I have followed with interest the public disclosure by Pastor Saša Gunjević that he is bisexual. As someone who pastors a church that seeks to provide safe space to our LGBTQ+ loved ones, I was heartened to see the responses to this revelation by the Hanseatic Conference and the Hamburg-Grindelberg congregation. They rightly recognized that the pastor’s orientation, in and of itself, is not sinful; neither has he behaved personally in a way that breaks with the beliefs and practices held in common with the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church. Therefore, they have agreed to remain in relationship with him as a denominational employee and a congregational minister. This thoughtful, discerning approach by everyone involved is to be highly commended.
In recent days, however, both the Inter-European Division and General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists have responded to this action by bringing the weight of their offices to bear upon Pastor Gunjević and the Hanseatic Conference. In their statements, they write:
Having listened to the affirmations of Pastor Saša Gunjević in his coming-out address as well as his various public statements, we regret that he openly promotes views that undermine and contradict the position of the church. We consider that his open rejection of the official position of the worldwide church disqualifies him for pastoral ministry.
. . .
As world church leaders, we support the current efforts of the EUD administration to work with the Hanseatic Conference, in close consultation with the North German Union, to address the issue of a pastor continuing to hold ministerial credentials while presenting himself to be bisexual and promoting this lifestyle. . . . The current situation of having a pastor holding ministerial credentials issued by the Adventist Church who identifies as bisexual presents a great challenge to the biblical principles and fundamental beliefs we uphold. Further, it lessens the integrity of the ministerial credential policies as voted by the world church representatives at the Annual Council.
While the division and General Conference offices have no authority over employment and credentialing, it remains to be seen whether their opinions will influence the Hanseatic Conference to change its decision. If Pastor Gunjević is removed, the reasons given for his termination will set new and dangerous precedents for the employment and credentialing of pastors in the Adventist denomination.
The first precedent would be dismissal due to sexual attraction. One of the reasons given by the General Conference for why the pastor should be disqualified is that he “identifies” as a bisexual and promotes a bisexual “lifestyle.” Who he is attracted to—his sexual orientation—according to the General Conference, is enough for termination. But “bisexual” simply means that a person is attracted to people of both genders; it does not mean that the person is involved in a same-sex relationship. In Pastor Gunjević’s case, he has been open that he is not currently in a relationship. Therefore, his lifestyle is that of a single, Adventist pastor. I know a number of single Adventist pastors. Their lifestyles are pretty ordinary. Boring, really.
To say a person is unqualified for office because of their sexual attraction is to set an untenable precedent for any pastor. This preemptively accuses a person of sinful behavior before there is any evidence of action. The equivalent would be terminating my employment as a heterosexual pastor because it is known that a significant proportion of straight men engage in extramarital activity. To fire someone for their perceived potential to sin is to engage in work that not even the Divine is willing to undertake. It is taking up sides with the “accuser of the brethren.”
The second precedent would be termination for ethical dissent. The Inter-European Division says Pastor Gunjević should be removed from office because he “openly promotes views that undermine and contradict the position of the church.” What the division is suggesting here is that no Adventist pastor has the right to ethically and conscientiously dissent on a point of doctrine.
What do I mean by ethical dissent? That a person who is loyal to the overall mission of the church becomes convicted by exegetical scriptural study, consultation with scientific research, and communion with the Holy Spirit that the denomination is in error on—or needs to grow in—a certain point of doctrine. That person should have the opportunity to put that conviction forward in consultation with their congregation and conference in ethical dissent to the established teaching of the church. To deny pastors that right is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set in a denomination that believes in progressive revelation and present truth.
Throughout our denomination’s history, we have had leaders devoted to the service of the Seventh-day Adventist Church challenge our current understanding of a particular doctrine of faith. Ellen White, Joseph Bates, Jones and Waggoner, and many more led us through significant revisions of our movement’s core doctrine. Ellen White was sent to Australia, but not kicked out of the church. People left the Advent movement over Bates’s call to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. Jones’s and Waggoner’s righteousness by faith teachings were initially reviled by many, yet received a hearing.
Despite efforts made in the years following Glacier View to eradicate Desmond Ford’s reforming teaching on the Sanctuary message, Adventist pastors across the global field today preach his or similar understandings of salvation history from Adventist pulpits without any threat of disciplinary action by their conferences or unions. Our church has changed and grown because of ethical dissent. We will be better for it—if it continues to be allowed.
Unfortunately, what the division’s position statement suggests is that it will work to quash the ethical dissent of this pastor for no other reason than that he dissents. His work record is clean. His overall support for the Adventist mission and message is clear. He experiences broad support from his congregation and conference. If the division successfully accomplishes his dismissal, they will need to, in the interest of ethical consistency, begin examining every other pastor in their division to see if they comply in teaching and practice with all 28 of the church’s fundamental beliefs. I guarantee that they will find many more who are not in harmony on all our doctrinal positions.
It seems to me that the words of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin would be good counsel in this situation. I paraphrase:
So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from this man and let him alone, because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow him—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
Christianity has been in debate about how churches should relate to our LGBTQ spiritual siblings for many decades now. The Adventist Church is in the midst of this debate itself. I would encourage the Hanseatic Conference and North German Union to set this precedent: protect your dissenters, especially the most vulnerable ones, in your midst. If they are not of God, they will fail. If they are of God, they will lead us forward as God’s people.
Notes & References:
Todd J. Leonard is senior pastor of Glendale City Church of Seventh-day Adventists.
Title illustration by Spectrum. Source images: Unsplash.
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