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?