When People Find Jesus in a Different Church, Part 1: Our Side of the Wall
by Loren Seibold | 23 April 2023 |
This essay was first published on 5 February 2019.
Some years ago a friend of mine, raised and educated in the Seventh-day Adventist church, revealed to his parents that he was joining a church of another denomination. It is important for you to understand that he wasn’t becoming a spiritualist or a Scientologist or a Roman Catholic. He was joining a conservative Protestant Bible-based church—though one that met on Sunday morning.
At this distance in time, and with the perspective that I have now, it is painful even to bring the story to mind: how my friend’s father never talked to him again and formally disinherited him in his will, how his mother wept and asked the church to pray, while publicly mourning that her son wouldn’t be in heaven with her. Some responses from his congregation-of-origin were less harsh but no less disapproving: letters and cards saying, “We’re praying for you, that you see the error of your ways and return to God’s true church.”
One of the interesting details of the story is that my friend’s sister had also quit attending church and lived what most would consider an un-Adventist lifestyle. She, however, wasn’t subjected to the treatment that he was. The sister, my friend’s mother explained, said that she still believed the truths; she just wasn’t living them. She remained a member on the books. But my friend, though appreciating fully the gospel message that he was raised with, had sacrificed his Adventist membership by joining a Sunday church, and that was unforgivable.
When One Leaves
This memory came back to me when Pastor Dan Wysong departed to ministry in the United Church of Christ a few years ago. In answers to my interview questions he explained how much he appreciated his Adventist upbringing. But he felt he’d grown to the point where he longed to do pastoral care and leadership in a setting of loving fellowship rather than always having his ministry overshadowed by tightly defined orthodoxy and a supercilious denominational magisterium. He told how it hurt him when his Adventist congregation’s desire to baptize a woman in a same-sex marriage had been forbidden by the conference. How San Antonio’s vote on women’s ordination had made him feel the church was moving backwards, not forwards. That he craved a place where he felt he could minister to people’s needs as Jesus did.A few readers understood what he was saying, and acknowledged his intentions. But the anxiety surfaced quickly, too. Reading the Facebook comments, it was hard not to think of the kinds of he-said-she-said exchanges that echo through the community after a couple in the church divorces. Some charged that he wasn’t quite telling the truth when he said that the church had supported the decision to baptize a married lesbian—and though the story-teller hadn’t been there himself, he was anxious to pass along the rumor. It bothered others that he went from being a Seventh-day Adventist pastor to a United Church of Christ pastor right away; had he waited to “divorce” us until he already had a mistress on the side ready to move in with? How long had he been committing infidelity against us in his heart, while masquerading as our pastor? Perhaps he never was the real thing, never really one of us.
Dan had heard all the reasons why he should stay: that he would upset people’s faith if he left, that he should improve the church rather than exit it. But not many seemed to be listening to him. Why should his life work be dependent upon the feelings of people who were more ready to criticize than to understand?
Perhaps it’s time for us to explore why someone leaving our fellowship for another one creates so much anxiety.
The psychological and sociological barrier between us and other faiths is like a border wall. On one side of it, you are ours. On the other side, you’re an alien creature whom we don’t understand. If you leave, here’s what might happen.
From now on, our every interaction with you will be shaped by your having left us. Some people will keep projecting their disappointment at you for years, perhaps your lifetime. Some of us will pray for you; some of us will be angry with you; some of us will ignore you and forget you; a few of us will declare you lost for eternity.
You may want to continue to be friends with us, and we may say we want that, too. But we’re going to struggle with it. It will always be there, a barrier between us. We’ll feel a stab of discomfort whenever we see you. We may not shun you, but when we run into you in the grocery store, your defection will be what we think of first. We’ll never miss the chance to say something to you about coming back to church, which invitation we intend as warm and welcoming. But you will know it is actually disapproving, and it might become an uncomfortable coda to our meeting, like a bad aftertaste to what might have been a nice meal.
We will never acknowledge that you have found a richer spiritual experience elsewhere, even if you have. That’s because your leaving threatens not just us, not just our church, but the border wall itself. You force us to peek over the wall, and we can’t admit that you might be happy in Jesus over there. That makes us afraid. So we will tell ourselves that you are deceived. You must be. But just having had to process those thoughts jostles the lid that we’ve locked tightly over some of our doubts, and it releases a bit of anxiety into our hearts.
Somewhere deep within us our disappointment in you may even be tinged with envy, as though you’ve chosen an easier way—though an easier way that is probably wrong because it is easier, like a man who slips his marriage vows for a series of carefree affairs. We may even wonder if you made this change so you could do all those forbidden things, like smoking and drinking and running around. Because some of us believe that’s what people on the other side of the wall do.
Your leaving feels a little insulting to us. You didn’t just make a change. You broke up with us and have taken up with another denomination. You’re acting like you’re too good for us—which is why we’re quick to remind ourselves that it’s really that we’re too good for you, because we’re “in the truth” and you’re not.
All of which is to say that without meaning to, perhaps not even knowing that we are, we will hold it against you—forever, or at least until you repent and come back to us.
And in truth, you may find it hard to leave us, too. There are ex-Adventists in my circle of friends who have left physically, but whose hearts have never found a home. There remains an annoying tether, a leash, between them and us. They can’t quite get free of it. Some have a tendency to hang around and nag us, to remind us of our many contradictions and hypocrisies.
So why do we have such a hard time letting go of one another?
Tomorrow: The Sectarian Identity
Loren Seibold is a retired pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today