by Rebecca Brothers | 18 September 2019 |
Whenever we read Philippians 3:4-6 in church, I have to chuckle.
Granted, it’s not a particularly humorous passage. Paul is describing how his qualifications are flawless: “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
I don’t mean to brag, but I feel you, Paul.
After all, if someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the Adventist church, I have more: taken to the Caldwell SDA Church on my fourth day out of the womb, of a pastor’s family, of four generations of Adventists on my mother’s side, an Adventist of Adventists; in regard to education, sent to Adventist schools from grade 2 through college; as for zeal, serving as an Adventist student missionary for ten months; as for righteousness based on the Twenty-Eight Fundamental Beliefs, faultless except for coffee.
In short, it seems like I’ve checked all the boxes. I’ve fulfilled all the requirements for Introduction to Lifelong Adventism.
But something happened along the way. Something happened that shunted me out of the Adventist church and beckoned me into the Episcopal church. Something happened that turned me into some Adventist parents’ nightmare: the Child Who Leaves the Church.
If you think I’m exaggerating, you have not seen and heard what I have. You have not seen other people’s grandparents weep openly because their grandchildren want to attend a non-Adventist university. You have not heard other people’s parents discuss whether they will require their children to date Adventists, or whether they will be lenient and only require them to date Christians.
No, for some Adventists, leaving the Adventist church is on par with leaving Christianity altogether — or even giving up on religion. It makes no difference to some people if the child leaves Adventism for a group as staid as the Methodists or as honorable as the Quakers. They have left the remnant church. They have abandoned God’s fourth commandment. They are doomed.
But I don’t feel doomed. I feel welcomed and loved and challenged to do more for Christ’s people.
I think a large portion of this feeling can be credited to my parents, who have made it clear that they will love me no matter what. I think another part of this feeling can be credited to my new church, which works hard to make me feel welcomed and loved and challenged.
I’m not saying the Adventist church doesn’t make people feel welcomed and loved and challenged. If that were true, the Fruits of the Spirit wouldn’t be so evident in the lives of so many Adventists. I think some people need the structure and rigor of the Adventist church to order their lives, just like other people need the structure and rigor of the Catholic church or the Mormon church or the Amish church.
But I’m extremely wary of people who try to push others into categories, who try to say “You belong here” or “You don’t belong here.” In other words, I really dislike it when individual churches choose slogans like “Welcome home” or “You’re family now.” Inevitably, when I go to their websites, I see policies and doctrines that exclude and reject and harm some of God’s most vulnerable people.
Is that how you treat your family? Is that how you’ve organized your home? I hope not.
Prior to the 2015 General Conference session, I’d always thought leaving a church had to be an act of anger. I’d always thought I’d have to slam the door on my way out. In 2015, I realized, as so many ex-Adventists had realized before me, that leaving a church could be a quiet act, like that point in Thanksgiving dinner when you nudge your plate away and say, “No more for me, thanks.”
I’ve been asked several times before, “Was it the 2015 vote on women’s ordination that made you decide to leave the church?”
In a nutshell, no. I knew the vote was going to fail, though I didn’t expect it to impact my faith much. Before the GC session, my father attended a number of meetings to hear church members’ thoughts on the topic of women’s ordination. He returned from one meeting quiet and surprised.
“Those sweet little old ladies in the back pews,” he said, “the ones who are always first to arrive and last to leave, the ones who have led the children’s classes for decades …”
“They’re angry,” he said in wonder.
But those sweet little old ladies were not voting delegates, so I prepared for the motion’s failure. I knew it would sting, but I was prepared to keep plodding through the motions and wrestling with the matter of reconciling my personal beliefs with my church’s actions.
I didn’t expect the audience to applaud when the vote failed.
I didn’t expect two other motions to pass so easily—motions that clarified the wording of two doctrines, to say that marriage was between a man and a woman, and to reflect belief in a recent, literal six-day creation. “There was nothing divisive here,” one delegate said afterwards. “We were merely clarifying what we have always believed.”
I did not expect to feel so distanced from these outcomes, so cut off from the body that had proposed and discussed and decided these matters. For so long, my question had been “How can I stay?” Now it was “Why should I stay?” There were so many doctrines I didn’t hold, so many positions I didn’t share. Wasn’t it pushy and rude of me to expect an entire global church to fall in line with my convictions?
Reading church news about the 2015 votes felt like reading about a tsunami or an earthquake in a distant land—tragic and heartbreaking, but not a personal emergency. I admired my friends’ Facebook declarations to stay in the church and continue fighting for women’s ordination and marriage equality and mainstream geology, but their sentiments felt as personally urgent as a call to reform the Swedish Boy Scouts. “It’s not my fight,” I thought. “It’s not my job.”
I don’t recommend leaving the Adventist church to everyone. In fact, I don’t recommend leaving to anyone—nor do I recommend staying. That’s not my place. I’m no more qualified to tell someone “stay” or “leave” than a male Adventist is qualified to tell a female Adventist to stay, or a straight Adventist is qualified to tell an LGBTQIA+ Adventist to leave.
No, we don’t get to say “stay” or “leave” to our siblings in Christ. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. I believe it is an act of great courage to leave a system that oppresses you and your community, and it is an act of great courage to stay within that system to fight for justice and equity and reform. Both decisions require deep faith and compassion and strength. Neither act is shameful or cause for censure.
What matters, I think, is that we remain true to our convictions that God is love, and that God’s people are instructed to be the hands and feet carrying out works that show God’s love—no matter what church we’re in. Are you a transgender Adventist who genuinely wants to stay an Adventist, despite the doctrinal and cultural opposition against you? Then go forth and remain a transgender Adventist. I believe that God will make a way for you and lead you to the places where you will be blessed and be a blessing. Are you a bisexual Adventist who’s casting envious glances at the Episcopal church with its color-coded calendar and rosaries and Way of Love? Then go forth and be a bisexual Episcopalian. Are you a straight cisgender person who believes that organized religion is poison, who is incensed by the way the Christian church has treated the “others” throughout history, who can’t see God at work in any of the churches of the world? Then go forth, like Elijah into the wilderness in 1 Kings 19, and pour out your heart before God, and see what sustenance and wisdom God provides.
No matter what, no matter who we are and where we are, may we lean into the truth that God has laid on our hearts, and take up the directions God has given us to live lives of compassion in a hurting world. May we believe that God is still speaking, and pray unceasingly for those who try to talk over God’s voice in our lives. May we never forget that we are God’s hands and feet: mopping sweaty foreheads, handing out cups of cool water, serving dinner, washing forks after potlucks. Amen.
Rebecca Brothers is a graduate of Lincoln City Seventh-day Adventist School, Walla Walla University, and the University of Washington. She is a happy member of the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, Alabama, and currently works as an academic librarian. Her proudest achievements include serving as a student missionary in Podkowa Leśna, Poland, and being completely submerged in mud during sixth-grade Outdoor School.