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Nonconformity, Authenticity and Conscience

In a moment of interesting coincidence, I noted with no small amount of irony that two members of the Church of the Brethren made headlines for several days in two separate articles in the Huffington Post. There in the “gay voices” section was an article about Heath Adam Ackley, a member of the La Verne Church of the Brethren in California, and also one about Ken Kline Smeltzer, a Brethren pastor in Pennsylvania.

The article about Adam Ackley described how he came out as a transgender man during a sermon at the La Verne church, an act that cost him his position as a professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the second article detailed how Ken Kline Smeltzer had lost his job as the pastor of the Burnham Church of the Brethren for officiating at the wedding of Joseph Davis and Gregory Scalzo at the request of the mayor of State College. Both of these stories made national news.

It is no small thing to lose a job. It is not just the loss of income, although that is certainly critical. It is also the humiliation and pain of the process of being scrutinized, evaluated, critiqued, and then found to be inadequate for a position that one has held. Such a rejection represents an assault upon one’s sense of competency, identity and basic acceptance. And so I feel deeply for both Adam and Ken as they experience the abandonment and judgment of communities that held important meaning for them.

At the same time, I also feel such a sense of gratitude and pride about what Adam and Ken did. In their actions, they reminded me of part of what is best about our Brethren and Anabaptist heritage; a willingness to act in accordance with conscience and to take risks, not in spite of, but because of deeply held beliefs and values. Brethren have called this “counting well the cost of discipleship.”

In his fascinating book, The Culture of Conformism, Professor Patrick Colm Hogan writes:

The mass of society reserves particular scorn for anyone who tries to act according to moral principle. Indeed, they take special care to denounce him or her as morally reprehensible. For anyone who spurns social convention in order to abide by society’s moral precepts is, as such, a forceful argument that the rest of society is not behaving morally, that its affirmation of principle is mere hypocrisy. Action according to moral principle is the most threatening form of nonconformism.*

Anabaptists and Radical Pietists should understand this well. Our forbearers’ rejection of the state church, their practice of believer’s baptism, their refusal to take up arms, and their insistence upon orthopraxis (right behavior) over orthodoxy (correct doctrine) all led to serious problems with the established religious authorities of the day. For this they were condemned as heretics and harshly suppressed.**

I give thanks to Adam and Ken for bearing witness to profound and sacred visions of human wholeness and social justice. I also give thanks for the La Verne Church of the Brethren, whose commitment to authenticity and welcome created a space where Adam could come out, knowing that he would be supported, loved and affirmed; and to the University Baptist and Brethren Church, who are walking in full solidarity with Ken. They are all part of a great cloud of witnesses who are carefully and graciously guiding us into a transformed future where love and identity are embraced as divine gifts.

I am reminded of a story told to me by Kurtis Friend Naylor, one of the great ecumenical leaders in Brethren history. As a “young whippersnapper” (his words) he apparently did some things that upset the power brokers of his congregation. Determined, they set up a congregational meeting in order to fire him. To Kurtis’ surprise, on the day of the meeting, the “big chiefs” from the denominational offices showed up and stood beside him. Kurtis was not fired that day. He went on to offer great leadership to the church. While we can hardly imagine such a thing happening today, it does remind us of the importance of solidarity and of our need to have one another’s backs as we engage in the important and often costly work of justice.

So what can you do to show your support? Here are a few very practical suggestions:

  • If your congregation is not a place where someone could safely come out as transgender, or if your pastor would be potentially fired for officiating at a same sex wedding, then you have some important work to do in your home congregation. BMC can help you with resources, support and guidance. Just ask!

  • Send a card or letter of support and affirmation to Adam Ackley (c/o La Verne COB/2425 E Street/La Verne, CA 91750) or to Ken Kline Smeltzer (c/o University Baptist and Brethren Church/ 411 S Burrowes St/State College, PA 16801) with a copy to your denominational, district and/or conference offices. Do this anytime you hear of a pastor, congregation or individual who does something courageous on behalf of justice.

  • Ask questions of district and conference leadership and stay informed. The district executive in Ken’s district has formed a committee to assess Ken’s actions and determine whether there should be an ethics inquiry. While it is not at all clear to me who the “aggrieved” is in this case, it is important that these kind of inquiries not be done in secret or in a perfunctory manner. Let it be known that you are watching and that you care.

  • Encourage your pastor and congregational leaders to join you in speaking out and making visible and public gestures of support. You are offering these church leaders an opportunity to join you on the right side of history at an important time of spiritual transformation.

  • Make public your support of marriage equality by adding your name to Love’s Obedience, a document that emerged from the 2011 Progressive Brethren Gathering.

  • Financially support the work of BMC and the Supportive Communities Network. Demands for our resources and support are growing strong! While this is a wonderful thing, it does cost us money to provide staff support and develop, print and ship materials. Contributions made be sent to BMC/Box 6300/Minneapolis, MN 55406, or you can use your credit card by going to

Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us: Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expedience asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right?*** I am thankful for each act of conscience, both small and great, that stands on the side of love in this challenging struggle for human dignity and a kinder world. Our hearts and prayers remain with Adam and Ken, and with all of those who love and support them in this arduous time. Courage!

Carol Wise October 2013


* Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Culture of Conformism: Understanding Social Consent (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) p. 53

** Durnbaugh, Donald F. Fruit of the Vine: A History of the Brethren 1708-1995 (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1997) p. 4-12

*** King, Martin Luther, Jr. “A Proper Sense of Priorities,” speech given in Washington DC on February 6, 1968.

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