As someone who is now known in Adventist circles as an advocate for listening to the stories of LGBT people of faith, particularly in the context of the church (see "Seventh-Gay Adventists"), I've had a lot of conversations with conservative Adventists who are sure that the Bible is unequivocal in its clear condemnation of homosexuality. And I truly respect and understand that there are a diverse range of theological paradigms in the Adventist church (and the wider world of Christianity) right now around this topic. Earnest and sincere seekers read the same texts differently. Earnest and sincere seekers love the LGBT people in their lives and wrestle with how best to honor their witness, and I know and love good people on all sides of this conversation. So I'm genuinely happy to converse with conservatives, liberals, seculars, and the devout about these questions, and I actually rejoice that so many different people are chiming in now — it's a sign that our film has really reached a wide audience. But this letter is written specifically for my conservative/traditionalist friends with a hope and a prayer that it will be received with the spirit of friendship and dialogue I hold as I write it.
You Aren't the Only Ones Who Read the Bible Seriously
I admit that after four-and-a-half years of paying close attention to this conversation, I'm tired of conservative Christians assuming that they are the only ones who take the Bible seriously. People like to quote scripture at me both as if I've never read it for myself and as a weapon. I do read the Bible. I do pray for Divine guidance. I too am speaking and acting out of my Christian conviction — and so are LGBT people of faith, who also are a diverse bunch wrestling to know God's will. I've had an increasing number of what I term "Bible Drive-bys" on our film's Facebook page (Seventh-Gay Adventists) from folks claiming to be Christian yet spewing hate, ignorance, and assumptions, and I'd like to address a few big themes that come up.
Theological Unity Is Not Required
First, I want to make clear that I don't expect everyone to be on the same page theologically in order to engage with true sincerity. The space that I've tried very hard to nurture with our documentary screenings and discussions is about listening, sharing, and learning to love even if we all aren't sure what to believe when it comes to same-sex love. We can love each other through theological differences, and there are incredible examples of this modeled powerfully in our film. But in order to love each other through tough theological differences, it takes those who have historically been in the more powerful position (that is heterosexuals and cisgender individuals) getting off our assumed position of superiority and recognizing that others have their own walk with God. I'm not sure why, but recognizing that others can have their own valid walk with God that doesn't look exactly how we might imagine it should if we were in their shoes seems to be one of the hardest of all tasks. Maybe that's why Jesus had to make unconditional love a new commandment. It just doesn't seem to come naturally to most of us.
Christians Everywhere are Starting to Actually Listen
We've observed a huge shift happening in conservative religious spaces as we've traveled around for screenings (a recent article in The Atlantic covers this "quiet revolution" in churches brilliantly). Most conservative Christians (especially older evangelicals) still wrestle with their theological views around same-sex love and commitment but don't want to exclude people anymore. And they are tired of Christianity seeming to focus exclusively on this one thing. As Brian McLaren says, "Jesus didn't say that they'll know you are my disciples by your firm stance on divisive social issues." A recent reflection by a bisexual Adventist college student about the transformation space of listening (and even outright apologies) that happened after a recent screening in Collegedale, TN, "When a Redneck Loved a Queer" captures the shift well.
A lot of Christians are shifting their focus to love, regardless of small theological differences. These are people like my mom who realize that it was Jesus who said, "Go and sin no more," not any human. So, even if same-sex love is the equivalent of adultery in God's eyes (and even my mom realizes that's no longer assumed in a lot of sincere Christian circles anymore), it's God's job to judge, not ours. Ours is to love.
I don't believe we have to have unity theologically about this topic or many others to live and act in love. We sure don't about a lot of other things. In the Adventist church, there are still big debates about women's ordination, creation/origins atonement theories, the nature of the trinity, worship styles in church, divorce/remarriage etc., etc. But for some reason it's being LGBT that is what gets people excluded, and most of the conservatives I encounter want that rejection and exclusion to end. They've heard the suicide statistics, they've witnessed the pain, and they often now know someone who is LGBT and realize their stereotypes don't match the person they know and love. That's exactly why we see such transformative "before/after" looks on people's faces at screenings. Now they know someone, and that is life-changing, even if they still have big and valid questions.
Please Stop Using Adultery as an Analogy
And to those who are still convinced that same-sex love is always a sin, let me urge you to please, please not use adultery as a comparison when you speak of LBGT people in committed relationships (and marriage in much of the country now). Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network, had a great post about this a while back that really explains it well. As he says, I get what you mean, but two people in a marriage who are choosing to commit to each other are very different from someone cheating on their spouse, even if in your mind both are sin. Few heterosexuals would want their love and commitment compared to something that is harmful, deceitful, and exploitive. And, more importantly, it shows a shallow understanding of what orientation is. As he says, you commit adultery, you don't commit "gay." Adultery is an act (one that hurts another person), while being gay isn't an act, although too often Christians reduce LGBT people to a sex act.
To me, I think it's helpful for someone with a conservative theological paradigm to instead think about divorced/remarried heterosexuals whose marriage didn't end because their first spouse was unfaithful. That's a whole lot of people in the church today who actually used to be excluded, disfellowshipped, and shamed. Jesus was really clear about his (strict) grounds for divorce, and we have changed our attitudes, not on paper, mind you, but in practice, both for practical and compassionate reasons. If we enforced the Biblical view of divorce we'd not have anyone left to help run the church these days. And we also now realize that, while it might not be ideal, there are some marriages that do more harm than good, and we need to make the best of it. Technically, a remarried heterosexual whose spouse didn't commit adultery is living in sin, just as conservatives would say a gay or lesbian couple is. But we don't ask questions of heterosexual couples joining our church, and nobody would expect a remarried heterosexual couple to break up their family (what if they have kids?) before being a part of our church life or sharing their spiritual gifts. I don't think it's too much to ask that churches treat their LGBT members like they treat their heterosexual members.
Our Understanding of Scripture has Always Been Growing
There is a profound shift happening today with marriage, and there actually always has been if we pay attention to history. Who did Adam and Eve's children marry? I don't think we'd want to literally apply that principle today, even though it's Biblical. And most of the great heroes of the Bible had many wives. And my own marriage (I'm a heterosexual mom married for 15 years to my college sweetheart) didn't exist in Biblical times. I would have been the property first of my father and then of my husband without any equal standing legally or morally. Let's not forget that the Bible allows women who were shown not to be virgins on their wedding to be stoned or for rapists to get off the hook if they just married the victim!
We do the scriptures and their wonderful guidance for our lives a disservice when we act as if we have never reinterpreted the Bible as we grow in our understanding of God and the people around us. That's what we should do, and in the Adventist church, we have an entire doctrine around this concept, the doctrine of Present Truth. When I explain this to non-Adventists, I say that we were founded with the principle that we should always be open to God's leading when we are ready and able to understand new truth. That's what we've done with the role of women and slavery. The Bible is not anti-slavery. And yet, we now would emphatically teach that slavery is morally wrong. We have changed our interpretation even though the actual words didn't change. And a growing number of Christians are earnestly wondering if we have gotten our long-held assumptions about sexual orientation wrong just like we did with these other issues that were "clear" for so long.
That doesn't mean that there aren't valid questions. I get that. But I'd ask you to please remember that others have also wrestled with scripture, God, and their own experiences. And their perspectives and spiritual journeys are equally valid. We can ask questions. We can wrestle. But in order to not mistreat others in the name of God, we must do that wrestling with a listening and learning space that acknowledges the experiences of our LGBT brothers and sisters who are finally starting to be seen and heard.
Move Beyond a Theological Debate to the Real Questions
Also, let me urge conservatives (and progressives too) to move beyond a theological debate. Go ahead and wrestle with the few "clobber texts" we have to deal with, but put that on the back burner. Make the real question that we focus on the one about how we treat people even if we aren't in 100 percent agreement. There are close to 3,000 verses in the Bible about how we treat each other, especially those on the margins like the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. What if Christians could be known for having the same priorities that God seems to have?
The various church officials (in every church) are always wanting to plan another committee to reaffirm their theological stance. Assigning committees is the default reaction of hierarchies, probably because they feel safe there. But that's not where the practical and pastoral questions really are. How do we treat each other? Where does a committed gay/lesbian couple, who have been together for 20 years, take their kids to go to Sabbath School when they want their kids to grow up Adventist? Where does an LGBT person share their spiritual gifts? It's unrealistic (and actually cruel) to expect every gay Adventist to leave their families to follow the policy on paper before being a part of the community of faith. And we are all so much richer when our circle has diversity! Churches that are truly welcoming (and there are a growing number) are absolutely marvelous spaces because everyone, gay, straight, and in-between, feels okay showing up as their authentic selves instead of with their "church facade" on. When we welcome one historically marginalized demographic, suddenly everyone else feels more welcomed too.
Don't Just Be Biblical (Also Follow Jesus)
As Herb Montgomery recently preached, "It's not enough to just be Biblical. We have to also be followers of Jesus." And following Jesus is much, much harder than just not doing certain things written on a tablet. The law is largely about what not to do. But following Jesus is active. It's about doing love, justice, and mercy. Jesus' ministry was so radical and threatening to the authorities of his day that he was crucified. Just re-read the Sermon on the Mount for a reminder of what it means to go about Kingdom work. It's about radical love and inclusivity, even to those who those in the audience had heard were okay to exclude (like the occupying Roman enemies).
And when you read Paul, read all of Paul (the very next chapter after the infamous clobber text in Romans 1 says that those who judge others are worse that all of the vices listed in the previous chapter). As another preacher taught me recently, you shouldn't stop reading Paul until you get to a "Therefore" because Paul's intent was always to indict everyone, including himself, and call all into a reminder of our need for grace.
While we are at it, go ahead and read about the huge debate breaking apart the first-century Christian church: circumcision. Not requiring new converts to be circumcised absolutely went against everything first-century Christians, who were primarily Jews, had been taught in their scriptures. It went against a direct command from God. And yet, they were seeing God's spirit poured out among un-circumcised gentiles, and they had to reckon with that. An Adventist pastor who came to a screening of our film recently said to me afterwards. "I see God at work in the lives of the people in your film, and I don't know what to do with that. But I can see they are seeking Christ like I am, and I don't want them excluded from church."
We Must Love Well
That is exactly what we are called to do when we see God at work in people and places we didn't expect. I'm not expecting us all to have theological unity anytime soon — maybe ever — but we must wrestle. And in the meantime, we must love well. That's where our energy needs to be directed. How do we love well, especially those currently on the margins? After all, that's what Jesus and Paul say is the most important thing:
"Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code — don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other 'don’t' you can think of — finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love." - Romans 13: 8-10
Daneen Akers is the co-producer/director of SEVENTH-GAY ADVENTISTS: A FILM ABOUT FAITH ON THE MARGINS, which has screened over 75 times in the last 16 months at film festivals, churches, school, and other community spaces. They just launched a crowd-funding campaign through Kickstarter to raise funds to produce the DVD version of the film for everyone to share. It's a 30-day window and an all-or-nothing platform, so they are actively seeking to let those who have been following news of this film for the last few years know that now is the time for the DVD. It's really pre-ordering your copies of the film at a discount (with other perks) to raise the funds to actually make it. Please visit the SGA film's campaign at: http://www.sgamovie.com/kickstarter.