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Author Interview: Henry Sturcke

Henry Sturcke is a credentialed minister in both the Worldwide Church of God and the Swiss Reformed Church. His dissertation, Encountering the Rest of God, addresses the rapid and widespread abandonment of the practice of Sabbath rest in early Christianity. 

The book is reviewed here.

 

AW: How did your involvement in the WCG begin?

HS: The Plain Truth found its way to our home in 1962, after my grandmother had been reading it since the mid-fifties. It was a year before I paid it any attention. As a high school sophomore I did a research project on the Common Market, as the European Community was then called, and noticed a cover story on Charles de Gaulle and his opposition to British membership. When Kennedy was assassinated a few weeks later I gathered up all the back issues I could find and immersed myself in them for the next three days. From then on I read regularly, although sometimes I would try to put it aside because of the overwhelmingly negative view of the world. Still, I wanted to attend Ambassador College when I graduated from high school. My father was opposed, and we struck a deal: I should begin at another college, and if I still wanted to go after a year, then I could transfer. His argument was that a basis of comparison would do me good.

I entered Boston University, but continued studying the literature from Ambassador College. In the spring of 1967 I requested and received my first ministerial visit. That summer, I attended my first service, at the Odd Fellows Hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, which seemed appropriately named. My experience was overwhelmingly negative. The sermon was long-winded, illogical, heavily based on current events, treated in a one-sided, ill-informed way. Even more disturbing was the "child rearing" aggressively practiced on some understandably restless children in the row in front of me. It was a long time before I went back for my second service.

AW: If your first impressions were so negative, why did you continue your involvement?

HS: By that time I had bought into the WCG reading of the Bible, history, and current events to a big extent. As a teenager living through the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, riots in towns and cities near me, and the growing tensions over the Vietnam War, it was easier to believe that the world was coming to an end than that it would continue. The Six-Day-War in 1967 seemed an especially clear confirmation of prophecy.

Particularly convincing for me was the Sabbath question. I had received a conventional religious upbringing (Lutheran, Missouri Synod). As part of preparation for confirmation, I memorized the ten commandments. When I found out that the fourth commandment did not refer to Sunday, that was quite a surprise.

In addition, not all of my impressions from that first service were negative. Through a mix-up, I ended up "fellowshipping" at the home of a family after services (in those days, social contact was discouraged with "new" people, so ordinarily I wouldn't have been invited). Here I experienced the opposite of the harsh, judgmental climate at services: simple, sincere people excited about "the truth" and serious about living the Christian life. That stayed in my mind during the subsequent years.

Finally, in the late winter of 1969 I went through a conversion experience. I re-contacted the local minister, began attending services again, and was baptized after my second week back. The next year I graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, applied to Ambassador, and set out for Pasadena in the fall of 1970.

AW: And then it was all smooth sailing after graduation?

HS: Hardly. After graduation in 1973, I was sent to Brussels as a correspondent for the Plain Truth. That summer I met my future wife, Edel Thomsen, who was working in the church's Düsseldorf office between her third and fourth years at Ambassador's Bricket Wood campus. We married after she graduated the next summer. A year after that, we were sent to Washington, D.C. One year later, the church went through a round of budget cuts, and the Plain Truth dropped its correspondents. The local pastor in Washington, Larry Salyer, recommended I be picked up as a ministerial trainee, but all the trainees were cut in the same budget crisis. For the next few months I freelanced in the D.C. area and continued to serve in the local congregation. I was ordained early the next year, and we moved to Montreal. I served in the ministry in Canada for the next four years, pastoring both English- and French-speaking congregations.

The late seventies were turbulent years in the church, and when Mr. Armstrong set out to "put the church back on the track" I came under suspicion of not being tough enough as a pastor. Looking back, it's clear to me that I suffered a classic burn-out. At the time, the church had no systems in place for diagnosing this, nor for supporting a pastor through it. So for the second time, I was laid off by the church. Since ministering was not open to me, I returned to my original profession, journalism, and my home area, metropolitan New York, which was also the center of magazine journalism. For the next two years, I worked as photo editor of a monthly magazine, and continued to serve in the local church area. The pastor there, Jim Jenkins, was independently minded enough to want to form his own judgment about me, for which I will always be grateful. At the time, we had excellent media presence, both in television as well as in the newsstand program, and stacks of new visit requests. Jim lobbied to have me rehired, and finally wore down the skepticism of Church Administration in Pasadena. So in November 1982 I was hired by the church for the third time. In 1987, we were sent to Switzerland to succeed Tom Lapacka in caring for the congregations in Zurich, Basel, and Stuttgart (Germany). At the time, we thought an international assignment of five years or so would be interesting, but we ended up staying.

AW: What led you to first pursue advanced theological studies?

HS: It was self-prescribed therapy for a mid-life crisis. After the turbulent seventies, the eighties were a time of explosive growth in the church, and ministers were working seven-day weeks to keep up. This was fulfilling, but exhausting. I reached a point where I felt I had plateaued, and was looking for something new. The classic mid-life therapies didn't appeal to me--I wasn't interested in getting a sports car, and I was still happy with my wife. On the other hand, I had always regretted that Ambassador did not offer courses in Biblical Hebrew or Greek when I studied there. Of course, a student is always happy for everything that is not required, but as soon as I was in my own pastorate, with the pressure of producing a new sermon every week, I was frustrated by the feeling that I was dependent on translations and secondary literature. I had tried to learn Greek on my own in the late seventies, but that required more self-discipline that I could muster. Now, in Switzerland, our next-door neighbor, a Reformed pastor, suggested I take a Greek course at the university. At first I only planned to take that course, then continue with my life. But I found that reading the New Testament in Greek opened a new world. Some of what I learned, such as the difference between hades and gehenna, was no surprise, of course. But soon it was clear that Mr. Armstrong would have never have insisted on his interpretation of gennao (to him, it referred to begettal only, not birth) if he had taken just one semester of Greek. So I signed up for a Latin course, then Hebrew, then more. This was all in my spare time, I continued pastoring the congregations. To me, it was all good clean fun, and I never suspected it would have consequences. But then as a preparation for Passover 1994 I decided to read Galatians straight through in Greek, without looking at any of the "inspired margins" in the Scofield Bible my grandmother gave me when I was baptized and that I had on my lap throughout AC. I came away from that reading with the uncomfortable feeling that Paul was combating a theology very similar to ours. I didn't know what to make of that, and when the changes came in the church a year later, I was skeptical and resisted them.

AW: If you were skeptical, why did you stay?

HS: After my original skepticism over the changes, I began to understand them, even though I didn't like the way they were being imposed. It is sometimes forgotten that there were two reform movements underway in the mid-nineties. While one group was looking into theological issues, another group, centered around Vic Kubik and Guy Swenson in Church Administration and some of the regional pastors, believed that a pastor who took seriously the fact that we were dealing with God's children would not treat the members the way they had traditionally been treated. I was especially close to this group, and was interested in the early meetings that paved the way, a few months later, for the founding of the United Church of God. One of the tragedies of what happened to the WCG in the nineties is that these two groups had little in common. We needed both reforms. Now it appears, looking from the outside, that even UCG has not consistently applied the insights of the original core who planned it.

At any rate, I understood my role as trying to help as many as possible to cope with the theological challenge that had been issued. At the same time, I had met enough Christians outside the fellowship of the WCG that I wanted to work in the direction of ecumenical opening. Swiss church leaders with whom I was in contact welcomed this, but stressed the importance of my acquiring a recognized theology degree for taking part in ecumenical conversations. So I decided to devote myself full-time to my studies and complete a master's program. This helped solve another problem. It was January 1997, and we still didn't have a budget approved for the year in the German area. I had been the regional pastor for the congregations in the German-speaking area ever since Paul Kieffer resigned in 1995 to go to United; I knew that we would pay in 1997 a total of 15 months salary to two ministers we did not plan to employ in 1998 (one would be transferred back to North America in the summer, one would retire in September). Since the shortfall in our budget was roughly the same as my salary, I decided to lay myself off, with the intention of going back to work for the church after completing my program. In all, that was the third time the church had laid me off. I don't know if that is a record.

AW: You're the author of a German language text, Das Jahr 2000 und das Ende der Welt im Internet. Can you give us a short overview of that publication?

HS: After I decided to resign my pastorate, Fritz Stolz, professor of the science of religion in Zurich, approached me with an idea for a project. He was fascinated with the way that end-time groups were spreading panic over the approaching year 2000, yet ironically were using the very technology that was supposed the cause the breakdown of society, computers and the internet, to spread the message. He knew of my background, and thought I would be the logical person to research it. The result was the publication you mention. It was the first internet publication by the theology faculty at the university, and for a number of months generated the largest number of hits of any university website. It is dated now, and will probably go off line at the end of July.

AW: On a related note, some time ago you gave a fascinating interview to Rachael Kohn of Australia's ABC on this subject. Can you tell us how that happened and the main message you tried to convey.

HS: As part of my research on end-time groups and the internet I came in contact with the Center of Millennial Studies that Professor Richard Landes had started, interestingly enough, at my alma mater, Boston University. I decided to work up my thoughts on the experience of the WCG in distancing themselves from end-time speculation. It is common for groups to redefine their expectations in the wake of disconfirmation, but I don't know of any others that make a radical break with the very idea of knowing when the end might be. So I thought the experience of the WCG might be worth reporting on. Rachael Kohn was covering the conference for Australian Broadcasting, and lined up interviews with several people. I was one of them. She was particularly interested in drawing out my personal experience of the effect of the changes. I was amused when I finally heard the interview over a year later that she closed the program by asking an expert on religious movements to pontificate on the interview. He said the standard things about how true believers fight to maintain the credibility of their beliefs even after disconfirmation, and that this was obviously an example of that. I don't know how carefully he listened to the interview, since in this case, the ones who wanted to cling to the belief that we had been right all along left and started their own groups, while the ones who saw that we had been very wrong were trying to stay and change the course of the church.

Another outgrowth of the conference was the opportunity to contribute some entries to the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements (Routledge 2000), including one on the WCG. For a while I considered doing further studies on the WCG and other new religious movements, but wasn't sure that I wanted to spend the rest of my life wrapped up in that way of thinking. Meanwhile, Jean Zumstein, professor for New Testament in Zurich, said that my proposed outline for a master's thesis on the Sabbath was really more suited for a dissertation, and offered me the opportunity to write it under his tutelage. As soon as he mentioned it, I knew I wanted to do it; I had an offer from the WCG to return to the US and pastor congregations for them, but was not sure that that was the right next step for me. But now I knew what to do next. In a way, it was a good way to find closure, since the Sabbath question was the key element in convincing me of the truth of Herbert Armstrong's teachings.

Encountering the Rest of God

Encountering the Rest of God
How Jesus Came to Personify the Sabbath
Theologischer Verlag Zurich Dissertationen - TVZD
by Henry Sturcke

Theologischer Verlag Zurich, 2005
393 pages, English
Paper
ISBN: 3290173518

Price: $49.00

AW: The topic of your new book, Encountering the Rest of God, which is the publication of that dissertation, is bound to interest many Sabbatarian Christians, some of whom will be familiar with Samuele Bacchiocchi's From Sabbath to Sunday, while others might be familiar with Carson's From Sabbath to Lord's Day. Arguably both are apologetic works. Do you see Encountering the Rest of God as having an apologetic function, and do you have a comment to offer on either book?

HS: One should also mention here the dissertation that Willy Rordorf wrote more than forty years ago. Actually, none of them are primarily apologetic books. All are primarily scholarly inquiries, which are supposed to be dispassionate investigations into a matter. Of course, ever since the "New Hermeneutics" of Gadamer and Ebeling, scholars have been more aware than before that there is no neutral inquiry. Each of us starts with a prior understanding; the best we can hope to do is try to be clear--at least to ourselves--about what that prior understanding is, and consciously bring that position into dialogue with the matter we are investigating. So it is more than a little ironic that each scholar arrived at a conclusion that basically confirmed his own prior theological conviction.

This doesn't disqualify any of the books. Rordorf's is a solid piece of scholarship that is still the last word on the question of Sabbath and Sunday in the writings of the church fathers. Bacchiocchi's work, sadly, suffers from his tendency to minimize evidence that runs contrary to his conclusion. The volume edited by Carson does a good job of summarizing the evidence at the time it was written.

AW: So why invest five years writing a new book on the subject? 

HS: Well, a lot has happened in the last few decades in New Testament studies. First, the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and needed to be seen in the context of his time in order to be understood, has been more widely appreciated. It is no longer possible to cite the Sabbath conflicts in the Gospels as clear evidence that he intended to abolish the Sabbath, as had previously been done. Second, work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which had only recently been discovered when Rordorf began his project, and were still mostly unpublished then, has progressed and has helped us to see the variety with Judaism in Jesus' time. Thirdly, an important reassessment of Paul has led to questions whether he thought that all forms of law observance were incompatible with righteousness by faith. Fourthly, evaluation of the Nag Hammadi finds has led to a broadened view of the diversity in the early Christian movement; one document among them, the Gospel of Thomas, has an interesting saying about the Sabbath that had not been considered in any of the previous books. And fifthly, there is no longer a consensus that by the year 70 Christians and Jews had irrevocably parted ways and afterwards had little to do with each other. All five of these developments have a bearing on the Sabbath question, and meant that the time was ripe for a new book. In fact, I met Rordorf soon after I began my project, and he agreed about the need to handle the topic again: I greatly appreciated his encouragement.

But my primary purpose is not apologetic. I think both extreme proponents of the changes in the WCG, as well as those holding to our previous teachings, will find something to get upset about. It wasn't my aim to get anyone upset; I simply tried to do the best job I could of explaining what I found in the texts. I would hope that the book finds readers who are interested in thinking honestly about the questions, even if they end up disagreeing with me. If I can see that they have tried to understand, rather than just look to pick apart and demolish, then I will be happy.

AW: Okay, so if you had to briefly summarize the thesis you offer in Encountering the Rest of God, how would you express it?

HS: I came to see that the question is framed incorrectly if it is presented in terms of the alternative Sabbath or Sunday. I do not deal with the question of Sunday, except in passing. Instead, I sought to understand why so many Christians so quickly lessened their allegiance to Sabbath observance, given that it was one of the chief identity markers of the Jewish matrix of the Jesus movement. In many of the texts available to us, it is clear that this did not happen in favor of Sunday observance, but because of their devotion to Jesus. That was their new identity, and that made the question of days much less relevant.

AW: Where can readers find out more about the new book?

HS: www.tvz.ref.ch is the website of the publisher (the site is in German). www.eisenbrauns.com is the website of the North American distributor. 

AW: Now that you have finished your dissertation, what are you doing now, and what is your current affiliation with the Worldwide Church of God?

HS: For a while as I was writing, I nurtured the hope that I could somehow be useful to the WCG when I was done. It became clear, however, that the church would continue downsizing for a long time, and had no business adding anyone to their payroll while they were still laying off loyal long-time workers. I applied for some teaching positions in the US, in the hopes that I could do some block seminars for training WCG ministers during the semester breaks. But nothing worked out in that direction. Meanwhile, several friends who were pastors of the Swiss Reformed Church (one of the established churches here, the church of Zwingli, Calvin, and Karl Barth) urged me to consider switching. I took my time with that, doing vacation substitutions in some nearby congregations. Once I decided that this was the next logical step, I approached Joe Tkach to ask the WCG board to approve my holding dual credentials, which was approved. So I am still a credentialed elder of the WCG. I did the standard 13 month training course for new Reformed ministers, but at the end of that time, the Reformed Church did not insist on re-ordaining me, but said that my ordination was renewed and confirmed. That was important for me, since I don't see what I'm doing as a break with my past, but as a natural development.

AW: That's obviously worked out well for you. How do the members of your former congregation see it?

HS: I was gratified to experience a great deal of understanding. Some have had difficulty, which is understandable, given how we long viewed other churches. But the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Back in 1995, I often said in sermons and private conversations that we might all reach different conclusions about the challenges to our long-held beliefs that had been raised, but that it was important for us to remain in dialogue with one another and to treat one another with respect. I'm happy to say that many people, at least here in Switzerland, seem to have adopted this approach.

AW: Putting aside the academic dimension for a moment, I'm sure readers would be interested in any additional comment you might like to offer about your own personal feelings on the current Saturday/Sunday worship issue.

HS: I think that it's important for each person to be convinced in his own mind, and to act on that conviction. I would hope that he or she would be surrounded by others who would respect that decision, and that he or she would respect the decisions that other people make. There is a lot of judging of others among Christians. For some Sunday observers, Sabbath observance alone is evidence that one is not really a Christian, or doesn't stand on grace. At the same time, the feeling is widespread among seventh-day Sabbatarians that they have the "right" day, and that those who don't worship on that day aren't true Christians. I have come to see that this is a theological and historical error that needs to be rejected, not Sabbath observance per se. The important thing is not when we worship, but that we worship.