By Loren Seibold | 24 September 2021 |
I was given a blessing in regard to LGBTQ+ people when I was younger, though I didn’t understand it at the time, nor realize how it would shape my ministry.
I grew up in the narrow world of rural North Dakota. Questions of sexual orientation were not part of anyone’s conversational repertoire. I heard school boys use the word “queer” as an insult, but I didn’t understood what it meant, and they probably didn’t either.
For that matter, progressive justice movements—indeed, politics in general, except as it regarded the mythical Sunday Law and the terror of anticipated persecution—weren’t appreciated. I remember asking my parents about things we saw on television—black people marching in the South, or the Watts riots. They were, I think, as puzzled by it all as I was: it might as well have been happening in Azerbaijan as in our own country.
The blessing I received was the privilege of having friends at Walla Walla College who were coming to realize, in the context of our friendships, that they were gay. For reasons I can’t explain, it didn’t alarm me. I felt secure in my own sexual orientation. I didn’t find these young men attractive in that way, and they appeared to feel the same about me. I remember thinking, “They were my friends before I knew this about them. Why should I like them any less now?”
I married a wife who had a much-loved gay relative, who was similarly unalarmed by LGBTQ+ people. All of this prepared us for a pastorate a few years later in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we met and ministered to LGBTQ+ people.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether my culturally monochromatic world may have protected me from prejudices that I would have had, had I grown up in a place where people from different cultures had already chosen up sides.
I now believe that the best way to overcome prejudice against anyone you don’t understand—including LGBTQ+ people—is to get acquainted with them. Had I drawn boundaries against such people early on without getting to know them, I would have missed out on some extraordinarily interesting friends who are, in lovely and rewarding ways, quite unlike me.
Of course, I didn’t grasp all the implications of gay people being gay back then. And I wasn’t alone. Many religionists prescribed solutions: gay conversion, or abstinence, or just plunging into a heterosexual marriage and hoping that time and Jesus would scrub the gay away. This was because we listened to the church rather than to people—a perennial problem in religion.
(Short excursus: I have come to believe that it’s religion, not God, that’s the problem. Religion tends to be corrective, not acceptive; religiously conformist, not spiritually creative. It is against our organizational psychology to listen to a person and love them for who they are. And this is true not just about LGBTQ+ people: we in churches are experts at disapproval generally. The concept of “sinner” is central to our theology, as is changing and overcoming. Sadly, though, while we acknowledge our own sins in a sort of general way, it is others’ sins, particularly those having to do with sex, that we tend to fret about.)
Some of LGBTQ+ culture still seems terribly foreign to me. But I understand some things. I know that one’s gender orientation or gender attraction (forgive me if I don’t use the right words) is mostly baked in, not chosen. I see that to deny people’s self-identity is to war against something that God made them to be, and we cannot denounce those parts of them without attacking their essential personhood.
That gay people are in perpetual rebellion against God is perhaps the most damaging lie that religious people tell. Most of the gay people I know are deeply spiritual. Why wouldn’t we assume that Christian gay people love Jesus just as much as straight people do? My friend Alicia Johnston has studied for years to show how the Bible is essentially not an anti-LGBTQ+ book, and her arguments are excellent. The film Seventh Gay Adventists (in which Carmen and I appear briefly alongside a lesbian couple whom I am proud to have advocated for in the congregation where I was then the pastor) helped me to see that the dynamics in many homosexual families are very much like any family—which is to say again, LGBTQ+ people are not that different from the rest of us if you take the time to become acquainted.
I am here arguing—and please understand, this is offered on practical moral principles, not from a biblical text, for the Bible did not anticipate this question—that we people of faith need to acknowledge gender-identity divergences early, and not wait until people have suffered years of psychological pain.
A few years ago I was the supervisor of a pastoral couple who said they wanted to minister as a team. As we became better acquainted, it appeared to me that they were struggling in some deep way that I didn’t quite understand. Both were surely sincere, but there was a strange distance between them. She had often been sick or depressed, especially in her husband’s company, and would get miraculously better when she left him behind and visited her parents. It wasn’t until they had had two children together that she was able to acknowledge one day that she was gay, and shortly thereafter assigned themself an additional multi-syllabic, non-standard-pronoun label.
I’m happy that they (that is, the former “she”) found themself. The bad part? As they were rejoicing in their newfound identity, they left behind a broken-hearted husband and a now split-between-two-homes family. I wanted to shout, “Why didn’t you realize this before you married and had children?” But of course that was ridiculous, because I knew the answer: there was never room in the denomination they and I shared for that kind of honesty. They grew up, as I did, in a deeply conservative Adventist family where it was impossible even to talk about sex, much less about differing gender attractions. If they couldn’t admit it to themself, how could they admit it to their parents or husband?
I think I understand why this is so hard for families. The notion that gayness or transgenderness is taught or caught still exists, and that worries people.
“Why?” is a big question. Where did this strange creature come from, and how did it land in my family? Was it my fault? Your gay child doesn’t give you a good excuse for being so different from you: they don’t immigrate into your life from Honduras speaking Spanish, or from the Philippines with a taste for balut. They were born from the womb of the family’s mother, raised in the family home with heterosexual siblings, from the same genetic pool as a heterosexual mother and a heterosexual father. No wonder it’s so achingly difficult to accept! My friend Carrol Grady gave her book about her gay son the lovely title My Son, Beloved Stranger. What could say it better?
But we must do the hard psychological work to accept LGBTQ+ people if we value families as we say we do. For years, we Adventists said that we loved families so much that we would even disfellowship people who were divorced and remarried! So if we refuse to acknowledge that LGBTQ+ families can be happy and stable, and be wonderful contributors to both church and society, and insist that the only marriage a gay person can be in is a straight one—one that will probably be unhappy and end in a break-up—we betray that our real concern isn’t happy families, but following church rules.
Don’t think, as have those who advocate women’s ordination, that the way to make progress is to wait for the General Conference to see the light. Ted Wilson’s denialism on LGBTQ+ issues has several times been paraded in front of the General Conference Executive Committee in the form of presentations by Wayne Blakely and his ilk. Some of these homophobic LGBTQ+ people teach celibacy, others that LGBTQ+ people should suppress their homosexuality, and some even marry and create a (dysfunctional) family with someone of the opposite sex.
This is the triumph of religious rules over pastoral care proceeding from the office of a top church minister—one who himself has a beloved gay uncle.
Recently the youth director of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists recommended on social media the book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. The author, Abigail Shrier, revives the old arguments that were once leveled at lesbian and gay people: that there is an “agenda,” a “movement,” in this case to induce young women into becoming male. This excreta is being pushed from the very top of our denomination. (Abigail will make a great deal of money on this book from the many people who love simple answers that blame others for problems they don’t understand.)
That gay people still want to be Seventh-day Adventists, in spite of how they’ve been treated, could be celebrated by the General Conference leaders as a testimony to Jesus’ power to penetrate the hearts of so many people of so many different kinds—even a group our church officially rejects! Why do we rejoice at the message reaching people of many skin shades, of many cultures and many languages, in diverse parts of the world, but reject those of our own LGBTQ+ children whom Jesus has touched?
My observation is that things of timely moral significance rarely come from the top of any denomination. The church doesn’t lead on moral matters; it follows, and only when doing so seems in its best interests. So what appears good for the thriving of a denomination, as seen from these top offices, is not necessarily just nor pastoral nor Christlike. Often just the opposite. Those who lead denominations will—not intentionally, but surely thoughtlessly—be as narrow-minded, partial and prejudicial as they need to be to make the organization survive, people be damned.
I can say this without fear of contradiction: our denominational leaders have no desire for LGBTQ+ people to be members, on the terms that LGBTQ+ people can live with. None. They would like all LGBTQ+ people to disappear, unless LGBTQ+ people change in a way that LGBTQ+ people cannot change.
Many of them know that LGBTQ+ people cannot change. They know that LGBTQ+ people have families that they won’t tear apart. Some church employees have LGBTQ+ children of their own. None of this matters. It’s too dangerous for church employees to advocate for LGBTQ+ people. So they remain silent.
So let us not make the same mistake of those who keep hoping for the denomination’s blessing on women’s ordination. The church is too fossilized to do any of this—at least until it will be too late to matter.
We must pray that God will supply more Adventist congregations like Glendale City Church, that embrace the world’s diversity. We must pray for local pastors who can be shepherds of gender understanding, who can teach gender and sexual ethics, who are pastoral carers of those with differing gender understandings.
And yes, at this point, most of those pastors are going to be heterosexual men. I wish someone would teach them how to do this, and give them permission to. I don’t know who that will be, or how it will be accomplished. Perhaps LGBTQ+ people themselves could help—not by lecturing, but simply by being present. By showing by their presence in congregations that they are happy Christians and happy families. Because, again: knowing people personally erodes prejudice against them.
Let’s pray for all of those—LGBTQ+ Christians, thoughtful pastors, kind Adventist Christians—who continue to try to break down barriers. We may not change the world all at once, but this will make a difference to a few, and that may be the best we can hope for.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today. A version of this article appeared in Intersections, the magazine of the Glendale City Church, a LGBTQ+ friendly Seventh-day Adventist congregation in Southern California, where Loren and Carmen hold membership.