From Principles to Practice (LGBT 21)

The three biblical principles outlined in the previous blog are often in tension with each other when an institution faces real-life issues. People and relationships are messy things. Balancing biblical integrity with biblical compassion may seem easy in principle but they are not easy in practice. In everyday life, one often faces situations where it seems one has to choose between compassion and other biblical values. Jesus faced many such situations and overcame them with a brilliance that most of us don’t have (see John 8:3-11 as an example). And it gets much more difficult at the institutional level. The tension between integrity and compassion is quickly compounded when institutional policies and legal complications enter into the mix. Let me share three scenarios of how the three biblical principles could be applied to specific situations.

Supposed you have a top-rank candidate for one of your graduate programs. But you do a little research online and in social media. And you find out that the prospective student has not only adopted a gay identity, but has been a leading and disruptive campus activist for LGBT issues at the undergrad level. Should you deny the student admission even though his or her grades and test scores are at the head of your prospective student list? Denying admission would not be a problem with the law in most places, since academic institutions are allowed a lot of freedom in terms of who they admit or deny to their programs. Compassion would not be an issue in this case, as the student would likely be able to get into a similar program elsewhere. So following the church’s teaching in denying admission to a gay activist would not be in tension with the other two principles in this case. But one program director handled a similar situation in a different way. She invited the prospective student in for a personal interview. Among other things, she shared the institution’s values regarding marriage and sexuality and asked the prospective student whether abiding by these while at the school would be a problem. The student said “no,” was admitted, and behaved in a manner consistent with the institution’s values throughout the program.

Suppose an Adventist health care entity received an appeal from one of its nurses. The nurse discloses that she is legally married to a patient with late stage cancer being treated in the hospital. She requests that the hospital extend spousal health insurance benefits to the gay partner. The hospital could respond by firing the nurse (and terminating her own health care benefits), thereby also abandoning the dying spouse to minimal or no treatment. In many places firing the nurse would be considered discriminatory and therefore illegal. In some places denying insurance benefits to gay partners is also illegal. One could decide to do so anyway in the name of fidelity to the church’s values. But such an action would need to be weighed against the danger to the entire mission of the institution. Compassion in this case might be the biblical principle that breaks the impasse. As noted by Ellen White, when in doubt, err on the side of mercy. When thought through, it could be decided that extending insurance benefits to a gay spouse is probably not, in itself, a compromise of the church’s larger mission. Obviously, decisions like this are not easy and are best made by people who both know the Bible and are also close to the situation.

Suppose a student in medical school approached the dean and informed her that he would like to undergo a sex-change operation. The church is at the beginning stages of its explorations of the complicated issue of transgender, where the gender of the body and the brain are in conflict. At this point the church recommends that the best approach to “gender dysphoria” is counseling in order to help the person deal with the inner conflict and accept the physical gender of his or her birth. Sex-change surgery is a radical therapy and many who undergo such therapy regret it later and may be even more prone to suicide than transgender people in general. But counseling does not always resolve matters and most Christians see a difference between restorative surgery and physical mutilation. So an institution may not wish to reject a decision in favor of sex-change surgery that is made thoughtfully and prayerfully in consultation with specialists. But it might be wise for the student to drop out of med school, spend a year dealing with the outcomes of the surgery and the psychological challenges associated with it, and then return to school in a different class so the change will be less awkward for the student and less disruptive to other students.

Every situation is a little different and all require a great deal of prayer, counseling and careful weighing of the three biblical principles that apply most closely to matters related to LGBTIQ. By no means do I consider this series of blogs the last word. I have based my considerations on the best conservative biblical scholarship and scientific studies and also my own experience. It is my hope that opening such discussions with what thinking Adventists can agree on will provide a starting point for addressing areas of concern that are much less clear. There are many points at issue that faithful Adventists still disagree on. We have many things to learn and many, many to unlearn (CWE 33). But we need to be thinking intelligently about these issues and talking respectfully with each other. LGBTIQ people are children of God twice over. They are children of God by creation and children of God by redemption. They are souls for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15). May the rest of us view them through the just and compassionate eyes of God.

LGBTIQ and Adventist Institutions (LGBT 20)

There is no part of the church that finds these issues more challenging than the church’s educational and health care institutions. In health care there is the assumption that all people will be treated equally regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or gender. But what is perceived as equal treatment often seems to challenge the church’s biblical positions. In the educational arena you have large numbers of young people who grew up in a different environment on these issues than did those who are trying to educate them. Because of financial aid, accreditation, legal complications and state oversight, both health care and educational institutions are often hampered in their ability to apply a traditional approach to LGBTIQ issues even if they felt it was the right thing to do. As an administrator at Loma Linda University (which combines the challenges of both types of institution) I have experienced these challenges first hand. And there is no “one size fits all” in most situations. Having said that, it seems to me that there are three core biblical principles that need to be carefully consulted whenever an institution faces specific dilemmas in these matters. The three biblical principles follow:

1) Integrity/ Moral Purity. The leadership, mission and values of SDA educational and healthcare institutions need to be unashamedly Seventh-day Adventist. This means that core values such as integrity and purity/self-control must inform where the institutions stand in matters of gender and sexuality. To abandon core Adventist teachings in relation to marriage and sexuality for the sake of political or economic advantage would be a violation of personal and institutional integrity. The SDA Church affirms the biblical ideal that marriage in God’s eyes is between a man and a woman and that sexual activity between individuals who are unmarried falls short of God’s ideal. As I have discussed earlier, such a position is defensible, both biblically and experientially. Institutions that identify with the SDA Church should continue to teach and practice the church’s position regardless of legal standards they may be required to meet. But that is not the only biblical position health care and educational institutions need to affirm.

2) Compassion. Central to the campus at Loma Linda is a sculptural display that illustrates the story of the Good Samaritan. The teaching and healing ministry of Jesus calls Adventists “to make man whole.” The value of compassion, therefore, is at the core of the church’s mission. This means that the policies and practices of the church’s institutions must, as far as possible, express compassion for any who are hurting or disadvantaged. Many or most homosexuals did not choose their orientation, and people of God will sympathize with their unique struggles to achieve purity in a broken world. In the words of Rom. 13:10, “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (NIV). Likewise, the first rule of the health sciences and of education is to “do no harm.” Compassion toward the other, even when we do not share the same values, is fundamental to the mission and values of SDA institutions.

3) Legal Compliance. Adventist health care and educational institutions cannot avoid engaging the realities of the real world. In any case, Romans 13 also teaches us that the governing authorities of this world “have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1, ESV). To resist these authorities is to resist “what God has appointed” (Rom. 13:2, ESV). The leaders of the state are God’s servants for our good (Rom. 13:4). This means that actions of the state, even if they seem misguided or oppressive, may be used by God to teach us things we might not learn otherwise. So Adventist institutions need to comply with the laws of the land in which they serve, with the caveat of Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men” (ESV).

It seems to me that Adventist institutions should attempt to comply with the laws of the land to the degree possible in light of the first two principles. Exceptions to such legal compliance must be decided on a case by case basis in ongoing consultation with appropriate church leadership. The people of God, guided by the Holy Spirit, will seek to determine in the context of practical realities what it means to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17, ESV, cf. Matt. 22:21; Luke 20:25).

The Gray Areas of Sexual Expression (LGBT 19)

Over the decades there have been issues in relation to sexual expression that fall into the middle between the clearly acceptable and the clearly unacceptable. These are the “real” issues of the local church. And as time goes on the church has often felt the need to accommodate situations that are less than ideal. One example would be dysfunctional marriage. Certainly a dysfunctional marriage falls short of God’s ideal. And in a perfect world we probably wouldn’t want a pastor or an elder to serve if their own marriages are deeply under strain. But we have come to realize that there are no ideal marriages and that all marriages suffer from the consequences of sin. So the church has come to accept the reality that its leaders will have less than perfect marriages. A dysfunctional marriage, therefore, is not the death sentence for ministry that it might have been in the past.

Another challenging type of sexual expression has to do with marriage and divorce. At one time divorce and remarriage amost guaranteed that one’s service for the church was at an end. People were quickly censured and often even disfellowshiped on that account. And many felt justified by Scripture in taking such a position toward the divorced. But as divorce has claimed a larger and larger percentage of church members, people have also noticed in Scripture that there is an ideal and real. That God’s messengers (Moses, Jesus, Paul, Ellen White) lay out the ideal in principle, but the same messengers, when confronted with specific situations tended to be quite merciful. In light of this many churches and institutions, right or wrong, have taken a more redemptive approach to the divorced and remarried, even allowing second chances to those who seem to have genuinely repented. The church should never encourage divorce, except in dangerous situations (which are more common than people think), lifelong marriage is still the ideal. But there are situations where divorce is better than other options. As awareness of reality increases in the church, there is often a shift in what aspects of Scripture get noticed and these “gray areas” can look different over time. Whether this is a work of the Holy Spirit or a work of apostasy is subject to debate, but such shifts of understanding are evident in Scriptural narratives such as Acts 15. And such decisions are best made at the local level.

Another challenging area outside the western church is the problem of polygamy. What does a church do when a family presents itself for baptism and it becomes evident that the husband has more than one wife? Such a marriage is clearly contrary to the creation ideal, but was not uncommon among even the Old Testament saints like Abraham, Jacob and David. It is not an arrangement that should ever be encouraged in the church, the misery that polygamy causes is all too evident. But the practical issue is, how should the church relate to the various members of that family? Should baptism be refused to all unless they divorce? But if you consider that option, is it really OK for the church to be encouraging divorce? Should the women be baptized because they have only one spouse, while the husband is refused because he has several? Again, in many parts of the world, situations like this are very challenging and are best handled by those who know the people involved.

That brings me to the issue of the day. I think there is a general consensus among church leaders, at least, that LGBT people who choose a celibate lifestyle are welcome in the church and LGBT people who choose a life of promiscuity should not expect to be welcomed as members (people who try to do the right thing and fail from time to time are in a different category). But what should the church do about the reality of same-sex marriages? Isn’t lifelong commitment an improvement over promiscuity? Is it better for people to die alone than to be in the comforting presence of someone who loves and is committed to them? Is a violent or dysfunctional heterosexual marriage more desirable than a tender and gracious gay marriage? Should the laws and declarations of the state make a difference in how we look at things? What about a husband and father who undergoes a sex change but the marriage stays together? Do we now consider that a gay marriage? We would wish that things were less complicated. And in a simpler age it was easy to draw black and white lines in nearly all situations. But is that what Jesus would do?

At this point in history the church is unlikely to grant membership to people in same-sex marriages. But will that shift too as time and experience go by? My sense is that the younger generation is in a very different place on this issue than people of my generation. My generation largely grew up aloof from the struggles of LGBT people. We were told not to ask and they were told not to tell. So it was possible to act as if there were no issues. But my children grew up with LGBT friends and had many frank conversations with their friends about gender and sexuality, even in the context of Adventist academies and colleges. It is easier to exercise compassion when an issue becomes a face. And my children early on were in a different place than I was raised to be. Adventists everywhere are learning their way into this issue. In all that I say or write about the topic, I want to leave room for where my children and grandchildren will sense they need to be. And I certainly hope they continue to ask what Jesus would do in our place. How would the God who stooped down to wash the feet of Judas react if He found out Judas was gay? Something to think about.

Types of Sexual Expression (LGBT 18)

When it comes to sexual expression and the Bible, there are many things that are perfectly clear (in terms of the ideal), but there are some things that are not so clear. Let’s start with clarity on the positive side. First of all, sexual expression between a man and a woman in a healthy marriage is approved and even encouraged in the Bible. At its best, sexuality in the context of lifelong commitment is more satisfying because it deepens as the years go by (the ideal). It can lift a couple to the open gates of heaven in their love for each other. It was designed by God and is for our good. While Bible scholars continue to debate the meaning of the texts that address homosexuality, two things are clear in the Bible. Whenever heterosexual marriage is mentioned, it is always positive, approved by God. Whenever homosexual activity is mentioned, it is always in a negative context. Some might wish it were different, but we have to assume that the God who gave us the Bible knows better than we do how He designed us and how we can best function. A second, positive type of sexual expression is abstinence or celibacy. While such may not be advisable in some cases (1 Cor 7), where it is freely chosen and entered into as part of a person’s commitment to Christ, it is a valid choice with no spiritual consequences. The person’s sexual energies are diverted into the service of God and others. Churches know how to deal with people who exercise these two types of sexual expression.

The church also knows how to deal with many other forms of sexual expression. The Bible is clear that sexual promiscuity, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is destructive, with devastating consequences for the human personality and the ability to truly bond with other people. There can be no compromise on this issue. Many of the troubles that bring people to psychologists and counselors are rooted in the fallout that results from promiscuity. We do people no favors at all when we condone promiscuity. The same goes for sexual violence, which adds to the sexual fallout the damage that comes from forcibly violating another person’s body. Sexual violence is even more reprehensible than promiscuity. Churches also know how to deal with bestiality, where human beings express their sexuality with animals. I can’t imagine that being condoned in any religious community. But there is one type of sexual expression that is even more heinous than the others in this paragraph, sexual exploitation of children. The church is so concerned about this that in many parts of the world elaborate background checks are done before anyone can take responsibility for children. So the church has positive and negative clarity on many sexual issues.

But over the decades there have been issues in relation to sexual expression that fall into the middle between the clearly acceptable and the clearly unacceptable. These are often challenging and even painful. But local churches have to deal with one or another of them all the time. This is where we need to go next. Stay tuned.

Local Churches and Less Common Orientations (LGBT 17)

In the previous blog I have listed seven levels of deepening engagement any person can have with a local church:
1) Attendance
2) Participation
3) Membership
4) Local Leadership (unordained)
5) Local Leadership (ordained)
6) Teaching in the Church School
7) Ordained Minister

Let me lay out three of many possible scenarios that might confront a local church. I will not be offering opinions of what a local church should do, those decisions are best made at the local level. I will use these scenarios to illustrate some of the challenges churches and LGBT people face in engaging each other. These are the kinds of scenarios that churches will face more and more as LGBTIQ people “come out of the closet” and confess both their faith and their difficult circumstances in life. The first scenario is a situation where a person in the local church has a homosexual orientation, but whose identity is clearly in Christ and whose behavior and beliefs are in harmony with the church. Most churches I know would be completely comfortable with such a person attending and participating in church life. The challenge comes at levels three to seven. If most members believe that a homosexual orientation is, in itself, sin and rebellion, they would not be comfortable offering membership or any deeper level of engagement. But if orientation is not a choice in most cases and the person’s life and beliefs are in harmony with the church, why should that person be treated any differently than a heterosexual person with the same beliefs and behaviors? To do so could open the church to charges of discrimination, like churches that would deny membership to Blacks, Hispanics or Asians, who likewise have not chosen the characteristics that make them a target. So the crucial issue here is how people of faith understand orientation. Traditionally it was thought to be a choice, but if that belief is wrong, it can be grounds to justify abuse and discrimination, not things the church wants to be known for.

A second scenario is similar yet somewhat different. How should a church respond to a person who has a gay or lesbian identity, but it not “practicing” that identity in a sexual way at that point in time? As noted earlier, a Christian who embraces a genuinely gay identity is in a state of conflict between two masters. While many members of the church followers of Christ have a similar conflict, because of addiction, unwise choices or Laodicean lukewarmness, their struggles will usually not be in the open in quite that way they are in a person of gay or lesbian identity. While such a person may believe and behave in harmony with the church otherwise, many in the church may choose to draw the line on membership or even participation. But a church that does so had better be prepared to draw some lines on heterosexual identity issues as well (a person addicted to pornography in secret is just as conflicted in their identity, yet may continue to function at any of the seven levels of church engagement). To make an issue out of gay or lesbian identity and not address the issue of pornography seems like pure discrimination to me. The latter is just as much a spiritual identity crisis as the second scenario is.

The third scenario is a same-sex couple that is married according to the laws of the state. There is no hiding in the closet or secret relationship. How should the church relate to that? In the past, churches would not have faced this kind of issue, but now it is increasingly with us in many parts of the world. Should churches allow such couples to attend? To participate? If the same-sex marriage is the only issue in their relationship with the church, should a church consider membership or even leadership? Christians are law-abiding citizens. Does the approval of the state in this case, therefore, change anything? In other words, does state approval in such things matter? How much does it matter? Is it not better for people to be in a committed relationship than to be promiscuous? You may have a strong opinion on this from a distance. But when the issue has a face, it is the people with strong opinions (they would call them convictions) that often make things more difficult for all concerned.

Regardless of one’s view on these matters, churches that attract LGBT people have difficult questions to answer and the type of person they are dealing with is a crucial part of that. There are so many possible scenarios and nuances of scenarios that engagement in the local church is a matter best decided by the local church. Higher levels of the church can wrestle with theology and larger principles (which I have tried to address in this blog series), but the real challenge is how to wisely navigate the tension between doctrine and compassion with real people in a local church. When it is clear that a person knows and loves Christ, it affects how the church makes decisions regarding that person, and it should. But such decisions should never let go of the divine ideals. Those are the primary reasons to have a church in the first place.

LGBTIQ and the Local Church (LGBT 16)

In a sense, everything that we have covered in the first 15 blogs is just introduction. Doctrine is important, it provides a solid foundation for our thinking about the practical issues of everyday life. But on a controverted topic like this, what really counts is how these things are applied in the context of a local church. When you look into the eyes of real people with struggles that are different, yet Scripture indicates are similar to your own, the theories that seem so clear in abstract may not be as useful as one had hoped. I am grateful that in the SDA Church issues like church membership are reserved for the local church, which is closest to the situation. It is in the local church, where people are known truly and deeply, that decisions regarding faithfulness to Christ and adherence to the teachings of the church are best made. So let’s explore how the insights of Scripture, science and experience play out in some local church scenarios.

First of all, there are seven levels of possible engagement with the local church, each more fraught with potential consequences than the one before it. 1) Attendance at church services and others events of the church community. What kind of belief or behavior might cause a local church to exclude someone from even attending? Certainly if someone is known to be a serial killer or rapist, a church would need to protect its members by barring proximity for such a person. Under what circumstances should that apply to LGBT people? 2) Participation in church activities, such as leading games at a picnic, singing in the choir, involvement in Sabbath School activities, and playing instruments or leading the singing at worship. These levels of involvement raise the stakes over mere attendance. At this level there is real participation in a church community. 3) Membership. In the SDA Church membership is taken very seriously and individuals who are flagrantly violating sexual standards or promoting bizarre beliefs are likely to be denied baptism and membership. But what about an LGBT person who is celibate and clearly loves the Lord? Membership judgments in such cases should be made locally by mature Christians on the basis of the best biblical and scientific principles available.

4) Local Leadership (unordained). This involves things like teaching Sabbath school classes, chairing the Social Committee, or using specialized skills to lead out in work bees or construction projects. One would not need to be ordained to hold such positions, but churches would normally want someone taking on such leadership to be a member in good and regular standing and highly esteemed by the church. 5) Local Leadership (ordained). This kind of leadership involves offices like elder and deacon and clearly spiritual tasks like counseling, Bible studies, home visitations, and leading in worship. Ordination to these roles certainly implies a strong mutual commitment between a local church and an individual. 6) Teaching in Church Schools. Each level requires higher degrees of responsibility and includes more risk for the church, particularly in areas related to sexuality. Molding the minds of children is a sacred trust, not to be granted or entered into lightly. Normally the choice of teachers in church schools is not solely a decision of the local church, higher church authorities (conference) are rightly involved as well. 7) Ordained Minister. This is the highest level of responsibility and trust that any local church can participate in granting. Decisions regarding pastoral ministry are, therefore, made largely at higher levels, right up to the union (which is above the conference). Local churches can make decisions regarding who they wish to pastor their churches, but they choose out of a list of individuals who have already been vetted at higher levels. Having said this, one could argue that teaching in the church school might be a position of equal or even greater risk than the pastoral ministry.

What levels of involvement in local churches are appropriate for LGBTIQ people in light of the biblical, scientific and experiential data available to us today? Certainly people with intersex conditions have done nothing to cause the condition (unless they have willfully mutilated themselves). An intersex person’s beliefs and behaviors should be the only basis for determining their fitness for church engagement. Dealing with transgender persons could be much more complicated, as local churches may not have anyone who understands the various dynamics. I make no attempt in this series to speak directly to that complicated issue, which probably affects less than one per cent of the population. In this series I am primarily addressing people with gay and lesbian identities, or homosexual and bisexual orientations. How shall local churches address LGBT individuals who desire participation and membership in SDA churches?

Why Can’t They Just Pray It All Away? (LGBT 15)

Many will be troubled by the direction of my comments in the previous blogs. They assume that if LGBT people would only pray and commit themselves to Christ, their orientations would be taken away and they would become “normal” people. But there are some considerations we need to give attention to before applying these expectations in a real situation. First, in practice that happens rarely, if at all. I am aware of individuals who claim to have been “changed” by God and are now living a fulfilled, heterosexual life. I do not doubt their testimonies (although such testimonies are sometimes premature), and I am happy for them. But I know many, many people who never wanted to be gay and pray earnestly to be otherwise, but nothing seems to happen. I have heard their anguish and know that God hears them too. In my experience as a counselor and in the scientific studies I have observed (particularly those done by Bible believing Christians), orientation change is rare at best, and may simply reflect bisexuals, whose journey to change is considerably shorter than those with a full-bore homosexual orientation. In most cases, orientation truly seems as unchangeable as physical defects. If we would not encourage a one-legged person to pray for God to grow a new leg, we probably should not encourage a gay person to pray for a new orientation. Orientation is not sin. It is a consequence of the Fall that is likely to be with us until the Lord comes.

There is a theological basis that explains this reality, at least to some degree. Seventh-day Adventists believe in the inspiration of Ellen G. White. In her book Steps to Christ (and supported by the Bible), she describes a loving God who desires relationships of love with the creatures He has made. But genuine love cannot be forced, it must be freely chosen and freely given. To be free to love, means to be free also to not love or even to rebel. A loving God so respects the principle of freedom that He allows His creatures to rebel against Him and He also does not interfere in the consequences of that rebellion.

So we all suffer from the consequences of sin. Many of those consequences are directly related to the choices we ourselves have made. But many consequences are related to the choices others have made (such as abusers, murderers, rapists, salve-owners and the Holocaust). Not only so, many consequences of sin are collective to the whole human race; pollution, environmental disasters, birth defects and orientations that are contrary to God’s original design. While prayer can certainly change our hearts and our attitudes, it does not often remove the consequences of sin. To do so would be a limitation on human freedom, which would place a limitation on love. So we struggle for life and purity in the midst of our various orientations to sin. This reality is not God’s ideal, but is a necessary real in the context of a cosmic conflict over the character and government of God. In this context, we can pray for miraculous recoveries and changes, but should not demand or expect them. We are called to serve God as best we can where we are. To place unnecessary burdens on LGBT people, whose lives are already incredibly hard, is to make their lives even more difficult than they are, and it makes the church an unsafe place for them to wrestle with their challenges.

Consequences of “The Fall” (LGBT 14)

For Paul, God’s ideal was exhibited in creation, the natural order of things (Rom 1:25). It was all “very good.” Among other things, human beings were created in the image of God, reflecting His character, not only in their choices and actions, but in their very being. But with the Fall God’s natural order of things was marred and distorted. That distortion included the marring of God’s image in human beings. So one of the consequences of the Fall is the kind of sinful desires that plague us all. Another consequence of the Fall is the three levels of homosexuality mentioned in earlier blogs. Homosexual identity, homosexual orientation and homosexual attractions are all contrary to God’s creation ideal. When someone experiences a homosexual attraction, it is not the way things were designed to be. It would not be true to the Bible to say anything else.

But heterosexuals also experience attractions that are contrary to God’s ideal. Whenever a married Christian is deeply attracted to someone other than their spouse, it is a sign of human brokenness, just as much as homosexual attractions are. In a fallen world we all struggle with desires and attractions that are contrary to God’s ideal. We can follow Paul’s lead and exercise control over them or we can allow them to rule us and to do that which is not in our own best interests or in the interests of the other person for us to do. To act on sinful attractions not only works against God’s ideal for us, it also defrauds others (1 Thess 4:3-8), not only the ones we are relating to but others they will engage with in the future. Any counselor will tell you that promiscuity fractures the personality (sometimes called “splitting off”) and makes it harder for people to truly bond with a single individual in marriage. Acting on the sinful desires moves us further and further way from God’s ideal. That is not the progression to which Christians are called.

The bottom line for Paul and the rest of the New Testament is this: Is our identity in Christ or is it in our sexuality? Promiscuous individuals (this includes engagement with pornography) find thoughts of sex consuming their whole lives, you can never get enough sex (in whatever form) to truly satisfy. It doesn’t matter if the sexuality is homosexual or heterosexual, if it is the central focus of our lives, we are not identified with Christ. While in promiscuity the focus may seem to be on others, it is really an obsession with self and with trying to satisfy needs in a sexual way, needs that can only truly be satisfied in Christ. When you identify with Christ, He calls you away from this obsession with self to be focused on Him and learn from Him how to focus on others in a healthier way. So the core decision of the Christian life is to develop and maintain one’s identity in Christ. Being identified with Christ will more and more wean us away from the focus on self that leads us to gratify the desires of the flesh.

What does all this have to do with LGBTIQ issues? The realization that LGBT people may be different from the rest of us, but they are struggling with the same core issues. They too have a need for Jesus Christ. They too struggle with sinful desires. If we demand that they change their orientation, something most seem not able to do even in Christ, the burden becomes exceedingly great and discouraging. It actually hinders their ability to overcome their sinful desires and maintain a life of Christ-like purity in relationship with others. When we appreciate the commonness of our struggles we can team up with each other to obtain the best possible outcome in a very challenging world. But when we hide our own faults under a guise of moral superiority in relation to LGBT people, we do them a disfavor and make our own moral recovery less likely. Through a recognition of our common brokenness and our common call, we can find our way to our common destiny.

Paul and Orientation (LGBT 13)

A big question that arises about Romans 1 and texts like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is: Does Paul know anything about homosexual orientation as we understand it today? Does he speak to that issue in any meaningful way? In his condemnations of homosexuality is he including orientation in his description of sinfulness or just homosexual activity? There are two main answers to this question among Bible-believing Seventh-day Adventists. First would be the position stated by Richard Hays, Methodist theologian, and followed by Adventist theologians Ivan Blazen and Richard Rice. They argue, in the technical sense, that Paul has nothing to say about homosexual orientation, that his comments refer to homosexual activity. In that case, the Bible has nothing to say about orientation and people should be accepted in the church on the basis of their beliefs and behavior rather than on their orientation. This view would make room for LGBT people in the church, judging their fitness for membership on the same basis as any other member. In this view, one’s orientation has little or nothing to do with one’s salvation or one’s membership in the church, it is a reality that lies outside of direct revelation. The Bible would, in this case, have a lot to say about one’s beliefs and behavior, but not about orientation. This viewpoint assumes, of course, that homosexual orientation is, in most cases, not a choice, it is a consequence of genetic and environmental characteristics that set one’s orientation firmly well before the age of reason.

A second view of Paul is held by Andrews Seminary theologian Richard Choi. He argues that Paul has a lot to say about orientation. We all have an orientation to sin. That orientation may manifest itself in heterosexual tendencies to sin just as much as in homosexual tendencies to sin. We are all (except perhaps Christ) born with “desires” that move us to sin. These desires cannot be fully eradicated in this life, but need to be controlled by those who accept and follow Jesus Christ. In this view Paul does address the issue of orientation, but not with the scientific preciseness we might today. He notes that we all have an “orientation” that leads us to do things we would not want to do if we were in our right minds. I will spend a little more time on this view because it is less well known than the previous among Adventists.

Choi points to texts like Romans 13:14: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Greek: epithumias).” When we put on Christ, these “desires” (as Paul calls them) continue to afflict us, but we are not to “make provision” (Greek: pronoian) for them, we are not to exercise care and foresight in satisfying these desires. In the words of the NIV: “Do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Another text Choi points to is Galatians 5:24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (epithumiais).” This “orientation” to sin is something we have to do battle with every day. One further relevant text is Ephesians 2:1-3: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires (epithumiais) of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Paul does not speak here about eradicating the desires of the body and mind. What characterizes the pre-Christian person is that they eagerly carry out the desires of the flesh, for them this is the natural way of life. We “did what we were told” by our orientation to sin. But when God made us alive in Christ by the power of His resurrection (Eph 2:5-6), we become his working project (Eph 2:10—Greek: poiêma) and this causes us to refrain more and more from carrying out our “desires.” These desires are not eradicated, they will be there until the second coming of Christ (Rom 8:22-23), but they are increasingly under control of the one who follows Jesus. They no longer control our behaviors the way that they did before. As any heterosexual Christian can attest, controlling the desires is a lifelong “battle and a march.”

I believe both views of Paul and orientation are correct in relation to their definitions of the term orientation. In the technical, modern-day sense, Paul does not address the issue of sexual orientation. But in the larger sense, he does address it. In our sexuality we all have an orientation to sin. And if we indulge that orientation, we will become more and more at home with that which is unnatural. We all need to do battle with the desires of the flesh (more than 90% of the Bible’s sexual warnings are directed toward heterosexuals). And whatever Christians or Adventists may say about LGBT issues, we need to say from a position of common brokenness. In our sexuality, we were all born “contrary to nature” (Rom 1:25), we all desire that which is not for our own good. And we all desire to “judge” others (Rom 2:1-3) so that we might not feel so bad about our own failings. To truly follow Jesus requires everything we have and there are no shortcuts. In addressing LGBTIQ we can all learn something valuable about our walk with Christ.

We’re All in This Together (LGBT 12)

Previously, we noticed in Romans 1 that homosexual activity is not the cause of God’s wrath, it is one of the outcomes of it. This is a very important distinction when it comes to how Christians should treat LGBTIQ people. This distinction is best illustrated by intersex conditions. We can probably all agree that intersex conditions are no more a person’s choice than being born with one leg missing, sterile, or without sight (see John 9:1-4 for a biblical example). We should not heap condemnation upon a person for conditions they did not create or desire. If it should prove (and both science and experience seem increasingly decisive) that a homosexual orientation or transgender condition arose from factors outside the person’s control, then condemning such a person for that condition is arbitrary and cruel. We all have some control, at least, over our behavior, but none of us chose to be born with sinful propensities and desires. Understanding the distinction between homosexual identity, orientation and attractions helps one to better understand how best to respond to people who are “different,” yet want to know Jesus Christ and be part of His church family.

Paul goes on in Romans 1 to list many other consequences of human rebellion and God’s response to it. “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom 1:29-31). The consequences of human rebellion include homosexual behaviors, but they also include many things one tends to excuse in church; envy, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, 30 slander, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, etc. Homosexuality gets central billing here as the “poster child” of human life lived at increasing distance from God’s original ideal for human life and relationships (verses 24-28), but it is one of many evidences of human brokenness (verses 29-31). Whatever we may say to LGBTIQ people, we need to say from a standpoint of common brokenness.

But what if you have never shared a single bit of gossip, were never disobedient to your parents, and never indulged in envy, strife, deceit, boasting or any of the other vices listed in Romans 1? Would that mean you are fully justified in condemning people who have failed in these areas? Paul has a message even for you, in Romans 2:1-3: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man- you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself- that you will escape the judgment of God?” In this somewhat counter-intuitive text, Paul indicates that in the very act of focusing on the sins of another, a negative dynamic settles in on us as well. The sins of others brings out the worst in us. That is why confrontation, when it must happen, needs to happen with “tears in the voice” and with a strong sense of common brokenness. Until God brings us to that place, all our attempts to confront others over sexual misconduct will do more harm than good.