by Larry Downing
Challenge: Scripture does not, in explicit terms, provide an answer to the question of whether it is consistent within the Christian faith to accept into church membership gay, lesbian, transsexual or bi-sexual people who are in a committed relationship. In my opinion, scripture is silent on this matter. How, then, is it possible to form a reasonable and defensible conclusion when a significant authority is silent? True, there are texts one can turn to that address sexual behavior, such as the commandment against adultery, the requirement that one not lie with a beast, and other passages you have heard or read.
Question: Is it legitimate to apply these texts to the question of the GLTB individuals in committed relationships who wish to be members of the Seventh Day Adventist church?
Within the context of the biblical passages that address sexual practices there are other passages that command us to stone our son if he speaks harshly against us, stone the Sabbath breaker, the adulterer, and the two unmarried who are sexually active one with the other. Does anyone care to initiate an enforcement bureau to police and implement these rules today? This leads us to the broader question of hermeneutics: the art or “science” of textual interpretation. We read a statement, and from that statement questions arise: What was the author’s intent? How was the statement understood by the first hearers? How did they respond? How are we to understand and apply the statement now?
My hermeneutic—my method—is to examine a broad perspective, and from that exercise form a hypothesis, seek support for that hypothesis, and suggest a conclusion.
When we read the Old Testament we find a collection of stories. I maintain we do not find statements of theology or doctrine there. The Older Testament is not a series of “Bible Studies” or a catechism; rather, it is a collation of stories about people. We do not read about a 21st century church or the requirements for membership in a religious organization of our time.
If you were a Hebrew child you belonged to the synagogue. As an adult male you were a child of Abraham. You attended the local synagogue. You also had the right to enter the Jerusalem temple and participate in its rituals.
Were it possible for us to change places with those who attended temple services in Bible times, both they and we would be at a loss to understand the worship forms and practices. Ask the first century Jewish priest how we could transfer our membership from one synagogue or temple to another or ask how the temple or synagogue went about dropping a person from membership. The priest would be at a loss to give cogent answers. We might as well ask him to sing the Star Spangled Banner.
I find no record of church groups with established membership criteria during the time period between the Old and the New Testaments.
During the New Testament time period no formal church structure, as we know it, existed. The first Christians did select deacons and presbuteroi. One looks in vain in the NT for a church charter, membership requirement, by-laws, doctrinal statements or creeds.
It was in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries that we first find evidence of an official church organization. It is in this time period that Creeds were proposed, scrutinized, adopted and fought over. Bands of clergy formed and a structure was developed to define piety levels. Debates over what is the “true” doctrine went on for months and years. Heresy trials were common. There was a high risk of expulsion and death for those who believed or promoted teachings that did not conform to the established church teaching.
About one hundred and fifty years ago the Seventh Day Adventist Church was formed in response to the need for the church to own property and carry out other formal organizational matters. The church began to officially recognize certain beliefs as unique and essential to an Advent believer. The 1932 General Conference Year Book included the first Statement of Belief. Not all were pleased with this action.
Church membership in our early years was relatively fluid. People came and went with little official response. In theory, official doctrine is determined by the General Conference in Session. The vote to adapt a particular doctrine as a Fundamental Belief is one thing. Implementation of that vote is another matter. By GC policy, it is only the local church that determines who will be accepted into membership and who is denied membership. For example can an Adventist raise tobacco and maintain church membership? Some Adventist churches in southern United States have said no! In mid-western America, congregations have denied membership to those who raise pigs.
Based upon an examination of the biblical record, my hypothesis is this: Look at the larger picture. With this as a model, I suggest the following: The bible does not address many of the situations that we encounter in contemporary life. We cannot find a text to answer whether it is acceptable for an Adventist to fly in space. How does a person keep Sabbath when circling round the world every few minutes? In the same way, I believe we should not look to the bible writers to answer whether gay, lesbian, transgender or bi-sexual people can be accepted into church membership. Our task is to seek and discover how the bible writers addressed our human situation and pay particular attention to how Jesus related to people. Add a generous amount of charity toward all, and apply common sense when addressing sensitive issues. With these factors as a foundation, we can begin our quest to find answers to those matters that take us outside the bible writer’s knowledge and experience.
It is essential in our deliberations to examine the record of Jesus the Christ. Consider how He associated with, responded to and blessed many of whom we consider the wrong kinds of people— the political sharks—like Zacchaeus, sinners and publicans. This is a collection of individuals whom many would believe do not pass muster for membership in an Adventist Church. Yet, here they are as heroes in our sacred writings. Who let down the guard?
Put some sanctified imagination to work. Imagine Jesus in a face to face encounter with a gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or any other kind of sexual behavior that comes to mind. What response on his part comes to your mind? Cruel remarks? Jokes? Scorn? Compassion? Welcome? Love?
Today, when a request may come from two people who live in a committed relationship to become members of your congregation, it is important to acknowledge that the two people have an established relationship that has not been part of traditional Adventism. This is the activating incident—the transition, the point of crisis. Some traditional Adventists believe: This behavior is sin! We are lowering our standards. We will be vilified. In my opinion, the church is the hospital for sinners—and aren’t we all patients? Jesus always welcomed the outcast and those whom the religious society of that era vilified.
Two passages I present for consideration: The first is found in Matthew 16:19. In response to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” RSV
The second is recorded in Matthew 18:18: In response to the disciple’s question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” RSV
I suggest to you that these statements are applicable when Christians gather to consider important matters. Decisions are made, and actions are taken. These texts provide evidence that the decisions and actions, though outside of traditional boundaries, have authority. In our decision, might we err? Absolutely! But taking no action is not the answer.
Is it possible that your congregation is or will be called to such a transition experience? Might this be your opportunity to expel the old and adopt the new? Could it be that what you face is the Lord’s way of setting you forth on a venture that will lead you to discover a revival of charity that warms the soul and affirms the outworking of Christian faith within this community? I do not have the answers to these important questions. What I can say is that from everything I know about Jesus’ life and teaching and everything others have said about Him, it is difficult to imagine Jesus standing before an individual who seeks a relationship with Him and saying anything other than, “You are my beloved child. Let no one hinder any one of my family who seeks to enter my home.”