by Alicia Johnston | 18 April 2022 |
I work to understand and articulate theologies of marriage and gender. I’m also an LGBTQ Adventist person. In both my theological work and my personal life I’ve come to realize that the church has two different gospels. There’s the normal one. This is the one I grew up with and the Adventism I fell in love with. It’s the normal way of understanding the Bible, our humanity, and our Adventist community. Then there is a totally different path, a different Gospel, if you will, that I have experienced since coming to understand that I am not a heterosexual. I’ve found that my community treats me differently, and that theology pertaining to my sexuality is interpreted differently than it is when those same texts are applied to heterosexual, cisgendered people. I’d like to share five of those observations.
Adventists are big on identity. Often, we explicitly talk about what it means to have an “Adventist identity.” We speak of outsiders as “non-Adventists.” Being Adventist has a way of impacting nearly every aspect of life, and at its best, it creates belonging and joy. Before it became a source of pain for me, being Adventist was perhaps only second in importance to being Christian. But even this distinction never really made sense to me, because I knew my Adventism was already Christian.
Adventists also celebrate other identities. We are certainly known for celebrating our medical professionals. Pastors are encouraged to embrace their identity as ministers of the gospel called by God. We love to celebrate our different national identities and are proud of being a world church.
But when you are LGBTQ, stating the reality that you are LGBTQ is seen as a rejection of your identity in Christ. Suddenly, no identity is allowed except your identity in Christ. Yet for people who are LGBTQ, being LGBTQ is a simple part of how we experience life on a regular basis. There are many things we experience differently, and it’s important that we know how to talk about that and learn how to live out that identity in faithfulness to the foundational identity we have in Jesus. If anything, it’s more complicated for us, not less. So, if anything, we need to talk about it more as we wrestle with how best to do this. But we are not usually permitted that freedom, because the very statement of our identity is under question.
There appear to be two different rules for identity. Many identities can be held in harmony with our identity in Christ—unless you’re LGBTQ, then your identity must only be in Christ.
When I was single in the church, people regularly asked me if I was going to get married or if I was seeing anyone. I was even asked this in pastoral job interviews (which is, of course, an illegal question). Sometimes, people would try to set me up with someone. I also know from church culture that it’s very common to ask dating people when they will get married and ask married people when they are having a baby. We should probably not be so nosy!
People also talk to each other about their lives. They talk about their spouses and their kids. They ask each other about their vacations. They pray for one another’s families. At their worst, church people are too intrusive. At their best, they are benevolently involved in one another’s lives. It’s a very normal and natural thing to talk about one’s dating, married, and parenting life.
Unless you are LGBTQ. Then we are asked why we have such a need to tell everyone about what we are doing. Why can’t we just keep it to ourselves? Well, the reason we can’t keep it to ourselves is probably that we are being asked too many questions. The truth is, it’s normal to talk about our lives, our crushes, and our future plans with our communities. These are normal ways that our lives brush up against one another. LGBTQ people, if they feel safe to do so, will do the same thing as everyone else.
Again, two different rules for Christian fellowship: talk about your life, unless you’re LGBTQ, then please don’t.
Marriage is the greatest relational gift God has given us. It’s the foundation of society, the basic building block of community. Marriage reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. It’s holy and good. Adventists are generally encouraged to pursue marriage. Yes, the church probably takes this too far sometimes. Yes, we should do a better job of caring for single people in the church. But for most people, marriage is the expected life-plan.
But often, when it comes to encouraging gay people to accept life-long celibacy, the verbiage about marriage changes. Now marriage is something our culture has made into an idol. In the church, we worship marriage. Outside of the church, they worship sex. For the gay person facing life without a spouse, we downplay the importance of marriage. We say that marriage and sex aren’t supposed to be such a big deal, and it’s not too much to ask a gay person to forgo both for a lifetime.
So two different ways of speaking about marriage: It’s a foundational institution, unless we’re talking about LGBTQ people; then it’s an idol in our society and celibacy isn’t too much to ask.
Creation is the story of how we are made, but we don’t usually treat it as a model. We do many things differently. We live in cities; they lived in a garden. We have all kinds of callings and careers; they only worked the land. We recognize that not everyone gets married (including people like Paul and Jesus) and we’ve even accepted that some people get divorced; they got married with a life-long “one flesh” commitment. We know and accept that not all marriages intend to have children; their marriage was intended for having children.
There are many real-world differences from Eden that we readily embrace, but when it comes to the LGBTQ community, no exceptions are allowed. It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Since it was that way in the beginning, it must be that way now. God intended only heterosexual marriage. Just as a thought experiment, let’s imagine that Genesis 2 said, “It is not good for man to be with man,” and God then created a woman. Can you imagine the certainty with which people would say that God clearly forbade same-sex marriage? Yet it does say, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him'” (Genesis 1:18). This is as strong a statement against celibacy as I can imagine. Still, even the authors of scripture believed that sometimes it was good for man to be celibate.
Yes, I hear some of you objecting that these other exceptions happened in the pages of the Bible, so we know they’re okay. But have you ever noticed that the authors of scripture never gave us any explanations about why it was okay to depart from the Edenic model when they did depart from that model? There is no explanation for why things have now changed. Why are cities now okay? Why can Jesus be single when Adam was not? Why can people have various vocations when Adam and Eve had the simple vocations of tending the land and having children?
The authors of the Bible didn’t believe Eden was an exact model to be replicated. It doesn’t seem like we believe it today either, unless you’re speaking of LGBTQ people. In that case, it’s wrong to depart from the original creation. I suggest that it’s time we recognize Eden for what it is: A foundational creation of all the good things necessary for human life. Not all the things that would ever be good, but all the good things that were necessary in the beginning. More importantly, it also tells us who we are as human beings, in the image of God, and worthy of dignity and love. That’s my next topic.
Two different understandings of creation: It’s a foundational starting point, but if you’re LGBTQ it’s the only legitimate way to live.
Genesis 1-2 tells us about the creation of the world, including and especially humanity.
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26-27).
From this text we know about that our basic humanity reflects the divine. We know we are valuable. Because we all carry this image, we are all equally prized by the loving God. Consider this quote by the late Miroslav Kiš:
At the highest level of life on earth—the human level—there are no classes, categories, or value distinctions. Both male and female humans are equally privileged to reflect God’s image.[i]
Yet this equality disappears when speaking of one particular “category.” In reference to the LGBTQ community, the same author states the following:
It is a formidable project indeed to reinvent oneself once the Creation pattern for humanness has been discarded. It is equally an impossible task to match the image of the reconstructed human with one which would incorporate fully the image of God.[ii]
Many authors, Adventist and Evangelical alike, make the same assumption when it comes to the image of God and the LGBTQ community. Suddenly, the image of God is a reference to heterosexual marriage and procreative sex. Suddenly, it can’t be fulfilled in a same-sex marriage. Suddenly, one category stands apart. I’ve never seen this logic applied to any other group for any other behavior that the church believes is sinful. LGBTQ people are a category apart, not fully deserving of God’s image.
Two different understandings of the image of God: It’s foundational to our humanity, unless speaking of same-sex marriage. Then the image of God is heterosexual marriage.
A Better Way
I challenge my church to strive for consistency. Please remember the humanity of your LGBTQ siblings. Please grant us the same consideration you grant the rest of the Adventist community. It’s difficult to grow up as I did, deeply in love with the Adventist church, only to realize you are also part of the LGBTQ community. It’s difficult to look at the church you love and no longer experience it in the same way. In many ways, my current experience with the church is unrecognizable with my earlier experiences. That was even true before I came out. Even when I fully believed the church’s theology against same-sex marriage and transgender identity, I could already begin to see that the church treated LGBTQ Adventists differently than any other group. Please have compassion for those who may be experiencing that today.
I recognize and acknowledge that this is not an easy conversation. These topics are difficult. Talk about them is emotional for most of us, and costly for some of us, but I believe the Holy Spirit is there to soften our hearts and help us learn to love one another better than we have in the past. Everyday I see more and more Adventists choose love and grace for the LGBTQ community, so I know it’s possible. We can move towards more equitable language, theology, and community practices.
[i] Miroslav Kiš, “The Christian View of Human Life,” Ministry, Aug., 1991. ministrymagazine.org/archive/1991/08/the-christian-view-of-human-life
[ii] Kiš, Miroslav, “Return to Innocence: Biblical ethics of homosexual relations.” Homosexuality, Marriage, and the Church: Biblical, Counseling, and Religious Liberty Issues, Eds. Roy E. Gane, Nicholas P. Miller, and H. Peter Swanson. Berrien Springs, Mich: Andrews University Press, 2012, p. 180. Some who believe in accepted theology have a problem with Kiš’ statements. I’ve been told this explicitly. Even though I never had a class from Kiš, he taught while I was at the seminary. Seminary students regularly pushed back on statements he made about gay, bisexual, and transgender people. They told him it was dehumanizing and theologically problematic. I would point out that many believe in accepted theology and would take issue with his statement. Yet this viewpoint is well respected. This statement did show up in a book that listed three different editors who are also well respected in Adventism. The chapters were based on presentations given at a conference, so there were a lot of eyes on this statement and significant institutional support.
Alicia holds an MDiv from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, as well as an MA in Clinical Psychology. In 2017 she came out as LGBTQ-affirming and as bisexual which ended her ministry in the church. In addition to a podcast and blogging on affirming theology, she has an upcoming book explaining affirming theology for Seventh-day Adventists called The Bible and LGBTQ Adventists. Her passion is helping Christians see why they can affirm same-sex marriage and support gender transition. See her work at www.aliciajohnston.com.