by Alicia Johnston | 19 May 2021 |
“The difference between you and me is that you think the Bible is hard to understand, and I think it’s easy.”
This quote is from a dear friend from college. She was frustrated with me because of my theological explanations for why I affirm same-gender marriage and transgender identity. For her, all she needed was the plain meaning of the words on the page.
This may sound surprising, but I can relate. I’ve said similar words myself, and in a similar situation.
A close college friend of mine came out to me as gay many years ago. After going through my own study, I’d thought the Bible was clear. I’d pored over certain verses and sought a text that would give me clarity. I didn’t want to guess. I didn’t want to act from intuition, sympathy, or comfort. I’d concluded basically the same thing my friend had concluded about me.
Basically, there were three points.
- The Bible says same-sex sex is wrong; therefore, all same-sex relationships are wrong, including marriage.
- The Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman.
- Gay people (and all people) must be celibate or marry someone of the opposite sex.
How had I reached these three conclusions? When I began my study, I actually suspected that the church was wrong and same-sex marriage was fine with God. A lot of that was probably because of my friend and the respect I had for him—I was hopeful that the Bible didn’t condemn his decisions.
But I was disappointed. When I looked for Biblical insights on the pro-inclusion side, they seemed to stretch the truth beyond breaking. They claimed that David and Jonathan were lovers, Jesus and John the beloved were lovers, and even the Ethiopian eunuch was evidence for the acceptance of same-sex relationships.
None of it made sense to me.
Taking the Bible seriously?
I also noticed this unsettling theme:
The pro-gay people didn’t, it seemed to me, take the Bible as seriously as I did. They seemed to be shaping the text to their ideas, not being shaped by the text. Instead of focusing on the intent of the author, these liberal approaches focused on specific phrases, stretching them beyond what the author could have intended. For example, this verse of poetry from the future King David to Jonathan:
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; You have been very pleasant to me; Your love to me was wonderful, Surpassing the love of women. (II Samuel 1:26)
Even at the time, a young person with a theology degree, it seemed to me that they were confusing the literal words with the intent of the author. Do the words sound romantic? Yes, but in context they weren’t. It’s just not what you would expect historically. It sounds romantic on the face of it, but I didn’t think we could really believe that’s what David meant. There is simply no Biblical context for this kind of romance.
Then there were the vague claims about the importance of love. Love is simultaneously identified by scripture as the most important idea, and used by society as broad justification for almost anything. I knew love could not be sentimentalized and separated from the law and will of God.
And what about creation? Didn’t God create men and women for each other? Aren’t we specifically designed to complement and fulfill each other? Aren’t we also formed to procreate through sex?
There were other texts the proponents of same-sex relationships dismissed too easily. They dismissed the traditional texts used to say that same-sex sex is wrong.
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. (Romans 1:26-27)
Reading these words from Paul, I found them compelling despite myself. They were the solid wall of scriptural truth preventing any movement in the direction of approving of my friend’s choice.
I had to be faithful to scripture. Scripture was clear, and God must be obeyed.
What is strange to me now is that I didn’t stop to ask myself the same questions of Romans 1 that I had asked of 2 Samuel 1. I was caught up in the face-value of the Romans verse. But I hadn’t allowed myself to get caught up in the face value of David’s seeming love poetry to Jonathan.
Why not ask the same questions of Paul’s words in Romans? What did Paul intend? Did he intend to condemn same-sex marriage? Was there such thing as same-sex marriage or an equivalent? What did he mean? What was the cultural understanding behind his words?
I didn’t ask. I chose the face value of one text and rejected the face value of another without any clear reason.
Now that I’ve become much more familiar with the topic, it’s plain that I failed to adequately wrestle with scripture and the possibility of same-sex marriage or transgender identity. That’s not okay. It’s not an affirmation of the authority of scripture, but an abdication of my responsibility to search the scriptures. God is not pleased when we say the scripture is clear and use that as a reason not to look more closely.
It’s not even enough to acknowledge that we should look more closely at scripture. We must actually look more closely at scripture.
It’s hard to do. When I was surrounded by people who didn’t challenge me, it was hard to break out of traditional interpretations. It was hard to truly consider that we could all be wrong. How could all these intelligent, compassionate, biblically minded, deeply spiritual Adventist pastors, scholars, and students of scripture be missing something so important?
In my immediate circumstance there was resistance to challenging the accepted doctrine, or even talking about it. Being in such an environment soothed my doubts. It was easy to believe I already understood all I needed to understand. The small sense of guilt, guilt that I hadn’t studied deeply enough, was easy to dismiss. In fact, I’d studied it more than most. I even had good intentions to study it more. That was enough to placate my conscience and help me deny what I really knew deep down: I hadn’t studied for myself. Not really.
There are Christians articulating affirming theology in conservative biblical terms. These books weren’t around when I did my first study. James Brownson, Matthew Vines, Kathy Baldock, Austen Hartke, and Megan DeFranza are a few examples. There is an organization called The Reformation Project dedicated to this cause.
Yet every Adventist book, publication, and statement I’ve read (and I’ve read everything I can get my hands on) refers to same-gender marriage affirmation and transgender affirmation as liberal. The arguments that they address are liberal ones. They often set up an explicit dichotomy between believing the Bible and supporting same-sex marriage and transgender identity.
From what I can tell, Adventist theologians have never read conservative affirming theology or considered the arguments. They certainly don’t interact with these concepts in a meaningful way. I’ve seen only one reference to any of these authors, and the engagement was sadly superficial. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Adventist engagement on this topic has been woefully inadequate. I hope this at least will change.
Adventists should carefully consider affirming theology. My education tells me affirmation can and does fit Adventist theology. Conservative principles of interpretation I learned at seminary are the same ones that apply to affirming theology. I have never had to take a liberal stance, disregard scripture, or treat the text any differently than conservatives already do on other subjects in order to become fully affirming.
For some of you who are reading, that statement will sound as bizarre and unlikely to you as it would have sounded to me a few years ago. I get it. If you are anything like I was, your experience and the knowledge you have of the text makes my claim sound absurd. But deeper study was nothing short of shocking and disorienting as I realized all we were missing.
Too often as Adventists we wear our biblical certainty like armor. We use it to protect ourselves from ideas that might be threatening. The result is that we protect ourselves from biblical knowledge itself. When I finally began studying, conservative principles of Biblical interpretation fit perfectly with affirming theology.
Why had these same principles that are used for other topics never been considered for gay, bisexual, and transgender Adventists? In accepted theology, I found huge leaps in logic, such as forcing texts that were about sexual assault or promiscuity onto the question of same-sex marriage. The differences were never acknowledged. They were smoothed over. There was very little wrestling with the text and the difficulties of applying it today.
I also found a darker side of accepted theology. Far too often there was mischaracterization of LGBTQ people. We were characterized as craven sex-addicts, controlled by our impulses and worshiping at the altar of desire. Too often, the mischaracterization made it possible to apply texts about sexual exploitation or indulgence to all gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Not all theologians did this, but enough did to make me deeply concerned that some of our theology might be based on more than scripture.
Few experiences in life have been more disorienting than this one. The authors I was beginning to question were not unknown to me. Many of them were people I knew personally. Many of them were my heroes.
I got to know them when studying for a Master of Divinity from the flagship Adventist seminary at Andrews University. When getting my degree, I spent as much time as I could in the Biblical Studies departments learning about how to understand the Bible. I got to know many of the people whose work I critique now. They are people with deep compassion, kindness, and love for scripture. To this day I can’t question their sincerity and commitment. Even though I have critiques to offer, I can never lose my respect for some of these generous and intelligent people. They mentored and cared for me. They are brilliant theologians who dedicate their lives to understanding the text.
So the question has to be asked: why was I seeing things they didn’t? I could never actually know the answer to such a personal question. But I have observed something helpful: When you really start to read your Bible, it raises a lot of questions. You encounter slavery, genocide, violent tribalism, sexual assault, and all manner of challenging topics and moral problems. Serious students of scripture are aware of this.
So what do we do? Too often we just ignore these texts. But my seminary professors weren’t content with that approach. We learned to read the Bible better. We learn to understand the intent of scripture and the movement of God to a better world. I learned a lot about these things in seminary.
In my conversion to affirming theology, there was not one single time I used a tool I was not taught in seminary. There is not one time I used a method of interpretation that isn’t already considered conservative when applied to other subjects. But it’s easy to apply these tools to subjects we already believe to be ethically wrong, like slavery or genocide. It’s very difficult to apply these tools when doing so cuts across the grain, when it doesn’t seem right because it goes against our established beliefs.
When we talked about slavery, the nuance was deep and the contextualization careful and thorough. When we talked about genocide in the Old Testament, the moral questions were complex and the textual detail was intricate. Motivations, meaning, the movement of scripture, the character of God, and ultimately the primacy of love and justice took center stage.
Yet when we talked about gay, bisexual, and transgender people, the nuance vanished. Instead we spoke starkly, almost mathematically, about the laws and behaviors stripped of cultural meaning. That it was consistently forbidden was enough. What was actually being forbidden then, or who gay, bisexual, and transgender Adventists are today, these were nuances we never acknowledged.
I know there are those who will say that focusing on the plain meaning of a few texts is enough. They will say that a deep, scholarly study of scripture is dangerous. They prefer simplicity. They think academics are too liberal and susceptible to manipulation. They think the whole problem is that these academics use cultural context to interpret scripture. They want a plain reading of every text.
But I’ve never seen these folks look honestly at the really tough parts of scripture. I’ve never seen them wrestle with understanding the Bible. I’ve only seen them proof texting and explaining away or skipping over what’s uncomfortable. If you want to avoid nuance and complexity, you must be careful to ignore large portions of scripture. It probably goes without saying, but if you ignore large portions of scripture you don’t care about the Bible as much as you might think.
The process of questioning and learning is hard work, emotionally and intellectually. But why should we expect mining the scriptures to be easy? I’ve returned again and again to the text, testing each idea against what I found in my Bible. I’ve compared scripture with scripture, struggling to understand the intent of the author and the will of God. I’ve read all sorts of opinions and analysis. I’ve mined the original language and the cultural context. I’ve gone back again and again and done my best to be open. I’ve prayed for help at every step. I’m still doing it. I’m trying to stay open and maintain curiosity. This is exactly what I believe God wants from us. Sadly, this rigor was missing anytime my seminary professors talked about sexuality and gender.
We can do better. I believe we must do better, and so I’ve dedicated much of the last three years of my life to writing a book that can provide some perspective I believe we need. Agree with me or disagree with me, either way you can probably see that the Bible has more to teach us, and the conversation is worth having. In fact, for the sake of the LGBTQ people and those who love them, we must do everything we can to learn all the Bible has to teach us on this subject.
Alicia Johnston is a former SDA pastor, a graduate from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and author of the upcoming book, The Bible and LGBTQ Adventists: A theological conversation about same-sex marriage, gender, and identity. On June 18, she will launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the completion and promotion of her book. You can follow her at:
- Twitter: @aliciaannej
- Instagram: @aliciajohnston25