista Adventista, November 2003, p. 19.
 Idem., “Ir ao cinema: a melhor escolha?” Revista Adventista, May 2004, pp. 18, 19.
 Erton. Luta por terras. Revista Adventista, p. 19, Jun., 2006.
 Erton Köhler, “O cristão e as greves,” Revista Adventista, January 2005, p. 19.
 Idem., “Joias,” Revista Adventista, April 2006, p. 19.
 Idem., “Vestuário,” Revista Adventista, Jan.uary 2004, p. 19.
 Idem., “Cabelo comprido,” Revista Adventista, May 2005, p. 19.
 Idem., “Artes Marciais,” Revista Adventista, July 2005, p. 19.
 Idem., “Você pergunta: Futebol,” Revista Adventista, August 2003, p. 19.
 Idem., “Dança,” Revista Adventista, March 2006, p. 19.
 Idem., “Valsa de aniversário,” Revista Adventista, June 2005, p. 19.
 Idem., “Teatro e encenações,” Revista Adventista, February 2004, p. 19.
 Idem., “O que fazer sábado à noite?” Revista Adventista, November 2006, p. 19.
 Idem., “Jugo desigual,” Revista Adventista, December 2003, p. 19.
 Idem., “Masturbação,”.Revista Adventista, July 2003, p. 19.
 Idem., “Depressão,”.Revista Adventista, July 2004, p. 19; “Depressão,” Revista Adventista, April 2003, p. 19.
 Idem., “Perfeccionismo,” Revista Adventista, July 2004, p. 19.
 Idem., “Decreto Dominical,” Revista Adventista, January 2006, p. 19.
Elias Batista Jr., who writes under a pseudonym, is a theologian, journalist, and editor-in-chief of Zelota magazine.
Title image: Erton Köhler speaks at the General Conference Annual Council in 2014. At the time, he was president of the South American Division. [Ansel Oliver] / Adventist Media Exchange (CC BY 4.0)
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