Glendale City Church bans me from church property

Last month I received a certified letter from the Glendale City Church stating that the Church Board had voted to disallow me from the premises. The letter states that if I come onto the church campus, I will be “regarded as a trespasser and the church will take appropriate actions, up to and including requesting law enforcement assistance.” The letter states that the GCC board took this action due to my “history of disrupting the congregational life of the church.” The wording is intended to imply that I have disrupted worship services or other church meetings, but I have done no such thing.

What I have done is to report, over the course of several decades, what I have seen and heard at GCC, and I don't think they've appreciated the exposure. I've had run-ins with two previous GCC pastors, Arthur “Rudy” Torres, who was senior pastor in the 1980s and is now retired (but is listed as “pastor emeritus” and serves as chairman of the church board), and Mitch Henson, who was senior pastor during the 1990s and 2000s, until he died of brain cancer six years ago.

Glendale City Church letter to Elizabeth Iskander, M.D. (Click image to enlarge and read)

The letter does not detail what they think I've done wrong and, frankly, I do not know what could have prompted the GCC Board and Pastor Todd Leonard, the current senior pastor, to take such extreme action. Leonard has only been in Southern California since May 2011, and has been pastor at GCC since October 2012, and was not a party to my previous conflicts with GCC. After giving it extensive consideration for the past few weeks, I believe that Leonard and his board sent the letter because of events that occurred surrounding a Los Angeles Adventist Forum meeting August 2012. Some background information is called for.

First, one must understand what is the Los Angeles Adventist Forum. In 1967, a group of Adventist professors and graduate students founded the “Association of Adventist Forums,” and a couple of years later, AAF began publishing the journal Spectrum (In 2007, AAF shortened its name to Adventist Forums, or AF.) AF sponsors not only the print journal, Spectrum, but also a website of the same name, which has become a hub of "progressive" Adventist opinion. In recent years, AF and Spectrum have been advocating three main policy goals for the Seventh-day Adventist Church: (1) acceptance of Darwinism/theistic evolution, (2) acceptance and normalization of homosexuality, and (3) female ordination and leadership. But, in addition to the journal and website, AF has long sponsored local Adventist Forum chapters around the country, which hold periodic meetings, lectures, and symposia. The Los Angeles Adventist Forum is one of these local AF chapters.

A second necessary background fact is that Glendale City Church has long been known as a homosexual-friendly church. Pastor Rudy Torres made GCC a gay-friendly church back in the 1980s (decades before Ryan Bell followed the same course at the Hollywood SDA Church). City Church was famous for having a section of pews—typically two or three rows—informally set aside for the use of the gay community. Pastor Mitch Henson continued, and even strengthened, Torres' gay-friendly policy. Upon Henson's passing, Spectrum ran an article praising him for being “a shepherd of tolerance,” and quoting Taylor Ruhl, president of Kinship International, an organization of Adventist homosexuals. (Kinship International formerly went by the name “Seventh-day Adventist Kinship,” and was sued by the official SDA Church after the Church trademarked “Seventh-day Adventist” and related terms). In the Spectrum notice of Henson's passing, Ruhl was quoted as saying:

Mitch Henson was among the most courageous pioneers of inclusion for LGBT Adventists, granting many of us membership in his church and welcoming those of us who could attend there into full participation in the life of the church. He served as a member of the Kinship Advisory Board.

Henson was so beloved by the gay community that the book, “Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Adventist Perspectives” was dedicated to him. The book was edited by Dave Ferguson, a prominent gay GCC member, Loma Linda professor David Larson, and La Sierra University theologian and past president Fritz Guy, and features an article by La Sierra theologian John Jones arguing that the biblical proscription on homosexual sex applies only to unequal, exploitative sex.

Last summer, I saw an advertisement in Spectrum for a forum meeting planned for August 22, 2013, at GCC. Rudy Torres was to give a talk on the history of GCC as a gay-friendly church, and his role in bringing that about, titled “From 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' to 'Thanks for asking Me to be an Elder.'” The implication was that homosexuals could now serve as elders, at least at Glendale City Church. I was well aware, however, that church policy prohibits gay elders. I telephoned Southern California Conference President Larry Caviness and asked if that policy had changed. Elder Caviness said the policy had not changed. Shortly after that conversation, I noticed that, in the Spectrum advertisement, the title of the planned presentation had changed to, “From Exclusion, to Inclusion, to Connection: The Glendale City Church Story.”

GCC Nominating Committee report for 2013-2014

Later, I learned that Elder Caviness had met with Todd Leonard, and Leonard had agreed not to ordain any gay elders. But then I saw the GCC Nominating Committee report for 2013-2015 (Click image to enlarge and read). It listed Taylor Ruhl, a gay activist who had served as president of Kinship International, among the elders of the church. For Taylor Ruhl to be an elder meant that Todd Leonard must have been parsing his words to Elder Caviness when he promised not to ordain any homosexual elders: because Ruhl had been ordained an elder decades ago, when he was married to a woman (obviously before he came out as a homosexual) it was arguably not necessary to ordain him an elder. Again I contacted Elder Caviness, telling him this time that Taylor Ruhl was listed as an elder. Caviness told me that he had not intended to play word games; he meant that City Church should not ordain or have any gay elders. Can a conference president tolerate a pastor who is less than completely forthright in dealing with the conference office, and plays those kind of word games?

At the August 22 Forum meeting, during question time, I asked Rudy Torres why he changed the name of his talk from, “From 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' to 'Thanks for Asking Me to be an Elder'” to “From Exclusion, to Inclusion, to Connection: The Glendale City Church Story.” Torres said that you should always name a book after you've written it, not before. I then asked if there were any gay elders at City Church. Torres deferred to Todd Leonard, who said that the Southern California Conference would not allow GCC to have gay elders. It thus seems that I might have thwarted Leonard and Torres' plans to have gay elders at GCC, and they want to make sure I'm never again in a position to expose their activities. That seems to be what their letter declaring me persona non grata is really about.

As noted above, this is not my first contretemps with GCC and its senior pastors. My conflict with GCC started with Rudy Torres back in the 1980s, and continued with Mitch Henson and now Todd Leonard. Usually—but not always—the point of contention was their attempt to make GCC the gay-friendly Adventist Church in the Los Angeles area.

Once, when Mitch Henson was pastor, Henson arranged for the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles to give a concert at City Church. I reported this to the conference office and a storm of controversy broke out, eventually forcing Henson to move the Gay Men's Chorus concert to a non-Adventist venue. He never forgot my role in embarrassing him and thwarting his plans. A few years later, my daughter, who was in high school and enthusiastic about music, began singing in the City Church choir, then under the direction of Brenda Mohr who was also my daughter's music teacher at Glendale Adventist Academy. Naturally, I wanted to attend City Church when my daughter was singing there, but Henson, who apparently did not like me looking down on him from the balcony seat I preferred, insisted that I not attend. He communicated to me through an intermediary that if I insisted upon attending, my daughter would be kicked out of the choir. I relented and stayed away from City Church, even though I dearly wanted to watch my daughter sing. I wanted to donate stock valued at $500.00 to GCC's music program, but Mitch Henson refused my donation; I donated it to Glendale Adventist Academy's music department instead.

A couple of things about this latest incident merit comment. First, this is not proper procedure. Banning someone from the premises is comparable to, and in a way more extreme than, disfellowshiping, and disfellowshiping requires a church-wide business meeting, not a board meeting. It also requires that the “defendant” receive prior written notice of the business meeting, and be given an opportunity to be heard and produce witnesses in his or her own defense. (See, SDA Church Manual, Ch. 7 “Discipline”). The procedure by which I was purportedly banned from GCC is so defective and contrary to published SDA standards that I could probably sue and win. Moreover, I've been told by knowledgeable persons that even GCC's board meetings are not held on proper notice when anything controversial is up for vote, but actual notification is limited to the “progressive” coterie that runs the church.

City Church's procedure hasn't changed since 1990, when I had a previous run-in with Rudy Torres. On that occasion, Torres called me into his office, where an associate pastor was also present, stating, “We will disfellowship you if you continue what you are doing!” “What am I doing?” I asked. “You know what you are doing,” they replied. They refused to articulate what they thought I was doing, and said they had a group of elders who were in agreement with them, and that they would disfellowship me. “Will I be able to attend this little meeting?” I asked. “No!” “What about due process?” I asked. “The Glendale City Church has its own process,” they replied.

Second, this incident is another illustration of the fact that when liberals are in the minority, they plead for tolerance and a permissive, laissez-faire attitude. But where liberals are in the majority and control the levers of power, as they are and do at City Church, they are quick to use them to discipline and silence those who oppose their agenda. This is more than a pattern; it's a law, like gravity.

Third, I think Larry Caviness is a good leader and a solid Adventist, which makes it all the more puzzling why he feels compelled to hire and tolerate hyper-liberal pastors at City Church. Todd Leonard makes no secret of his liberal theology; his linked-in page states:

My Pastoral Priorities:

  1. Help people develop an intentional and actively compassionate lifestyle towards others, modeled on the life and teachings of Jesus
  2. Help college students and young adults navigate their spiritual journey out of fundamentalism through skepticism and into wholistic spirituality
  3. Develop church environments that enthusiastically embrace people with diverse belief systems, lifestyles and cultural practices
  4. Promote racial, gender and sexual equality and integration in all levels of denominational polity and practice”

Number 2 is interesting because anyone who has lately been following “progressive” Adventism knows that “fundamentalist” is their favorite pejorative for those of us holding traditional Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and a high view of Scripture. So on a public web page, Leonard is declaring his intent to bring our youth and young adults out of Adventism and into something called “wholistic [sic] spirituality,” whatever that is.

Number 3 is interesting because Leonard pledges to enthusiastically embrace diversity in “belief systems, lifestyles and cultural practices.” But Adventism has its own distinct belief system (the 28 fundamental beliefs) lifestyle (vegetarian, non-smoking, non-drinking, etc.) and sub-cultural practices (church attendance, Christian education, Christian sexual mores, etc.), and an important part of any Adventist pastor's job is to bring people into this Adventist faith and way of life.

Number 4 is interesting because “gender” equality means equality between the sexes, so “sexual” must refer to something different, presumably sexual orientation. Leonard seems to be saying that he wants to promote equality between heterosexuals and homosexuals “in all levels of denominational polity and practice,” which would explain why he is installing gay elders at GCC.

A few weeks ago, when news of Ryan Bell's “year-of-atheism” publicity stunt raced around the blogosphere, an Adventist in Tennessee posted the story on his Face Book page. He must have been Face Book “friends” with Todd Leonard, who commented on the post:

Atheism can mean different things...for some, it means that to put any parameters on the Divine (like a name or a characteristic) is to limit and devalue God. Of course it can also mean a rejection of anything other than the visible universe too. But I think he's exploring the gamut of thought on this. I am finding more and more agnostics and atheists to be very spiritual people. More mature, more thoughtful, more compassionate. It's very interesting for me to see.

The idea that acknowledging the existence of God limits or devalues Him is just as contrary to biblical revelation as rejecting anything other than the visible universe; both are equally opposed to the Adventist worldview. And the notion that agnostics and atheists are “very spiritual people, more mature, more thoughtful, more compassionate” speaks for itself, and speaks volumes about Todd Leonard's theology. Todd Leonard is not less liberal than Ryan Bell, yet he was hired as a senior pastor only five months before Bell was asked to resign. Something is wrong here.

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