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.