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Student Series: Homosexuality and the Adventist Campus – La Sierra

This post continues our weekend Student Series: Homosexuality and the Adventist Campus.

I cannot forget the day when, after my Christian Theology class at Southern Adventist University, I overheard two of my fellow Theology majors talking about homosexuals in the church, and one of them said, “If they want to be Christians, let them join the Episcopal Church.” I reflected on this for a moment, and considered that this was a person who believed that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the remnant church, and that he also believed that any Catholic or Anglo-Catholic Church was a part of the Babylon of Revelation.

I then understood what he was really saying: “As far as I’m concerned, homosexuals can go to hell.”

That was last year, and what was then a theology student is now a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist church.

It was not too long after that experience that I found myself sitting in front of a couple of hundred students (and some faculty; only one from the School of Religion) on a panel with three other students, discussing the theological and ministerial question of homosexuality. We came to the table as heterosexuals with homosexual friends, as religion students who cared about people as much as we cared about truth, and as Adventists challenging our church and school to find a way to minister to “the least” among us.

My role was to argue the position that homosexuality was unbiblical and therefore sinful; this included sex acts between non-committed people of the same sex as well as sexual, loving, monogamous relationships between two people of the same sex. After the theological discussion, we discussed how our university and church communities should relate to homosexuals. While we had represented divergent theological positions, as a panel we agreed to an ethic of inclusion, respect and love irrespective of sexual orientation. This caused quite a reaction.

This could be explained at length, but I will be brief. Here are a few examples of how Southern reacted:

Positive reactions:

  1. Several students were excited to see SAU having an open discussion about something controversial.
  2. We received a few emails from LGBT students on campus, sharing that we had offered them some hope for returning to church.
  3. The School of Religion, which had earlier been unwilling to involve themselves in our discussion, became willing to talking about the issue, and a week later held a similar discussion.

Negative reactions:

  1. The School of Religion building was vandalized.
  2. Certain faculty members began a campaign against us. (Of particular interest to me was when one professor referred to me as the “supposedly conservative one,” and later called me a servant of the devil.)
  3. One theology student wore a self-made tee-shirt the next day partially quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9: “Do not be deceived…homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God.” No one asked him to change his shirt.
  4. Several students in the School of Religion confronted us.
  5. A Campus Safety officer called my parents to ask them if I was a homosexual, because apparently it is strange for a heterosexual to speak on behalf of homosexuals.

For some time after this, I had a sense of regret about participating in this discussion. Certainly in preparing for it I learned much about the complexity of human sexuality, and was made aware of the wide range of theological ideas about it. Yet what did we accomplish? I am still unable to answer that question fully. What I can speak to, however, are some of the reflections I have had since then. I now attend La Sierra University, and the flavor of this campus is quite different than that of Southern.

Stepping out of the Collegedale bubble into a larger, more diverse one here in Riverside has enabled me to look back on my experience at Southern with better understanding than I had when I was there; likewise, coming from SAU has helped me to discern the different approach that La Sierra University has taken.

When I came to La Sierra, it was about a month before the elections. In discussing politics, if people weren’t talking about Barack Obama (or puzzling over Sarah Palin) they were talking about one thing: Proposition 8. It quickly became evident that LSU has several voices willing to engage the theological question, and also willing to push for ethical action on behalf of others. While Gregory King, the dean of the School of Religion at Southern, endorsed “Adventists for Proposition 8,” several faculty members (including Fritz Guy, John R. Jones and Sam Leonor) at La Sierra endorsed “Adventist Against Prop 8.” And while none of these names officially represent their institutions of employment, the fact remains that this demonstrates that the religious and academic leaders at LSU have a different vision for how the Seventh-day Adventist church should relate to LGBTs in their community than those leaders at SAU.

But it isn’t just politics. David Ferguson, Fritz Guy and David Larson edited the book Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives, in which both John Jones and Fritz Guy argued that the church should not look on all forms of homosexuality as sinful, but should affirm and embrace same-sex couples. Two other La Sierra University faculty members were contributors, and they critically reflected on Guy’s and Jones’ arguments. (I should note that René Drumm, Chair of the Social Work department at SAU also contributed to the book.)

La Sierra University has an atmosphere that allows students to explore questions because the faculty are themselves engaged in dialogue. Ironically, however, student dialogue at La Sierra is far less common than it is at Southern. I suspect that students at SAU appreciate discussion more because there discussion is controversial and can have real consequences, whereas at LSU the students take free inquiry for granted at times. For example, when my friends and I, in forming our panel discussion at Southern, approached the School of Religion and asked them to be a part of the project, the response was, “What’s to talk about?” and then they declined the invitation to be involved. One faculty member at La Sierra, when talking to me about the prospect of a discussion like that at LSU, said, “I doubt many students here would give a damn.”

It is at this point that I believe the real problem comes to light. When we juxtapose the student apathy at LSU despite the open-mindedness and supposedly ‘liberal’ faculty, and the interested environment at SAU despite the closed-mindedness and supposedly ‘conservative’ faculty, it becomes clear that it is not enough simply to talk about homosexuality and the Bible. We must learn to humanize all people, across the lines of ideology, race, gender and sexuality, and to be intentional about carrying out the mission of God in the world. A necessary part of that is to work toward unity. That means listening to marginal voices on all issues. At a place like Southern, the voices of Fritz Guy and John Jones are marginal and need to be heard. And at La Sierra, we must listen to the Greg Kings and Steve Bauers, who are too often dismissed as fundamentalists. If we worship the same God, then surely we realize that we cannot carry out the mission of God as the body of Christ if this body is divided. But no, Christ is not divided.

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