Review of The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists by Alicia Johnston (self-published, 2022)
A book like this has been needed for a long time. Many LGBTQ+ Adventists feel alone and isolated in a church that, for the most part, is only marginally supportive and often antagonistic toward the LGBTQ+ community. There are many books by theologians that make a strong case for LGBTQ+ affirming theology, and even a good number by more conservative theologians. Before Alicia Johnston's book, however, there were none using a distinctly Adventist approach. The only Adventist books to tackle this complicated topic assumed that the Bible prohibits gender nonconformity and all forms of same-sex sexual behavior, regardless of context.
Given that Alicia Johnston lost her position as a pastor when she came out as bisexual, it would be easy for someone like her to write a book like this from a bitter, angry, and confrontational perspective. Thankfully, this is not the case. She makes it abundantly clear from the start that she bears no ill will toward the many members and leaders of the church who continue to oppose same-sex marriage and the freedom of trans individuals to express their self-identified gender. She recognizes that many sincere Christians who hold such views genuinely try to love LGBTQ+ individuals and simply do not recognize the harm that their views cause. Labeling such individuals as homophobic is counterproductive if we ever hope to have constructive dialog. Even her choice of language when describing the contrast between opposing theological views is as neutral as possible, calling the supportive LGBTQ+ view "affirming theology" and the church's less supportive stance "accepted theology," thus avoiding the often-polarizing terms of "liberal theology" and "conservative theology." She repeatedly expresses the hope that more open dialog will help us understand one another better.
The book's approach is part memoir, part theological treatise, but written such that it is readily accessible to the average reader. Mixing components of her own story adds humanness and authenticity. Although a background in theology is helpful, and theologians will likely find her arguments engaging, she spends enough time explaining needed background information, thus making her arguments clear and compelling to the general reader. The flow of each chapter is like an extended conversation with the reader, which also helps, especially when some of the material may be new and challenging.
In the first part of the book, Johnston lays the groundwork by stressing the importance of careful Bible study as exemplified by the longstanding Adventist tradition of being "people of the book." She reminds the reader that Adventists see truth as progressive, as Ellen White said in 1892:
"Long-cherished opinions must not be regarded as infallible. . . . Those who sincerely desire truth will not be reluctant to lay open their positions for investigation and criticism, and will not be annoyed if their opinions and ideas are crossed."1
The implication is that we should not assume because our accepted theology holds gender nonconformity and same-sex marriage as wrong that no further study is needed.
With this background, Johnston reviews what Genesis says about gender expression and marriage. Although it is obvious from the Genesis account that God created humans male and female and the first marriage was between a man and a woman, does this represent the model for all time? Johnston spends considerable time arguing that the way God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, and placed them in the garden is not so much a model for us as it is a starting point from which humans were to grow and mature. Without her extended argument, it may seem radical to suggest that creating male and female did not exclude other gender expressions or require that marriage must be only between a man and a woman. Yet the creation story does not dismiss the possibility of same-sex marriage; it simply does not address the question. The creation story is intended to show how God begins the human story, not serve as a model that all people of all ages must follow as an inflexible blueprint.
In a similar fashion, Johnston suggests that Jesus's teachings on marriage are not about limiting gender expression or allowing only for marriage between a man and a woman but rather are intended to bring greater compassion and understanding to bear on issues of gender and marriage. Jesus shows a much greater compassion toward the marginalized and downtrodden, and his response to a question about divorce in Matthew 19 is more about his concerns for women within the patriarchal culture than about connecting marriage back to any supposed creation "model." Johnston does not confront complementarian theology directly, where marriage between a man and a woman is considered to represent the joining of two complementary halves, thus completing the image of God in human flesh. She does, however, dismantle this concept without having to clearly name it, a plus for those who might find a deeper theological treatment of the concept overwhelming. Although Genesis says that God made man, both male and female, in his image, marriage is not ever identified as the method whereby this image is brought to fullness, and as Johnston argues, such a view is based on a mistaken interpretation of the phrase "one flesh." Those wishing a more in-depth refutation of complementarianism should read Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James V. Brownson, a conservative Reformed Church in America theologian, also referenced by Johnston.
Also handled nicely is Johnston's dismantling of the frequent objection that allowing same-sex marriage is the first step toward the total collapse of marriage as an institution. She correctly points out that heterosexual couples themselves have done enough to erode the importance of the institution by their high rates of divorce. Opening marriage to same-sex couples, rather than eroding the value of marriage, will increase its value, and why would a few same-sex marriages inhibit heterosexual couples from continuing to get married?
The next portion of the book explores the "clobber texts" so often used by accepted theology to prohibit same-sex marriage. The small number of these texts should itself be a sign that the Bible is less than definitive about the permissibility of same-sex marriage, and even less so concerning gender nonconformity. Johnston begins with the Old Testament, focusing on the only three places where same-sex sexual behavior is mentioned: the Levitical laws about sexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20, the story of Noah and his sons in Genesis 9, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and 19. Her argument, in a nutshell, is that each of these texts represents cases of same-sex behavior that are not only outside the context of a committed marriage relationship but that represent cases of violence and/or exploitation, circumstances that even today we would consider the described behavior sinful and immoral.
It is highly unlikely that all the men of Sodom and Gomorrah were gay, and even if they were, their intentions against the angels in Lot's home were not to gratify sexual desires; they were intending to rape them as a form of violent humiliation. Even the often assumed more straightforward prohibition against male-male sexual relations in Leviticus is less a blanket prohibition than it seems when the cultural context is understood. In the culture of the time, a man who penetrated another man sexually feminized the one being penetrated, imparting on him the same low status as a woman in that culture. Such an act was not one of mutual love and respect—it was an act of aggression, which is unlike the kind of male-male sexual relationship that is part of modern marriage between two men. It is also notable that sex between two women is not addressed at all in Leviticus, another sign that the prohibition is less about the physical act than what it means in the context of the culture.
As Johnston begins to survey the New Testament as it relates to LGBTQ+ issues, she focuses on the broader themes of love and compassion for the vulnerable and marginalized, noting Jesus's frequent emphasis on caring for the downtrodden, drawing a parallel to the status of LGBTQ+ individuals in the church today. She describes the discomfort that many Adventists have with applying the church's teachings from accepted theology, considering the obvious damage it does to LGBTQ+ individuals. That LGBTQ+ individuals attempt suicide at a much higher rate than straight individuals is troubling. Claiming to love gay and trans individuals while rejecting their identities or requiring them to remain celibate to retain membership in the church leads to further discomfort and questioning. Does the Bible actually teach that gender transition and same-sex marriage are wrong? Considering how challenging it is to remain celibate, is it right to exile gay people to a life of loneliness and never being able to experience what it is like to share life with another individual and build a family?
Johnston draws a parallel between the New Testament church's struggle over allowing gentiles to join the church without being circumcised. The Hebrew Scriptures are clear that to join God's people, males must be circumcised. The early church struggled with this and finally decided, based on the evidence of the workings of the Holy Spirit in gentile believers, that the compassionate and appropriate approach would be to remove the circumcision requirement. If the early church could progress in this way, maybe in a similar fashion, the Adventist Church today can look for scripturally faithful ways to allow trans and gay individuals to fully participate, including by allowing same-sex marriage.
To make her case, Johnston shows how the New Testament clobber texts, when properly interpreted, do not prohibit same-sex marriage, either because they have been interpreted incorrectly or simply do not address committed, monogamous same-sex sexual relations. The first pair of such texts, found in I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy 2, are part of "vice lists." I will let Johnston's own succinct summary speak to why these texts have nothing to say about same-sex marriage:
No form of the word "homosexuality" was used in the Bible until 1946, because it's an anachronistic translation. This is one of the rare times in the Bible when an accurate translation is difficult to come by. We can say for sure that "homosexuality" is a poor translation, and the best understanding we have is that Paul meant something else entirely. At the very least, we can affirm that these texts are not an unambiguous condemnation that applies to same-gender marriage [italics in original].2
Johnston spends an entire chapter recounting the story behind the unfortunate use of the word homosexual in translation, including why the LGBTQ+ community today finds these words ambiguous and offensive. Almost all theologians now recognize that these words do not belong in the Bible, as same-sex sexual behavior is not what is described in the original language.
Johnston spends two chapters discussing Romans 1, the text that accepted theology leans on the heaviest for proof that the Bible categorically prohibits all same-sex sexual behavior. Reading the text while ignoring Paul's purposes and the cultural context does seem to prohibit same-sex sex categorically, but Johnston counters such a "literal" reading by methodically laying down the needed background information about Roman culture and how male-male sexual acts were perceived. In a nutshell, Roman culture viewed such behavior as potentially wrong in two ways. First, when a male has sex with another male, the male being penetrated is feminized by the action, and being called effeminate was one of the worst accusations you could make against a man in Roman society. In essence, the male doing the penetrating is bringing social shame on the male he is penetrating, which makes it an aggressive, morally corrupt action. This meant that sex between men of equal social standing was forbidden, but a man could have sex with a male prostitute or a slave he owned, and no such stigma was attached since these individuals were already of a lower social standing—equal or lower than women. Second, even though it was permissible for a man to have sex with another man of lower social standing, to do so too often or to pay too much to obtain it was also shameful.
No such stigma was attached to sex between women because women were already considered at the lower end of the social scale, so such behavior could not reduce their position further. Thus, when Paul says, "Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (Romans 1:26, NIV)," it is much more likely a reference to women behaving unseemly by taking the dominant sexual role with a man (which would have shamed the man) or by a man performing oral sex on a woman (also shameful male behavior). Therefore, the verses in Romans 1 are more appropriately a prohibition against inappropriate forms of sexual behavior based on cultural mores and simple unbridled lust and wanton sexual activity, rather than any kind of blanket prohibition of same-sex behavior. In the Roman mind, there was no such thing as same-sex attraction leading to a loving, committed relationship as we see today. They saw same-sex sexual behavior as just another way to satisfy lust.
The last few chapters of the book attempt to show how affirming theology concludes that same-sex marriage is not only allowable but should be encouraged by the church on loving, compassionate grounds, recognizing the very real and deep human need we all have for a lifelong, committed relationship with another person. Johnston then takes an extended detour to look at another issue that, at first, may seem unrelated to allowing same-sex marriage: slavery.
Many people assume that we finally abolished slavery in the US because abolitionists made a strong biblical case against the institution of slavery. This is not the truth. Throughout history and since the founding of our nation, slavery proponents used the Bible to prove that slavery is sanctioned by God. Sadly and troublingly, such a case can easily be made, as Genesis says that God sanctioned the enslavement of the descendants of Canaan, the son of Ham, because of Ham’s sin. Numerous other texts in the Bible speak to the proper regulation of slavery and who can and cannot be enslaved. Slavery is even acceptable in the New Testament, with specific church leaders being slaveholders without any criticism. Despite this, abolitionists still made a case against slavery, drawing on the broader themes of human dignity, human rights, and compassion. Today, no Adventist debates the morality of slavery; it is just wrong. Case closed. None of us is troubled by the numerous texts in the Bible that openly support the institution of slavery.
Yes, acceptance of gender nonconformity and same-sex marriage is a different issue than slavery, but the way that accepted theology makes a biblical case against these issues is very much the same way proponents of slavery made a case for slavery, even though the Bible contains much less relevant material relating to LGBTQ+ issues. The approach of affirming theology says we should consider the broader themes of human dignity and compassion as we debate the morality of gender nonconformity and same-sex marriage. Instead of insisting on a particular view largely based on a few texts that only weakly address the issue, if at all, affirming theology considers the individuals who will suffer if we insist on clinging to accepted theology. Good theology will take the compassionate approach, much like the early church did by allowing the gentiles to join the church without being circumcised.
In the concluding chapter, Johnston discusses how we as individual church members can promote greater acceptance of affirming theology. She includes suggestions for how allies can help promote greater inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals in the church. Johnston also says she is under no illusion that her book will automatically turn the tide and get everyone to accept affirming theology. However, she does hope that, at the very least, those who continue to reject affirming theology will be able to understand the arguments used to support full inclusion. Being able to have a conversation between the two theological camps is better than being at war, and a better understanding of what it means to be an LGBTQ+ Adventist will hopefully lead to greater acceptance and less animosity toward LGBTQ+ individuals.
I would like to share a quote from another book that reflects the point Johnston makes:
It doesn't feel very difficult to draw a direct line between the messages many of us received from the church and the harm we've experienced in our bodies and spirits as a result. So my argument in this book is this: we should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.3
God is a God of love and compassion. I agree with Alicia Johnston that as we emphasize those characteristics of God, we will gradually be led to a more loving and compassionate application of the moral teachings in the Bible. I found myself hoping, as I read this book, that more people will take the time to read it, try to put themselves in the place of the LGBTQ+ individuals in our midst, and learn what it is like to long for inclusion in the church while fearing rejection at every turn. Open your hearts and see where it leads you. To those of you who are LGBTQ+, may you find comfort in knowing that God loves you and that affirming theology means you can still love the Bible, be faithful to its teachings, live out your self-identified gender, and marry the person you have fallen in love with—even if they are the same sex/gender as you.
Notes & References:
1. The Review and Herald, July 26, 1892.
2. Johnston, Alicia. 2022. The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists. Affirmation Collective. p. 227.
3. Bolz-Weber, Nadia. 2019. Shameless: A Case for Not Feeling Bad About Feeling Good (About Sex). Convergent Books. p. 5.
Bryan Ness has BS and MS degrees in biology from Walla Walla University and a PhD in botany (plant molecular genetics) from Washington State University. He is currently a Professor of Biology at Pacific Union College (PUC), where he has been teaching for 30 years.
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