Adventism and the Intersex Problem

The Adventist church, like many conservative Christian denominations, takes an official position condemning homosexuality. The 1999 General Conference Annual Council approved a position statement, found on the church’s website at  that states:

The Seventh-day Adventist Church recognizes that every human being is valuable in the sight of God, and we seek to minister to all men and women in the spirit of Jesus. We also believe that by God's grace and through the encouragement of the community of faith, an individual may live in harmony with the principles of God's Word.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that sexual intimacy belongs only within the marital relationship of a man and a woman. This was the design established by God at creation. The Scriptures declare: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24, NIV). Throughout Scripture this heterosexual pattern is affirmed. The Bible makes no accommodation for homosexual activity or relationships. Sexual acts outside the circle of a heterosexual marriage are forbidden (Lev. 20:7-21; Rom. 1:24-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Jesus Christ reaffirmed the divine creation intent: "'Haven't you read,' he replied, 'that at the beginning the Creator "made them male and female," and said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?" So they are no longer two, but one'" (Matt. 19:4-6, NIV). For these reasons Adventists are opposed to homosexual practices and relationships.

Seventh-day Adventists endeavor to follow the instruction and example of Jesus. He affirmed the dignity of all human beings and reached out compassionately to persons and families suffering the consequences of sin. He offered caring ministry and words of solace to struggling people, while differentiating His love for sinners from His clear teaching about sinful practices.

First a few, hopefully uncontroversial, observations:

1. The concept of homosexuality is contingent. That is, it depends on a definition of gender. The document states intimacy should be confined to a marital relationship between a man and a woman, with homosexuality forbidden because it falls outside the approved group.

2. The position statement assumes that gender separates into two well-defined categories: men and women. There is no suggestion in the document – or the Bible – that humanity might not always be unambiguously divisible into these two categories.

3. The position statement assumes homosexuality is undifferentiated. There is nothing there to suggest subcategories within homosexuality, which of course might open the door to the possibility that only certain types of homosexuality should be condemned. Note that this is a simplification and is not mandatory. Consider the word cholesterol. We often use it in an undifferentiated way. And there would be no reason to add complication unless the unqualified use proved inadequate, as in recent times has been the case. We now often differentiate between LDL and HDL cholesterols, as LDL cholesterol is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease while HDL cholesterol can help prevent atherosclerosis. Note however that the Adventist undifferentiating of homosexuality is just following the Biblical lead, where the term is also undifferentiated. But this does not conclusively demonstrate that the concept is inherently monolithic.

4. The position statement is intended to be categorical - an unqualified definition of what constitutes homosexuality.

5. The position statement is propositional in nature.  That is, it is expressed in language that allows for deterministic verification of its truth or falsity. You could almost express it mathematically. Something like: humanity (H) is the sum of the sets male (M) and female (F).  Intercourse (I) is sex between two members of humanity.  Marriage (MA) is the union of one M and one F. Then for all H, any I outside of MA constitutes sin.

Please note that nothing in what I have said, above, infers that the Adventist position with respect to homosexuality is incorrect. That is, my observations are simply intended to call attention to characteristics of the position statement, not to make any sort of value judgment about its truth or falsity.

Now, let’s look more closely at the topic of intersex.

The term suggests that gender does not always neatly divide between men and women. Intersex is a word (sometimes less accurately called hermaphrodite or androgyny) used to define people born with somewhat ambiguous genital and/or chromosomal composition. The Intersex Society of North America ( states:

“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia. Or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY. []

Sonature doesn’t decide where the category of “male” ends and the category of “intersex” begins, or where the category of “intersex” ends and the category of “female” begins. Humans decide. Humans (today, typically doctors) decide how small a penis has to be, or how unusual a combination of parts has to be, before it counts as intersex. Humans decide whether a person with XXY chromosomes or XY chromosomes and androgen insensitivity will count as intersex. []

If you ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births. But a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life. []

There are at least three dozen well-documented variations in humans that result in something called “intersex,” or non-standard male and female anatomy. Though the mythical hermaphrodite—fully male and fully female—is a physiological impossibility, some people with intersex conditions are indeed born with both ovarian and testicular tissue. Some are born with both an apparent penis and an apparent vagina. Some are born looking really female but with XY chromosomes, and some are born looking really male but with XX chromosomes. Some are all male, except for a small or even non-existent penis, and some all female except for a big clitoris. []

While the boundaries of where intersex begin and end may not be totally clear, it is uncontroversial, medically, that intersex is a genuine condition affecting many people. Consequently the assumption in the Adventist position, above, that gender unambiguously resolves into men and women – is too simplistic. It fails to adequately classify all of humanity. And, more importantly, the Bible has the same limitation.

Some might note that this ‘problem’, practically speaking, is relatively small. And any attempt to amplify and thus clarify the current Adventist position risks diluting the church’s current clear stance on homosexuality.  It is also likely true that intersexed people would not be very interested in Adventism, given the somewhat hostile attitude many within the church have toward homosexuality. But, however true the pragmatics might be, they are not relevant. The church’s position is an attempt to clarify what the Bible counts as sin. And Christ died for all, not just those who can be easily gender-categorized.

This inadequacy of gender definition has significant implications. Because the definition of homosexuality is contingent, if gender cannot be adequately divided into male and female only, then the definition of homosexual behavior has a corresponding ambiguity. Consider an intersexed individual who, by anatomical inspection, could not be classified as either female or male. What kinds of sexual activity, if any, should be considered homosexual – and therefore sinful - for them? The position statement is unable to say. Yet the statement seems to be suggesting that it provides a categorical method for determining the sin of homosexuality.

Further, and perhaps even more important, the implication that the Bible’s categorical-type statements do not admit exception is undermined. The Bible seems to categorically divide humanity into only male and female. No exceptions are noted anywhere. It might be plausible then to assume that no exceptions exist. But exceptions in the case of gender do exist. So we cannot take the Bible’s apparent categorical statements on gender at face value. We would have to conclude that the Bible is silent in the cases where gender is indeterminate.

But if we have been mistaken as to the scope of the Bible’s definition of gender why should we remain fully confident that the Bible’s definition of the concept of homosexuality is categorical, and admits no exceptions? In both cases (definitions of gender and homosexuality) the Bible is silent concerning exceptions. But we see that exceptions exist in gender.

Please recognize that the argument I’m expounding here does not conclude that the church’s position on homosexuality is wrong. It does, however, propose that the grounding of the current position statement is insufficient to support its conclusion. That is bad enough. It would seem that the demonstratably weak definition of gender as male + female only is a significant challenge to the adequacy of the church’s rationale for universally condemning homosexually.

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Sat, 05/10/2014 | San Diego Adventist Forum
Monique Vincent, PhD candidate, University of Chicago

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