How to get fired: a guide for the Adventist pastor

On February 22, 2013, Trisha Famisaran, who is assistant professor of philosophy and theological studies and director of the honors program at La Sierra University, preached a sermon at the Hollywood SDA Church, where Ryan Bell is the pastor, titled, “Repenting of Patriarchy and Heterosexism.” Actually, as I think about it, “preached” sounds awfully patriarchal, and I'm not sure what Professor Famisaran delivered can rightly be called a sermon; let's say she gave a talk. This wondrous event was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, so please do not imagine yourself to be under any obligation to take my word about these goings on. Watch the video:

I gather from the video that the Hollywood Church was in the midst of a series called “The five dead deadly sins of the church,” two of which are patriarchy and heterosexism.

Ryan Bell, after a brief but obligatory session of self-flagellation for being a white male, notes that this is the season of Lent. It seems the Hollywood church has adopted the liturgical calendar. If you are a conservative Adventist, it might come as a shock to find Lent being observed in a Seventh-day Adventist Church. Like many Roman Catholic customs, Lent has pagan roots, originating in “weeping for Tammuz” in the ancient Babylonian religion. (Ezek. 8:14-15) Biblical Christianity does not set aside any particular time, other than right now, to repent of sins. (Heb. 3:15; Acts 8:36) But stranger doctrines yet will be heard this February morning.

On the Hollywood Church's Face book page, and in the bulletin for February 22, Ryan Bell quoted Anaïs Nin the French-born authoress most famous for her erotica. Trisha Famisaran also quotes Ms. Nin approvingly at the start of her, um, talk. Anaïs Nin was not famous merely for her fictional erotica, she was famous for her non-fictional diaries which record numerous extramarital affairs, including affairs with high profile personalities such as Henry Miller (himself a writer of obscene material), Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal and Otto Rank. At one point, Ms. Nin managed to be married to two men at once, Hugh Guiler and Rupert Pole, making her a bigamist. But if you are Ryan Bell or Trisha Famisaran, who better to quote on an Adventist Church's Face book page and Sabbath morning bulletin than the feminist, adulterous, bigamist, pornographer, Anaïs Nin?

It seems Professor Famisaran was at Hollywood church the previous week to view the film “Seventh-Gay Adventist,” and claims to have been involved with that project from the beginning. Since we are expected to repent of heterosexism, Famisaran helpfully provides a definition of that sin: “Heterosexism is the belief that to be straight is to be within the norm and if you're anything but straight, then you're somewhere on the outside and then subject to discrimination.” Notice that this sin that we're expected to repent of isn't defined as hatred of someone because of their sexual orientation; if it were, I'd agree that we should repent of that. But, no, the sin of heterosexism is believing that heterosexuality is normal and homosexuality is abnormal.

Now, around 95 to 97% of the population are heterosexual, heterosexual intercourse has a necessary biological purpose without which humanity would become extinct, and there is universal religious approval for heterosexual marriage. By contrast, only about 3 to 5% are homosexual, homosexual sex has no biological purpose, and it is almost universally condemned by the world's religions. By whatever definition you prefer—statistical, biological, or religious—heterosexuality is is “within the norm” and homosexuality is not. Heterosexuality is normal; homosexuality is not. But among liberal Adventists, it is considered a sin to see the world as it actually is.

If you believe that God inspired the Scriptures, then it seems that God might need to repent of the sin of heterosexism. God has pronounced homosexual acts an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22) and has prescribed the death penalty for male-on-male sodomy (Lev. 20:13). Such abominable acts are also frowned upon in the New Testament. Paul denounces homosexuality as something that results from idolatry and willful refusal to acknowledge God (Rom. 1:24-28), and warns that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11) and will be subject to judgment under law (1 Tim. 1:9-10). But Bell, Famisaran and other liberal Adventists don't cotton to all that bible-thumpin'. They know better. After all, La Sierra theologian John Jones has closely studied all these passages and concluded that none of them actually means what it says.

Transitioning seamlessly from the “sin” of heterosexism to the “sin” of patriarchy, Ms. Famisaran asserts that patriarchal societies excuse rape of females just because they are women. But rape is and has always been designated a crime in traditional societies; in fact, female sexual virtue and purity is at a higher premium the more traditionally patriarchal a society is.

It is at this point that we learn that Ryan Bell changed the lyrics of the morning's hymn so that God is referred to as “mother” rather than “father.” “Not every church could pull that off,” says Prof. Famisaran. Or would want to. Jesus taught us to address God as “our father.” (Mat. 6:9; Luke 11:2) Scripture sometimes attributes feminine qualities to God (Isaiah 49:15; Hos. 13:8; Mat. 23:37; Luke 13:34) but never refers to God as “mother,” only ever as “father” or in the masculine pronoun. (Matt. 28:19; John 5:19; 16:13) We should never change the way we address God in order to conform to contemporary culture. That Bell, Famisaran and other liberal Adventists dare to do so shows that they are more enthusiastic about feminist, post-patriarchal culture than about following Scripture's example and Christ's express instructions about how God shall be addressed.

Professor Famisaran launches into a long screed against patriarchy. There isn't a hint of a biblical justification for her animus against patriarchy (“rule of the fathers”) because, of course, Scripture endorses patriarchy from Genesis to Revelation. God ordained patriarchy as part of the created order; Adam was created first and Eve was created as Adam's helpmate. After the Fall, God intended for Adam's headship over Eve to preserve a harmonious institution of marriage. (Gen. 2:18-25; 3:16; 1 Cor. 11:3,7-10; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). There is no hint that this family order is changed in the New Testament; to the contrary, Paul makes clear that “rule of the fathers” is still in effect in the Christian era for Christian believers. (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1) There is plentiful evidence that God intends a patriarchal order for his Church as well as for Christian homes. (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:12-23; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim. 3:4)

It is bold rebellion to take that which God has established and call it “sin.” “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Isaiah 5:20. We've reached the time that Paul warned Timothy about, “when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

Next, Professor Famisaran confides that she is fond of a certain pop song by one Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known by the stage name, “Lady Gaga.” Lady Gaga's elaborate stage shows feature themes of bondage and sadomasochism. The three central themes that shape Lady Gaga's music videos are sex, violence, and power. (According to Wikipedia, that is—I confess to not being a fan.) Lady Gaga reportedly “has the knack of sending rape-like fantasies—in songs and videos that double as catch club hits—to the top of the charts.” Famisaran's favorite Gaga song is “Born this Way,” in which Ms. Germanotta sings:

I'm beautiful in my way 'Cause God makes no mistakes I'm on the right track, baby I was born this way

Don't be a drag, just be a queen * * * 'cause baby you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi, Lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive.

Professor Famisaran interprets this piece, correctly I think, as being a call for the differently oriented to embrace their homosexual orientation. (As an aside, Famisaran proudly relates how, after viewing the film “Seventh-Gay Adventist,” her three year old son said, “momma, when I'm older I can be a mommy like you.” Great.)

There you have it. Lady Gaga has solved the age-old nature vs. nurture controversy: The differently oriented were “born that way.” And that settles it for Trisha Famisaran, professor of theological studies and director of La Sierra's honors program. Those of you who think La Sierra needs freedom from effective church control so that it can be an elite liberal arts college with high academics, here's what you've ended up with: a professor who quotes Lady Gaga as an authority on genetics, psychiatry, and developmental psychology.

The rest of the, um, talk was about the book of Job as interpreted by the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. I think. Frankly, I zoned out. Oh, wait a minute, something else just caught my attention. In commenting on I Corinthians 12:12-31, which is about how different members of the body of Christ have different spiritual gifts, Professor Famisaran states, “It is God who creates the diverse parts, just as She thinks they should be.” That was the professor's parting comment.

Then Ryan Bell got up and gave a short homily over the communion table complaining of the border fence between California and Mexico. Then he prayed over the wine, implying that not only Christ but also women, gays, lesbians, and the transgendered “knew the cost” and had “paid the price” for something or other.

Stop the Presses

I wrote this column over the course of four days, and finished it on Sunday, March 24. On Monday, March 25, Ryan Bell posted on his web page informing his friends and church family that “the Southern California Conference administration [has come] to the conclusion that they cannot trust me to lead this church as a Seventh-day Adventist Church. . . . they feel that my leadership has led our church outside the accepted framework of Seventh-day Adventism. We have not been able come to an understanding about these things and so my denominational employment will end on or about April 1, 2013” (emphasis added).

If you've come with me this far, you'll have no difficulty understanding how Larry Caviness and the SCC administration made the decision they made. Ryan Bell is a graduate of conservative, self-supporting Wiemar College, and has been an Adventist pastor for 22 years, but, as Bell writes, “sometimes people grow in ways that are incompatible with the institutions they have been a part of.” Bell's personal journey has taken him beyond the parameters of even very liberal Seventh-day Adventism. I suspect that the SCC's decision to fire Ryan Bell was not based solely upon “Repenting of patriarchy and heterosexism;” Bell had long been promoting the “social gospel” (leftist political activism) in place of the actual gospel, and his flirtation with Catholic liturgy is jarring. I would imagine that February 22nd's abomination was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, the final nail in the coffin.

This article was to have highlighted how startlingly bold the liberal faction in our church has become. But—praise the Lord!--the piece turned out instead to illustrate how liberal Adventists can press their luck too far, even in liberal Adventist “jurisdictions” such as the Southern California Conference. Those of us who are prone to pessimism, even defeatism, can take heart at this welcome development. All is not lost, and we do ourselves and our cause a disservice when we talk as though it is.

Of course, the La Sierra situation remains unrectified. La Sierra is still turning out radicals like Trisha Famisaran who, at the HMS Richards Divinity School, are teaching religion to the next generation of Adventists. If we are not vigilant, that generation will come to populate the conference administrations and executive committees, and although Famisaran's neo-pagan effluvia smells noxious to us, it might smell sweet to them. We have much work to do, but there is hope.