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Losing People for the Sake of Policies

I needn't tell you that it's difficult for a pastor nowadays to find a place to plant his or her feet on the moral questions of the day. I'm constantly struggling with it. I know what my heart tells me to do, what I think Jesus would do. But then there's this institution to which I've devoted my life, an institution in some ways still firmly rooted in the 19th century, that has its own expectations. Most of those expectations are excellent and praiseworthy. Others are difficult to navigate. When I told my church board that I hoped Jill and Sherri Babcock[1] and their daughters would be accepted as part of our congregation, it was still the early days of this conversation, and it was an uncomfortable moment. Ditto the time I asked a school principal candidate how he felt about gay people, because, I said, we had a dear lesbian couple who sent their daughter to our school.

To be honest, though, what I did to further their acceptance in the congregation was nothing compared to what Sherri and Jill did. It was their patience, sweet dispositions and general helpfulness that turned the congregation in their favor—no words of mine. I never had the courage to stand in front of the congregation and say, "I'm supporting a homosexual couple to be a full part of our congregational family," believing, probably correctly, that I'd lose my ability to advocate for them if I did. I'm a little ashamed of that now.

Such situations present a problem of a different sort to church administrators, like those who recommended Pastor Hadley's dismissal. They're not making decisions with reference to the spiritual struggles of ordinary church people. Their challenges have to do with keeping the institutional church afloat, with its millions upon millions of income and assets. They govern by policies and bottom lines. They know who gives tithe and offerings, and what those givers believe. They know what kinds of people send their children to church schools. They know who attend and support local churches. (The median age of the church population in the NAD is 51, higher in smaller congregations). They fear strident voices, and they know that certain issues hike the volume of those voices. They know the policies, and who at the top makes those policies. That is to say, they have every reason to be cautious and conservative.

Gay theologians like Matthew Vines insist that the six main anti-homosexuality passages[2] in Scripture don't say what they seem to say. Even if true, it's not very useful, because their interpretations have no traction in that segment of our church that opposes homosexuality. The gay rebuttal relies on a hermeneutic that (for better or worse) is unlike the hermeneutic used to establish our traditional doctrine, so it ends up sounding like special pleading. The preponderance argument—that there are only six anti-homosexuality passages as opposed to hundreds about God loving sinners and accepting them—probably won't work for us, either, even if all we argue is that Jesus consistently put compassion and acceptance before rules, and consequently had some rather dodgy characters among his followers. We Adventists have been known to base foundational beliefs on one text, or two. It is in our nature to stand for right, even if a quite slender rightness, though the heavens fall.

But that doesn't change that on this issue, we're on the wrong side of history, and we need to be prepared to accept the consequences.

A few weeks ago a 76-year-old friend called me. He's a lifelong church worker, someone who I've always known to emphasize Adventist prophetic interpretations and the remnant identity. He opened the conversation with, "Loren, I saw the movie 'Seventh-gay Adventists' this weekend, and I saw you in it." Oh dear. I braced myself for a scolding, or at least some disagreeable questions. I explained that I had appeared there as an advocate for being pastoral to gay people. I was surprised when he said, "I can't see how you could do anything else. I have had to change my mind about many things through the years. Homosexuality is an area where I'm having to rethink what I've always believed. When I watched that movie, I saw loving families. What can we do but include them?"

We agreed that we don't like the promiscuity that's associated with the gay bar culture—but we agreed we don't approve promiscuity among straight people either. We didn't talk directly about whether we thought being gay was right or wrong. Perhaps we both felt that was too simple a question, that it somehow misses the point. But we were united in our conviction that homosexual people need our pastoral care, and should be part of Seventh-day Adventist congregations.

When I told my friend Monte Sahlin about this conversation, he wasn't completely surprised. He said, "That's what's happened all across the nation. As gay people have 'come out', many of us have gotten to know them as human beings, and discovered that they're good people, people we like. They're our grandchildren, nieces and nephews, neighbors, your child's lifelong friend, a classmate, the kid you taught in Sabbath School. How can you turn against these people you loved before anyone knew they were gay?"

Many will say Pastor Hadley's situation is different. This wasn't about loving one's child or even ministering to gay people. It's about following those rules and policies under which an employee works. I know them. Pastor Hadley knew them. They are a crude instrument, and we all know that, too. I've known pastors who beat their children to bruises in the name of discipline; who did utterly irresponsible things with church money; or who were so incompetent they left a crashing trail of destruction through every church or denominational office they were assigned to. And I've known quite a few good pastors whose children had more tragic life outcomes than just marrying someone of their same sex. But they didn't breach a policy. Signing the wrong marriage certificate (in the early days of my ministry, even signing a marriage certificate for a straight couple who weren't both baptized church members) is something you can put your finger on. There it is, in black and white. So Pastor Hadley's bosses had to do what they did. I know a little how that feels. How can you keep the church working smoothly unless you follow policies? "Decently and in order," and all that.

But, nonetheless: this decision (supported by policies, statements, doctrines and six Bible texts) will turn some people, particularly young people, from the church. For those who don't believe that committed homosexual relationships are wrong, it will add one more to their list of reasons not to be a Seventh-day Adventist.

The firing gratified Rande's (one of the marriage partners) aunt (who was technically correct to insist that church leaders stand by their policies) and Rande's biological father (who was hoping, as he said in comments on the GLAAD website, that his daughter would change her mind, which hope was thwarted by the actions of the pastor his ex-wife had married) and others of their ilk who believe homosexuality is contrary to Christian faith. But the same decision will probably also contribute to the declining loyalty of many Seventh-day Adventists born in the last 30 years—the very people who we say we desperately need to keep in the church.

The church leaders who made the decision to get rid of Pastor Hadley are good people. In their situation, it was something that had to be done. Pastor Hadley was an authority figure to teens, after all, and nowhere are parents as sensitive as where their children are concerned. He attended his stepdaughter's wedding service, which looked like approval. He could have stayed home. He could have mailed her the denomination's position paper on homosexuality. He could have attended with disapproval, as Rande's father admitted he had. But no, Hadley signed their marriage certificate, and no matter what is said about love and acceptance, that's a breach of policy.

As I said, I've been where those leaders are, in my own down-here-at-the-bottom way. I've made decisions that hurt people, or not spoken up when I might have, in order to keep the peace, to uphold policies and positions, and to save my own influence for another day. It's what you have to do sometimes.

We can hope for the best. Maybe young people will grow up and say, "How wrong I was when I was young! I thank you now for writing a policy protecting me from the influence of a pastor who supported his gay stepdaughter's marriage!" Maybe gay people will say, "You were right! I now realize it's a sin, and I was wrong to expect you to accept me in the church as a homosexual!"

Maybe. But I wouldn't count on it. Western culture appears to be moving quite decisively in the other direction.

It won't be the first time a group loses followers because it stands for what it believes. A pastor told me once, "The Adventist church isn't for everyone. We're like the Marines. We want a few good men." That believe-it-or-leave-it attitude is consistent with our general resistance to change in a changing world, consistent as well with our insistence on policy uniformity across widely differing cultures. Therefore we must expect to sacrifice people for the sake of our beliefs and our policies.

We can call it "the shaking", and take comfort that things are happening just as prophesied. But those people will be gone just the same.

 

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

 


[1] Sherri and Jill are one of the couples featured in the film Seventh-gay Adventists.

[2] Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:9-10

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