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).