Good Friday. The day we Christians focus on the crucifixion of Jesus and the cost of sin.
Today, perhaps irreverently, I’m thinking about the way we lightly toss around the word “crucified” in other contexts. Like the person who brings an unpopular proposal to the staff meeting and “they totally crucified her over that!” Meaning, they disagreed with her idea and may have even mocked it a little. Crucifixion-lite, as it were.
We use it a little more seriously when we think someone is being “martyred,” even if not in the literal death-and-torture sense, for taking a stand we believe is admirable.
Which brings me to a current event of some interest to me: was Pastor Ryan Bell of Hollywood Adventist Church in any sense “crucified” by the Southern California Conference or by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination?
I’ve long been an admirer (from afar: I’ve never met him or attended his church) of Ryan Bell, whose ministry at Hollywood Adventist has focused on social justice, equality, creativity, and raising tough questions. On days when I feel oppressed by the conservative flavor of my own congregation I like to read Ryan Bell’s blogs and imagine I could attend that kind of Adventist church, with that kind of pastor. His ministry has given me hope and inspiration and expanded my vision of what’s possible within Adventism.
But I’ve also found myself wondering, how far will the institutional church allow Ryan Bell to go in exploring the far-left boundaries of “progressive Adventism” without subjecting him to church discipline? Now, I guess, we know the answer. This open letter appeared on Pastor Bell’s blog this week, explaining the reasons why he would no longer be serving as a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist church.
I’m sad about this. I’m sad that a voice that represents some of the most extreme liberal views possible within our denomination has now been placed outside (even as some who express equally extreme conservative views are allowed to continue preaching and teaching). I believe there needs to be room in the church for a diversity of voices and that we need to be allowed to challenge each other. The question as always seems to be: how far is too far?
In the interests of balance, if you want an alternate point of view from someone who is quite happy to see the end of Ryan Bell’s ministry, you could read this article. It focuses primarily on a sermon by Trisha Famisaran, a guest speaker at Hollywood Adventist Church, and is, among other things, a shining example of how not to speak with respect and Christian love about those with whom you disagree. In this author’s view at least, Famisaran’s sermon was a key factor in bringing about the end of Bell’s ministry. While I don’t know whether there’s any truth to this, I do know that out of all the controversial views Ryan Bell is on record as holding, outspoken support for the LGBT community is one of the surest ways to get censured in the Adventist church at the moment (and in many other churches. While I’m talking about a specifically SDA situation here, the motif of outspoken leaders being disciplined by hierarchy is hardly unique to Adventists — Catholic friends may want to think here of the Vatican trying to rein in opinionated American nuns, for example).
But despite my sorrow, I must admit I don’t feel the outraged shock I see some people expressing about Ryan Bell’s dismissal. If I, as someone who followed his ministry with interest from a distance, saw this coming, I have no doubt that he and the members of his congregation saw it coming much more clearly.
Compared to other very conservative Christian groups, Seventh-day Adventists allow a surprising degree of diversity within our ranks – even among pastors and others in leadership positions. But everyone is aware that boundaries exist, and leaders – whether on the extremely liberal or on the extremely conservative ends of the denomination – are aware when they are pushing the boundaries.
I’m undecided as to whether there should even be boundaries. You may recall that in my ongoing video dialogue with Ed Dickerson a few weeks ago, he introduced the concept of “testing truths.” Misunderstanding what he meant by that term, I countered that maybe we don’t need “testing truths” – which I interpreted as the doctrines we use to define who’s “in” and who’s “out.”
My next Searching Sabbath video will be about the doctrine of “The Church” and I’ll be addressing some of these questions. (UPDATE: due to technical difficulties with YouTube I may not have this week’s Searching Sabbath posted on Sabbath. But it’ll be up soon). For now I’ll say that whether or not boundaries should exist, they do. Change happens when people are courageous enough to violate those boundaries. But anyone who does that is also aware (unless they’re unbelievably naïve) that boundary-pushing comes with risks. Genuine crucifixion is rare these days, but job loss, ostracism, and sometimes even loss of membership still occur all too frequently.
I’ve been wondering as I work my way through this series on the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, how much deviation, how much questioning, is really possible within the framework of faithful membership in a church. I was very heartened to read the following quote from an article by Andy Nash in the Adventist Review, our church’s official magazine, recently:
In the Adventist Church’s earliest days, there was no creed but Scripture; the only litmus test was the final authority of the Word of God. It should be no different today—as long as someone continues to prayerfully plumb the depths of Scripture, there should be room for them in this church. (Read the full article here).
I hope so much that this is true and continues to be true, for amidst all my doubts and questions I am always prayerfully plumbing the depths of Scripture, and doing it within an Adventist context. However, the irony of reading this quote in the same week when I learned about Ryan Bell’s dismissal is not lost on me. It’s true that the church generally demands a higher standard of obedience and conformity from leaders than it does from ordinary members. – perhaps rightly so? I’m not sure. I only know that despite the wonderful years I spend teaching at Kingsway College, Parkview Adventist Academy, and the St. John’s Adventist Academy, I was relieved when I stopped working for the church, because I felt I could more honestly explore and express my own questions, doubts and opinions without worrying about how I reflected on the institution I was representing – or how that institution would view me.
So these days, I pursue my “faithful doubter” journey from the perspective of an ordinary pew-sitter, and I take encouragement from people like Ryan Bell and Trisha Famisaran and others who are prepared to use positions of church leadership and denominational employment to challenge norms and ask difficult questions.
As for being “crucified” for your beliefs – metaphorically, of course – anyone within an organization who takes on that role of challenge, question, and advocating change, has to be prepared for the day the organization will reinforce its boundary lines and say, “You’ve gone too far … our definition of who we are as a people can no longer stretch wide enough to include you.” Even if you are continuing to “prayerfully plumb the depths of Scripture.”
It’s not really crucifixion, but it does hurt. And maybe it’s inevitable, human nature and human organizations being what they are. I wish it weren’t. What kind of world would we have to live in – what kind of church would we have to be – for that to be possible? I don’t know. But as I reflect on the meaning of Christian faith this Easter weekend, and as I plan my vlog and blog for tomorrow on the topic of “The Church,” I can’t help asking the question.