Paul-Anthony Turner, a gay seminary graduate, has a deep commitment to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. "I will not leave Adventism," he says. "I won't hand it over to people who operate out of fear and bigotry… I don't believe people like those that have made me feel unwelcome are truly Adventist. I believe being Adventist is a radical calling to justice."
Question: You are a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, and are also gay (and celibate). This July, your home church in Kentucky said they can no longer allow you to preach or have any leadership role in the congregation, due to your views on marriage and the family. What led up to this announcement from the church leaders? How did you feel when you received the letter?
Answer: It all started at the beginning of this year when I finished seminary [at Andrews] and I moved back home. The conference that was supposed to hire me (the Carolina Conference) did not hire me and did not explain why explicitly or formally. I was back at my home church, where my mother was an extremely active member, and where in the past I had preached, led Sabbath School, led song service, and everything.
But this time, when I came home and told the pastor I wanted to be involved, he just didn’t get back to me. Here I was, with skills and knowledge and training — a pastor without a church — but my home church didn’t respond.
Had they only just found out that you are gay?
I am openly gay. But I had been away at college and at seminary, so people at my church didn’t really know. Since 2019, I had been putting posts on Facebook, and when the mini documentary I did with The Haystack was out in early June, definitely all the church members knew or could have known.
I have vehemently defended LGBT+ inclusion, even in churches that don’t accept gay marriage. They can at least be welcoming. I am gay and I celebrate that.
Even as I celebrate being gay, I do maintain a traditional biblical sex ethic and doctrinally, I hold the traditional views of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Generally, I don’t believe anything out of harmony with what our church believes about marriage. But being gay is about so much more than sex and marriage. (See How to Be Gay by Dr. David Halperin, where he explains gayness as not merely sexual orientation but cultural orientation.)
In March, when the pastor and two elders pulled me into a surprise meeting to explain that the fact that I was gay was a problem if I wanted to participate in any church leadership roles, I told them they had not followed the procedure for dealing with perceived problems, outlined in Matthew 18 and our church policy based on that Scripture, which counsels you to go and speak personally and privately to someone if you have a problem with them.
But I had not done anything our church has a problem with. I was being clear and honest about myself — they just wanted me to stop calling myself gay and stop talking about homosexuality. This is not about a theological Adventist issue — this is about personal feelings.
I know my Bible and I know church policy. I can adequately address any arguments that people bring up about this issue, because it is something I have thought and studied deeply about.
Even a progressive sexual ethic can still be grounded in the Bible. But what I teach and believe — a traditional sex ethic — is actually in alignment with our church’s teachings.
Some people are unhappy that I choose to celebrate the fact that I am gay, because they can only see being gay as a negative thing. I choose to focus on all the good things that they fail to recognize. It’s not just about gay marriage and sex. There are many aspects to being queer. Yes, some may be negative, but there are a lot of negative things about being straight, too! What about toxic masculinity, objectification of women’s bodies, the taboo of same-sex individuals showing even platonic affection to one another? I don’t really see these issues in the queer community, so straight folks need to tread lightly and not pathologize the queer experience if they are not willing to have their straightness pathologized.
When I say I am gay it goes beyond talking about sex, though that is all some people can hear. Straight people somehow manage to not think of their straightness as only pertaining to sex. This imbalanced and hypocritical perspective creates a hyper-sexualized picture of the queer community — one in which we are seen as base and promiscuous.
What did the church members think?
Concerning my being out and the stance I take, many thanked me for being open and sharing. They said they were inspired by my story. (However, since all this drama with my local church occurred, I have hardly heard from any of them.)
My family was one of the most involved families in the church. My mother organized a church international event that celebrates diversity and inclusion, and asked me to teach the Sabbath School, but I was told that, because of my “problematic views,” I was not allowed to participate. I stood right in the pulpit and led Sabbath School anyway!
I was thinking: “You guys are forgetting I am still the same person — the same person as I was all those years. I was always gay, the only difference is that now you know. I also now have more than seven years of theological education under my belt.”
Don’t you feel that your church is justified in its decision in some way? Your sexual orientation is not traditionally Adventist.
No. I do not believe they have any justification. I am teaching the same things as the church. I hold the same set of beliefs as a traditional Adventist. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a traditional orientation. People are oriented as they are. Additionally, our Adventist church’s policies make it clear that orientation is not problematic, only behavior.
The North American Division put out a book in 2018, Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones, that talks about terminology in what appears to me to be prescriptive, or at least in an affirming way in that it validates these identities. I am not advocating anything different than what the NAD has said.
How do you think the Adventist Church should change when it comes to gay church members?
We need to do something to help our church become a more welcoming church.
The NAD Statement on Human Sexuality from 2015 is pretty welcoming. It’s a good starting place for a denomination that might never be accepting of gay marriage, but can at least be welcoming.
The statement lists (on my reading) basically three levels of church participation for queer people, depending to what extent they are willing to take up the denomination’s theological and ethical beliefs.
First level: general church participation and fellowship, including participation in Communion (which is significant because only believers are allowed to take Communion, which indicates that no matter whether a queer person maintains a progressive or traditional sexual ethic, they may be considered a believer in Jesus!), small groups, Sabbath school, and so on. This level is about broad participation.
Second level: Membership, for those who are willing to take up the beliefs of our church. (This can only be for people who maintain a traditional biblical sex ethic. Inclusion for those who hold a progressive belief would be way down the road and would require a very nuanced approach to church membership in a denomination whose membership is largely based on doctrinal assent.)
Third level: Church leadership and employment in the denomination (which is only given to members in good and regular standing).
The NAD has already voted something pretty progressive for a church as traditional and conservative as ours. Now we just need to start implementing the NAD’s statement in a nuanced way.
You have been very open about your situation recently, giving interviews and posting videos. What response have you received?
The overwhelming majority of responses have been very positive. People are telling me they feel more informed. Some say I am helping them know what to say when speaking to others. I am grateful to be starting a conversation.
I try not to think about the negative responses. But they really are few. I guess not many people want to challenge me. They know I will call them out for prejudice. I used to have my own prejudices and that gives me more patience.
Most people have not done a deep study into what it means to be a sexual being. Most don’t know how to look at sexuality. Straight conservatives tend to see being gay as all bad, and straight as all good.
Where do you see yourself in the future? Do you see yourself pastoring an Adventist Church?
Probably not. I see myself just helping people like I do now — helping people who feel suicidal, helping queer people. I get questions and messages all the time from pastors and all kinds of people. This is non-traditional pastoring, like what Jesus did, I would say.
It’s great that you are able to help people. What you are doing does not pay, though. How will you live?
Right now, I am a full-time PhD student in philosophy at the University of Kentucky in Lexington (online for the moment), and my program is paid for.
When I graduate, I would be down to be a pastor or professor. I do what I do. But I won’t jump through ridiculous hurdles. I just want to help people know Jesus, so I won’t put myself in a position that will diminish my ability to minister in radical or unorthodox ways just to make some feel comfortable.
I don’t know exactly what I want to do.
I do know at least one big part of my purpose in life: God put me on this planet to help queer people know Jesus and advocate for them in the church. And I am already doing that. Whatever I end up doing career-wise, I want to be a pastor for queer people, and I am already doing that.
How do you feel about the Seventh-day Adventist Church now? Do you intend to remain a part of the church?
I will always be super Adventist, theologically. 1844, the second coming, the state of the dead — I am very Adventist through and through. I love Auntie Ellen. I am part of this church and it is part of me.
Adventists are my spiritual home.
I will not leave Adventism, because I don’t want to just hand it over to people who operate out of fear and bigotry; the church doesn’t truly belong to them. I don’t believe people like those that have made me feel unwelcome are truly Adventist. I believe being Adventist is a radical calling to justice.
You don’t believe fully in the investigative judgment and the second coming if you don’t confess your prejudices, live differently, and advocate for personal piety and justice for others.
I will always be Adventist. I really believe those things. They have become a part of my ideology, and not in a trite and superficial way. I believe these beliefs have an impact on how you treat queer people, immigrants, and women. If you look at the early Adventists, their beliefs caused them to live and advocate in a certain way. They believed in a certain interpretation of Revelation 13. (The US is the land beast that persecutes and so forth.) Because of these eschatological beliefs, social justice was a big part of their focus.
If Ellen G. White were alive in our time, I think she and the other early Adventists would be more or less where I am. I think they would care for the same things I care about. I am not going to give up these issues to bigots and let them ruin this church. I care about this rich tradition. I refuse to stand by and let them take away something they have no right to take away.
It sounds like your mother has always been very supportive of you.
She is incredibly loving. She is ferocious — always ready go to bat for me. I like to say that, after God, my mom is omnipotent. She is a very powerful, motivated woman. She is my greatest support and my best friend on this whole journey. I love her to death.
Have you met other Adventist pastors or people who wish to serve as pastors who also identify as gay, whether publicly or privately?
Most Adventist pastors I know who are gay or bisexual are either celibate or married to people of the opposite sex. Most hold to a traditional biblical sex ethic. I know a few who wish they could be more progressive, but have decided to forego those things for the sake of the job.
I have met quite a few seminarians who are gay or bi. Many of them dropped out of seminary or are considering dropping out. Some feel tortured. Many wish they could be vocal about what they are going through. They want to be authentic without feeling something bad will happen to them.
How do you see the attitude of the Adventist Church changing on the LGBTQ+ issue, and how have you seen that the attitude may have changed already?
I look at the future positively. I have to believe. I believe in the second coming of Christ. And I believe the nearness means true believers will come together in what really matters. I believe that people of God at the end of time (not only Adventists, but whoever chooses to follow Yahweh) will join together.
But you are asking about our church. And yes, institutionally, I have hope. I believe that things can always change. I believe Jesus is still working the world through his Spirit and that he is very present.
Our pioneers gave us this rich theological tradition through the Spirit of God, and he can still do this. We cannot keep choosing to quench the Spirit by immortalizing LGBT+-phobic theology.
We need more people who are willing to put their necks on the line. Faith is never terribly far away. The Spirit is never far away. Just reach out and touch it. This is a thing that has to happen. We can be a light in this dark time.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Paul-Anthony Turner.
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