Erton Köhler: next GC president? An independent perspective from South America.
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. 1 Timothy 5:17
For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God… Titus 1:7
So who is Erton Köhler, that might become the next GC president? Since April 2021 he is GC secretary, in place of G.T. Ng, who retired.
Here some infos about his person.
Age: 53 years old
Last position: President of the South American Division (SAD) from 2006 to 2021 (15 years).
Family: With his wife Adriene he has to sons: Matheus (marketer and pastor) and Mariana.
Education: Batchelor of theology and master of pastoral theology, both from UNASP, the adventist university of São Paulo.
Career: Köhler originally is from Caxias do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul (RS), the southern most state of Brazil; that has a high incidence of german inmigrants, hence his name. Köhler was pastor of local churches from 1990 to 1994. He directed the youth department of the RS Conference until 1998, then the same for the Brazils Northeastern Union, until 2002. He was secretary of the RS Conference for some transition months (parallel with today?) until he became youth department director of the SAD in 2003, and finally it’s president in 2006. (Biography retrieved from https://www.revistaadventista.com.br/conferencia-geral-2015/pastor-erton-kohler-e-reeleito-presidente-da-igreja-adventista-na-america-do-sul)
Erton Köhler is known as rather conservative, coming from a traditional Adventist family. An ex-pastor told me that he personally is against women’s ordination. Some months after he left his office as president of the SAD, it was voted by this Division to ordain women as elders. Köhler had to restrain some liberal forces pushing women’s ordination coming from the academic field. One professor at UNASP told me that most professors of this campus were pro women’s ordination, in the vespers of San Antonio GC Session. Also, in march of 2015 the publishing house issued a frontpage article in the Adventist Review, etitled ‘New Face – cultural changes redefine women’s role’ https://www.revistaadventista.com.br/da-redacao/edicao-atual/capa-ed-marco-de-2015/
So far so good. He has a strong manager profile, focused on results, numbers, goals. But, ironically, it is the statistics that raise some questions:
Source: SAD Division Total of the Annual Statistical Reports of the GC
Relationship with independent ministries: It was four years into Erton’s presidency, in 2010, that the SAD board took the following vote: We do not recommend the activities of any ministry, group or person who feels free to (1) defame the church in public or private; or (2) promote doctrinal theories not aligned with the IASD 28 Fundamental Beliefs, such as anti-trinitarianism and the denial of the Holy Spirit’s personality, perfectionism and the theory that Christ came with a morally and spiritually fallen human nature, questioning the prophetic gift of Ellen G. White, eschatological speculations, health imbalance, etc.; or (3) accept tithes; or (4) carry out its activities without the support of the leadership of the respective organization responsible for that territory (Union of Churches/Conference/Local Mission). http://www.centrowhite.org.br/perguntas/perguntas-e-respostas-biblicas/misterios-independentes/ This vote actually is unconstitutional, since it is only the GC Session that can decide about doctrinal issues.
And it is enforced indeed: through a psychoanalsist pastor called Luiz Claudio Leite the independent ministries are compelled to repudiate the believe that Christ came in fallen human nature and to have no relationship with ministries that do believe so.
In Brazil ASI is quite different: it’s called FE (Federation of Entrepreneurs). Adventist entrepreneurs normally gather yearly in a five star hotel or cruiser, with the church hierarchy well represented and some ministries presenting themselves; yes, lets be honest, begging for money and support. In the 2012 meeting I personally interviewed Köhler, asking him what he thought about Terceiro Anjo, an independent webtv startup, and also about having a GYC in Brazil. His message was clear: cease and desist. Join forces with the institutional programs.
Shadows of a heavy-handed authority
The General Conference working policy lists only five items as reasons for disciplining a pastor, under L 60 20, page 486. The South American working policy E 12 15, page 310 has eleven, more than double of the GC policy. Both can be downloaded here.
For instance, the item nr. 10 says: “For improper access, use, or disclosure of data under the responsibility of the Church. The employee who improperly accesses, uses or discloses data from the organization’s systems, or other data under the responsibility of the church, or who makes such actions possible to third parties, must be disciplined, being considered more serious when the data in question is considered personal by legal disposition. When applicable, cases will be handled in accordance with the legislation in force in the countries of the South American Division.
Item 11 reads: The worker who engages in any conduct incompatible with the high standards of Christian ethics must be disciplined. Any other reasons (see B 100 22) or conduct inconsistent with the high standards of Christian ethics, or when their conduct casts a shadow on the integrity of the workforce, such as violence, slander, defamation, false witness, or other questionable activities that demonstrate that the worker is unworthy to be a leader in the Church.
In item 3, they added “when he criticizes the church structure in a repetitive and destructive manner.”
These points all make sense, but they have a highly subjective character and are used to disqualify moves out of the untold narrative/agenda.
Strong top-down approach. The following statements come from a pastor that lost his credential in 2020 solely for speaking up, questioning some practices of the church structure. He subsequently wrote a book called “Before it is too late” that can be retrieved in PDF at congressomv.org/antes-que-seja-tarde
“There are so many projects that the church cannot keep up with. In the end, our local leaders are frustrated by fail to execute much of what is presented to them. As soon as a project ends, another one starts, and another, and more another, and so on.
The local church has not had the time and opportunity to think. To a large extent, it has lost the ability to create means and strategies with local relevance. Not to mention that there are very limited resources to invest locally.
If the vision was for Adventists to see themselves as a great missionary movement, what, in fact, has happened, is that we’ve become a great corporation” (pages 120-121).
Pastors being degraded from shepherds to managers is a worldwide phenomenon. Köhler said publicly that if it were by him, the local pastors would decide the agenda and see if they can integrate the hierarchy’s plan (page 266). Köhler also preached in a pastor council in 2018 against the pressure for results, like number of baptisms. He called it ‘numerolatry’ (227).
But reality look quite different: Here in Brazil Köhler has a reputation of exerting too much control, and centralization of power. “Local pastors are rarely heard in the making of the general plans of the church. In reality, every day there is less room for a district pastor to make plans that are specific and tailored to the reality of his district.
In general, plans seem to come from the top down with the power of a cataract. From the departments of the DSA, they arrive at the departments of the Union, aligning with those of the Union itself. Then, both depart together to the local field, where they are placed alongside from the plans of the field itself. Finally, all these plans are presented and enacted with the force of law for the district pastors in the councils, and will consume from them and lay leaders much of their time, energy and resources” (page 272).
Lack of transparency with their own pastors: Pastors don’t have official access to the working policies (293). And results of a survey about the SDA working environment were not presented to the pastors (258).
Films: Since 2015 the South American Division has produced weekly dramatized videos that are shown in the local churches before collecting tithes and offerings. Professional quality, but sadly not in accordance to the inspired instructions regarding teathrical performances. Also, they are producing weekly dramatized series under feliz7play.com
COVID 19 vaccine: Yes, faithful to the GC position on COVID-19 vaccines, Erton publicly endorsed them and encouraged the SAD members to get the jab.
Before the news annual council, we must decide what type of leadership the church needs today: a corporate consolidator with little room for diversity? Is this what we need for times like this? Then Erton Köhler might be the right choice.