Wednesday, November 30, 2011

God, Rocks, and Souls

This is an introduction to John McLarty’s book in progress, GOD, ROCKS, AND SOULS, a memoir of an “old, white, liberal Adventist pastor”.

What follows is a “chapter…not in its final form” from that book in progress.

Chapter 48. Ordination Exam: Part 2

Elder Kretschmar talked a bit more about how important it was to protect the church's official teachings regarding tithe. Then, he gently moved us away from the explosive issues tithe policy to the safer ground of tithe income. “We can’t settle here whether you have to remove someone from office in your local church because they don’t give all their tithe through the tithe fund. That’s an issue you will have to decide in consultation with your congregation. I do think it is important that ministers bear a strong testimony in support of what the church teaches about returning God’s tithe. We can’t have every member thinking they have the same prerogatives as a prophet. We need to teach our members to return their tithe to God's storehouse through their local church. By the way, John, I’ve noticed tithe giving in your church has increased quite a bit during the years you’ve been there, so obviously you support the teaching of the church.

“Elder Murray, do you have a question?”

“John, I want to know whether you support church standards. In today’s world there is so much permissiveness, so much laxity and carelessness in the things of God. Our young people, especially in the city, need clear, firm guidance. So brother, as you prepare for the sacred rite of ordination, tell us, do you support church standards?”

“I would if I knew what they were.” I felt bad saying this. James was tossing me an easy pitch. His entire demeanor was an invitation to answer yes and we would move on. “Church standards” was Adventist code for the detailed behavioral rules of our community. They could see my wife wore no make up and that neither of us wore a wedding ring. I was somewhat notorious for publicly advocating the special health rules of Adventism–I was a vegetarian and a runner. I didn’t go to movies or dance. We didn’t go out to eat on Sabbath. I believed in “church standards” and advocated them. I could have answered with a simple, yes. It would have been true and in keeping with the spirit of the questioner, but I had vowed to be totally transparent. Hence my comment.

"What do you mean, ‘you would support church standards if you knew what they were?’” James asked.
“Just two months ago,” I said, “we elected a new youth leader for our church. All the kids like her, but she wears a lot of make up and huge earrings and flashy necklaces. So I went to see her. I told her I wasn’t there to try and convince her that wearing jewelry was wrong. However, it was important for people in leadership to uphold the standards of the church. I could see Patricia wasn’t overly impressed with my words so I pulled out a copy of our 27 Fundamental Beliefs and showed her section 21. She took it from me and read it, then looked up and said, 'It doesn’t say anything here about jewelry.’

“I didn't believe her, of course. So I took the paper back and read for myself. And reread it. She was right! It doesn’t say a word about jewelry. Not one word. Talk about feeling stupid! Here I am, a minister, and I don’t know what our own official doctrines say. Adventists don’t wear jewelry. I’ve been told since I was old enough to understand English. But the Fundamental Beliefs of our church does say anything about it. Not one word.”

The place erupted. They were interrupting each other as they contradicted me. “Now, John, that can’t possibly be true. Of course, it’s there.” That was Elder Kretschmar. The others were equally adamant that our official statement of beliefs required Christians to avoid drawing attention to themselves by wearing jewelry and ostentatious make up.

“I’ve been a minister for thirty-five years.” The Union ministerial guy said. “I know what we believe. And we believe that wearing jewelry is contrary to God’s ideal for his people.”

“I’m not saying I don’t believe in modesty and humility in dress.” I said. “I don’t wear jewelry. My wife doesn’t wear jewelry. We don't even wear wedding rings. But I’m telling you, the Statement of Beliefs does not mention jewelry. It’s not there. And it doesn’t mention movies either. Some of my leaders regularly go to the movies. You all 'know' they are not supposed to. I 'know’ they’re not supposed to. But the Statement of Beliefs does not back me up.”

“John, I think you need to go back and reread the Statement of Beliefs.” This was Elder Kretschmar again. “We all know what our church believes when it comes to standards. Seventh-day Adventists don’t believe in wearing jewelry and going to movies. That’s what we teach our young people. It’s what we expect of our mature members.”

“I’m not arguing about what we believe,” I said. “I’m arguing about what our official statement of beliefs says we believe. If I’m going to 'support’ church standards, I can’t expect people to just accept what I say. I have to be able to show them what the church has voted. I need to be able to show them something official. Obviously the Bible doesn’t say, 'Thou shalt not go to movies.’ Or 'Thou shalt not wear earrings.’
“It must be there.” Elder Gonzalez’ voice was the first gentle entry into the debate. “John, I think you’re not remembering correctly. Surely our church included these standards in our Statement of Beliefs. I don’t see how these things could be missing from the 27.”

“I thought the same thing, Elder Gonzalez. I was positive they were there. But they aren’t. Neither jewelry nor movies are mentioned.” I started to get up from my chair. “If you’ll wait just a minute, I’ll run out to my car and get a copy of the 27 from my briefcase in the car.”

Elder Kretschmar stopped me. “Sit down, John. We don’t need to read the Statement of Beliefs. We know that you and Karin order your lives according to traditional standards of the church. And I’m sure you will find a way to teach your members to practice modesty in their dress and carefulness in their entertainment.
“Karin, let me ask you a question. How do you feel about being a minister’s wife? It can be most rewarding. It can also be challenging. Tell us how you see your role in the ministry.”

“John is the one called to the ministry, not me. But he is my husband and I support him in the work God has called him to. I help out where I can. In the Babylon Church I work in the children’s Sabbath School and I’m part of a women’s Bible Study group. Sometimes I play the organ. I do whatever I can to be helpful.”

“How do you handle it when church members have a conflict with your husband?”

“I figure that’s John’s department. There’s been obviously been some conflict, especially in Babylon. But I don’t cause the conflict, and I can’t resolve it. I figure the best thing for me to do is leave John to address those issues.”

Before Elder Kretschmar could think of another question for Karin, Elder Smith spoke up. “John, in every organization you have to have a boss. You have to have someone who has the responsibility for overall direction of the work. And we need to respect that leadership role. Part of respecting that leadership is taking advice and counsel. I want to know if you’ll take counsel.”

[Note to reader: “Take counsel” was a technical term in Adventist clergy circles. It was the label for proper deference to the church hierarchy as a system and to all the persons above you in that hierarchy.]

“That’s a good question. But I don’t know how to answer it. I’m pretty hardheaded. . . . As I think most of you know.” Most of them laughed.

“Maybe I should clarify just a bit,” Elder Smith said. “I’m not talking about moral issues. I recognize there are times when you’ve got to take a stand, when it’s a matter of right and wrong. When it’s a moral issue, you’ve got to follow your conscience no matter what anyone says. But I’m talking about when the president gives you counsel about some course of action that does not involve a moral issue, when it’s a matter of judgment. Will you take counsel in that kind of situation?”

I didn’t answer immediately. What should I say? The right answer was obvious. I could feel Elder Smith setting me up for the right answer. It was another friendly pitch. He was praying I would hit it out of the park. But would I really take counsel and advice? Sure, sometimes I would. No, most of the time I would. But it seemed to me that if I gave a simple yes to his question, I would be agreeing with the authoritarian model of church leadership that Elder Smith held. I knew I viewed church hierarchy in a radically different way. I did not share Elder Smith's deference toward authority. “I think I better stick with my first answer. I would certainly listen, but would I take counsel? I don’t know.”

There were a few more questions. We had gone way over time. There was another candidate waiting. Elder Kretschmar asked Elder Prestol to close with prayer. Karin and I left. She was appalled by some of my answers, but the words were out there. I had placed the dilemma of my fitness for ordination squarely in their hands, except for my questions about geochronology. They hadn’t asked about that.

The next day Elder Kretschmar called to tell me the committee had voted to ordain me. I learned later the sole dissenting vote had been Elder Schmidt, the Union minister.

*Ingathering was a fund-raising program in which members were expected to solicit donations from the public for disaster relief and other humanitarian activities by the church. Every congregation was assigned a fund-raising goal based on their membership. Over the years it had become the tail that wagged the dog. Ministers could find themselves out of a job if their congregations failed to raise the expected amounts. Unfortunately, the internal controls on the management of Ingathering funds were so loose the church could not (or would not) give any report on how the monies were spent.

*The Davenport scandal: An Adventist business man offered church administrators fantastically generous returns on their own personal investments in return for their steering church monies into his investment vehicles which turned out to be pyramid schemes.


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