Editor’s Note: In this four-part series for Spectrum, Adventist sociologist Ronald Lawson explores the historical and current relationship between the Adventist Church and its LGBT members. This article originally appeared in the Spectrum print journal (volume 48, issue 4), and will be reprinted online in full over the coming days. Read Part 1 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.
Church Statements and Political Involvement
The 1985 General Conference (GC) Session amended the Church Manual, for the first time, to refer to homosexuality: “Adultery, homosexuality and lesbianism are among the obvious perversions of God’s original plan.” In 1987, the Annual Council voted “A Statement of Concern on Sexual Behavior”: “adultery and premarital sex, as well as obsessive sexual behavior …Sexual abuse of spouses, sexual abuse of children, incest, homosexual practices (gay and lesbian), and bestiality are among the obvious perversions of God’s original plan.” It was extremely hurtful to LGBT Adventists to find themselves listed in such company.
In the years that followed, the GC issued several statements focusing on gay-related issues. In 1994, when President Robert Folkenberg learned that Mitchell Tyner, a GC staff member, had been invited to minister at a Kampmeeting, he issued this statement:
“HOMOSEXUAL GATHERINGS —
SPEAKING INVITATIONS. In view of the fact that homosexual behavior is clearly contrary to biblical teachings, Church beliefs, …and in order to avoid the appearance of giving the sanction of the Church to such behavior, it was
VOTED, to request all General Conference personnel to decline invitations to speak to gatherings of homosexuals.”
This response indicated that church administrators had not caught up with the interpretations of the so-called “clobber texts” by biblical scholars. Because Tyner saw the need to support and minister, he participated in the Kampmeeting for the whole week.
In 1996, the GC Administrative Committee voted “An Affirmation of Marriage,” which reminded homosexual Adventists that their only acceptable option was celibacy. In 1999, as gay issues came increasingly to the fore in political debate and court cases, the Annual Council voted a new “Seventh-day Adventist Position Statement on Homosexuality” that was more sweeping and negative than the one added to the Church Manual in 1985. This was revised in 2012:
“Seventh-day Adventists believe that sexual intimacy belongs only within the marital relationship of a man and a woman. This was the design established by God at creation … Throughout Scripture this heterosexual pattern is affirmed. The Bible makes no accommodation for homosexual activity or relationships. Sexual acts outside the circle of a heterosexual marriage are forbidden; …For these reasons Seventh-day Adventists are opposed to homosexual practices and relationships. …we also believe that by God’s grace and through the encouragement of the community of faith, an individual may live in harmony with the principles of God’s Word.”
As the new millennium dawned, Adventism became directly involved in the raging political debates. In February 2000, the president of the Pacific Union and his Religious Liberty specialist published articles in the union paper urging Californian members to support Proposition 22, which was designed to ensure that California need not recognize same-sex marriages when and if they became legal in other states. Alan Reinach, the Religious Liberty director, added, “We need not sit on the sidelines on this issue, assuring ourselves that Adventists avoid political issues…. We can assist in efforts to educate our neighbors, and to get the word out, as well as urging our own church members to vote.” Reinach became much more frequent and virulent in his statements than his counterparts at the GC. In May 2000, as Vermont was in the process of adopting legislation that recognized civil unions between same-sex couples, officials of the Atlantic Union and the North New England Conference raised their voices in opposition to it. Similarly, when courts in Canada began to move toward recognizing same-sex marriages, the Religious Liberty director there declared that “Adventists have a responsibility to make their voices heard on this issue.”
In April 2003, Reinach opposed legislation in California that would have required organizations supplying goods and services to the state to provide the same benefits to domestic partners as to married couples because it did not exempt Christian organizations. He launched a petition against the bill and requested that churches make announcements urging that members sign it. Adventists were allied with Mormons, Protestant Fundamentalists, many Pentecostals, conservative Catholics, and other elements of the religious right in their stance. Their opposition failed.
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court had shocked such Adventist officials when, in Lawrence v. Texas, it overturned a Texas sodomy statute on the grounds that it did not treat homosexual and heterosexual persons equally. When Canada added disparagement of “sexual orientation” to its list of hate crimes, the Adventist News Network reported that pastors there were afraid that their preaching against homosexuality could result in them falling afoul of the law.
After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage there in 2004, Reinach attacked the ruling and suggested that Adventists support legislation designed to override that decision. Adventists committed to the long-held position of separation between church and state saw such statements as a remarkable change in the church’s position.
Meanwhile, a number of cities had begun to perform same-sex marriages, attracting a great deal of attention from the media. These developments, together with the growing number of nations considering the legalization of same-sex unions, led the GC Administrative Committee in March 2004 to issue a “Seventh-day Adventist Response to Same-Sex Unions — A Reaffirmation of Christian Marriage.” This restated the church’s narrow position on homosexuality.
The official positions announced by church leaders became narrower and more polarizing over time. Although they often declared that all people, including homosexuals, are children of God and that abuse, scorn, and derision aimed at them were unacceptable, the dominant tone was an insistence that gay and lesbian Adventists lead celibate lives.
Many Kinship members worship in local Adventist churches on nearly every continent, despite the fact that some of them must not share who they really are.
In 2008, when the Mormon Church secretly funded the campaign supporting Proposition 8, which temporarily ended same-sex marriage in California, Reinach, the Religious Liberty director in the Pacific Union, was outspoken in his support of it. However, a web-based group organized by religion teachers at Loma Linda and La Sierra universities put forward a petition opposing the measure. This created a stir, for it was new and unexpected. Reinach scrambled to launch an opposing petition. The GC, under President Jan Paulson, chose to stay out of the issue.
In 2010, Ted Wilson, the son of Neal Wilson, became president of the GC. Knowing that he would garner little support from the developed world, he had used his travel in the developing world during the previous year to attract support there by voicing opposition to the ordination of women and to accepting homosexual members. Once elected, it became clear that his opposition was to sexually active homosexuals, including any living in committed relationships.
In 2012 the GC Executive Committee voted a statement on same-sex unions:
“The institutions of marriage and family are under attack and facing growing centrifugal forces that are tearing them apart …Homosexuality is a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world. While everyone is subject to fallen human nature, we also believe that by God’s grace and through the encouragement of the community of faith, an individual may live in harmony with the principles of God’s Word …God’s Word that transcends time and culture does not permit a homosexual lifestyle.”
In 2015, the Adventist Seminary approved this statement: “All persons, including practicing homosexuals, should be made to feel welcome to attend our churches, while non-practicing gay persons should be welcomed into membership and church office.” Soon afterwards, the North American Division (NAD), at its annual meeting, voted a statement that made the same distinction that any LGBT Adventist could be a member and hold any church office including that of elder, provided that he/she was not sexually active: “those with same-sex orientation, who conform to biblical teachings about sexual behavior, may fully participate in the life of the Adventist Church.” The statement also insisted that “Seventh-day Adventist Church employees are not to officiate, perform, or have an active, participatory role in same-sex wedding ceremonies.” These rules were especially likely to impact Adventists living in committed relationships, while those remaining closeted and having promiscuous sex with passing strangers were much less likely to attract attention. The position adopted was likely, then, to encourage the kind of behavior foreign to biblical principles.
In 2017, the GC finally issued a rather confusing “Statement on Transgenderism.” This recognized a “contemporary trend …to reject the biblical gender binary (male and female) and replace it with a growing spectrum of gender types.” However, it warned that
“the desire to change or live as a person of another gender may result in biblically inappropriate lifestyle choices …God created humanity as two persons who are respectively identified as male and female in terms of gender. …As long as transgender people are committed to ordering their lives according to the biblical teachings on sexuality and marriage they can be members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. …[However] because the Bible regards humans as wholistic entities and does not differentiate between biological sex and gender identity, the Church strongly cautions transgender people against sex reassignment surgery and against marriage, if they have undergone such a procedure.”
The Adventist Church’s attitude toward its LGBT members should be understood as part of a larger trend toward fundamentalism in the society that it is in tune with. It is part of the larger picture of societal polarization in many countries, including the US. Religion itself is seen increasingly as allied with the political right; in the US, Evangelicals are perhaps the most fervent segment of President Donald Trump’s base. Moreover, hope for change based on the far more accepting attitudes of younger generations is diluted by the fact that these same generations are far less likely to be attracted to organized religion. Many churches in the NAD have no millennials attending, leaving conservative members of older generations in total control.
In March 2014, GC President Ted Wilson sponsored a “summit” titled “In God’s Image: Scripture, Sexuality and Society,” in Capetown, South Africa. This was the first conference on this topic ever called by the official church. A presentation by speakers from “Coming Out” Ministries, who endorse the official church position that the only acceptable homosexual is a celibate homosexual (see below), was highlighted; they were also the only LGBT people invited to attend. Wilson showed that sexual orientation was for him a very negative issue. However, although some of the presentations were very negative toward LGBT people, Wilson could not control all the speakers. This conference brought the issue to the forefront; it was a significant moment for the Adventist Church.
Adventist Ministries to Homosexuals
In 1995, Pacific Press published My Son, Beloved Stranger, which recounted the story of a mother’s distress on realizing that her son was gay and the events that followed. The mother, Carrol Grady, was well known in the church, for she was married to a pastor and both had worked at the GC for years. Although she initially published under a pseudonym, the book resulted in invitations for her to speak at Adventist meetings and to publish articles in church-related magazines. Her experience with her son had led her to realize that Adventist parents of gay or lesbian children had nowhere to turn for support. She started a newsletter, “Someone to Talk To . . .”, in 1996, and a support group by the same name for families and friends of Adventist gays and lesbians in 1999; she launched a website in 2000. When Grady decided to retire from her post after twenty years at the helm, she passed the baton to a pastor and wife who were parents of a transgender daughter.
A variety of “change ministries” promoting celibacy for gay Adventists emerged around the end of the millennium. The most prominent has been “Coming Out” Ministries (COM), formed in 2010 by three men with LGBT pasts. A fourth person, a woman, joined them sometime later. Their approach is to share their personal stories with those “struggling with sexuality, identity, or brokenness,” and to present Jesus “as the source of hope, healing, and lasting victory.” They state that they reject “reparative therapy,” but they do hold up the possibility of becoming heterosexual and marrying — which has been achieved by one of the four speakers; however, their main thrust is toward celibacy.
COM conducts meetings in Adventist churches and academies, where its speakers tell their own stories, which feature wild promiscuity and involvement in drugs and alcohol. These personal histories are portrayed as typical of all LGBT people. In a presentation in Asheville, NC, in 2018, I found them out of touch with the diversity of LGBT people and the behavioral trends among them over time, and therefore both false and offensive. In the two academies near Asheville, attendance by students was made compulsory; the LGBT students were so distressed by the experience that some were reported to have become suicidal.
COM was embraced by the Ted Wilson GC administration, for its message is in tune with his. They were the only “LGBT” people featured at the GC-sponsored 2014 global conference on homosexuality in South Africa, which was attended by 350 delegates from all divisions of the world church. It has also been embraced by other conservative Adventist-related organizations such as the television network 3ABN. “Journey Interrupted,” a documentary released in 2016 that also tells their stories, received the imprimatur of the GC when it was shown at Fall Council in September 2016. It has since been shown widely, such as at the GYC convention in December 2016, the NAD Ministerial Convention in January 2017, the Adventist Seminary in March 2017, and in several other countries.
The stories of the three older men featured in this group reflect the experience of some gay men, several decades ago: they were closeted, promiscuous, self-hating, and involved with alcohol and illegal drugs. I had a real problem with their presentation of this as the typical gay experience in an era where many LGBT couples, especially Christian couples, now form monogamous, committed relationships, and marry legally. However, the ill-informed church leaders evidently want to believe that their biographies are still a truthful depiction of the lives of LGBT Adventists.
COM has lost two of its speakers recently. I was told that one of the founders resigned because he failed to maintain a celibate record; the woman also resigned for “personal reasons.” Consequently, the COM website now offers only two speakers, and the organization has lost credibility. They found that marrying their beliefs to last-generation perfectionism was not sustainable.
I was given the information about a COM founder having had a sexual “fall” in an interview. Since I was not sure to what extent this had been publicized, I thought hard before deciding to mention it. I decided that if one of the COM founders can no longer say he has been celibate, that is relevant for people to know. It is obvious to me that for such a gay person, even a senior, trying desperately to be celibate is asking a lot of oneself, and that proclaiming one’s celibacy as an example to lure others to that path must increase the pressure. So I feel for him. But I, and lots of others, were oppressed by hearing their testimony and their judgment on our lives. I know from my own history that asking God again and again to help us to change orientation or be celibate, and then failing again and again, and hating ourselves as a result, is a truly miserable experience. When I found love it was an enormous blessing — I understood God better as a result, for God is love. My years of unsuccessful prayer to be changed, from age 18–34 — a total of 16 years! — were torture. Instead of trying to set up untold numbers of similar trajectories among Adventist youth, the church should let us show them how to create loving, committed relationships and to use those as examples of similar relationships with Jesus. The COM message, which it proclaims with GC backing, that being celibate is the only way an LGBT person can please God, is abusive.
During these decades, SDA Kinship grew more rapidly than previously, both in North America and internationally. Its total membership in January 2020 stood at 3,311 in 79 countries; 2,033 (61.4%) of these were in North America. Kinship supports committed relationships among its members, and its meetings and activities provide opportunities for gay and lesbian Adventists to meet one another and pursue such relationships. It also nurtures, without judging, all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons who approach it. Most members are Adventist or of Adventist background, with most of its non-Adventist members being partners of Adventists. Kinship’s spiritual message, which has often brought encouragement and healing to homosexuals who felt estranged from God and rejected by their church, is that God loves and accepts them the way they are. Its worship services at Kampmeeting are moving experiences, for not only are the sermons addressed directly to their needs, but they are the only services where many of its members feel welcomed.
The Adventist Press
The official church periodicals were largely silent about homosexuality until the 1990s, apart from the earlier articles in the youth magazine, Insight, by Colin Cook, and those in Ministry, publicizing and then attempting to rehabilitate him. However, some magazines that were addressed to particular audiences became more willing to publish articles that addressed homosexuality and related issues. While a few broadened the issues addressed, all stayed within the official behavioral guidelines of the church.
In 1992, Insight published a major article, “Redeeming Our Sad Gay Situation: A Christian Response to the Question of Homosexuality,” authored by Christopher Blake, its editor. Blake admitted that the church should have issued a public apology following the collapse of the Quest Learning Center and that it had not moved ahead with any other approach to help gay and lesbian church members. In many respects, the article represented an advance in understanding, especially in its sections titled “Nobody Chooses to Be Homosexual,” “‘Gay Bashing’ Is Never Acceptable, Especially for Christians,” “Many Fears about Homosexuality Are Irrational,” “Homosexuals Are Not by Nature Necessarily Promiscuous or Child Molesters,” “Changing One’s Homosexual Orientation Is Difficult and Rare,” and “Homosexuals Can Be Genuine, Model Christians.” However, the article defined such model Christians as those who “battle against their orientation all their lives” because “homosexual activity is sinful” and cannot be condoned.
Insight published several more articles dealing with homosexuality in subsequent years, but these were much less adventurous and were careful not to contravene the official church position.
An article by a mother of a gay son writing under a pseudonym appeared in Women of Spirit in 2000. She told of traveling to meet her son’s partner for the first time and of finding herself eating with three gay guys and a lesbian, who unexpectedly asked her about her faith and church. Warming to her responses, one commented that he knew little about Christianity, but would like to learn more. He then asked, “Could I go to your church? Would they be like you?” She reported that she replied: “No, Jed, my church isn’t ready for you yet.”
In November 1996, Ministry, the periodical addressed to Adventist clergy, published an issue that addressed the question “What do homosexuals need from a pastor?” All articles stayed within the officially recommended behavioral guidelines for homosexuals. The lead article stated that it was essential to recognize the difference between orientation and behavior and urged that pastors and churches “be both prophetically clear and genuinely compassionate”; that is, it held that sexual orientation was probably fixed, but LGBT Adventists should choose to be celibate.
As the issue of same-sex marriage became politically prominent in the United States, the tone of some articles in church publications became much more strident. In October 2003, for example, Roy Adams published an editorial in the Adventist Review, the “official church paper.” Titled “Marriage under Siege,” it referred to “the concerted push for full acceptance by a well-heeled, well-financed homosexual lobby, the media falling all over itself to push the agenda.” After listing the overturning of the Texas anti-sodomy law and the acceptance of same-sex marriage by the Netherlands and Belgium and its advance through the courts in Canada and Massachusetts, it posed the question, “What is to be our stance as a Church?” Declaring that “the spiritual crisis of the last days” was here, that we were seeing “a brazen, deliberate, concerted attack on the three foundational pillars of the book of Genesis: Creation, Sabbath, and …marriage,” Adams asserted that in spite of the historic embrace of the separation of church and state by Adventists, “Silence is not an option. The stakes are too high …This is the time for faith communities to speak out.”
In 2004, an issue of Liberty set a similar tone. This was surprising, given that the publication’s historic purpose was to promote religious freedom and, in the United States, the separation of church and state.
In contrast, the progressive Adventist independent periodicals, Spectrum and Adventist Today, together with their websites, played very different and significant roles. During the 1980s, Spectrum informed its readers about the emergence of the gay civil rights movement within Adventism and the response of the church. It covered SDA Kinship’s first Kampmeeting in detail, the approach of the church-funded “change ministry” and its collapse amid scandal, the impact of HIV/AIDS on gay Adventists in North America, and the failure of the suit brought by the GC against Kinship. In 2008, it completed an ambitious and important project: the publication of the book Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives. This told stories of LGBT Adventists and of their parents, discussed biomedical, ethical, and social science perspectives, including a history of the evolution of Adventist responses to its LGBT members, and presented discussions by Adventist biblical and theological scholars that were very different from the official church understanding. In the new century, both Spectrum and Adventist Today and their websites broadened their coverage considerably, opening the door to an understanding of the lives and problems of LGBT Adventists, including those who are transgender and intersexed. Both became supportive of treating them as brothers and sisters. They also covered the findings of major studies detailing how Adventist families have responded to their LGBT children, and significant theological pieces helping people to understand the real meaning of the few biblical texts usually invoked against them. They have also challenged Adventists to treat LGBT Adventists as Christ would. Spectrum has published a total of forty-seven LGBT-related articles, twenty-three since 2000, and its website over eighty, all in the latter period; Adventist Today has published twenty-nine articles in just the last four years.
Ronald Lawson is a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, and a sociologist studying urban conflicts and sectarian religions. He is retired from Queens College, CUNY, and now lives in Loma Linda, CA.
Main image credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash / Spectrum. All in-line images courtesy of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International.
This article originally appeared in the current Spectrum print journal, volume 48, issue 4.
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