A Short History of SDA Organization (AC18-3)

Seventh-day Adventist growth reached the point in the late 1850s where organization of some sort seemed a necessity. Nevertheless, a sizable number of leaders was opposed to it, believing that church organization of any kind would turn the movement into “Babylon,” an organization hostile to God’s mission for the world. They argued that the since the Bible does not require the followers of Christ to organize themselves, the believers should not do so. On the other side, spurred on by James White, other Adventist leaders argued that since the Bible does not forbid organization, and common sense required it, the movement needed to organize. The pro-organization group won out and the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formed over a two-year period, in 1861 and 1863.

As the church continued to grow, the organization grew highly centralized, with top to bottom power centering in the president and a handful of officers. Ellen White became concerned about this development for two reasons. She feared the creation of an authoritarian culture within leadership and she feared it would result in the coercing of conscience. So the church was moved to considered once more how it would or should be organized.

There have been three main options for church organization in the course of Christian history. First, there is congregationalism, in which local churches are essentially independent of each other. Although they may form loose connections with other churches, there is no over-arching authoritative body. The second type of organization is often called episcopal, where authority resides at the top and flows down from there. This kind of organization works best when a people see the leadership as being directly guided by God. The best-known organization of this type is the Roman Catholic Church. The system works because Catholics see the pope as “inspired” when he speaks ex-cathedra, from the holy chair. And most church leaders operate under vows of obedience (SDA leaders chose not to take a step in that direction last year). So the Roman Catholic Church has stayed united through the centuries.

The third type of church organization is the Presbyterian, which has a central organization, but the authority flows up from below and there are “firewalls” at each level that prevent top leadership from dictating to lower levels. While congregationalism emphasizes local needs and perspective, and the episcopal system emphasizes centralized control, the Presbyterian approaches operates on a tension between global and local authority and concerns. The firewalls preserve much to local control.

In 1901 to 1903, the SDA Church created something of a hybrid of the three systems, but ended up closest to Presbyterian model. While the General Conference is concerned with matters that affect the whole world church, the formation of unions between the conferences and the General Conference provided for provide for more diversity of approach when carrying out the church’s mission. So the formation of unions was intended to care for local needs and prevent the formation of “kingly power” at the top. The basis for this type of organization was not in the Bible, the Bible offers some basic principles of leadership and offers some examples or organization, but it offers little systematic guidance as to just how the church ought to organize itself. So the SDA Church created a system, with encouragement from Ellen White that balanced global concerns and central control with diversity of focus and decentralization of power.

Proposal for Annual Council Next Week (AC18-2)

Two documents are coming up for discussion and vote at the Annual Council of Seventh-day Adventists next week (probably Sunday, October 11). The first spells out the consequences for any entity of the church whose official actions are out of harmony with world church policies. You can read that document here (https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/113G-Regard-for-and-Practice-of-General-Conference-Session-and-General-Conference-Executive-Committee-Actions.pdf). A second document lays out terms of reference for “compliance committees” that would be tasked to investigate charges of “non-compliance.” These are less interesting but posted here (https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/Compliance-Committees-Terms-of-Reference.pdf). The General Conference raise eyebrows by appointing five “compliance committees” a month later, before the documents calling for them were even approved. https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/general-conference-issues-statement-compliance-committees. While at first glance all these proposals and actions seem quite alarming, many safeguards have been built in to the processes to prevent many avenues for manipulation and abuse of these regulations and committees. I will try to explain this as we move along.

I share the key points of the first document here. It concerns what should happen when any entity of the church (institutional executive boards or committees) determines that it or another entity is out of compliance with some policy or belief of the church. A number of principles are stated first. 1) Complaints must arise by vote of an executive committee of the church and be expressed in writing. These are executive committees of conferences, unions, divisions and the General Conference Administrative Committee (also known as GCADCOM– a body of roughly 25 people that runs the day to day operations of the General Conference). Complaints are not to be taken seriously if arising from an individual or a committee outside the above parameters. And they must be made in writing. These are extremely important safeguards against abuse (and any regulation like this has potential for manipulation and abuse of power so safeguards are critical). These investigations are not to be based on disgruntled individuals or vague accusations.

2) Oversight for compliance falls to the nearest entity to the complaint. If a problem arises in a church, that is the responsibility of the conference, if a problem arises in a conference that is the responsibility of the union above it. If a problem arises in a union that is the responsibility of the division above it and so forth. If the problem is not resolved at that level it can be addressed at the levels above it and so on up the chain. The location of last resort is the GCADCOM, which could vote to refer the issue to the appropriate compliance committee for investigation and recommendation. A side note: for those not familiar with the SDA Church structure, there are six levels. The lowest level is the church member, then local churches, then conferences, then unions, then divisions and then the General Conference itself. The idea is that addressing problems should happen at the nearest level, but this document sets up a mechanism for higher entities to deal with lower issues if it is felt that intermediate entities are not dealing with the problem. That is a major change in church practice.

3) The process for dealing with non-compliance is to involve prayer and dialogue, confirmation of all charges and responses in writing, allowance of 60 days for a suspect entity to explain what they are doing, change it, or lay out a plan for change. The document calls for all that to be done in a supportive atmosphere, even allowing an extra 30 days when needed. If that process fails it is bumped up to the next higher entity (union, division or GCADCOM). If GCADCOM cannot resolve the issue it is referred to the appropriate compliance committee to investigate, work with the non-compliant entity, or recommend consequences for continued non-compliance. There is also room for an appeal of such a recommendation.

If GCADCOM concludes that there is continued non-compliance in the entity under review, it can recommend to the GC Executive Committee (GCEC– at Annual Council) consequences of progressive severity. 1) A warning to the entity, not just its president, that it is out of compliance and could face consequences. 2) If that does not change anything, the GCEC could vote a public reprimand. This would mean that at future meetings of the GCEC, the president of that entity would be placed in a “reprimanded” category on the attendee list and a public announcement of the same would occur at the commencement of the week-long meeting. This is a softening of the original proposal to make a public announcement of reprimand every time the president of the non-compliant entity gets up to speak. 3) If the non-compliance continues, at the next meeting the president of that entity could be “removed for cause.” The concept of “cause” is expanded from moral impropriety to non-compliance with a particular policy, but would require a two-thirds majority to implement, so this would be hard to do. If the president of a non-compliant union, for example, is removed from membership on the GCEC, other members of that union who are on the GCEC would retain their voice and vote. In terms of the Pacific Union, people like Pastor Randy Roberts and LLU President Richard Hart would retain their voice and vote even if the president of their union (currently Ricardo Graham) lost his position on the committee. And conference presidents from that union would retain voice in the meeting, as appropriate under current regulations.

Compliance Review Committees have been appointed to oversee five areas: 1) The teaching creation/origins, 2) policies regarding homosexuality and 3) ordination, 4) GC core policies (particularly concerned with finances), and 5) distinctive beliefs. The current membership of those committees can be found here (https://spectrummagazine.org/news/2018/general-conference-issues-statement-compliance-committees.). We will have more to say about these later.

The big unresolved question for me is: Who holds the president and/or GCADCOM accountable? No mention of such is made in this document, which suggests a top-down privilege that has high potential for abuse and manipulation. Based on past experience, the first line of defense when a president is “out of compliance” is the General Conference Treasurer, who needs to sign all financial transactions (money is a major compliance issue of course). The General Counsel’s office, with its team of lawyers, also keeps watch on the president. If the GCADCOM does something inappropriate, the GCDO (General Conference and Division Officers Committee—about 70 people) reviews all GCADCOM decisions before they get on the floor of the GCEC. A couple days ago the GCDO voted to pass on the above documents by a vote of 32 in favor, 30 opposed, and 2 abstentions, a razor-thin margin. It appears that top leaders of the church are divided on the usefulness of these documents. Going forward without address who holds the president and GCADCOM accountable may be one reason for the great hesitation, even among those who helped craft the document. Next time, a short history of SDA Church organization is needed to understand what is happening now.

Annual Council 2018 Preview (AC18-1)

Today at 10:30 AM PDT I will be presenting a journalistic overview of the documents being presented at the General Conference (of SDAs) Annual Council in Battle Creek and their history in the larger setting of current issues in the Adventist Church. http://lluc.org/watch-live.html I thought it would be helpful to put these things in writing as we approach the day of the fateful vote. For those who are not Seventh-day Adventists, you may want to take a on this series regarding the Adventist Church, although it is a fascinating account of how large voluntary groups address difficult issues (see Acts 15 for a similar situation—Pastor Roberts will be preaching on that text at 9 AM and 11:45 AM this morning, also live streamed). I will post a summary of my remarks in twelve parts beginning here. My series on LGBTIQ issues is not over, but I am taking a break to bring this material to you.

Pastor Roberts of the Loma Linda University Church has asked me to perform this task because he was not able to secure a speaker from among those who created the document. He asked me to study all available materials, interview as many key people as I could (for background on condition of anonymity) and report as objectively and fairly as possible. So this is a journalistic report. I will do my best not to color the account with my own opinions, but share the essence of the documents and the larger context that brought them into existence, along with the forces in the church that were driving leadership in this direction. Journalism seems increasingly under threat these days, but it is still useful in educating the public to the issues behind the strident voices in a community. I will share my own views on a penal this afternoon at 3 PM.

I bring a major assumption to the task. First, I personally trust the collective wisdom of SDA Church leadership. I have differences of opinion with many church leaders, but collectively they tend to get things fairly right, even if their processes and motivations are not always understood in the trenches. If you don’t agree with my assumption, you may not like where I will be going, but I take that assumption from knowing all the key players and seeing how they operate behind closed doors. There is one major exception to this compliment, which I will share as we move along.

Much of this presentation will likely be new to most people. As I have interviewed people I have been startled at how badly I myself misread the documents the first couple of times. The original document on regard for and practice of GC actions is here: https://news.adventist.org/fileadmin/news.adventist.org/files/news/documents/113G-Regard-for-and-Practice-of-General-Conference-Session-and-General-Conference-Executive-Committee-Actions.pdf One reason the document has been widely misread, even by independent media is that it is extremely dense. The intent was a half-page document, but after a long period of working over it, the committee ended up with three pages and nearly every word or phrase was fought over. So each word is probably significant to somebody on the Unity Oversight Committee. Every word and phrase is a potential battleground. So I needed people to walk me through the document and explain its significance. Before that I read selectively, focusing on things that jumper out at me. And I read it through a distorted lens of opinion pouring out from at least five media sources (AR, ANN, Spectrum, Adventist Today, Fulcrum7). After some oral explanation, the document looked very different to me, and I will do my best to explain in this series. The document will be voted up or down on Sunday October 14.

For me the biggest surprise is that no one is really defending the document and its parallel document on the formation of compliance committees. Why? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it is because no one, even on the committee, is excited about this document. It represents a hard-fought compromise. It is not exactly what anyone wanted. Nevertheless, there is a good chance it will pass on October 14. Why? And how did we get to this place? Stay tuned.

A Lot of Things are an Abomination (LGBT 10)

The Hebrew translated “abomination” is tôêvah. Tôêvah is used in the Hebrew Bible for idolatry and practices related to it (Deut 7:25-26; 13:14; 27:15; Isa 44:19). It is also used for temple prostitution (1 Kings 14:24), child sacrifice (Jer 32:35; Ezek 16:20-22), adultery (Ezek 33:26), incest (Ezek 22:11) and illegal marriage (Deut 24:1-4). The word is also used for stealing and murder in Jeremiah 7:9-10 and a reaction violence and robbery, which are deserving of the death penalty, in Ezekiel 18:10-13. So the English word “abomination” does not fall far from the sense of the Hebrew. It refers to things and activities that are reprehensible, detestable, loathsome, and worthy of disgust. Upon first reading, it is hard to imagine allowing any LGBT person into the church. But texts read in isolation or out of context can be damaging and hurtful. This is also the case with the use of these texts in Leviticus.

The Hebrew tôêvah is used widely in the Bible for things that are not seen so reprehensibly in the modern context, and this needs to be taken into account as well. A crucial text is Proverbs 6:16-19: “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination [tôavath—same Hebrew word with a different grammatical ending] to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” Here you find typical “abominations” like murder and evil, but also many “vegetarian” sins, widely practiced in church; looks of pride and superiority, planning actions that are wrong in God’s eyes, gossip, and falsehood. Committing “abomination” is not reserved for sins that are considered especially reprehensible, the word is used fairly broadly for things we often tolerate in the church and can easily recognize in ourselves; taking advantage of someone in shopping or business deals (Deut 25:13-16; Prov 11:1), falsehood of any kind (Prov 12:22), eating anything that isn’t “kosher” (Deut 14:3ff.—even clean meats today are not usually processed in the biblical fashion).

The takeaway is that using the “clobber texts” of Leviticus to single out homosexuals for disgust or hatred is to not tell the truth about God and His view of human failings. God does not arbitrarily pick out select practices for special disgust or hatred, He is stirred up by every violation of the created order, including the ones that we consider “white lies” or “vegetarian” sins. We must avoid the idea that God is deeply offended by sin because He is not getting His way. God is offended by sin because violations of the created order introduce a poison into human society and relationships that harms everyone and everything. Sin is sin because it is self-destructive, harming all the creatures God has made. Things that are not ideal are reprehensible because of the collective impact they have had on God’s creation. But the full picture of God is not summed up in these “clobber texts,” they need to be read in the context of the One who said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). That same One also washed the feet of Judas the traitor, and not only Judas, but Peter, the lovable screw-up we can all identify with, even the saintly ones among us. Whatever we have to say to LGBTIQ people, we need to say from a standpoint of common brokenness. I believe that to speak as if we are superior because of our orientation is to speak a lie and that is an abomination unto the Lord.

As we go through some difficult texts, we need to remember the biblical tension between the ideal and the real. The Bible is not shy about stating the ideal and the consequences of violating God’s ideal. But it also shows the compassion of Jesus Christ for those mired in the real (John 8:3-11). The Bible balances the ideal with deep grace and compassion for those violate the ideal, whether by inheritance or by cultivation. In all our dealing with LGBT people we need to remember that we all are souls for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11).

It Is an Abomination (LGBT 9)

I turn now to what some have called the “clobber texts” of the Bible (Gen 19:1-15; Lev 18:22; 20:13; Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 6:9-11). These are the one’s people use to clobber anyone they perceived as different, particularly in terms of gender or sexuality. Two of these texts are in the book of Leviticus.

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (tôêvah– Lev 18:22). Clearly this text is speaking to men, calling male to male sex and “abomination.” That is a very loaded and negative word in today’s English. A similar text is Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination (tôêvah); they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Here the word “abomination” is combined with a death sentence. The immediate impression is that there is something uniquely reprehensible about same sex activity, at least male to male activity. I note, first of all, that the text does not address same sex orientation, it addresses a specific activity, a sexual act similar to that of a man with a woman. And it clearly calls such an act an “abomination” (Hebrew: tôêvah).

In English the word “abomination” originated in the Latin and means a thing or an activity that causes disgust or hatred, detestable things or actions, something exceptionally sinful, vile or loathsome. There is no sugar-coating the English term. The activity described in these texts is considered reprehensible. There is no getting around it. Read without context or nuance, it would seem to justify the kinds of hateful reactions toward gays that have arisen from certain extremist churches in the news. But is abomination an appropriate translation of the Hebrew in these texts? Or does the English term color the situation in ways that might surprise us?

The Ideal and the Real (LGBT 8)

Whenever the Bible speaks about divorce, the ideal and the real both come into play. Jesus states the ideal when He says that “in the beginning it was not so.” But when the real happens, when divorces occur, regulations are given that protect weaker parties in a destructive situation. So Jesus is very strict in interpreting the ideal, but very compassionate in dealing with the real. In John 8:1-11, a women is caught in the act of adultery. The ideal would seem to call for harsh condemnation and punishment. Instead Jesus tells the woman, “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more.” Jesus states the ideal in the most straightforward way (Matthew 19), but when confronted with the real, he is most gracious, compassionate, and surprisingly lenient. The same is true of Moses. He states the ideal in Genesis 2:24. Man and women are joined together, not to be separated. But in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 he states the real. Since divorces happen, here’s how to minimize the damage. We find the same pattern in Paul. In 1 Corinthians Paul six times states the ideal, then introduces the real with “but if.” In some cases celibacy is the ideal (Matt 19:11-12), even in marriage (1 Cor 7:1), but because of immorality (7:2) Paul encourages married sexuality. The ideal is for the unmarried to remain so (7:8), but in the real world marriage is generally to be preferred. The ideal for marriage is lifelong (7:10), but if someone leaves a marriage, there is a new ideal (7:11). Paul states the ideal as an absolute, but offers a backup plan for dealing with the real.

For Seventh-day Adventists it is interesting that you will find the same pattern in Ellen White. She is very strict and uncompromising when stating the ideal (for example, no divorce, marry someone close to you in age). But when faced with real situations, she was very accommodating and even lenient. In one case, church members were dealing with a situation in which a couple divorced and each married someone else in the church. The church leaders were demanding that the new couples divorce so the original pair could get back together again. When Ellen White was consulted about this situation she said, “Leave them alone, they have suffered enough.” Since Ellen White strongly advised that people marry close to their own age, some were stunned when she allowed her 41-year-old son to marry a 22-year-old girl. When confronted about the situation she retorted, “Best decision Willie ever made.” Individuals recognized as particularly close to God, therefore, consistently exhibited this pattern: state the ideal without compromise, but face the real with compassion and grace. The ideal is what the church teaches and what it should teach. But the real requires much understanding and compassion.

It seems to me that this pattern is relevant to the challenges people face when it comes to LGBTIQ, both those experiencing themselves as “different” and those dealing with them. LGBTIQ conditions are among the many ways in which the creation ideal is not worked out in this life. They are part of the real. While the church must always uphold the ideal, it must also deal with the real. And in the real world there is great need for understanding, compassion and grace, and not just for LGBT people. We have all failed to live out the ideal, so we are all in need of understanding, compassion and grace. The church must be to others what every member of the church needs as well.

Jesus and Sexual Controversy (LGBT 7)

According to the gospels, Jesus is the clearest revelation of God the world has ever seen (John 1:14-18; 14:9). If we want a picture of how God views homosexuality in general and LGBT people in particular, it would be extremely helpful Jesus offered a clear position on the matter. But a careful reading of the gospels shows that Jesus never said anything about any aspect of LGBTIQ. No question on this issue was ever raised in His presence and no pronouncement from Him on the topic is recorded in the gospel records.

But that does not mean that Jesus has nothing to say about sexuality. There is a very significant dialogue He has with the Pharisees regarding divorce (Matthew 19 and parallels), and Jesus says a number of things in this passage that are pertinent to our topic. I will quote the passage with some highlighting of my own and then offer some comments.

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? (Gen 2:24) 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Deut 24:1-4) 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Matthew 19:3-9

Gerald Winslow notes that in this passage and several others the Bible lays out an ideal and a real. The ideal is grounded in creation. Male and female are physically and emotionally designed to bond to each other in lifelong unity. Forsaking all others, they will find undistracted joy in each other’s company and in mutual sexual experience. They were designed over time to achieve ever-increasing intimacy and delight in each other. That is the ideal. But after the Fall (Genesis 3) there is also a “real.” Hearts get hard. Children are abused. Husbands and wives cheat on each other. Some people get sexually greedy and exploit many. Divorces happen. Hearts get broken. Also part of the real is that some people are attracted to the same sex. Others suffer from dysphoria between body and brain. Some have incomplete sexual organs or organs from both sexes. Back in the beginning, God laid out the ideal. And the ideal remains in place. But in reality, things often go awry. Jesus states the ideal, but He also recognizes the real. Because hearts are hard, the creation ideal is rarely if ever achieved fully on this earth.

More Emerging Conclusions (LGBT 6)

The best scientific research I have seen, at least from sources not biased against Scripture or religion, have concluded that a gay or lesbian identity is changeable. A person embraces a gay or lesbian identity by choice, it is not inherent. This means that a person can have a homosexual orientation but still embrace the gospel call to accept Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and the master of one’s life. Accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord is core to what it means to be a follower of Jesus, so this finding is very significant. There is no immutable barrier to LGBT people accepting the gospel and participating in the life of the church.

At the same time, research indicates that, in most instances, homosexual orientation is not a choice, but is ingrained into the person’s being. So-called “change therapies” have had very limited success over a period of five or six years (there may seem to be a “change” over the short term, but it usually does not last). It is likely that where a change can be scientifically verified, the person was actually bisexual rather than homosexual, but these categories can be hard to separate clinically. If one’s orientation is ingrained, and not subject to change, that is extremely significant for how Christians should treat LGBT people. To demand a change in inner thought processes and urges when such a change is unlikely or impossible is more abusive than godly.

How do we explain the presence of immutable characteristics that incline a person contrary to God’s original creation design? From a biblical perspective, these are a consequence of human rebellion and sin, but not necessarily the individual’s own rebellion and sin. Sin is not just a legal breaking of the law. Sin is a poison or an infection that is ingrained inside all human beings from birth and distorts everything we do and everything we are. In this we are all on the same ground. We are all broken people whose brokenness may manifest itself in different ways, but from the standpoint of the gospel, we all start in a similar place. We are “out of compliance” by nature. That means “temptation” is not the same thing as sin. In a broken world, sexuality of all types can incline a person toward sin. In this the homosexual and the heterosexual are on the same ground. Both are broken, in the biblical sense, and both need the redemption that comes in Christ and the support of the Holy Spirit. Sin and its consequences cannot be eradicated by effort, they require divine intervention, which will only be experienced in its fullness at the Second Coming (Rom 8:22-23; 1 Cor 15:51-54). Until then, we are all in need of compassion, understanding and forgiveness.

This tells me that any Christian outreach to LGBT people must occur in full awareness of a common brokenness. If heterosexual Christians act as if they are morally superior to homosexual people, they are not only abusive, they are wrong from a biblical perspective (don’t worry, we will be looking at the biblical texts themselves soon). They are like those Jesus describes as seeing the speck in another person’s eye while missing the plank in their own (Matt 7:1-5, NIV). The biblical perspective on sexuality is not biased against gays, its analysis penetrates deep into all human self-deception and delusion. LGBT people are not exempt from the biblical analysis, neither are they to be singled out as uniquely lost or depraved in some way.

Another emerging conclusion is that bisexual and homosexual are not the same thing. If one thinks of orientation as a continuum with full heterosexuality at one end and full homosexuality at the other, bisexuality is a condition in which the person is somewhere between, attracted at times to the same sex and at times to the opposite sex. Most people are at one end of the spectrum or the other, but some are at various places in between. For church communities that like everything simple or “black and white,” sexuality and its manifestations are more complicated than they would like. Add in intersex and transgender, and things are far more complicated yet. Bisexuals may have more choice in how they express their sexuality, but bisexuality is also more a symptom of human brokenness than the result of a person’s decision and action.

In this generation, people and human sexuality have proven to be more complex than we realized before. I would like to turn in the next blog to some of the biblical data to see what “word from the Lord” we can get to help manage the complexities as church communities.

Emerging Conclusions (LGBT 5)

As I examine the Seventh-day Adventist literature on LGBTIQ, I do see an emerging consensus on a number of challenging issues. My report is not the final word, by any means. But it is better to have an educated position on difficult topics than a knee-jerk or naïve position. I am open to further research and deepening understanding, but there has developed a strong political element in relation to this topic. There are many issues researchers will not touch because of their fear that the results may work against the political consensus, or that they may be ostracized by their research community. So the research needs to be attended to, but with a certain amount of healthy skepticism in a politically-charged research and educational environment. Give appropriate deference to those who have spent their lives researching on issues of sexuality, but think for yourself and don’t buy conclusions where the evidence seems suspect. And be very suspicious of any result that is clearly contradictory to Scripture.

Having said that, many ideas that claim to be based on the Bible are actually based on either selective reading or a distorted reading lens. One of my teachers loved to say, “It isn’t hard to have strong convictions on any topic, as long as you are willing to ignore some of the evidence.” On top of that, all readers of the Bible, including conservative ones, tend to read the Bible through a hermeneutical lens that can distort the outcome of their study. I have spoken to this latter point at some length in chapters three and four of my book The Deep Things of God. I refer you there for more detail. Below I share some things that Seventh-day Adventists (and other conservative Christians) who are knowledgeable on both the Bible and science are coming to agree on. I believe these kinds of agreements need to be the foundation of further study and practice.

One emerging consensus among educated Adventists (including both conservative and liberal) is that one’s sexual orientation in most cases is not a choice. The behavioral sciences have always debated the issue of nature versus nurture. Is a condition inherited or does it exist because of experience and training (intentional and otherwise)? Is a homosexual orientation genetic or otherwise inherited? Or is it something that happens because of parental relationships, abuse, or certain family dynamics? Is it a choice or is it determined in some way? From my experience and understanding, these debates often swing back and forth between the two options, but most often the evidence leads researchers to “both/and.” Most conditions can be traced to a combination of both inheritance (genes, etc.) and upbringing. And inheritance does seem to play a role in same-sex attraction and orientation. Be that as it may, even if homosexuality was solely a result of nurture rather than nature, Adventist understanding is that the character of a child is largely formed something between the ages of three and seven. And how many seven-year old children got to choose their parents?

So while the adoption of a gay or lesbian identity involves a choice, homosexual orientation is rarely, if ever, a choice. There are some exceptions and we will address those in the following blog. This conclusion is very significant for the church. Regardless of how it happened, if orientation is not a choice in most instances, the church must be careful not to demand of people something that they are not capable of, even with prayer and fasting. If the science is correct, that would be like demanding that someone born without a leg produce a natural one before they can be accepted into the church. To require such would be abusive and cruel. At the same time, orientation should not be confused with identity. To accept a person with physical, mental or emotional challenges is not the same thing as “condoning sin.” To accept a person who is “different” through no choice of their own is not “condoning sin.”

When I shared this consensus with an Adventist friend, he became upset with me. “To live with a homosexual orientation and not try to change it is to live in sin,” he proclaimed, “I believe that it is a choice that people make, and wrong choices are sin.” While I have not met a homosexual person who felt that they had a choice (many have prayed for years that God would change them) that story would not be convincing to him. So I simply asked my friend, “When did you choose to be heterosexual?” He had no answer. Where we stand on this issue determines to a great degree how we treat all kinds of people whose life and struggles are different from our own.

Three Levels of Homosexuality (LGBT 4)

I use the traditional term “homosexuality” instead of “same-sex attraction” here because the latter is not broad enough for the points I am making in this particular blog. What people call homosexuality actually comes in three different forms, each describing a larger group than the previous. Since people, particularly church people, often confuse these forms, and that leads to serious misunderstanding, it is important to be as clear as possible.

Gay or Lesbian Identity. As noted earlier, in the narrowest sense homosexuality can be a matter of identity, not just a matter of orientation or attraction. To have a gay or a lesbian identity mean that a person who feels attracted to the same sex embraces that attraction as core to their identity. Gays and lesbians, in the technical sense, do not see themselves as primarily black or white, male or female, German or Hispanic; their core identity is wrapped up in their attraction to those of the same gender. It is “who they are.” They are not ashamed of their orientation, they can even be militant in promoting it. Homosexual people who embrace a gay or lesbian identity offer the biggest challenging to churches who embrace the New Testament understanding of the gospel. According to the New Testament, no one can serve two masters. Either Jesus Christ and the gospel are central to one’s identity or something else is. All are equal at the foot of the cross and all are likewise challenged to embrace Christ’s call for total and unlimited commitment. Promoting Christ commitment is not prejudice or “gay-bashing,” it is the same commitment all are asked to do, whether straight or otherwise. Your former core commitment may have been to a country, or an ethnic group, or your relatives, or you racial peers; all are called to make their one and only central commitment to the person and mission of Jesus Christ. Gays and lesbians are to be treated as equals at the foot of the cross, and they too are called to make Jesus Christ their one and only central commitment. On this matter there is no inequality and there can be no compromise.

Homosexual Orientation. But gay and lesbian identity is only one aspect of the church’s dealings with homosexuality. Gays and lesbians truly sold out to their sexual identity are a relatively small group. There is a much larger group of people who are strongly and consistently attracted to others of the same sex. This is what we would call homosexual orientation or same-sex orientation. For them, the orientation to the same sex seems as natural as the typical heterosexual person’s orientation to the opposite sex. But orientation and identity are not the same thing. Full disclosure, when it comes to orientation, I am about as heterosexual as they come, but I don’t make that the center of my life or my theology. It is an aspect of who I am but it is not core to my identity. While I once strongly identified as a German-American and as an awesome athletic specimen (in my dreams at least), my core identity is now centered in Jesus Christ and the unique picture of God I learned as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And I know people with a homosexual orientation who are just as committed to Christ and the church as I am. They do not embrace their orientation in place of Christ or alongside Christ. It is something they feel that they did not choose and cannot change, so they seek to keep it submitted to Jesus Christ as much as I commit my heterosexuality to Him.

Same-Sex Attractions. There is an even larger group of people who do not have a homosexual orientation but may have on occasion felt a homosexual attraction. It is not uncommon for a heterosexual person at one point or another in their life to see someone else of the same sex and feel something stirring that they did not expect. As mentioned earlier, I am about as heterosexual as they come. But I can remember as a young person talking with one of my teachers. It was a friendly conversation, we were face to face about a foot apart, and he had this interesting moustache that moved when he talked. Suddenly, in the back of my mind I heard the words, “Kiss him.” I didn’t, but I wondered for a long time where that had come from and what it meant (more on that later). More recently, I spoke with a colleague in the medical school who specializes in psychology and asked him what percentage of heterosexual people have an experience like mine. “I don’t know any research on it,” he said, “but based on my counseling experience I’d say somewhere between 50 and 100%. What do these kinds of experiences mean and how does the whole homosexual spectrum fit into the biblical world view? Where does this come from? Is it a choice? How should the church relate to people who disclose a homosexual orientation? Stay tuned.