Monthly Archives: November 2018

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.