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Adventists: Christians Without Borders?

Border Crossing

I am fascinated by borders. You drive through an area and suddenly houses change in architectural style. The cars have different kinds of license plates, and the languages people speak change abruptly after crossing a geographic boundary. 

Nowadays in much of Europe there are no longer any passport and customs checkpoints. When I drive to Sweden to visit my son and his family, I do not need to show anyone my documents. I see the so-called Schengen arrangement of some 30 European countries—which in principle no longer apply mutual border controls—as a very positive development. (I also am happy about the fact that I can use the same euro notes and coins in 20 different countries!)

Just a few decades ago things were quite different throughout Europe. I think back with horror of the controls between the former “free” West-Berlin and Communist East-Germany. Even between my own country, the Netherlands, and neighboring countries, real borders existed until recently. On my first school trip outside my country, men in uniform came into the train at the Germany-Netherlands border to check passports. When I worked in the Adventist publishing house in the 1970s and 1980s and transported books from the Netherlands to Belgium, I routinely stopped at the Dutch-Belgian border for VAT and customs declarations. 

Unfortunately, global travel remains cumbersome, as some countries have sealed themselves off from the outside world. Some parts of the world go beyond occasional signs marking borders, instead erecting formidable border fences. The division between North and South Korea is perhaps the most tragic example. But walls between Mexico and the U.S., parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories, and in a number of places in Eastern and Central Europe, keep people cruelly away from each other.

A world with borders

A world without any borders is an impossibility. Even the free movement of people and goods does not preclude borders of some sort. Borders are necessary to order society. This is true on a large as well as a small scale. A country must know where its right to tax begins and ends. A farmer needs to know where to let cows graze, and a homeowner must know where the garden of the neighbor begins.

At the same time, we must realize that most borders are man-made and that they can be very problematic. The straight lines on the map of Africa often run through the traditional lands of ethnic groups who have lived there for centuries. Now their historic grounds may lie partly in one country and partly in another—with all the tensions this produces. We also see examples of this in Europe, especially in the Balkans, with the extra complications of religious borders that do not always coincide with national borders.

Visiting border crossings can be an interesting adventure. Pakistan and India have been hostile to each other for decades. Just over 20 kilometers from the Pakistani city of Lahore, there is a border crossing in the highway between the two countries. On a visit to Pakistan, I was taken to see the daily ceremonies at the border, the so-called Beating Retreat ritual. I was not the only one who came to watch. The grandstand built on the Pakistani side was packed with spectators. 

At exactly four o’clock each day a spectacle begins, in which a group of the tallest soldiers from both countries participate. After much menacing shouting, the metal gate is slammed shut with the loudest possible bang. If there is a real border somewhere, it is here between Pakistan and India. But as soon as the gate is slammed shut, one sees how the Indian and Pakistani participants in the ceremony use a path close to the gate to meet and have a drink together! The countries are in a state of war, but the individual people apparently see each other not just as enemies but primarily as fellow human beings.

The removal of barriers and custom offices is an important step towards closer contact and a more cordial relationship between people who live in close proximity to each other, but it does not mean that borders no longer exist, and that all people on both sides of a border now have the same loyalties. People may be free to work and to go shopping on both sides of the border, but they continue to speak their own language and have their own traditions and customs.  

A world without any borders is a utopian fantasy, but a world where borders are not synonymous with hostility, and where borders do not halt cooperation and mutual appreciation is a goal worth striving for by all possible means. 

Borders between churches

No one knows the exact number of denominations and religious organizations that exist in the world. Some think it is around 10,000 while others put the number much higher. I have driven several times along16th street in Washington, D.C., which runs for about six miles from the Beltway to the White House. I was amazed to see the many churches along this prominent north-south boulevard. I counted 37. Besides the Washington Seventh-day Adventist Church, I saw, to mention just a few: the Church of the Holy City (Catholic), All Souls Church (Unitarian), the First Church of Christ, Scientist, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Grace Lutheran Church. I wondered how much contact there might be between these different churches. 

Fortunately, in most places the ecumenical climate now is a lot more positive than in the past, when, even in small areas, churches of different denominations fiercely competed or worse. 

When a Reformed church burned down in the village where some of my relatives live, the worshippers were invited to temporarily use the Catholic church because the other, slightly more orthodox Reformed church decided they could not let their building be used by people who erred in a number of doctrines. 

Before pointing fingers, let us remember that Adventists’ relationship with Catholics has not always been marked by Christian love.

Often the boundaries between different churches are the hardest to break through. The hostile attitudes are frequently most severe between churches that are in fact quite close to each other and are related by strong historical ties. These boundaries can only be breached when we realize that they are made by people and that we need the help of the Spirit to jump over those borders or even to dismantle them.

Denominational borders will continue to exist. Doctrinal differences, worship traditions and deeply-engrained customs are real. But these borders cannot remain barriers that keep people apart as enemies, and cause people to judge and condemn each other, and question the Christian commitment of others.

Borders within churches

Church history is in many ways the tale of the controversies and the splits between congregations and denominations, at times as the result of what many would regard as minor doctrinal issues. Often the ego of church leaders has been the real cause why such splits occurred. However, differences in faith and practice do not always lead to breakaways. Most denominations feature a range of “modalities”—from left (liberal) to right (conservative), with shades in between. 

The Seventh-day Adventist denomination has stayed remarkably united as an organization, with only a few major secessions. But the unity is mostly external, in spite of all attempts of top leadership to enforce uniformity in doctrine, lifestyle and ethics. The church suffers from a deep divide between progressives and conservatives, or whatever labels we want to use. The divide has led to a bitter polarization in which different groups no longer accept others as “true” Adventists. Some talk of a “shaking” needed to ensure that the church can become a perfect “remnant,” ready for translation at Christ’s return. The walls between the different Adventist “modalities” are formidable and they are growing. It is unrealistic to think that differences between the 22 million plus members of the Adventist Church will disappear any time soon. A global movement with adherents from a myriad of nationalities and ethnic groups and a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds must be expected to display diversity. The measure of people’s theological education and the degree of their spiritual maturity also determine to a large extent where they fit in the Adventist web. But this should not cause the kind of culture wars that cast their dark shadow over our denomination (that so often projects superiority over other denominations). 

Amid our diversity, we have so much in common. A greater effort to understand each other and willingness to learn from those who differ from us will go far to reduce the ugly polarization that currently compromises our Christian witness.

Christians without borders

I have always admired of the organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Their staff of 61,000 men and women cares for people in more than 70 countries who are affected by conflict, disease outbreaks, and natural and human-made disasters. They refuse to recognize borders as they fulfill their humanitarian calling, often under unbelievably difficult circumstances. 

I wonder what it would take for us to be truly “Christians without borders.” Again, this does not mean all differences among us will disappear. Germans will not suddenly speak Dutch. Catholics do not suddenly take leave of their church and en masse convert to Lutheranism or the Baptist faith. Admirers of Doug Batchelor will not any start faithfully reading Spectrum any time soon. The Adventist church’s diversity will not disappear and should not be disregarded as sinful or a handicap to be overcome. But the hostility, that so often is connected with the borders between people, is definitely sinful and must be surmounted. 

The apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14 about the border between Jewish Christians and Christians with a gentile background. He referred to this border as a “barrier,” and “a dividing wall of hostility.” The differences between these categories of Christians were not eliminated, but the “hostility” that marked the “dividing wall” had in Christ been radically removed. The believers were called to be Christians without the border that made them adversaries, even enemies. 

Can Seventh-day Adventists around the globe become Christians without hostile borders, who in all our diversity no longer recognize barriers of race and gender, and do away with hostility in our relationships with those of a different theological modality? As members of the one body of Christ this is a noble goal. In Christ any wall of hostility can and must be removed. 

We must not be bound by:

  • racial borders
  • gender
  • borders between North and South
  • different theologies

About the author

A native of the Netherlands, Reinder Bruinsma retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a BA from Newbold College and an MA from Andrews University, he earned a BDiv with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. Before retiring, he was president of the Netherlands Union. More from Reinder Bruinsma.
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