How Change Happens
by Ryan Bell
by Ryan Bell, June 26, 2014
Yesterday an appeals committee for the United Methodist Church overturned the ruling against Rev. Frank Schaefer and reinstated him as an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church after he surrendered his credentials at the end of last year. A jury of 13 United Methodist clergy suspended him for 30 days last November after he performed his son's same-sex wedding against the church's Book of Discipline. At the conclusion of the 30 days Schaefer was expected to say he would never perform another same-sex wedding.
Schaefer told the New York Times, "Today there was a very clear and strong signal from the church, and that message is, ‘Change is on the way.’ One day we will celebrate the fact that we have moved beyond this horrible chapter in our church’s life.”1
I couldn't help but wonder about my own case, which in some ways was different than Schaefer's. There were multiple issues for which I was forced to resign, ranging from doctrine to politics to administrative issues, such as being publicly critical of some denominational decisions and not being a "team player" when it came to public evangelism.
If progressive groups within otherwise fundamentalist church groups wish to continue to influence the denomination from within, they are going to have to spend some political capital to come to the aid of those on the front lines who take the hits for what progressives believe. Leaving their wounded on the field while cautiously calculating how to "live to fight another day" will not advance the cause. The only lesson there is for other would-be reformers: do not speak up or act out.
Then again, I'm not sure the news is as good as Schaefer thinks. While it feels good to be vindicated, the appeals committee made their decision on the basis that "a clergyman can only be punished for what he has been convicted of doing in the past, not for what he may or may not do in the future."2 Bottom line: nothing has changed. If he performs another same-sex wedding, he's potentially right back in the same boat.
Which leads me to the conclusion that while it would have felt good to have progressive Adventists come to my defense in a substantive way, it is ultimately a losing cause. As long as the Bible is held to be the authoritative word of God for all time, impervious to new scientific and social-scientific evidence, there is really no hope for those in the church who are committed to human progress, which is the foundation of what being progressive means.
Ryan Bell was an Adventist pastor for two decades, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood (California) Church. In March 2013 he resigned his position due to theological and practical differences. As an adjunct professor he has taught subjects ranging from intercultural communication to bioethics. Currently he is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. He received a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and a Doctor of Ministry in Missional Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.