Getting Along with the Exes

by Henry Neufeld, Publisher

No, no, no! Not the ex-spouses. The ex-faiths!
You see, while Jody and I were both members of a United Methodist congregation when we got married, we had both come to that place by leaving other churches. Jody was ex-Catholic, and I was ex-Seventh-day Adventist.
These are both groups that have a bit of trouble with someone being ex. Ex-SDAs are viewed by more traditional Adventists as apostates. Having learned the important doctrines of the Sabbath, and understood the apostasy of fallen Protestantism, evidenced by their disobedience of the Sabbath command, and having once seemed to be a part of God’s true remnant people, the apostate has chosen, instead, to become God’s enemy and deny the true faith.
There are those who don’t believe one can even be ex-Catholic. For a completely different set of reasons, an ex-Catholic is often seen as apostate, having left the one true, holy, and apostolic church for some sect. Their one hope, of course, is that they can be brought back into the fold in some way.
Besides often having a hard time dealing with ex-members, there is another problem with an ex-Catholic/ex-SDA combination. SDAs are a step past protestants. They not only protest Roman Catholic doctrine. They protest the protestants who aren’t far enough away from Catholicism. If you talk to SDAs now, you will find that many have shed this prejudice and have admitted that the Catholic church of today is not the same as the church of the 15th and 16th centuries. History moves on and so do people. But there are still SDAs who think that distributing Ellen White’s book, The Great Controversy, is a good way to recruit new members. Evangelism, they would call it, as in evangelizing Christians who don’t have their doctrine right. The Great Controversy is a book that paints the Roman Catholic church in a very bad light with the Pope as the Antichrist. Indeed, demonize would be quite literally true of this description of Catholic life.
Catholics, in turn, can hardly be happy about a group that sees them as heathen in need of evangelization. One of my professors, from whom I took both some French and also Patristic Latin, was an ex-Catholic priest. His conversion was considered such a coup that there was a story book for young people about his experiences and how he had moved from the false religion of Catholicism to become part of God’s remnant people. (Note: I have written in some detail about SDA doctrines on my blog Threads from Henry’s Web. Just put SDA in the search box.)
I’ve painted a stark picture of the separation between our previous faiths for a reason. Neither of these descriptions is accurate for all members and even for all officials of these two churches.
I recall two interesting encounters I’ve had. The first was with a Catholic priest at a local church. I had taken a very good friend to Mass there, always mildly uncomfortable for me as I must stay seated as the Eucharist is offered, while people struggle to get around me. I seem to never find a good place to be both there, and out of traffic, especially when I’m accompanying someone who is participating. When I was leaving the church, the priest was shaking hands and, being a rather friendly fellow (and I must confess an excellent preacher), he cornered me, welcomed me, and shook my hands. Regarding my home church I said with a smile, “I’m from the heretics down the road.” He laughed, slapped me on the back and said, “Please! Separated brethren! You’re a separated brother now!”
The second was while taking one of my authors to a book signing and speaking engagement at a Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Energion Publications has several Seventh-day Adventist writers on its author list.) As the author signed books, I was accosted by a young man who said he worked at the conference office. He wondered how it was possible that one could have doctrinal problems with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and was determined to ask me about it. He was somewhat less determined to hear the answer.
The pastor of that church, his wife, and a few of the leaders in the congregation took us to dinner following the event and apologized profusely for having let this happen to me. They didn’t think of me as an apostate and were quite happy to be in fellowship and ministry with me.
I can certainly balance any incident of unkindness or discourtesy from either of our former faiths with incidents of kindness, dialogue, and Christian fellowship. I don’t want these positive aspects to be forgotten. But I want to focus on the negatives and how we can work through those negatives to a more positive result.
Not every Methodist is the same, nor is every Baptist, nor every Presbyterian, nor every Seventh-day Adventist, nor every Catholic. Not even every Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, or—wait for it!—Muslim is the same as every other.
What each of us need is a bit of reorientation.
First, we need to reorient ourselves and find a new perspective on groups. Think for a minute about what I’ve said about these two groups. You should see a very clear similarity between them. Yes, there it is. Both groups tend to think of themselves as the true church and so see those who leave as departing from the truth and descending into falsehood.
You should have caught a phrase I just used that’s off-kilter. If you didn’t, work on that reorientation. I said “both groups tend to think.” But really people, individuals, in both groups tend to think in this way. And that suggests a different way of carrying out relationships. Multiply the friendships and avoid cases of enmity.
But, you may think, the authorities within the group encourage such negative thinking.
But, you should think instead, the friendships and good relationships remain possible.
As long as we define another group solely by its negatives, it will remain negative. In fact, by treating the group as a negative, we will tend to reinforce the negative attitude we, and they, already have.
So while Jody’s family and mine questioned our respective backgrounds, Jody and I just went ahead and looked for the positives. What was it that we both knew because of our background that would help us as we moved ahead? And in fact we both have found positive elements from our upbringing, many of them common elements. We can both point to family members whose strong faith has been an encouragement to us. There is a depth to our understanding of who we are now that comes, in part, from our experience of where we have been.
Neither of us are inclined to go back to our former denominations. But we can appreciate things about them.
Respecting people, learning from them, finding positive elements of their belief systems, and making friendships does not mean that one has to approve of everything or accept everything. One can still recognize the negative. I find, for example, that the more authoritarian elements of both the Catholic and SDA systems are not conducive to spiritual growth. That’s one of many reasons I’m not going back. But that disapproval doesn’t mean that I can’t be friends.
When Jody and I got married it was in a church that, at the time, was divided between an 11:00 am crowd and an 8:30 am crowd. The 8:30 crowd was contemporary and more spontaneous in worship style. It was also charismatic in theology as a general rule. The 11:00 crowd was traditional about its worship forms and generally Methodist mainstream in its theological positions. I had been, for some time, considered a member of the 11:00 crowd, but I had started attending both services. I did so because, as a teacher in the church, I felt it was my duty to be aware of “both” sides. (Note for further discussion: There are rarely just two sides to any two-sided issue.)
So when Jody and I chose to get married and scheduled the service for right after church, people from both services came together, many for the first time in years. Our wedding music included contemporary praise and traditional organ music. We expressed, as we joined our lives together, our hope that all could come to appreciate the value of the contribution of others.
It wasn’t just the exes that needed to be reconciled. It was the present. But the method was the same. It was by looking at and learning to appreciate what we could that we could bring together the best of streams of tradition within a single congregation, just as it is by learning to appreciate, building relationships, and bringing the best of our past faith communities together that we can build greater value from them.
This is not toleration but celebration. It is not compromise, but growth. I believe it is also not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21).


15 Responses

  • Henry:
    As you can well imagine, I very much appreciate this post. As you well know, I believe there is such a reality as an ‘ecumenical center’. The last thing we need now is abslutist Fundamentalism from any tradition…
    Thanks…..and let’s keep crossing the street …
    Bob

      • I think each of us has some doctrinal position or tradition stream that we don’t quite manage to tolerate, much less celebrate.
        I heard one of my friends in a quite liberal group (Unitarian-Universalists) comment on this as everyone was talking toleration. “But can we tolerate fundamentalists?” she asked. It’s a good question.
        I recall a revival style meeting of pastors where various people started getting up and repenting for themselves and groups they represented regarding people they had spoken ill of. This was a charismatic and somewhat conservative group. After a few minutes one of the pastors said, “I think I need to repent of the nasty things I’ve said about liberals.” There were a few moments of silence, then everybody acknowledged that it was a good thing to do.
        Two points I get from this: 1) we all have someone we have a hard time tolerating, and 2) one person can get the ball rolling with just a few words.
        That pastor didn’t become any more liberal. He didn’t agree any more. But he decided to change the way he spoke about people.
        I have to remind myself frequently of the need to do so!

  • Dear Henry,
    This is an excellent article, one you are certainly qualified to write. Thanks for your testimony. I guess I would call myself a “charismatic” Christian, although I rarely have operated in the “gifts” of the Spirit. Ha! But I wholeheartedly believe we need all the gifts operating in the Church today, even the controversial gift of tongues.
    I agree with you on the wrong doctrines of both the Catholic church and the Seventh Day Adventist Church, but I have had positive experiences with both, as you have, and have learned. For instance, there have been two occasions when I entered a Catholic church building and felt the PRESENCE OF GOD and a sense of holiness and reverence that I had not experienced in other church buildings!
    My husband and I attended the Uchee Pines Health Center (SDA) for my husband to be treated with natural means for heart health. I attended all the lectures and enjoyed all the healthy food and cooking classes. To this day, I still benefit from the teaching and recipes.
    Praise the Lord! If you are LOOKING for HIM in different church denominations, He will reveal Himself! Thank you, Henry, for reminding us that we can be friends with others who don’t believe or worship the Lord like we do. One of my very best friends is a lifelong Catholic!
    Blessings,
    Nancy

    • Nancy,
      I managed the health food store for Uchee Pines, then called Yuchi Pines, some time back before the glaciers receded. 🙂
      And my father, who laid the foundation of my faith, was a fundamentalist. He also taught me to study and question and decide for myself.
      I’m grateful for the various elements of my faith experience.

      • Henry,
        That’s wonderful. I really do admire the Seventh Day Adventists for their great contribution to natural treatment of health problems. People should listen to them.
        Evidently, your dad brought you up right, Henry. Your foundation is solid.
        Blessings,
        Nancy

    • Lots of people have definitions of a fundamentalist. A Christian fundamentalist believes in the fundamentals of the faith. There are five of these, though different sources don’t always agree, so I’ll give more than five:
      Inerrancy of scripture
      Virgin birth
      Historicity of the miracles of Jesus
      Substitutionary atonement
      Bodily resurrection
      Often also:
      The soon and literal return of Jesus
      Recent (6,000 years) literal creation week
      Generally literal interpretation of the Bible
      The deity of Jesus
      Several of these follow from one another, which is why lists will vary.
      Evangelicalism was, in my view, originally a sort of more academically oriented fundamentalism, and generally holds to the fundamentals, though evangelicals frequently disagree on the recent creation and also on the soon and literal return of Jesus (though only in form on this).
      My Dad would be 100% fundamentalist no matter how you made that list. I have several fundamentalists on my list of authors if we use any form of that list.
      More recently, the common definition of fundamentalist has shifted to refer to a more strict view and strident presentation of any religion. Because of this I tend to have a problem with the term. I could refer to my dad as an evangelical, but he never did that himself, and he would never have been embarrassed to affirm every one of the beliefs I listed.
      On one online forum I participated in, the members started using the term “fundy” to refer to the strident folks, and used “fundamentalist” to refer to strict adherents of any faith who were nonetheless friendly and open to dialogue.
      Somebody else may have a firmer definition. I think that in popular use fundamentalist is becoming difficult to parse. I don’t know precisely what one means when one says it, unless I already know the person or the context is very clear.
      On the other hand, I’ll only call you a fundamentalist if you call yourself that. Why? Because the term has accumulated such negative connotations. If you accept the term, then I can call you that, and I will not intend to vilify you by doing so.
      I should note that the term “liberal charismatic,” which I use in the header of my blog (Threads from Henry’s Web) and in the subtitle of my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confession of a Liberal Charismatic, was applied to me originally by another person online as an insult. He despised liberals and charismatics, and one day was apparently searching for the worst insult he could imagine and so called me a liberal charismatic.
      Some time later as I was preparing the manuscript for my book I remarked casually to Jody that I should subtitle it “Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.” She said, “You absolutely should! That’s you!”
      So I think I’m stuck with it!

      • Dear Henry,
        You answered my question perfectly. So now I will declare myself a conservative (maybe that’s redundant), evangelical, charismatic, friendly fundamentalist! I don’t believe there are mistakes in the original manuscripts of God’s Word, but translations have brought in some errors. Scripture is my rule of faith and practice, but I am woefully lacking in always practicing what I preach. Alas! Jesus is my only Hope, his unending grace.
        Thanks for your comment, Henry.
        Blessings,
        Nancy

    • Anyone,
      I found it – fundamentalism definition. A conservative movement in theology among nineteenth- and twentieth-century Christians. Fundamentalists believe that the statements in the Bible are literally true. Note: Fundamentalists often argue against the theory of evolution.
      I guess I am one, a fundamentalist.
      Nancy

      • Not so fast, Nancy. I may be splitting hairs here, but today, after you strip away all the historical meanings of Fundamentalist, the residual is “antipathy toward all who don’t hold one’s views.” I do not find you in that camp, and, therefore, I would not call you a Fundamentalist. In every other respect, perhaps, but not that one.
        One of the reasons “Evangelical” was claimed by Billy Graham and many other former “Fundamentalists,” is because of that dogmatic and divisive attitude, not out of severe disagreement about beliefs.

        • Thanks, Steve. I appreciate your recognizing that I have no antipathy toward others who don’t hold my views. Now I see why “fundamentalist” has a bad name. Henry explained it also. John Wesley is a good model. I think he said something like, “If you believe in Jesus, give me your hand.”
          I looked for it and found his famous sermon, “Catholic Spirit,” 1749, Newcastle, England (bottom of web page, last paragraph especially) – http://faithumc.me/tag/john-wesley/
          God bless you, Steve.

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