by Loren Seibold | 18 August 2023 |
Here’s something about the contemporary Seventh-day Adventist Church that completely puzzles me—so much so that, I confess, I’ve written about it several times before. But the leaders at the top of our church give me reasons to keep coming back to it.
Why, when these men in Silver Spring choose topics to address, do they so often choose to talk about who they want to keep out of the church?
They teach that we’re supposed to gather everyone in for Jesus’ return. But if God is calling everyone, saint and sinner alike, why do our church leaders disapprove of so many of them here and now, for so many reasons?
Elder Wilson began his term as General Conference president telling us everything and everyone he disapproves of. Meditation. Reading non-Adventist books. Evolution or anything except a short chronology since a literal six-day creation. Not treating Ellen White like a Bible writer. Any kind of modern music, especially that favored by young people or other ethnic groups.
Oh, and women. Ted Wilson pretended he was open to studying the issue of women in ministry, but before he took a vote he had to speak from his authoritative pulpit about his disapproval of them.
Then a couple of weeks ago, Mark Finley took on LGBTQ people. Mark “loves” them, apparently, but with a very qualified, disapproving kind of love—he doesn’t want them around unless they can do what no smart person believes they can do: change and become straight. (Or, alternatively, remain lonely all of their lives.)
It’s hard to know whether women or queer people or something else is the General Conference’s greatest obsession—they move from disapproval to disapproval over time. Always, though, they keep drawing this line: the line between who is inside and who is outside.
Is judging sinners the church’s job? Not according to Jesus.
Here’s a parable from Matthew 13 that I’ve seldom heard preached by Adventist churchmen. It starts with a farmer seeing that his fields have a bumper crop of weeds among the wheat. His farmhands think that the best way to handle it is to stomp out into the field and tear up the weeds right away.
But the farmer says that uprooting weeds will damage the wheat.
Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
Lord, help me, but I cannot interpret this in any way except that we’re not to perform the judgment in our churches now, but leave it to the Lord to do in the end. To the point of Elder Finley’s recent anti-LGBTQ sermon, I see nothing here about ripping out the weeds unless they change into wheat.
“But… but… but,” some frustrated soul protests, “Can we allow just anyone into God’s remnant church?”
Personally, I don’t like the whole remnant idea—I’ve got serious doubts about the legitimacy of it—but maybe this next parable (Luke 14) will shed some light upon how the church should do its job.
A rich man has a banquet—and all of those he invites seem unenthused and don’t show up.
Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.… Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.”
Please, Mark and Ted, tell me how you can read this parable in any way except to say that the most vulnerable, most needy people are invited to come into the kingdom.
And if they’re invited in the kingdom, who are you to say they can’t be part of the church?
Seriously, you want to draw a line and say—on the basis of some highly questionable passages—that LGBTQ people, even if they love Jesus and are in committed marriages, should be frozen out?
The universal invitation
Then there is this, the most unambiguous invitation in Scripture, in the last chapter of the Bible:
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely. (Revelation 22:17 )
The Spirit is clearly the wooing, drawing, persuading aspect of God, the one who softens hearts and invites them to Jesus.
And the bride? Can there be any doubt that that’s the church?
So I’ve got this picture in my mind. (I wish I were the artist to make it into a real picture.) We see a church with an open door. Jesus is standing there saying, “Come! Anyone who desires peace and salvation and meaning, come! The door is open! This is a place for struggling people. Here we offer the water of life, the assurance of salvation, a community finding hope in Jesus!”
But interposed between the viewer and the church is a turnstile. Ted Wilson stands on one side, and Mark Finley on the other, in charcoal-gray suits and backed up by a group of stern-faced, angry saints. To each one who wants to respond to the invitation, Ted and Mark first administer a test. Are you gay? Are you a woman who wants to be a pastor? Do you keep the Saturday Sabbath? Are you a vegetarian?
And even though Jesus is standing at the church door pleading for them, some are turned away.
Fighting against ourselves
On the night of September 21, 1788, the Austrian army was on a night march to engage the Ottoman Turks. When the army stopped to rest at Karánsebes, some began drinking and a fight broke out between cavalry and infantrymen. A few shots were fired.
Someone, the story goes, joked that the army was being attacked by the Turks. Writes military historian Charles Kirke,
While it was obviously a prank in the eyes of the soldiers close by, the columns of soldiers behind heard shouts and firing in the darkness ahead, and assumed the worst.
Panicked soldiers began to fire in the dark.
When the sun rose, it became clear that there wasn’t a Turk in sight. The Austrian army had spent a night fighting with itself. Estimates are that as many as 1,000 Austrian soldiers were killed or wounded.
When the Turks did show up a couple of days later, they defeated the (now thoroughly demoralized) Austrians.
I see something like this in our church right now. We are in a pitched battle with ourselves. We are inviting people in, then shooting at those we don’t like. We say, “Bring the world into our church!” one day, and then the next our leaders tell us all the reasons that those from “the highways and hedges” can’t be allowed in without becoming, by their definition, much better than they are.
And if they somehow do get in, we should probably chase them out.
Shooting at our own
Thousands of Adventists are shooting at our own, while others, less judgmental than they, are trying to hold communities together. The critics are not asking people to come to Jesus, but asking them to choose sides.
Why is pre-judging—dividing the acceptable from the unacceptable, the people we like from those we don’t, those allowed in the church from those who aren’t—the battle these folks seem so eager to fight?
Years ago I took some classes from Mark Finley. I didn’t agree with him on many matters, but I thought he was a sincere and well-intentioned man. I wish I could ask him some questions.
Mark, you want new members in our churches—but do you know the kind of gauntlet you create in congregations for all members, old and new, by the kinds of judgment you made in your video?
Do you realize that people are listening to you, then the next Sabbath examining their fellow church members for the sins you’ve suggested to them? You’re making some congregations into little courtrooms, with people spending most of their energy debating women pastors and LGBTQ people and theological heresy.
Another thing: are you certain, Mark, that you are sufficiently wise to say who’s in and who’s out? Do you know enough to rip out the weeds from the wheat right now? Do you realize—because of the pulpit you have, the authority with which you speak—what a dangerous position this puts you in with regard to the last judgment?
That is to say: what if you are wrong and people not only lose the fellowship of the church, but lose the kingdom because of your being too harsh?
Perhaps Mark has been in the persuasion business so long that he’s forgotten that congregations are hurting, struggling people. I haven’t baptized as many people as Mark Finley has. But I’ve spent lots of time with ordinary people as a parish pastor. The last thing congregations need is more reasons to divide them or to push people out.
But those of us who have been there haven’t forgotten.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.