By Loren Seibold, November 3, 2015: On Monday (Nov. 2) the Adventist denomination’s North American Division (NAD) executive committee approved, by a not-unanimous but still very strong vote, a document entitled “Statement on Human Sexuality.” In spite of the title, the subject was not all of human sexuality, but homosexuality and our relationship as a church to this group of people, many of whom belong among us.
I started ministry in a time when homosexuality was known, but never mentioned. Those of us who read outside of church literature knew that homosexuality was emerging from the shadows. People who “practiced” (a word I hate for its inaptness and condescension, but one used in the new document) homosexuality had begun to self-identify, to become not just open about their homosexuality, but proud of it, and assertive of their right to be homosexual. It even took on a friendlier, less clinical name: “gay.”
I was a kid from the sticks; I grew up on a North Dakota farm. Homosexuality wasn’t mentioned, except, as I got older and into the dirty joke age, in derision. In college I made a friend whom I liked and admired. Only later did he admit to me—probably as he discovered it himself—that he was gay. I remember thinking, “Well, I liked him when I didn’t know he was gay. Why would I quit liking him now? I thought he was a sincere Christian before I knew he was gay. Why wouldn’t he be now?” I never felt threatened by his sexuality. I knew that I was attracted to girls, he to other guys, and I had no fear that either of us would get confused about that.
I now feel that that experience was part of God’s guidance for my life as a pastor. Later I was called to the San Francisco metro area, a city that had surged ahead of the rest of America as a place where gay people didn’t need to hide, and even could be public figures. That wasn’t true in most of the Adventist church, but gay people did attend my church, and they knew that I was supportive of them. Some years later, I encouraged a lesbian family as they made an effort to become part of (though not members of) the church I pastored. That’s how my wife and I ended up in a documentary film, Seventh-Gay Adventists. I’m not sure that helped my career any, but it was something I believed in.
I believe that gay people have been made the way they are, that they have no more choice about their attraction to people of their own gender than I have about my attraction to my wife. I believe that Christian gay couples are real Christian families. And because of that, I can’t accept that these people should be deprived of the privilege of companionship or physical affection.
That’s my history with this issue. But in the denomination in which I serve, homosexuality is condemned. By extension, homosexuals were usually also condemned. For most of my ministry, I heard leaders and laypeople say that it was a choice, a perversion, possibly even a contagion. The only possibility for these people was to change and become straight. And some of us still think that way.
That’s why this new document shocked me (and I’m not exaggerating by much with that word). I never thought that in my lifetime I would see so many church leaders understand that homosexuals do not choose to be homosexual. That there is such a thing as a homosexual orientation that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean one is immoral. Nor that (and this is probably the most surprising of all) the leaders of my denomination would say that homosexual people should be welcomed in the church whether in a relationship or not, and that those who aren’t “practicing” (that word again) can be church leaders.
When I posted on social media that I thought this document was revolutionary, I got some push back, even some hurt and anger, from my gay and gay-supportive friends. “We’re still not welcome if we’re in a relationship,” said one. Partly true. You’re not welcome to be a church leader or a member in that situation. Still, the document says, “The Seventh-day Adventist Church promotes open church attendance and fellowship. Modeling the love of Jesus Christ, Adventists welcome people from all walks of life to join them for Sabbath School, the worship service, the communion service, Bible study groups, and other church-based activities.” The Adventist seminary statement on which it is based is even more blunt: “All persons, including practicing homosexuals, should be made to feel welcome to attend our churches while non-practicing gay persons should be welcomed into membership and church office. All should receive spiritual care from the Church (Gal. 6:1).”
There was a time when that couldn’t have been said, nor would any of those things have happened in your average church. Something much, much less Christian would almost assuredly have happened. This passage ought to be especially welcome: “Those with same-sex orientation who conform to biblical teachings about sexual behavior may fully participate in the life of the Adventist Church.” Yes, that means you can be a deacon, an elder, a Sabbath School teacher.
“It still says that gay people are broken and need to be fixed,” another said. Again, only partly true: there is in this document the assertion that practicing homosexuals are not in God’s will. But to the NAD leaders’ credit, there is not a single mention of changing homosexuals into heterosexuals. Plus there is a refreshing humility, for a group that usually thinks it has all the answers, about why people are homosexuals: “The Adventist Church does not presume to have settled the scientific and social questions regarding the cause of non-heterosexual orientation.”
The document didn’t go through without a few changes, but surprisingly few. Most people at the commenter’s microphones praised it. A paragraph about protecting our children was (appropriately) struck, because it could have been read to suggest that homosexuals were by their nature dangerous. (Pedophiles are generally heterosexual.) They added a line prohibiting church facilities for same-sex weddings or receptions. Dr. Ted Wilson came to the microphone to ask the group to strike a sentence that said, “Attending a same-sex ceremony is a matter of personal conscience and should be considered with discretion.” His motion was defeated; the line stands.
I know this document isn’t going to please my gay friends, or those who support them. With something like this, it’s hard to explain it in a way that pleases everyone—or anyone. Should one note what hasn’t been accomplished, or give credit where it is due? Of course this statement isn’t all it should be. As Daneen Akers, producer with her husband of Seventh-Gay Adventists, pointed out, there weren’t gay people involved in crafting it. That’s a huge flaw.
Yet being a pastor in the world of conservative Seventh-day Adventists for 36 years, I can tell you that I never dreamt we would get even this far. Just saying that homosexual people, “practicing” or not, should be welcomed in church, and celibate gay people allowed to hold church offices—it’s not enough, but it’s something. Just remember where we came from: it isn’t that long ago that the best our denomination could do was to condemn all gay people, call them perverts, and endorse shady gay change ministries.
There is plenty to criticize here, but I’ve tried to give deserved credit. I’m pleased to say that, in this diverse group, the statement was passed with very little objection. I got the feeling that a whole lot of people in this room know some gay people, have loved gay people as friends, family members or church members, and are trying desperately to know how to be compassionate without going against what their consciences believe the Bible says. There was no anger here, no willful exclusion, no (obvious) hypocrisy, but I felt in the room a readiness to be as accepting as Jesus, within limits that most here are unable to go beyond.
Yet the fact that the group did approve a statement that has gone beyond the limits of what we used to believe shows momentum. And the momentum keeps pushing. A statement by an organization like this is an attempt to drive in a border stake. The border stake seems at the moment like an anchor. But a border invites trespass. Like a speed limit, it is an invitation to go beyond it. It happened with divorce and remarriage, and it might happen here, too. In the meantime, I’m gratified that pastors and churches have in this document permission (for those inclined to minister to gay people) and instruction (for those who yet do not) to accept gay people into the church, and regard them as fellow Christians.
Two recent statements presented by Seventh-day Adventist institutions regarding sexuality:
- NAD Statement on Human Sexuality (Nov. 2, 2015) [PDF]
- An Understanding of the Biblical View on Homosexual Practice and Pastoral Care (Oct. 9, 2015) [PDF]
Pastor Loren Seibold is executive editor of Adventist Today and has been reporting on the NAD annual meeting for the last week from Silver Spring, Maryland.