Zoltán Balog, Bishop of the Danubian Reformed Church District, and János Molnár, Lay President of the Transtibiscan Reformed Church District, both believe that the two most important issues at present are making decisions together and standing up for the values based on Christian faith. At the beginning of the 15th Synod Cycle, and in preparation for Easter, we asked the Presiding Bishop and Lay President of the Synod to discuss issues such as our Reformed community, the pandemic and our Ecumenical relations.
Based on what you have experienced over the past few weeks, what do you consider to be the most important directions in church leadership? Are you going to to draw up a cycle plan? And what are the major tasks for the period ahead of us?
Zoltán Balog: Before, or instead of drawing up any cycle plan, we must both ask the question: what mandate the two of us have been given from above. The Presidential Council has worked intensely over the past few weeks. The Council members, four Bishops and four Lay Presidents, all agreed that the most important decisions should be made jointly by the eight of us. Over the recent period, we have been able to reach all decisions on the basis of consensus. It is not only us, the Synod Presidents, that must consider the question of what our mandate is for, the same question should be asked in all church districts, presbyteries and congregations. Together with my fellow Bishops, we have identified eight tasks of great significance. The first on the list is strengthening the financial situation of pastors. The second is rethinking the situation of congregations in light of the changes in demography, and making adjustments that are necessary due to the transformation of the world. We are going to have important tasks with regard to connecting institutions, mission and congregations. The renewal of pastor training is yet another urgent task. The Hymn Book, which has almost reached its final form, must be made publicly available to all.
János Molnár: What has worked so far is to be preserved, and whatever needs to be changed, we are going to change. For over a year now, the coronavirus has been a determining factor in our lives. And yet, despite all the difficulties, it has also brought new solutions and opportunities in our work, which can be incorporated in the future as well. I am referring to the ways we can keep in touch via the Internet – and not only on the level of congregations. In-person encounters are important, of course, but they are not indispensable in every case. The pandemic has also made it clear that there could at any time arise extraordinary situations that we have not anticipated.
Does this mean that we should not plan ahead for a period of six years?
János Molnár: No, it does not. We should have both short-term and long-term plans at all times.
Zoltán Balog: It is important to focus on the spiritual dimension of our goals. We are also in agreement with my fellow Synod President that we should not abandon the expressions that the Bible and our church traditions offer; on the contrary, we should use them. Because if we argue for or against things using the terminology of organizational development and organizational sociology, we miss the spiritual content that actually makes us a church. We should be more careful and critical with the usage of the terms of disciplines other than theology, such as psychology. We must evaluate such terms on the basis of the concepts of the Bible and of Reformation theology.
János Molnár: What really matters has been given to us two thousand years ago, and the rest is brought about by life on a daily basis. I had certain issues with the church elections, for example. The elections should not revolve around what is being said by whom during the campaign period. What should really matter is what the candidates have done up to that point, what they are known for and what can be expected of them. It is very important to clarify what we expect from ourselves and what we can promise to do.
Bishop Balog, you used to be a government minister, and Lay President Molnár, you are currently a village mayor, and now you both have become church leaders. How do you respond to the criticisms regarding your role in politics, and does this affect the role of the church in public life?
János Molnár: This new assignment and opportunity is a qualitative leap for me: as mayor I have accumulated a great deal of experience, which is going to aid me in my church leadership role in the upcoming period. Furthermore, as a congregation member and elder I know how congregations work, and as director of the “Megbékélés Háza” Conference Centre in Berekfürdő, a role which I have had for thirty years, I have had the chance to meet countless Hungarian and foreign congregation members, pastors and church leaders. Encountering a large variety of perspectives and ways of thinking has significantly contributed to my work.
Zoltán Balog: One can learn a great deal even in the world of politics. Anything that brings the church closer to fulfilling its mission better, I am going to use. And as far as the bad things I have experienced go, I will do my best to keep them outside the church. Most critical voices were coming from the outside, in an attempt to drive a wedge within the church. We are determined not to let the antagonizing and demonic power of politics and certain media outlets enter the church. Regarding those who have reservations about public life, whether they have reasons to do so or not, we hope our actions will win them over. Every decision we make is going to be in service of the church.
Mr. Molnár, in your Lay President Inaugural Address you expressed that one of your most important goals is to strengthen Reformed spirituality. How can elders, chief elders and district lay presidents contribute to this?
János Molnár: It is important for congregation members to ask themselves what makes them Reformed, and how they can articulate this. We must live in a way that our Christianity shines through – but without becoming arrogant about it. Members, elders and chief elders can have a variety of duties in a congregation, but the strengthening of Reformed spirituality must come before all else. This can be achieved through reading the Bible, praying and living on the Word of God, but above all, through existing in the community of the congregation.
Rev. Balog, you emphasized in your inaugural address that when it comes to defending our faith, we should initiate, not just react. What does this mean in our everyday life?
Zoltán Balog: We are experiencing a global ideological struggle, and we must not lose heart. Professing one’s faith never stems from mere defense, but from some activity and initiative of publicly declaring our faith – not only on the level of words, but with our whole lifestyle. In a world where some believe that those days are gone when the happiness that is rooted in the divine order is represented by a mother, a father as well as the children they raise, the mere act of living in a pure and joyful family or relationship constitutes a declaration of faith. Human dignity is also rooted in the divine order, as every man and woman is created in God’s image. Another sign of faith in God’s creatures, humans, is if we use a different tone when speaking to and about one another within our own realm. It is important that when we criticise someone, our criticism should only be rooted in and based on our unity in the church of Jesus Christ.
In the years to come, can we expect the Synod to take up a more distinct “teaching” role, apart from its legislative duties? Are you going to release statements on various current issues?
Zoltán Balog: This is going to be determined by the social context and the decision of Synod members. One of the special features of the Reformed Church in Hungary is team leadership. The two of us as Synod Presidents, apart from the Lord, are answerable to the Synod, and as District Lay President and Bishop, to the General Assembly of our respective church districts. If there is joint resolve in the hundred-member Synod to speak up in connection with a given issue, because it is necessary for the voice of Hungarian Reformed Christians to be heard, we will do so. However, our public statements should not depend on external expectations, but on the internal conviction that pays attention to what is happening in the world around us.
Rev. Balog, you have just mentioned a special feature of the Hungarian Reformed community. At the latest Synod session you said that “we should highlight the Reformed, Hungarian face of Christian faith”. In your view, what does this face look like?
Zoltán Balog: Self-aware, courageous, and but one that lives with humility. The ability to say “Glory to God alone” requires an exceptional amount of humility and restraint. Although nowadays everything and anything can be called “divine” and people “adore” all kinds of things, we Christians are fully aware that we have our one God, and being truly “human” is respectable enough. We do not adore anything but the living God. We do not adore ourselves, our children, ice cream or TV programmes. In this system of relations I know my place. The more exclusively I depend on the Mighty Lord and nothing else, the more freedom I have in this world. This is where my self-awareness, my sense of security and my courage stem from. This is the message of the ancient Reformed line from the Scripture: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). And this does not entail hubris or arrogance, or lead to the crushing of others, but a kind of brave self-confidence with the awareness that we are in the hands of God after all. We can be present in all areas of life with the sense of this courage. Many people, from Gábor Bethlen to 20th-century Protestant confessors have professed and implemented this in their own lives.
János Molnár: My Christianity provides me with a great deal of freedom. On the surface it seems like I am tied down, but in fact I am gaining more freedom. Let me mention what my father once said in one of his sermons: when an electrician is working on an electric pole, he is wearing special climbing equipment and he ties his waist to the pole. If he does not tie himself, he has to use his hands to hold tight, and therefore he cannot work. If, however, he ties himself securely to the pole, his hands are free. Such is our relationship to God, which frees us from everything. But if the relationship is broken, we fall down. Being “tied securely” is the basis of my Christianity. And an important part of being Reformed is the act of constant returning.
Reformation does not mean that we want something new all the time; it means that if we have diverged from our Christian foundation, we must return to it.
We diverge every day, but we must keep returning to what the Bible and Jesus are teaching us in any given situation.
At present, all church services are conducted online, and there is no opportunity for congregations to meet face-to-face even at Easter. What is the role and responsibility of the church in the current reality of the pandemic?
János Molnár: For me, it is very important to lead by example in the current grave situation. We must be careful not to rely on our faith in an erroneous way. It is not enough to say: “let us pray and God will help us”. Prayers, of course, are very much needed, but we must not only accept but also actively support what the experts recommend and approve. It is God’s will that will prevail, but we also have a duty to act.
Zoltán Balog: We must all understand what the divine warning means for us individually, and also for our church, our nation and the whole world. Our church services must also be revitalized. When last year we were forced to enter the online realm, many pastors asked themselves: Is what I am saying clear and easy to follow for my listeners? Are people keen on listening to me? Am I actually reaching anyone with my message? Is this not a somewhat artificial, alienating medium? These questions are about the form of sermons on the surface, but they stem from inside, and actually concern the question how important the audience, whether sitting in front of a computer screen or in person in a church pew, is for the speaker. Our earlier lifestyle has been questioned: should we really look forward to returning to our old lives, or should we consider what changes we should implement? Our answers can only be authentic if we ourselves understand the message of the Word of God. For we are not getting information from the arbitrary analysis of the global situation, but, upon seeing the events surrounding us, we try to understand what God is communicating to us through these events. And to do so, we need the Scripture, both on the individual and the communal level. Knowing that we are in the hands of God gives us a sense of security. These extraordinary circumstances have provided us with a teaching that is always true, but it is especially important in the present situation to spread hope, certainty and the trust in the divine providence.
Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary is one of our institutions where even non-Christian youth can easily come into contact with our church. What is the reason for introducing the so-called chancellor system at Károli University in March this year?
Zoltán Balog: The chancellor system is better. It clearly distinguishes between academic/scientific and operational/budget-related tasks. This system has been successful in other institutions of higher education, therefore we think that it is going to provide a better and more efficient system of operations at Károli as well.
In your view, what is the role of Károli University?
Zoltán Balog: The university could become an intellectual and cultural flagship of our church. As our Reformed Christian faith is intellectually intertwined, it can also have a cultural and intellectual impact. If we have a university that is not only an educational institution but an intellectual centre as well, its duties also include representing the treasures of faith our church possesses, and the resulting forms of behaviour in areas of other disciplines. This refers not only to theology but all disciplines taught at the university – the aim is to recreate and strengthen a layer of Reformed intelligentsia. Every discipline has a “Christian interpretation”. Expounding this is an important service in the world of science. And a related issue is that every student should have the opportunity to encounter the attraction of Bible-based Reformed faith.
What are your thoughts on our Ecumenical relations and the situation of Christianity in the world?
Zoltán Balog: We have not had the resolve to really test whether the Christian communities that are in historically, culturally, politically and geographically differing situations can actually use the foundation of Christ to reach a greater extent of understanding than would otherwise be possible without Christianity in other areas of life. I myself believe that it is possible. Regarding the situation of Christianity, I can see three tendencies: persecution, weakening and growth. All three are teaching us something, and we must try to understand these lessons. Christianity is weakening in its traditional Western European form, but we must not forget that it is getting stronger in places where it had no deep-seated roots. We look to South Korea with pride, joy and curiosity, where the number of Reformed people today is larger than anywhere else in the world. It is fascinating to see how a 16th-17th-century revival was able to stir up faith in the 20th century and attract people to Christ – people who come from a completely different culture than that of 16th-17th-century Protestant Reformers or 20th-century Europeans or Americans. Furthermore, over the past few years, there have been many positive steps regarding the support for persecuted Christians, which is an issue close to our hearts. If there are no longer Christians who say the Lord’s Prayer in the mother tongue of Jesus, we will lose something from global Christianity that we are also undeniably responsible for. I myself have visited these communities, and have gained a great deal from the faith of those experiencing persecution.
János Molnár: We must not blur the faith-based differences between various denominations, but if there are issues where can jointly take action, we must pull together. By now in Europe it is not primarily our lives that are in danger, but we can experience persecution in a moral sense. We can all see how the moral teachings of Christianity are being marginalized, and those who profess their faith are being humiliated. I feel that the underlying motive is the money-centred nature of the Western world: if we are guided by money and power, we are lost. The direction that is based on such values is leading to self-destruction. This is something we must resist. In such cases we must speak up, but not according to the expectations of the world, but on the foundation of Christ. People like expressing what is expected of them, what attracts praise, but we must not align ourselves with others. We must always examine what Jesus Christ and the Bible say – this is our true foundation, regardless of what the media, politics or the Western world say.
Zoltán Balog: The Lay President and I grew up a mere 20 kilometres from each other, and both of us are children of pastors. We have not forgotten that under the Communist regime we could only enjoy a relatively carefree secondary school education thanks to the donations our local Reformed communities received from our Dutch Reformed brothers and sisters – in fact, both of our families were supported by the same Dutch family. Today the kind of community that such support inspired is missing. I am sad to experience that the common language, the language of faith that we used to speak is fading now that we are communicating with their children and grandchildren. We must renew such relationships, but at the same time we must not give in to the expectations that certain circles of Western Christianity have of us, in an attempt to force us to have a “modern”, Zeitgeist-following attitude towards societal issues.
At Easter 2021, what message would you both like to emphasize?
Zoltán Balog: Perhaps in these trying times we can feel the depth of Good Friday more profoundly, understanding what Christ’s suffering for humankind and us really means. We should bear in mind that Good Friday was not a one-time event: the reality of Good Friday is here with us – it is present in the death of the loved ones we lost to the pandemic, it is present in the life of those suffering today for whatever reason, and it is present in our own personal tragedies as well.
But the reality of the resurrection is also here with us. We are in the middle of our Good Friday life, but we also carry the hope that the powers of resurrection give us.
And this can provide us with a full life, despite all limitations.
János Molnár: We would like to offer consolation and hope to everyone.