by Monte Sahlin
By AT News Team, April 16, 2014
The executive committee of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination voted last week to adopt a seven-page document intended to provide guidelines for congregations, institutions and other organizations in dealing with current issues related to sexuality. The document emphasizes both the traditional position of the Adventist faith on sexual activity and compassion toward "alternative sexuality," the term used to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) people while differentiating between behavior and identity.
The primary focus of the guidelines is protecting the rights of Adventist organizations and positioning Adventist public statements and actions related to changing public attitudes and civil law in many nations. The document is entitled "Guidelines for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Responding to Changing Cultural Attitudes Regarding Homosexual and Other Alternative Sexual Practices." Guidelines are not the same thing as "policy" in the denomination's governance process, as Pastor Ted Wilson, GC president, reminded the committee as they considered the document. Guidelines are generally considered to have less authority than "policy," although many times in the past a modified version of guidelines have been voted into the Working Policy book after several years.
The document begins with a theological statement describing the principles undergirding the guidelines. It refers to "the divine ideal for humanity … a core ingredient of stable societies," also intended by God "to provide joy, pleasure, and physical completeness." It states that "while the monogamous union in marriage of a man and a woman is affirmed as the divinely ordained foundation of the family and social life and the only morally appropriate locus of intimate sexual expression, singleness and the friendship of singles are within the divine design as well. Scripture, however, places a distinction between acceptable conduct in friendship relations and sexual conduct in marriage."
The document defines "wrong expressions of sexuality and … destructive sexual behaviors … as fornication, adultery, homosexual intimacies, incest, and polygamy." Bible texts are cited to support this view but without any acknowledgement or explanation of the widespread practice of polygamy among Old Testament patriarchs. The denomination "adheres without reservation to the divine ideal of pure, honorable, and loving sexual relations within heterosexual marriage, believing that any lowering of this high view is detrimental to humanity," the document summarizes its theological foundation.
The document describes five principles that are "counsel to congregations, church organizations and entities," and church administrators regarding the "complex issues surrounding civil governments’ responses to the reality of homosexuality and alternative sexual practices in contemporary society." These are intended to help the denomination be consistent in various contexts around the world in both its Bible teachings and compassion toward people and authorities.
"1. All human governments exist through the provision and allowance of God." The denomination recognizes the authority of civil government in matters such as marriage, sexual behavior and social justice as separate from the church.
"2. Although the authority of human government is derived from the authority of God, the claims and jurisdictions of human governments are never ultimately definitive for either individual believers or the Church. Both individual believers and the Church owe supreme allegiance to God Himself."
"3. Because individual believers and the organized Church enjoy the rights and liberties given them by God and ratified by civil government, they may fully participate in the processes by which societies organize social life, provide for public and electoral order, and structure civil relationships." The denomination will seek protect the religious rights of its members and affiliated organizations.
"4. Because the Seventh-day Adventist Church believes and practices a wholistic understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, its evangelistic, educational, publishing, medical, and other ministry organizations are integral and indivisible expressions of its fulfillment of the commission given by Jesus." The denomination will not agree that its institutions may be treated differently than congregations and conferences by civil law and courts.
"5. In their interface with civil governments and societies, both the Church and individual Seventh-day Adventists must conduct themselves as representatives of the kingdom of Christ, exhibiting His characteristics of love, humility, honesty, reconciliation, and commitment to the truths of the Word of God." Adventists are not to support laws that seek to criminalize certain sexual behaviors even if those laws seek to enforce Bible teachings; they must treat others with fairness and caring even when disagreeing on issues related to sexuality.
A following paragraph addresses specifically the conflict that may appear between the civil rights of LGBTI people and the religious liberty of those who believe differently: "In a growing number of nations, governments enact special legislative or judicial protection to prevent what they consider discriminatory behavior. Those protections sometimes appear to impair the religious-freedom rights of Seventh-day Adventist pastors, leaders, and Church organizations to employ persons, perform weddings, offer employment benefits, publish missional material, make public statements, and provide education or educational housing on the basis of the Seventh-day Adventist teaching about the sinfulness of sexual behaviors prohibited by Scripture."
Another paragraph addresses specifically the efforts to punish LGBTI people under criminal law in some countries: "Conversely, in a number of nations, homosexual or alternative sexual practices result in harsh penalties imposed by law. While Seventh-day Adventist institutions and members may appropriately advocate for preserving the unique and God-given institution of heterosexual marriage in their societies and legal codes, it is the position of the Church to treat those practicing homosexual or alternative sexual behaviors with the redemptive love taught and lived by Jesus."
The guidelines also address the topic of LGBTI people who are members of the denomination's local churches. It states that "the Bible’s instructions about human sexuality, are equally applicable to heterosexual and homosexual relationships," and then says, "It is inconsistent with the Church’s understanding of scriptural teaching to admit into or maintain in membership persons practicing sexual behaviors incompatible with biblical teachings. Neither is it acceptable for Adventist pastors or churches to provide wedding services or facilities for same-sex couples."
A number of sources have told Adventist Today they fear that the "maintain in membership" clause may result in widespread tensions in congregations. They are concerned that this is an invitation to some "legalistic" members to launch a "witch hunt" and "pry into personal matters." At least one church administrator has advised caution to pastors.
The guidelines also address employment by the denomination. "Congregational leaders, Church employees, ministry leaders, and institutions are advised to review carefully the Church’s existing policies with regard to membership, employment, and education to ensure that local practices are in harmony with the Church’s expressed teachings about sexual behavior. … The Seventh-day Adventist Church asserts and reserves the right for its entities to employ individuals according to Church teaching about sexual behaviors compatible with the teaching of Scripture as understood by the Seventh-day Adventist Church."
Link to copy of the official document – click here.
Adventist Today invites opinion articles about this document. They should be sent as MS Word document files attached to email addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Opinion Article on Sex Guidelines" in the subject line of the email.