May 2, 2015

Adventist Church in Hungary Reconciles With Breakaway Group After 40 Years

Updated at 11:45 p.m. ET with details from Benjamin D. Schoun, general vice president, Adventist Church

, news editor, Adventist Review

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hungary and a breakaway group of hundreds of former Adventists has agreed to put aside past grievances and work toward healing a 40-year schism.

The Hungarian church split in 1975 amid a protest by young pastors and other members over local church leaders’ collaboration with the Council of Free Churches, a body formed to represent the common interests of small Protestant denominations that later become a tool of the communist state.

Tamás Ócsai, president of the Hungarian Union Conference, signed a document titled “Joint Declaration on Settling the Past and Building a Common Future” with János Cserbik, leader of KERAK, as the splinter group is known, at a ceremony late last week.

“I am very pleased that this 40-year rift is coming to an end for most of the people,” said Benjamin D. Schoun, a general vice president of the Adventist world church, who played a key role in bringing the two sides toward reconciliation.

“It is a testimony to the use of biblical methods for reconciliation and the willingness on the part of both sides to step out toward each other,” Schoun told the Adventist Review on Friday. “They still have many details to work out, and we should continue to pray for this initiative.”

The Adventist Church in Hungary has 4,629 members worshiping in 104 churches, while KERAK has 1,500 to 1,800 members, local church leaders said Friday. Church leaders anticipate that around 600 members will return this summer, while 400 do not intend to come back and the rest are open to the idea.

Adventist Church leaders writing invitations to breakaway members to rejoin the church. (TED)

Long Road to Reconciliation

The long-waited reconciliation document is seen as a first step toward reuniting the two sides. In reaching the agreement, the Adventist Church acknowledged that it had expelled the dissenting group of 518 believers largely without merit in 1975.

“After much turmoil, which rocked the church to the core, the group was disfellowshipped, mostly without a valid biblical reason,” the Adventist Church’s Trans-European Division, which includes Hungary, said in a statement.

The disfellowshipped believers initially organized themselves as an underground church in what was then a Soviet Bloc country, but the group later emerged as the official denomination KERAK, or Christian Adventist Community.

KERAK and the Adventist Church began to drift apart in spirituality, culture and organization structure over the years, a process that accelerated after the collapse of the communist regime in 1989. Adventist leaders from all levels of the church sought to reunite the Hungarian church, and several pastors and even congregations rejoined the Adventist Church. 

Adventist leaders apologized four times between 1989 and 1995, but some KERAK members were not ready to accept them and others were unaware of them, local church leaders said Friday.

The unification discussions seemed to go nowhere, and serious talks ceased around 2000.

In 2011, a new generation of KERAK leaders initiated a series of talks with union and conference leadership. Upon hearing that the group might be interested in returning, Adventist world church president Ted N.C. Wilson asked Schoun to look into the situation. Arrangements were made for Schoun and the assistant to the president of the Trans-European Division, Raafat Kamal, to visit with KERAK and church leaders in Hungary.

“The first meeting was largely a listening and fact-finding event,” Schoun said.

Schoun traveled to Hungary several more times with Kamal, who is now the division president, as well as with former division president Bertil Wiklander. Each time he met with the local leaders, and he later organized public meetings.

“I apologized where the church had made mistakes, and we had long question-and-answer sessions with the KERAK people,” Schoun said. “Trust began to build, and each visit helped to move the groups toward each other.”

Schoun, who was traveling in Nigeria this week, was not present when the reconciliation document was finalized and released.

“I sought to establish a relationship between the leaders on both sides,” he said. “When that was established, they were able carry on the planning on their own.”

A Turning Point in Hungary

The April 23 agreement signals a significant turning point in the life of the Hungarian church, the Trans-European Division said.

“The document lists the biblical imperatives about unity and forgiving and it also contains mutual apologies,” it said. “Both sides commit themselves to build a future together in order to fulfill the mission God entrusted to His church.”

Church leaders cautioned that challenges remain in building a strong spiritual and emotional unity after 40 years of misunderstanding and enmity.

“But we have a hope, that God, who ‘in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting people's trespasses against them,’ will lead this process as we have seen Him working up until now,” the division statement said, citing 2 Corinthians 5:19.

Kamal, the division president, said he has big hopes for the Hungarian church.

“I praise God for His grace in bringing both communities to the foot of the cross where Christ-like forgiveness, healing, and love have taken over minds and hearts,” Kamal said.

“Over the past two years I personally witnessed first-hand genuine expressions of reconciliation by members and leaders alike,” he said. “Christ is coming soon, and He is uniting our Adventist believers in Hungary to be of one mind in focusing on the mission to be the salt and light.”