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A talented musician, Tyler Clementi (pictured) was an eighteen-year-old freshman at Rutgers University. On September 22, after posting a suicide note on his Facebook page, Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
He chose to end his young life because his roommate, Dharun Ravi, decided it would be “fun” to secretly video Tyler's intimacy with another man in the "privacy" of his dorm room. Adding insult to injury, Ravi used the internet to broadcast the private sexual encounter to his friends, and to the whole world. Tyler's private life was made horribly public. While this incident is perhaps the most prominent and dramatic, Tyler is the fourth American teenager in the last three weeks to commit suicide after being harassed by fellow students for being gay.
For many years, I was the leader of a youth group that included 30-50 Seventh-day Adventist teens at any time, most of whom are now young adults. I have watched a number of them struggle with their sexual identity. Without exception they have found themselves on the wrong side of the Adventist church. Many have walked away from God altogether, but a few have found gay-friendly communities of faith that accept them.
As a church, we have behaved better than many Christian denominations in our treatment of gays. You won’t generally find us participating in anti-gay activities, political or otherwise. If you were to survey Adventist churches you would surely find some that are locally known to be gay-friendly. Mostly, though, we behave as if this is not our issue. We quietly hope fervently that our children and our grandchildren will not be gay or, if they are, that they will keep it a secret.
I remember so vividly meeting one of my youth group “kids” - now a young adult - for dinner. As he would have expected, I asked him about his spiritual life. He responded by telling me that he had given up on church because it was so judgmental. I asked for clarification and he told me that he had come to realize that he was gay and he knew the church would not approve. My heart was breaking and I flooded the air with silent prayers to my God - who loves gays - for just the right words.
This is both an individual question and a corporate question. If Tyler had been a member of your church or my church, if he had been your child or relative, would he have felt safe coming to you honestly. If someone had exposed him, would he have felt compelled to jump off a bridge in your community? If he had been a member of your church or my church, could he have come in on a Sabbath morning, confessed what had happened, and found comfort?
For some in our denomination there seems to be no hard questions. They take the position that, if you are gay, you are not welcome in our church. For me, it is not nearly so easy. There are too many people that I love who are gay. They did not choose to be gay. Most have fought it long and hard, prayed and struggled, wrestled with God, shed tears of despair.
The second stance some Christians take is that gays should just be celibate. Really? In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul tells us that celibacy is best because it allows an individual to put all of one’s time and energy into kingdom activities. He continues, however, to acknowledge that we were born with strong God-given sexual desires and that, for many, perhaps most of us, our desires have the potential to destroy us and so he recommends marriage as the antidote. But, according to some, marriage is apparently not an option either.
The third position is that they can change. Some can and some have, but most have not and cannot. Sexual identity is so deeply embedded in our core that it takes a rare miracle to change it. Could any of us straight people hope or pray our way out of our sexual identity? For reasons that we do not understand, God seems, more often than not, to choose not to reorient this core element.
Exactly how the church should respond to the gay “dilemma” is something about which I am terribly conflicted. I trust Scripture, which seems to condemn homosexual behavior and, yet, even there it seems to be condemned in the context of licentious, hedonistic circumstances. Everyone who walks into a church is a sinner. We have come to a place where we treat sexual sin between men and women with great care and compassion, but somehow homosexuality is seen as a special sin beyond redemption. At the same time, I am not quite sure I am ready for openly gay individuals to take leadership roles in the church. While far from a perfect analogy, the best I can come up with is this.
While in college, I earned a living teaching flying. It was my heart’s desire to become an airline pilot. The job was fun, the pay spectacular and the workweeks short. There were two things that made my dream impossible: I had terrible vision without glasses and I was colorblind. Because of this, I had to find a different career. Because we are born in a world of sin, each of us are born with certain things that, in effect, prohibit us from living the fullest life we would have had if Adam and Eve had never sinned. I cannot pilot commercial jets and, perhaps, my gay friends cannot be leaders in the Adventist church.
There are some things I am convinced of:
Final Note: I know that many of you will read this article and see my position as being fundamentally flawed, because of my seemingly (or possibly real) contradictory positions. I acknowledge that this is true and I wish that it were more consistent. It is just the best way I know how to balance Scripture and compassion.
Steve Moran works in Silicon Valley. He is the head elder of his church and a member of the Central California Conference Executive Committee.