A Failure of Courage and Ethics
by Loren Seibold | 7 April 2023 |
I’m very disappointed in my church right now.
Over the last several weeks two important things happened in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, both of them reported by Adventist Today.
On March 21, the Ugandan parliament in Africa passed a draconian anti-LGBTQ+ law. It demands life in prison for merely saying you are LGBTQ+, and the death penalty for those accused of LGBTQ+ sexual abuse. Pictured in the front row of those supporting this law is Moses Maka Ndimukika, who styles himself the “archbishop” of the Ugandan Adventist Church—though we would call him the president of the Ugandan Union Conference.
On March 25, Adventist Today told the story of Saša Gunjević, pastor of the Hamburg-Grindelberg Adventist Church in Northern Germany’s Hanseatic Conference. In his first sermon of 2023 Saša told his congregation he had a bisexual orientation. Because they knew him to be a godly and faithful pastor, this revelation did not diminish their support of him. Hanseatic Conference leaders studied the situation and concluded that Saša “had not committed a disciplinary offense that would prevent him from continuing to exercise pastoral ministry,” and that “there is no reason at the moment for the certification of Saša Gunjević to be withdrawn.”
To the first situation, an Adventist union conference president going public about such a severe penalty for people merely identifying as LGBTQ+, there has been not a word from leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at any level. Complete silence.
Meanwhile, it took less than a week after AT published the story of Saša Gunjević for the Inter-European Division (EUD) to respond with an open letter asking the Hanseatic Conference to disqualify Saša Gunjević from pastoral ministry and revoke his credentials.
Why did it take so little time for church leaders to condemn Pastor Gunjević, yet there was no response to “Archbishop” Moses Maka Ndimukika supporting the death penalty in the church’s name?
What we have here is a failure to exercise courageous ethical leadership.
The vulnerability of organized religion
I have written often about the compromises that happen when a shared faith turns into an organization. It begins with the inevitable layering of authority. When leaders get people to help them, who get people to help them, and more people to help them, the top level is exalted and authority begins to flow from the top down.
In his best moments, the apostle Paul argued for a sort of organic style of church organization: a body, or a building, with every part seeking direction from Jesus Christ alone. Unfortunately, the New Testament also slipped in a reference to a council of elders in Jerusalem, and elsewhere used words like episkopos (bishop), presbuteros (elder) and diakonos (deacon), all of which those at the top of our organizational chart have used to justify a church hierarchy that has turned out to be not all that different from the one we Adventists officially object to in Roman Catholicism.
(You would be astonished at the number of times that Ellen White’s reference to the General Conference as “God’s highest authority on earth” is quoted at virtually every governance meeting of the General Conference, with no apparent recognition of the irony.)
This leadership layer cake believes that they are God’s necessary bodyguards for protecting the church organization—that God needs them to protect God’s truth, along with God’s property, investments, jobs, retirement accounts, and reputation. This instinct to protect God by protecting the church from necessary change is a cataract that films the eyes of those who work in top levels of the organization. It is well understood that the most faithful givers are those who believe that God’s will, as they interpret it, is being done in Silver Spring as it is in heaven.
Some of this is inevitable: the moment a faith community becomes a church, it loses some of its integrity, and much of its courage. Our church has many wonderful features. I’m deeply grateful for what it has done for me. But ethically, pastorally, it has lost its heart.
This past week the General Conference jumped into the fray. Did they correct one of their own top church leaders for taking a strong, public political stance in support of the death penalty?
Ah, sorry, no. They weighed in to say that even though the Hanseatic Conference had approved the continuation of Pastor Gunjević’s credentials,
the EUD [Inter-European Division] administration prayerfully analyzed the pastor’s sermon and subsequent public statements and concluded that his open rejection of the official position of the worldwide church disqualifies him from pastoral ministry.
Let’s state the facts about Pastor Saša Gunjević.
First, Saša Gunjević is not in a sexual relationship. He understands the church’s teaching about same-sex relationships. But he wanted to be honest and say that he has recognized that he has a differing sexual orientation. Were he under North American Division policy, which distinguishes between orientation and sexual activity, this might be acceptable in some regions in my country. But Saša Gunjević works in the EUD.
Second, he is being honest. Hundreds—thousands—of pastors and teachers with an atypical orientation have worked for the church. I know some of them. Some entered heterosexual marriages; some remained single; some even had a secret life. The difference is that they didn’t admit it, much less announce it. Saša Gunjević did. I find his honesty meritorious.
Third, Saša is, by every measure, a thoughtful and faithful Seventh-day Adventist pastor. His ministry was affirmed by the Hanseatic Conference, the Hamburg-Grindelberg church where he serves, and conference president Dennis Meier.
Finally, Saša’s wish that LGBTQ+ people would be accepted as they are isn’t an uncommon desire in the western church (North America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Europe). How many pastors would have to be kicked out if asked, “Do you wish that LGBTQ+ people could be fully accepted in our churches?” It would have happened to me long ago.
The Archbishop of Uganda
Let’s contrast this with “Archbishop” Moses Maka Ndimukika’s public advocacy for life imprisonment for admitting one has a gay orientation, and the death penalty for being accused of certain expressions of it—in a part of the world not known for rigorous legal processes.
Can this be defended ethically? There are so many problems here that it is hard to know where to start.
The notion that sexual orientation is a choice has been conclusively proven false. Even many conservative Christians now understand that there is a difference between orientation and sexual activity. Furthermore, “eunuchs”—the closest thing we have in the Bible to an atypical sexual orientation—“who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant” (whether “born that way from their mother’s womb” or “made eunuchs by men”) are honored by Isaiah. To them, God
will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever (Isaiah 56:3-5).
Does that sound like second-class status? Isaiah puts them in the same category as converts to the faith.
As for the death penalty, though I find no officially voted church position, a statement by the Biblical Research Institute gives both the positives and the negatives and ends with the recommendation that “church members do not get involved in any campaign promoting death penalty.”
So where is the public condemnation of “Archbishop” Moses Maka Ndimukika, pictured in African newspapers as supporting this bill? Where is the special press release with a phalanx of besuited men standing for a portrait to call for the ouster of a fellow leader who has gone on record for disagreeing with the church?
Ignorant and hypocritical
The General Conference statement on Saša Gunjević is not just disappointing, it is ignorant and hypocritical. It confuses orientation with sexual relationships. It says that a pastor is disqualified from ministry for expressing a different opinion than the church. (By this measure, most of my pastor friends can’t be pastors anymore.)
It insists that the thoroughly discredited idea of the LGBTQ+ person transforming into a fully heterosexual person is the only possible outcome—and that it is necessary for salvation, because “rejecting the ability of God to transform the life of any person, even in seemingly impossible areas, is also rejecting the very doctrine of salvation.” This is poor theology, not to mention an extremely unfair expectation. Have all these church leaders been transformed in all matters into sinless Christians? That seems doubtful.
The statement uses a formula originated by Coming Out Ministries (COM) that rejects the LGBTQ+ identity because, COM says, “our identity should be in Christ alone.” Do church leaders not identify themselves as something besides Christian—for example, heterosexual? I’m pretty sure they do. And by the way, Christ said nothing about homosexuality.
The General Conference statement characterizes Saša Gunjević’s honesty as an expression of “social movements that are contrary to the Word of God”—as though a people who source half our doctrines from the extra-biblical writings of a 19th-century prophet are ideal examples of sola scriptura theology.
The hypocrisy here is disheartening. When popular Last Generation Theology pastor Samuel K. Pipim was exposed as having indulged in sex with multiple women (some of them students) all over the world, the church did not post a picture of leaders gathered to announce they were condemning him. These same church leaders were silent when he was rebaptized in Columbus, Ohio. Several of his victims had reported Pipim’s promiscuity for years to disbelieving church leaders. When it was finally established that he had long pattern of adultery, he was allowed to slip out of the picture without any warning to the public.
In our church, in fact, it is not unknown for pastors and teachers who showed poor moral judgment to simply be moved on. I’ve known some of them. One celebrity preacher who had a child out of wedlock was brought back into ministry because, a conference president told me, “He is just such a good preacher, and can build up a church!”
There may have been good reasons to forgive him and give him a pulpit again. But contrast the forgiveness he received, with these same church leaders’ frantic rejection of Saša Gunjević. In Saša’s case, church leaders used the loudest megaphone they had to condemn Saša—but remained silent as stone about an African leader who goes on record to support the death penalty in the name of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Someone please explain this to me.
Courageous ethical leadership
Church leaders should have as their mission not just creating policies that protect the organization; not just repeating traditional and simplistic interpretations of the Bible and Ellen White; not just running the church for the benefit of its biggest givers. We should aim for something larger: courageous leadership in ethical decision making.
Please don’t tell me we Adventists have no precedent for this. The Bible approves of slavery; our pioneers strongly rejected it. The Bible let polygamy stand as an accepted family lifestyle; our pioneers didn’t. The Bible says nothing about tobacco; our pioneers recognized it as harmful and made abstention a requirement for church membership. The Bible is silent on abortion; the church has made its own ethical decisions on the matter.
And many more. I am only saying that we Adventists know (or have known in the past) how to distinguish what is biblical from what is right. Are we too big, too “organized,” to do the right thing anymore?
If my church wants to keep new generations of Adventists beyond this one, they must address these astonishing hypocrisies.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today and leader/pastor of the Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar.