The Right to Confront: Should it Apply in Church Discipline Cases?

As the Adventist Church becomes more theologically diverse, and sorts itself into liberal and conservative factions, there is more controversy over what we should believe and how we should behave.  Inevitably, some try to impose their views through force.  Hence, church discipline may become more frequent.  Based upon my own experience and that of others, church discipline is often used by liberal pastors against conservative church members.  As discipline becomes more frequent, the process of discipline becomes more important.

I had a traumatic experience with church discipline two and a half years ago; it was traumatic mainly because of the unfair process.  Near the beginning of the meeting, I was allowed to make a ten-minute statement to the church members deciding my case, then I was sent out of the room and was not allowed to hear or respond to the testimony against me.  When some of these allegations were later related to me, it was clear that I could have rebutted or explained them had I been allowed to remain in the room and hear them. 


Background of the Disciplinary Action Against Me

To summarize why I was disciplined, both English-speaking Adventist Churches in Glendale, California—the Vallejo Drive Church and the Glendale City Church—are trying to normalize homosexuality in the SDA Church.  I called public attention to this agenda, and the senior pastors of those churches did not appreciate being exposed. 

The Glendale City Church adopted a pro-gay policy decades ago, in the 1980s under Rudy Torres.  This policy was continued under Mitch Henson (since deceased), and the current senior pastor, Todd Leonard, is not only continuing it but ramping it up a notch with openly gay elders.  I had been a member of City Church back in the 1980s, but moved my membership to the Vallejo Drive Church around 1990. Sadly, the same philosophy that has long held sway at City Church now prevails at the Vallejo Drive Church.  VDC Senior Pastor Mike Kim stated in my presence that Paul's apparent condemnation of homosexual sex in Romans Chapter One has been misinterpreted or misunderstood.

Pastor Kim's philosophy on homosexuality was signaled by the showing, on August 30, 2013, of the pro-gay documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” at Friday Evening worship.  This film, which can be viewed at, argues that homosexuality is genetic, that Christians have misread the Bible as condemning all homosexual conduct when it condemns only “exploitative” same-sex sexual conduct, and that continuing to believe and teach that homosexual conduct is sinful is “spiritual violence.” The Friday Evening service was under the purview of the youth pastor, Tony Parish, but Pastor Kim personally approved the showing of the film.  A few days later, I wrote an article about the screening of this pro-gay documentary.  It seems likely that Pastor Kim's attempt to discipline me was conceived shortly after I reported on the showing of the film.

On August 23, 2013, there was a meeting of the Los Angeles Adventist Forum (one of the groups that comprise the Association of Adventist Forums, which publishes Spectrum).  I had seen an advertisement for this meeting indicating that a past senior pastor of Glendale City Church, Rudy Torres, was planning to give a talk entitled, “From 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' to 'Thanks for Asking Me to be an Elder,’” a title indicating that GCC had gay elders.  By the time the meeting took place, however, the title had been changed to, “From Exclusion, to Inclusion, to Connection: The Glendale City Church Story.” At the meeting, I asked why the title had been changed, and then asked whether there were, in fact, gay elders at the Glendale City Church. 

It turned out that the former president of the gay activist group SDA Kinship International, Taylor Ruhl, had been asked to serve as an elder at GCC.  The senior pastor, Todd Leonard, was enraged that I exposed this fact.  He sent me a certified letter purporting to ban me from coming onto GCC church property.  (The letter was probably not legally adequate; a court-issued injunction would likely have been necessary.)  Since I was not a member of GCC, that was the worst Leonard could do to me.  I wrote an article noting that GCC had nominated a gay elder and that I had been banned from the premises.

In January, 2014, one of the Vallejo Drive Church pastors told me that Pastor Kim wanted to meet with me on a Friday evening to talk about my behavior. I responded that I would take the meeting, but not with any pastors who had already signaled disbelief in the biblical standard on homosexuality (i.e., not Kim or Parish). On Friday, February 7, I met with one of the other pastors, the head elder, and a female elder. I was told that I was making people uncomfortable by how I talked to them about issues such as homosexuality and vegetarianism. I repeatedly asked why those complaining about my conduct—if individual church members really were complaining—did not follow Matthew 18 and speak with me alone first, and then in the company of elders.  I was told that the anonymous persons in question were not willing to meet with me, so Matthew 18 could not be followed.

I was also handed a letter, dated February 7, 2014, asking me to voluntarily accept a six-month censure that would restrict my church-related activities to attending regularly scheduled church events. The letter included a “summary of issues,” a bill of particulars that, for the most part, was not very particular.  The letter complained about my truthful reporting on the pro-gay documentary, which apparently discomfited the youth pastor, whose “safety and openness” I had “violated” by writing a perfectly accurate article about his Friday Evening service:

“violation of the safety and openness of ‘Truth and Spirit’ [VDC’s Friday Evening service] by writing a misleading online article.”

The letter also referred to my revealing the homosexual activist elder at GCC:

 “The continuing disparagement of our sister congregation at Glendale City Church,”

But most of the “issues” had to do with my interactions with other members and congregants, and included only vague allegations regarding my “confrontational manner” in discussions, uncomfortable topics of conversation such as homosexuality, the “forceful manner” in which I engaged others, for example, in complaining of one pastor’s unilateral decision that church-provided meals for the youth would include flesh food.  The list of “issues” consisted either of theological differences with Mike Kim or trivialities insufficient to support church discipline.  I responded in writing declining to accept censure. 

The following month, March, 2014, I wrote an article entitled, "Church Music and Gay Activism." I began with the story of a Methodist Church in Indiana in which an interim pastor had objected to an openly gay choirmaster, and attendance was reportedly down because supporters of the popular choir director were staying away.  My review of available data indicated that up to 50% of church musicians experience same-sex attraction.  I noted that congregations should take care to protect their Christian standards by requiring a written contract, with a morals clause, for everyone employed by the church.  The morals clause would provide a solid legal basis for terminating any employee who began to flaunt a gay lifestyle in contravention of the church’s biblical standards.

My article did not mention the Vallejo Drive Church, nor anyone employed by it, but I began to discuss this issue with individuals at the church.  I discreetly gave copies of the article to about ten friends and acquaintances. A couple of weeks later, on April 1, the youngest associate pastor called me to inform me of the date of the censure hearing on the 15th. I asked him how many witnesses there were against me, and he replied, “none,” an untruth. 


The Disciplinary Action Against Me

The February 7 letter, although it contained a list of “issues,” did not disclose exactly what I was alleged to have said, who I was alleged to have said it to, when I was alleged to have said it, or in what context.  As a formal notice of charges, sufficient to allow me to prepare a defense, it was absurdly inadequate.  Yet this was the only formal notice I ever received regarding what I was accused of. 

At the business meeting, which was attended by about a hundred of the Vallejo Drive members, I was given only ten (10) minutes to make my defense.  Because I went first, I had to base my defense only on the vague allegations in the February 7 letter. 

Then, I was excluded from the room!  But the church members continued to receive additional “testimony” for almost an hour.  I neither heard the new testimony nor was given the opportunity to rebut it.  Friends who were in the room later told me in general what was said, but to this day I have never been told exactly what was said nor who said it, much less given an opportunity to respond. 

For example, one man who was in the room, and voted against censure, told me that one witness stated that I had said that a female pastoral intern from La Sierra University was a lesbian.  I never said any such thing, but since I was not present to hear the witness, I had no chance to deny it.  I had no notice, written or oral, that I had been accused of this, and thus could not address it in my ten-minute statement.

Given the unfair procedure, it is not surprising that the church voted 75 to 12 in favor of censuring me.  I tried to appeal my case to the Southern California Conference but found that the conference president, Larry Caviness (since deceased), fully supported denying me the right of confrontation.  Caviness returned my telephone call and, in the course of the conversation, stated that excluding the accused from the hearing helps pastors.  “It solves a lot of problems,” he said.


The Right to Confront is Basic to Fair Procedure

In the Anglo-American legal tradition, certain procedural safeguards are considered basic to any legal proceeding.  In the United States, these safeguards are set out in the Fourth through the Seventh Amendments to the Constitution.  The Sixth Amendment reads:

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; …"

The right to be confronted with the witness against one has come to be known as the right of confrontation.  (In this article, I am using the term “confrontation” as a legal term of art meaning the right to be present in the room during the testimony of all the witnesses, and respond to those witnesses after hearing their testimony.)

The right of confrontation goes back to the earliest legal traditions.  We find it in the Bible: “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him” (Prov. 18:17). Solomon here mentions what we would call the right to cross-examine a witness, but the right of cross-examination is dependent upon the previous, underlying right of confrontation.  Obviously, one cannot cross-examine a witness whose direct testimony one was not allowed to see and hear. 

Another reason it is important for the accused to be in the room during the testimony is so that the triers of fact—in a case of church discipline, the members present at the business meeting—can observe how the accused reacts to the testimony.  Demeanor evidence is important, the demeanor of the accused and of the witnesses.  Triers of fact, as well as the accused, need to be able to hear inflections of the voice and see the facial expressions of the witnesses.  Solomon based his judgment in a famous case on how the mothers reacted when he called for a sword and stated that he would cut the living baby in half (1 Kings 3:16-28). Solomon’s ploy would not have worked had the two women not been in the room so that he could observe their differing reactions to his provocative initial ruling. 

Even a quarter millennium ago, the right to be confronted with the witnesses against one was considered so basic to legal procedure in the English-speaking world that it was enshrined in our Bill of Rights.  Even though a comparable provision is found in almost every one of the 50 state constitutions, the Supreme Court has held that the Sixth Amendment right of confrontation is made applicable to state court criminal proceedings by operation of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400 (1965).


Need for Clear Safeguards in SDA Church Manual

The Church Manual discusses church discipline in chapter seven, at pp. 56-67.  The manual specifies that Adventists have a right to (1) at least two weeks’ prior notification of the disciplinary meeting, (2) the right to be heard in their own defense, (3) the right to introduce evidence, and (4) the right to produce witnesses (Church Manual, p. 64).

Although a right of confrontation is not explicitly mentioned, it should be inferred from the rights that are mentioned.  How can you defend yourself through your own testimony if you have not heard the witnesses against you?  How can you know what witnesses and evidence to produce in your own behalf if you have not heard the testimony against you?  The right to hear the witnesses against one is implicit in, and incident to, the right to be heard, the right to introduce evidence, and the right to produce witnesses. 

Indeed, Harald Wollen, a recently retired Associate Secretary of the General Conference and former chairman of the Church Manual Committee, reads the Church Manual in just that way.  I contacted him, seeking his interpretation on this issue.  He responded to me via email, stating:

On page 64, going on to page 65, there is a paragraph outlining that the “Fundamental Rights of the Members” need to be maintained, where it is made clear that when a disciplinary meeting is called the member has the right to be heard in their own defense.  It is true that the Church Manual does not specifically mention that the member has the right to be present when witnesses (accusers) are heard.  But reading the text as it stands indicates that the member has the right to defend himself, and that can only be done if the accusations are known.  It would therefore be natural that the member be present at this stage. 

As Elder Wollen states, the member does have the right to defend himself, and “that can only be done if the accusations are known.”

But the omission of an explicit right of confrontation has been interpreted, by some, as the power to exclude the accused from the room during the presentation of some or even all the evidence.  Some pastors say that the absence of the accused from the room facilitates testimony that witnesses would otherwise be hesitant to give.

But any disciplinary proceeding should be designed to protect the rights of the accused and to achieve a fair and just result, not just to make it easy to discipline someone.  Of what value is an accusation that the accuser dare not make in the presence of the accused?  In essence, the right of confrontation is about having to look a man in the eye when you testify about him, because any non-sociopath finds it much easier to lie behind a person’s back than to lie about her to her face.


My Efforts to Get the Right of Confrontation in the Church Manual

The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual should be amended to include an explicit right of confrontation.  It should very clearly proscribe the exclusion of the accused from the room while any testimony, evidence, argument or summation is being presented. 

In an effort to work through channels, I have been in contact, over the course of a year and a half, with several relevant church officials.  I contacted Elder Glenward Alexander Bryant, D. Min., who serves as Executive Secretary of the North American Division and Associate Secretary of the General Conference.  Elder Bryant told me he was aware of other cases similar to mine. He stated in an email to me that the Church Manual needs to be clarified, one way or the other, as to whether the defendant can be excluded from the room while evidence is being given or arguments made.

I then contacted Elder Hensley Moorooven, another Associate Secretary of the General Conference.  Unlike Elder Wollan, Elder Moorooven would not state his opinion on the issue.  But he did assure me that the issue was on the agenda of the Church Manual Committee meeting that took place during last October's Annual Council.  After annual council, I contacted Elder Moorooven again.  He stated that he put the issue before the committee, but the matter was dismissed, because it had not come to the committee through the NAD secretariat:

“Thank you very much for your e-mail. Indeed, this item was brought to the committee and before it could be addressed a member asked if this item was coming to them through the proper channel. By the way, this same question was also posed by the Chairman of the Church Manual Committee. I could not make up any answer and had to admit that this was coming directly from an individual. Therefore, as per my earlier correspondences re the same, I regretfully have to inform you that unless these items come to us from the North American Division Secretariat, by principle, the Church Manual Committee of the General Conference, will not be able to attend to them.”

So it would seem that I failed to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops.  Or maybe I’m getting the “run around” from people behind the scenes who want to leave this loophole unaddressed so that pastors can more easily use church discipline against inconvenient and troublesome members.  The church seems to want to protect the ability of pastors to abuse their members through absurdly unfair procedure in discipline cases. 


Summary and Conclusion

The right of confrontation, the right to hear the witnesses against you, is basic to any hearing or quasi-judicial proceeding.  A “hearing” in which the testimony is given outside of the hearing of the accused is not really a hearing.  It is a Kafkaesque nightmare, a burlesque of justice, a kangaroo court. 

It is disgraceful that a member can be excluded from his own disciplinary hearing for no reason other than that his accusers would rather not look him in the eye.  This practice is a stain on the good name of the church.  It is a stain that needs to be removed immediately.