Learn from Eastern Europe

The writer is pastor of United Church of God congregations in Ann Arbor and Lansing, Mich.

By Melvin Rhodes

DEWITT, Mich.--Since I wrote my last column, I had the opportunity to accompany my parents on a tour of three of the most famous and beautiful cities in the world-Prague, Budapest and Vienna-as well as a brief visit to Bratislava.

These four cities are the capital cities of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria and Slovakia, respectively. As many readers will know, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are fairly new countries, having come into existence only on January 1, 1993. These two, with Hungary, were a part of the communist bloc of nations occupied by the Soviet Union. After the revolutionary wave that swept through Europe in 1989, they all now embrace free-market reforms. It was an exciting time to visit.

These are not the only nations that have gone through a revolutionary period of change in less than a decade. Other formerly communist countries, including Russia itself, have undergone a similar metamorphosis, with varying degrees of success.

During this same period, the Churches of God have gone through a revolution. Some amazing lessons are to be learned from Eastern Europe's experience, lessons that add to what I wrote last month in this column when we examined British and American history.

The fact is that wherever you go in Mitteleuropa (Central Europe) the lessons are the same. The less centralized the power structure and the greater the freedom of the individual, the more successful the country and the happier its people. That's what I wrote about last month when looking back at lessons from British and American history, lessons for churches today.

For any nation to succeed in the long term, it must have effective checks and balances in its political system and as much freedom as possible for every individual to contribute his talents for the greater good of the country.

Substitute the word church for nation and the same principles apply.

Until a few years ago the Czech Republic and Slovakia were two parts of the same nation, Czechoslovakia. They agreed to separate without violence and are now two distinct nations with their own flags, currencies and culture-and their own systems of government.

Both encourage free enterprise, which has helped them advance considerably in the few years since communism.

But, whereas the Czechs are a free country with a democratic system and effective checks and balances in government, the Slovaks prefer the old-style dictatorship. It's an improvement on the Soviet-era dictatorships, authoritarian rather than totalitarian, but it's still a dictatorship.

Ironically, the reason for the split between the two peoples is that the Slovaks thought that too much power was centralized in Prague, the former capital and now the capital city of the Czech Republic. Now it seems as if everything is centralized in Bratislava: in the hands of one man.

The Slovaks are not as bad as the North Koreans, though. While we were in Slovakia I read in a newspaper that communist and atheistic North Korea has decided that its former president, who died four years ago, will be its permanent president. This is quite something for a country that denies the possibility of life after death.

Looking at what I have written, it's not too difficult to see the similarities between the Churches of God and these formerly Soviet-controlled countries. Just as we have gone in many directions, so have the peoples of these nations.

The mother church, the Worldwide Church of God, resembles the former Soviet Union today. The WCG is in a state of chaos and terminal decline, its members greatly divided, some still believing what they believed 10 or more years ago, others wanting to return to their former Protestant or Catholic religion, just as Russians are returning to Orthodoxy after decades of official ridicule of their former faith.

Although everything has changed, nothing has really changed because the main problem was the governmental system, which remains fairly intact.

One of the offshoot churches, like diehard North Korea, has practically deified the founder, Herbert Armstrong, analogous to Kim Il Sung, requiring prospective members to confess HWA as the prophesied Elijah as a requirement for baptism (chapter and verse, please!).

Another 1990s church, like Slovakia, is experimenting with reforms but still believes in dictatorship, that there must be one-man rule, the one and only true system of government. Some people like this; they are comfortable not having to think for themselves and like being told every week that they will be first in the Kingdom of God because they are a part of the one true organization.

With so many controls, the streets are safer, just as a controlled church may be more peaceful than one in which people are freer to express themselves. But people do not grow when they are controlled.

There are even "independents" within the former communist bloc, just as there are within the Body of Christ. Former Yugoslavia seems destined for perpetual chaos as nobody seems able to work with anybody else, and at times it seems as if every citizen will take his turn at being president.

Perhaps the greatest lesson is simply this: Almost 10 years after the collapse of the mother church/country, the new nations/churches still haven't settled down.

It takes time for people to adjust their thinking. As in Russia at the present, some people think the only way that works is the old way, while others want nothing to do with the old system, and most seem caught in the middle, nostalgic for the certainties of the past and hesitant about stepping into the future.

Talking of communism, I have often felt that the most perceptive book ever written on the Churches of God is George Orwell's Animal Farm, a satire on communism (and any other dictatorship; it was banned for many years in Ghana, where I lived for seven years).

In case you are not familiar with the book, I won't spoil it by revealing the plot in this column, but I heartily recommend it.

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