Caring for Our Mother: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church II

In Part 1 of this series, I described the Seventh-day Adventist church’s approach to sexuality as a “spell” that dissociates members from themselves, confines them to different-sex relationships or self-suppression, and encourages them to lobby against civil laws for LGBT people in North America and internationally as well. [1] With a handful of doctrinal premises, a few has controlled the many.

But this isn’t the only part of the story that I want to tell. One of John J. McNeill’s contributions to my thinking is the idea that it is psychologically critical for a child to come to terms with his or her parents’ limits—and this acceptance must apply to our religions of origin as well as to our biological families of origin. According to McNeill, our Church Mother also merits our recognition and acceptance; she too reaches the outer bounds of her capacity as we grow; she too fails us and not always out of conscious malice. Her efforts have caused us objective harm, but as we mature, we have opportunities to care for her regardless of what she has said and done. The last few generations of LGBT children have lived out this model vividly: an increasing population of declining parents looks to these far-from-the-tree children for their elder care, and most of us are providing it.

I wrote that the Adventist church administration withdrew from healthful and helpful service to its gay members after its first official meeting with SDA Kinship a few years before I was born. This may have been the worst possible choice for the church and yet it was probably the best outcome for LGBT Adventists. By abandoning the LGBT community during decades that involved deep, significant changes in psychology, medicine, church history, theology, public health, and public law, the church forced LGBT people and the heterosexual Adventists around them to go beyond the church’s borders for fact-based insight, the latest research, thoughtful biblical interpretation, principled exegesis and application, and practical policy and pastoral guidance for homes, schools, and congregations.

I view the church’s treatment of non-hetero sexuality as a more extreme edition of its approach to human sexuality overall. But as McNeill has written, the failures of our church mother can spur us to grow up. Without coming to the outer limits of her capacity, we might never have learned to seek, to engage reality directly and without using her as mediatrix for our unfolding understanding of ourselves or our callings. In growing up, we develop moral sensibilities and ethical agency. And we can choose how to apply what we’ve come to know in our relationships with other people and those institutions that shaped us.

Green things grow.

Green things grow.

It is now 2013. SDA Kinship will host its 34th international meeting this year. I am 30. And the Seventh-day Adventist church is still a full two years away from reporting on “alternative sexuality practices”—a remit that, at best, represents a gross misapprehension of the science of orientation and gender and frames human variation in terms of misbehavior. The committee conducting that study was announced at the 2010 General Conference session and is due to produce its report in the next two years. Without any information on this committee’s membership beyond its chairman, and with its only preliminary contribution a doubling down on the church’s 1996 statements, I can’t vouch for the value of its outcomes or its relevance to my generation or the younger people who follow us and wish to remain a part of the church. [2]

Would my denomination ever dare to call Blackness an “alternative ethnicity”? I’d hope not. Yet some of its most vocal speakers and authors over the years have framed European and White American worship styles and music customs as the norm from which other cultures vary at their spiritual peril: ethnocentrism is an old art. Even if current membership trends continue and South American, African, and Asian divisions move to the center of the institutional wheel, their centering after years of marginalization will still fall far short of “unity in diversity” or any other model of organic collective flourishing. Imbalanced relationships among constituents undermine the grounded, healthy development of any group deemed an aberration rather than a variation. The church’s heterosexism has long produced these outcomes.

Cartoon of animals—monkeys, elephants, and others—being tested on their ability to climb a tree.

It doesn’t matter to me which of us get to live at the center of the wheel if some of us are relegated to the outer ring. I don’t believe the Incarnational Kingdom of God is about inner and outer rings, and, unlike the orientation change ministries I described in Part I, I don’t hold a theology of sexuality based on separation from our Creator and Source, regard a hetero orientation as the inverse of others, or represent LGBT people as “heterosexual people with a homosexual struggle.” That is not what they are.

Yet I believe it’s important for the General Conference’s committee to complete its work and report on sexual and gender minorities 35 years after ministers first recommended the study.

Even if

  • the church has preemptively described orientations other than heterosexuality as “a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world;”
  • a number of church members and LGBT people have already plugged out of this conversation because it does not reflect the realities of gender, intersexuality, or orientation;
  • the committee intends to represent heterosexuals as normative and all others as deviant;
  • by 2015 we’ll still have no rounded theology of relationship, creativity, commitment, or celibacy, and still lack a model for organizational and spiritual vocations that evaluate members based on gifts rather than gender or marital status; and
  • no LGBT Adventist has been invited to join the General Conference’s committee in studying the Bible, Adventist tradition, or current knowledge about the LGBT community

—it is still important that the church administration continue its process.

The next generation of Adventists deserves the best its denomination can offer, not as the end of conversation but as the start of it. The church’s contributions in the next few years will influence the climate in which youth grow and adults endeavor to shepherd them: even as our societies change, the church’s statements, retractions, explanations, and pronouncements will continue to matter.

Unwillingness to discuss openly is devastating: silence and shadows never saved a soul. So the 2015 study is important for the health of my church and its members. I have wondered whether it’s even more important that pastors, teachers, counselors, parents, and friends continue their personal learning and dialogue, though they’ve explored their questions so far with very limited support and in some cases active resistance. As Protestants, we have no Magisterium, and we also share with the various Catholic and Orthodox traditions a reverence for discernment and conscience. Neither discernment nor conscience is based on stubbornly abdicating continuous learning.

So, whatever the church’s judgments in 2 years, everyone in the wider Adventist community has opportunities to co-learn today. Some church members and former members are returning to this common learning table thanks to their relationships with LGBT people and to the documentary Seventh-Gay Adventists (SGA), which has screened in small groups since February 2012.

Poster for Seventh-Gay Adventists (2012)The movie does not pretend to see or tell all; it is situated in particulars and as such it has limitations (I’ve  discussed my thoughts with the director personally so am not writing out of turn). SGA‘s focus on couples, gay and lesbian individuals, and the lives of people resident in North America means that the Adventist community has yet to hear from unmarried, bisexual, intersex, or transgender people, and we’ve not heard the range of experiences that LGBTI Adventists have outside the United States or Canada, sometimes supported by their ministers and sometimes publicly demonized by them.

Despite these limits, SGA doesn’t seek to end the conversation: it is an extremely charitable contribution to a relationship that needs more charity, and it has resonated with people from all sides of the table. I know the filmmakers hope that others will tell their own stories just as Jill and Sherri, Marcos and Obed, and David and Colin told theirs. The isolation of the status quo isn’t good enough for any of us, and our church, our “Mother,” will benefit from learning with us.

“Homosexual people eagerly wanting to live the Christian faith, could they do it in their specificity, not in isolation or [outside the law], but also in the shared wealth of the ecclesial community? Would it not be desirable that these brothers and sisters in Christ are respected and accepted as people with an infinite value in God’s eyes?

… No one can be forced into belief and response.” —Ethics Committee of the Franco-Belgian Union of Seventh-day Adventists, March 2013

In the third and final part of this series, I will share how this context has shaped my life and relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.


[1] Sample lobbying in North America: VermontCanada, California [AB 1976 & Proposition 8], Maryland, and Washington state; sample international SDA lobbying: the Netherlands, KenyaUganda, and England. Additional links were shared in Part 1 of this series.

[2] Shortly after this article was first published on June 5, I received a copy of the committee’s appointed membership. The 50-member group is dominated by General Conference and world division church administrators, and includes only 1 woman.

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2 thoughts on “Caring for Our Mother: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church II

  1. Pingback: In Search of My Mother’s Garden — Walker | mackenzian

  2. Pingback: The Exodus of Exodus International | mackenzian

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