I didn’t choose to be heterosexual. I was born this way. From the time I was old enough to notice (and taking into account that at the time I was far more interested in Lego blocks and model cars) I remember thinking little girls were incredibly charming creatures. My first real exposure to homosexuality came in college, when I had friends who I learned (probably as they were learning it themselves) had attachments to people of their own gender. This was a time when homosexuality was at last being spoken of aloud among ordinary people. It even got a friendlier, non-clinical name: gay. For many Christians, this openness was a symptom of an oversexed, undermoraled world. It was as though naming it, identifying it, made it real. It’s a diagnosis from the same people who still say, “Why are there so many homosexuals now? They didn’t exist back when I was young.”
That not true, of course. When I think back on my childhood (and this from the safety of a protected, conservative, rural Seventh-day Adventist home) I remember a dapper, swishy high-tenor church member whose mannerisms occasioned rolled eyes; a church school teacher who always moved to new jobs with a female friend; the bachelor farmer who, someone said, got strange magazines in his mailbox; not to mention puzzling appointments written on the walls of public toilet stalls. Yes, it existed. But back then, among polite people, most things sexual got talked about only when unavoidable. There was vast ignorance about sex, and we all wanted to believe that anything outside of wholesome marriage relations was rarer than it really was. Which is why homosexuality often ended up in public restrooms.
Now the sexualization of society has swung much too far in the other direction. Still, I can’t help but think that openness is healthier than the blinders we wore in the past. I don’t hold with those who say that talking about homosexuality makes it an option. Sexual preference is more innate than that. (Of course, that won’t shut those up who insist that it’s a blameworthy lifestyle choice. Let me say again that the most self-righteous among us, those calling out sinners and purifying the church, are driven by something other than truth. To the point here: find the person most obsessed with identifying and condemning others’ sexual sins, and you’ll find someone with his or her own sexual demons. I have seen it too often to doubt it. Anyone whose faith revolves around a preoccupation with others‘ immorality is hiding that they’re a lot less righteous than they pretend to be.)
At least some Seventh-day Adventist congregations have opened their doors, if not their membership, to gay people. But again, whether gay people are members of the Seventh-day Adventist church isn’t a question: we have now, and always have had, church members who are gay, teachers and pastors who are gay and church administrators who are gay. Some deny it (even to themselves), keep it hidden or practice it furtively, manage to suppress it, or get caught. It’s been my observation that the healthiest come to terms with it and admit it—and then get rejected by their church, just to sort of cap off a lifetime of confusion and alienation. Can you blame them for not wanting to stick around?
But surprisingly, some do. The question now is how we are going to treat them. We’ve got some guidelines—not necessarily very good ones, nor applied consistently—for managing heterosexual relationships and their violations. Beyond “change”, “get the hell out of here,” or “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we’ve not had much to offer homosexuals.
In a recent issue of the Columbia Union Visitor, the cover feature was about the retirement of Elder Henry Wright. Wright has been an effective pastor for long enough this go-round that some may have forgotten that a decade or so back he was fired from ministry for an affair with a young woman. After a relatively brief suspension, he returned to ministry and built up a weak church into a strong one. Those who took a chance on him should be pleased with the results.
I also remember a college president, Joseph Grady Smoot, who was fired from the presidency of Andrews University when it was discovered he had pursued gay sex. Afterwards Smoot went to Kansas, where he became a university vice-president, started the Pittsburg State University Foundation, established a public radio station and a university magazine, raised a massive endowment fund for university operations and another $6 million for the Kansas Technology Center, and has a room in a local history museum named after him. I suspect PSU is glad they took the chance on him, too.
The situations are different, but neither was simple and straightforward. Smoot was caught when soliciting an undercover policeman. Wright was a pastoral authority figure, respected and charismatic, who had sex with someone younger than him—and the revealing of the affair also brought to light an out-of-wedlock child. It’s important to say that both men stayed with their wives. And, of course, both were smart and gifted. One had another chance to use his gifts for the church. The other didn’t.
Which is to say, as uncomfortable as we are with sex and sexual trespass, we’re an order of magnitude more uncomfortable with homosexuality. We are still in the early days of trying to fit gay people into the church even as laypeople. Those who advocate for gay inclusion picture committed gay couples like those in the film Seventh Gay Adventists. A lesbian told me once, “I want to have a family just like the conservative Adventist family I grew up in, except have a female partner instead of a husband.” I can think of a few congregations that will be able to accommodate that much variance from the mean.
But those who want us to minister to gay people may have more than that asked of us. At a Kinship Kampmeeting you’ll find the committed Adventist couples, but you’ll also meet people who are still experimenting, still finding themselves. The acronym LGBTQ is intentional: it represents a desire on the part of the homosexual community to judge no one, to include every variety of sexuality, gender preference, practice and uncertainty. That’s not something churches, with our emphasis on dividing right from wrong, readily accommodate.
This is a whole new challenge to Adventist sexual morality, one still unexplored even by gay-accepting Adventists. We know how to punish, and on occasion we can even process and forgive (as with Elder Wright), some heterosexual sins. Homosexuality is something different. It affects a small minority, against whom there is still enormous prejudice. It involves life-changing social and psychological adjustment (is there anything more intrinsic to the self than sexual identity?), experimentation, discovery, and coming out to family and friends. Can we help homosexuals unpack all of that and fit it into a Christian sexual morality in a Bible-based church? Right now Seventh-day Adventists are merely being asked to acknowledge the presence in church of admitted homosexual people. But what if the gay Adventist community wants us to be as accepting of their confused or promiscuous members as we have been of heterosexual sinners? Are we equipped to counsel a bisexual person about making a choice? Would we put the transsexual going through surgery on the church prayer list? What will we say to the homosexual couple who doesn’t want to merely live together, but sincerely desires the blessing of marriage?
Whatever else we do, we start by reclaiming the idea that the church is gathering of sinners. We in the church have picked some sins (generally the sexual ones) to hate particularly, but toward the sins Jesus spoke against most frequently (criticism, backbiting, pride, self-righteousness, exclusivity) we are benignly tolerant. I am sick to death of the church driving away people we should be ministering to, and forcing the rest into piety-cloaked hypocrisy.
Yet the junction between homosexuality and the church is a difficult one. Those organizing recent denominational meetings on the topic knew that, which is why they booked a junket to South Africa to discuss it. And why they didn’t complicate things by listening to any real homosexuals (at least who admitted it—see paragraph four, above).
So here’s an idea: what if a group of thoughtful Seventh-day Adventist theologians, gay people, and leaders from gay-friendly congregations convened their own summit? It would start with the radical assumption, not much in evidence since Jesus’ day, that you don’t need an official adjudication on the sinfulness of someone else’s actions to be kind to them. Rather than waiting for church leaders to decide ex cathedra whether homosexuals are acceptable in church, this summit would start with the assumption that homosexual people are already here among us; parents, children and grandchildren, students, friends and colleagues, loved members of our congregations. This summit would set aside the “Is it right or wrong?” question and the related “How can we make you straight?” question and instead discuss how to effectively minister to gay people, how to ease their way into fellowship, how to help rather than alienate them as they discover their orientation, how to insure their sexual orientation is healthy part of their lives rather than pushing it into hiding, into shame and lying and public toilets. To do our Biblical duty, this conversation will need to include a discussion of what a LGBTQ sexual morality for gay-accepting churches would look like, and how Christian moral principles can make for happy gay families.
And as long as I’m dreaming, this conversation might even include a process to identify Adventist congregations willing to say that in spite of questions they have about homosexuality, they’re going to minister to everyone who comes through the door in the spirit of Christ. That would give gay Seventh-day Adventists some guidance as they seek a Christian community.
A lot of Adventists think that all that is being considered on this topic in the hallowed halls of Silver Spring is incredibly consequential. I’m not so sure. I believe that what really matters is what happens among compassionate people in local churches. As for me, whatever the church decides, and in spite of my own questions about homosexuality, I will continue ministering to the gay people in my world as friends and fellow Christians. Given the mandate that I was recruited under, I don’t think I have any more choice about that than I had about my sexual orientation.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.