by Kendra Perry
GAYS AND THE CHURCH
Previous Articles in the Series:
Sabbath and Same-Sex Marriage, Part 1
Sabbath and Same-Sex Marriage, Part 2: Separation of Church & State
Thank you again for continuing to read and share your thoughts on this topic. I still have some more thoughts that I’d like to address on the decline of marriage and how this can be addressed in society and the church, so please look for one final column (coming soon!) on marriage and sexuality. But I’m continuing today with my promised follow-up on gays and the church.
If same-sex marriage were to be legalized, how could this impact the church? In response to my initial article, many people expressed concern that if gay marriage is legally recognized, that the church would be forced to hire, provide spousal benefits to, or even ordain married gays. Others were concerned that Adventist pastors could be forced to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples against their conscientiously held beliefs.
I believe there are several different questions here. First, there are clearly institutional hiring questions. Second, there are questions of church-recognized marriage. Third, there are questions of membership. And finally, there are questions of who is welcome to participate in local church activities. We’ll look at each of these areas separately, but the common thread we will find in each of them is that separation of church and state benefits not only individuals who are able to act according to their conscience but also church institutions. When the church refrains from influencing the government to act according to its morals, the government in turn cannot force the church to act against those morals.
1) Institutional Hiring and Benefits.
In the comments on my previous column, several people raised the issue of Adventist institutions being required to hire people in same-sex marriages and/or provide benefits to same-sex spouses. Again, I think there are a couple of sub-categories here.
Hospitals seem to fall into their own category because they accept payment from federal funds such as Medicare and Medicaid. There is almost no question that, were same-sex marriage legalized, Adventist hospitals would be required to comply with federal non-discrimination laws and employ people in same-sex marriages, as well as provide benefits to same-sex spouses of employees. However, I don't see this as a major issue. Adventist hospitals already employ many people who are not Adventists and who do not comply with Adventist lifestyle standards. They would simply continue to do so, as they have already done in the past.
Churches and schools, on the other hand, have much wider latitude in personnel decisions. Legal decisions continue to show that private religious employers have great freedom to hire and fire according to standards that they deem appropriate, and employees have little legal recourse. As long as adequate separation of church and state is maintained, Adventist churches and schools would be able to make hiring and firing decisions based on what conduct they believe to be appropriate for church employees.
Here we see that protecting the separation of church and state is a value to the church. It protects our institutional freedom of conscience as well as that of other minorities.
I do want to raise a question here, though. In response to my original article, one poster expressed concerns about being required to hire a homosexual individual for a teaching position even if that person were not currently engaged in a same-sex relationship. The concern was that s/he MIGHT become involved in one in the future. In response, I do wish to pose the question: do we avoid hiring single heterosexual teachers because of concerns that they MIGHT become involved in inappropriate relationships in the future? No, we make decisions based on the individual’s education, references, rapport with students, etc.
I cannot see any reason that a person who has same-sex attractions but is living a single, celibate lifestyle should be excluded from church employment any more than a single, celibate heterosexual individual. Of course, both would be subject to church discipline and/or changes in employment status if they would choose to enter into a relationship that the church deems inappropriate. Nonetheless, it does not seem right to me to discriminate in this case based only on sexual orientation. We need to stop seeing LGBT individuals as their orientation alone and recognize that they are PEOPLE first, with thoughts, skills, abilities, and a life experience beyond just their sexuality.
2) Church-Sanctioned Marriage
A number of other commenters on my original article expressed the concern that Adventist pastors would be forced to marry same-sex couples. This is another case in which strong separation of church and state is an ADVANTAGE to us.
Pastors presently have the ability to decline to marry any couple, for any reason. My husband (an Adventist pastor) has a requirement that couples he marries must participate in premarital counseling. He has had several couples refuse to do this, and he has declined to marry them. He is free to do so; it is his freedom of conscience based on his view of the sanctity of marriage as a serious lifelong commitment requiring careful consideration and preparation. Where same-sex marriage to be legalized, Adventist pastors would, of course, be free to decline to marry same-sex couples.
Apparently some rumors and news stories have been circulating that military chaplains are already required to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in states where this is legal; however commenter Gregory Matthews assured us [I have combined and copyedited a couple of his comments for clarity here]: “I am a retired US Army chaplain. As such, no one could tell me that I had to marry any couple. This is accurate in my present position as a VA Chaplain. In both positions I refused to marry some couples and I performed the marriages of others. The decision was mine and no one else’s. Those who claim that Federal chaplains could be forced to perform the marriages of homosexuals totally misunderstand the situation. … The military chaplain is required to act within the constraints of the denomination that endorses the chaplain. I once served on the teaching faculty of the U.S. Army Chaplain School. As such, I taught the young chaplains that they were not part of a Federal denomination. Rather they retained their denominational identity and they must follow the requirements of their denomination. If they could not perform the service, they should refer. As such, I have obtained the services of a Roman Catholic priest to serve Catholics in a manner that I could not.”
Once again, strong separation of church and state preserves our freedom of conscience to decline participation in same-sex marriage ceremonies while also allowing freedom of conscience for those who do support it to participate.
3) Membership and Ordination
If same-sex marriage were to be legalized, a strong separation of church and state would also continue to guarantee the church’s freedom to deny membership and/or ordination to those not living in accordance with existing lifestyle standards and/or fundamental beliefs.
Women are protected under equal rights in the United States and have been for many years; yet the government has taken no steps at all to force the Adventist church to ordain them. All steps toward women’s ordination have originated solely from within the church, and legal action has had no part in it.
Please note that strong separation of church and state benefits the church in ALL cases.
4) Local Church Participation
But who should be welcome to participate in local church activities? Must we all be fully sanctified before stepping through the doors on Sabbath morning? Should those who visit or attend the church also be in compliance with Adventist lifestyle standards?
If our mission is to reach the world with the everlasting gospel, then the answer must be a resounding NO. Jesus came to the world to seek and to save those who were lost, and the church’s mission is to continue that work. The church on Sabbath morning, then, should be a place where ANYONE seeking Jesus should be welcomed enthusiastically JUST AS THEY ARE.
Many respondents cite to me the story of the woman caught in adultery, stating that they want their attitude toward the GLBT community to be that of Christ, who told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” But let’s look carefully at that story (John 8, if you would like to read it directly from the Bible).
Before Jesus told her, “Go and sin no more,” he got down in the dirt next to her, created a space of safety where she was protected from her accusers, and assured her that he (the one who legitimately COULD accuse her) did not condemn her. He, the omnipotent, sinless God of the universe, looked into her heart and recognized not only the selfishness or lust but also the societal forces, the unmet emotional or financial needs that had driven her into that man’s bed that morning. And HE DID NOT CONDEMN HER. Instead, with compassion he set her free from her past.
How can the church (both as a corporate entity and as individual members) better embody this attitude in our dealings with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals?
Isaiah 42:3 says that while the Messiah is establishing justice, he will do it with utmost care. It says "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." His government is not one like Chairman Mao's, in which societal change is forced through by dominance, brainwashing, and re-education.
It is one in which change takes place gently, through the full cooperation of those being changed. “In His plan of government there is no employment of brute force to compel the conscience. The Jews looked for the kingdom of God to be established in the same way as the kingdoms of the world. To promote righteousness they resorted to external measures. They devised methods and plans. But Christ implants a principle. By implanting truth and righteousness, He counterworks error and sin.” (Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 77)
The gay community is FULL of seriously bruised reeds. The louder and more militant they are, probably the more bruised they have been. They have been bruised by a secular society that mocks them for not fitting into its rigid gender stereotypes. In many cases, they have been bruised by friends and family who could or would not understand and accept their explanation of who they are. And in SO many cases, they have been bruised by Christian voices calling them an "abomination" and the downfall of all that is good and right in the world. PLEASE STOP BRUISING THOSE REEDS. What gays need, just like all of us, is to know the healing love of a Savior who accepts us JUST AS WE ARE. That will do far more to restore righteousness to this nation than keeping same-sex marriage illegal.
If we want to truly minister to those who struggle with same-sex attraction, we will be the voice connecting them to Jesus. If our message of “go and sin no more” is so loud at the gate, few people will cross the threshold to learn that they are not condemned.
We need to provide a safe space where people of ALL orientations and gender identities can meet Jesus and build a relationship with him. And in the stillness of that relationship, we need to allow the Holy Spirit to work, in his own divine time, in his own divine way.
If we feel sincerely that the Bible speaks against homosexual intercourse, fine. But we need to approach that as gently and lovingly as we would (I hope!) the health laws with someone who cooks barbecue pork ribs for a living. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the first thing out of our mouth when we meet them. We can look for other areas of common interest and belief FIRST and build a genuine, caring friendship EVEN IF THERE ARE THINGS WE DISAGREE ON AT THE MOMENT.
Now, this article has action steps. Beyond just thinking and responding, I want you to prayerfully consider taking one of the following concrete actions.
For my straight Christian readers, please consider doing one of the following:
1) Read the book Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin.
2) Invite an LGBT friend to tell you about their life experiences: how and when they understood their identity, how they have been treated by others, how they came to live in the lifestyle they have chosen. LISTEN ONLY. Respect their privacy if they choose not to share with you.
3) If you don’t have an LGBT friend, ask yourself why not. Think of something you could do to build a bridge of community and caring with an LGBT acquaintance or a former friend who has come out.
4) If you have the opportunity, consider seeing the documentary film Seventh-Gay Adventists, which tells the story of several LGBT Adventists and how they reconciled their sexual and spiritual identities.
4) Prayerfully ask God to help you see his LGBT children through his eyes.
When we listen to their stories, we may not agree with the conclusions they all reached, but we should listen with open hearts. They may be the stories of someone sitting next to us in church. They may even be the stories of our children.
For my lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender readers, please consider doing one of the following:
1) Consider telling part of your story to a straight Christian friend. I truly believe that a lot of prejudice stems from ignorance. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.” If you’re not comfortable sharing your story with someone in person, consider sharing anonymously in the comments section below.
2) If you grew up in the church but have left it, or are interested in the church but feel barred from it, please know that no matter what any PERSON has said to you, Jesus loves you JUST AS YOU ARE. And he will NEVER reject you when you seek him. Also, please know that, slowly, the church is creating space for you. Please visit the websites of these different ministries to see if one of them might meet your spiritual needs.
Let me be clear: we aren't here to persuade each other. We are here to LISTEN and to grow in understanding.
If we understand each other, we all win.
Please listen respectfully and honor each person's experience, even if you disagree. Perhaps thank them for daring to share this sliver of their soul on this corner of the Internet?
Asking honest, respectful questions is always a good thing.
These are ways we can make God's love visible. Right here, right now.