Dear Dr Nelson,
Firstly, thank you – and praise God – for your ministry. It is a blessing to both my wife and me, but especially my wife as she is often home alone on Sabbath while I’m away preaching at distant country churches. Because her health doesn’t permit much travel, she often depends on Hope Channel for her Sabbath morning service.
Last Sabbath I was away preaching when Elaine watched your sermon on homosexuals in the church. [Sex in the Temple: What’s So Gay about That?] It’s the first time she’s been disappointed by your message. She was saddened by your explanation that homosexual believers must remain celibate in order to be true to their Christian calling. She couldn’t help thinking of the hundreds of thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed (GLBTI) Adventists you would deny the joy and intimacy of a committed relationship and doom to lonely lives and the statistical likelihood of an early grave. But her response is not simply emotional. This is an issue we have both taken an interest in and looked into.
We have a question for you: Are you absolutely sure that all homosexuality (i.e. the acts) is sin? It’s clear you have done some reading on this topic. I’m sure you have read some of Roy Gane’s material, perhaps his Leviticus-Numbers commentary. You may also have read the Ferguson-Guy-Larson book on gay SDAs. If so, whether or not you are persuaded by the theology of Jones and Guy, you will be aware that a credible challenge to the traditional church position exists, one the church cannot just brush aside.
Last year I reviewed this book. The review and a sympathetic editorial by Nathan Brown were published in the Record. Perhaps not surprisingly, these two items drew a storm of protest from the conservative wing of the church. It was so explosive that the decision was taken not to publish any letters on the topic. No healthy dialogue ensued. The lid was put back on the can of worms, the traditional position was trotted out to placate those that feared the sky was falling in, GLBTI believers were returned to their holes and nobody had their theology or their prejudice properly tested. No doubt some feel their theological position is impregnable and needs no testing. But this type of thinking doesn’t facilitate progress. Rather it tends towards fossilisation.
You must be aware that Scripture is silent on the issue of homosexual orientation. You would know that the KJV does not use the word homosexual. No English language Bible used the word before the middle of the 20th century. The handful of Bible references to same-sex activity appear to refer to abusive or violent acts motivated by lust (Rom 1:27). They say nothing about relationship or gay love.
The Sodom story cries out to be properly understood. It was a planned gang rape of two strangers by all the men of Sodom, “both young and old” (Gen 19:4). They can’t possibly have all been gay. After their big night out, most of them would have returned home to their wives and families. Why would heterosexual men want to rape men? Ask jail inmates why they do it. Ask soldiers why they do it to captured enemy combatants. It’s not uncommon. In fact, it’s common enough that two instances are mentioned in the Old Testament (Gen 19 & Judges 19).
The Benjamite story is instructive. Just as Lot offered the Sodomite mob two young women to assuage their lust, so the Ephraimite and Levite offered the Benjamites two women, the old man’s virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine. In the end the concubine alone was sacrificed. The men treated her so appallingly that she did not survive the ordeal. These men were no more gay than the men of Sodom were. Ezekiel 16 applies as well to this story as it does to the other. In neither case is the primary issue sodomy or homosexuality.
A question: Is it fair to define heterosexuality by the behaviour of rapists? Why, then, would you define homosexuality in terms of “homosexual offenders” (1 Cor 6:9)? In doing so you create a tautology if, in fact, practising homosexuals are by definition sexual offenders. Of course, the word homosexual is not in the original. We both know it was supplied by the translators. A bit more clarity is needed on exactly what Paul meant by “homosexual offenders.” The tautology is removed if you understand him to be referring to pederasty or male prostitution or sodomy as practised by the men of Sodom, or to the bisexual behaviour that was common in the Greco-Roman world (and condemned by Paul in Rom 1). But to see it like this, you may have to abandon the view that 1 Corinthians 6 encompasses all homosexuality.
In the 21st century, we have a better understanding of sexuality. A growing body of research suggests that sexual orientation is due to nature, not nurture or choice. The church needs to learn from this research and reconsider the sociological implications. Without question, God requires sexual purity from his people, both straight and gay. This is unarguable, as is the fact that the Edenic model involved a man plus a woman, not two members of the same team.
For me, not being a theologian is both a disadvantage and an advantage – a disadvantage in that I can’t deal with the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and make confident pronouncements about the precise meanings of obscure passages, but an advantage in that my perspective is not overwhelmed by theology. I’m interested in what can be learned from a range of sciences. Because of this, I’m no longer convinced by the traditional church teaching on sexuality. Good theology must be informed by good science. Church history shows that this is not the way it’s always worked. Indeed, the church has often impeded the progress of science. But believers have nothing to fear from true science: it provides insight into the handiwork of God. I no longer believe that the Bible condemns all same-sex relations. I have a good conscience before God. By the way, I am neither gay nor bisexual. Rather I am an advocate for a misunderstood minority group in the church. For too long GLBTI believers have been treated as pariahs, as outcasts, given no respect, driven to desperate measures. It’s time personal prejudice was set aside. The heterosexual majority in the church must learn to accept that homosexual orientation and behaviour are just as natural and normal for homosexuals as heterosexuality is for the majority. Our view of them is not gracious and our narrow understanding of Scripture is not necessary.
In our fallen condition we cannot avoid the effects of sin. For example, we cannot avoid ageing, sickness, baldness, left-handedness, birth defects, inherited conditions, mutations, extreme personality traits (e.g. sociopathy). We have no control over these effects of sin. God won’t judge us for them. On one occasion the disciples queried Jesus about such a case, wanting to know whom to blame for a blind man’s affliction. In response Jesus said that neither the man nor his parents were to blame (John 9:3). I believe Jesus would see homosexuality in the same way. It is an outcome that owes its existence to the effects of sin, but is not itself sin. There is no choice involved; it’s a legacy. Yes, we all inherit sinful natures that God wants to begin transforming. And he demands that our sexual behaviour be above reproach. But he doesn’t appear to be in the business of changing people’s sexual orientation – as the church’s painful experience with Colin Cook shows (countless other examples can be cited). I wish Wayne Blakely well, but his relatively recent rebaptism is only the beginning of a long journey. It’s a bit early to be trumpeting him as a truly reformed gay man. The gay people I know are just as incurably gay as I am incurably heterosexual.
David Potter is the Coordinator for General Studies at Avondale College.