Seventh-day Adventists are a textual people. We grew out of a commitment to ascertain carefully and deeply the text of Scripture and certain authoritative texts.
So I take seriously the text of the world church's official pronouncements whether I agree with them or not. The recently voted "Responding to Changing Cultural Attitudes Regarding Homosexual and Other Alternative Sexual Practices" (hereinafter, Guideline) is no exception. It's a serious statement with serious stakes.
As some worry, the document certainly could be read and used to disfellowship LGBT Adventist church members. It is worth noting, however, that the text of the Guideline, drafted and vetted by the church's most administratively sophisticated minds, carefully avoids calling for any sort of church discipline.
Probably the statements in the Guideline most directly relevant to the concern for discipline leading to disfellowship are:
"It is inconsistent with the Church's understanding of scriptural teaching to admit into or maintain in membership persons practicing sexual behaviors incompatible with biblical teachings."
"Congregational leaders, Church employees, ministry leaders, and institutions are advised to review carefully the Church's existing policies with regard to membership, employment, and education to ensure that local practices are in harmony with the Church's expressed teachings about sexual behavior."
Taking Adventism's textualist commitment seriously, I have read the Guideline, in conjunction with other statements on homosexuality and same-sex marriage made by the world church as well as the church's Fundamental Beliefs Statement. Here's what I've concluded.
First, the Guideline (in ways similar to the world church's earlier "statements" on homosexuality and same-sex unions) makes a distinction between sexual identity and practice, and chooses to focus on practice. I happen to think this distinction is false and meaningless, but to the extent that the world church makes a distinction, I think the distinction should be acknowledged. So in effect the church's Guideline deals only with those who engage in sexual behaviors that fall outside the church's teachings, not members who happen to be of a particular orientation or attraction.
Second, the Guideline repeatedly refers to the church's "teaching(s)" on sexual behaviors, but there actually is no "teaching" that directly addresses same-sex behaviors or relationships. "Teaching," as quotidian as the word is, has a technical meaning in Adventism, when used in the context of official beliefs and positions. The Preamble to the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church declares what the church's "teaching" is: "Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as their only creed and hold certain fundamental beliefs to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures."
Perhaps surprisingly to some, the Fundamental Beliefs Statements do not address the LGBT identity or same-sex relations or marriage. They only affirm the heterosexual identity and relationships/marriage, but do not disaffirm same-sex relationships and marriages. In fact, Fundamental Belief #23 even states, "Although some family relationships may fall short of the ideal, marriage partners who fully commit themselves to each other in Christ may achieve loving unity through the guidance of the Spirit and the nurture of the church." In other words, even if same-sex marriage were to "fall short of the ideal" (a proposition I categorically reject), it may "achieve loving unity" with the Spirit's guidance and the community's blessings.
Anyhow, in view of this "lack" – i.e., the Fundamental Beliefs Statement's lack of treatment of LGBT issues – the world church has put forth "Official Statements" on homosexuality and same-sex unions, and now the Guideline. These statements, however, do not constitute the "teachings" of the church, which is why these statements and guidelines are never referred to as the "teachings" of the church. In other words, because the Fundamental Beliefs Statements (which we hold "to be the teaching of the Holy Scriptures") are silent on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, the church has zero formal teaching on these issues. Thus, under this new Guideline (whatever the intent of its drafters), which invokes the church's "teachings" as the standard of review, only opposite-sex and extramarital misbehaviors may be subject to membership discipline of some sort. At least that's how the texts of the church appear to read.
Third, the Guideline appears to take care not to call for "disfellowship" by local churches. The first line I quoted earlier from the Guideline merely declares "[i]t is inconsistent . . . ."; the second line states "[c]ongregational leaders, ministry leaders, and institutions are advised to review . . . to ensure that local practices are in harmony . . . ." Thus, what the Guideline actually calls for is: individual leaders (in Adventist parlance, local church is not an "institution") to review to ensure that local practices are consistent with the church's teachings. A declaration that a practice is "inconsistent" with membership, however, does not automatically mean disfellowship. There's a spectrum of steps the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, for example, provides for "discipline" and censure, even if such steps are to be taken at all. To illustrate, ensuring that a local church is in harmony with Scripture and the world church's teachings on health, or vegetarianism, may not involve any sort of discipline, but "merely" an emphasis to persuade, not to coerce or discipline. Indeed, the Guideline gives no direction as to how "consistency" should be achieved upon review.
After all, this new Guideline is just that – a guideline. Take a look at some of the other "Guidelines" the world church has adopted – on trademarks, websites, music, and abortion (which takes a cautiously pro-choice stance). These are hardly the issues on which membership and disfellowship turn. For example, although in "selection of music by Christians. . .[m]usical and lyrical elements should work together harmoniously to influence thinking and behavior in harmony with biblical values," and all church websites "must be consistent with the beliefs and ethical values of the Seventh-day Adventist Church," according to respective guidelines, it's hard to imagine anyone being disciplined in any measure, for music or website that is inconsistent with Scripture or the church's beliefs, even if such inconsistency is objectively shown. Even with the guideline on the church's trademarks, the world church could sue you in secular courts for infringing the church's trademarks, but that guideline provides no basis for church discipline against individuals. Again, I think there's a reason why the recently voted Guideline is "just" a guideline, and not even a "statement." It is meant to express a value and a direction held to be important by world church leaders, but enforcement with church discipline does not appear to be part of the intent.
Even if disfellowship was on the minds of the drafters of the Guideline, the language of the Guideline hardly approaches it. That is, there is absolutely no call made directly to local churches to disfellowship individual members who "practice" homosexuality; the actual call of the Guideline is – for individual leaders to "review" with the intent "to ensure that local practices are in harmony." "Review" is such a timid call to make. It's completely up to the individual leaders what they should do with that review.
Thus, contrary to what it appears to say, the Guideline illustrates the textual void that sits at the foundation of Adventism's traditional discomfort with homosexuality and condemnation of "homosexual practices." It turns out what many in the church have taught on sexual identity and marriage relationships hasn't actually been taught by the church at all.
"What does the text really say?" The answer will often surprise us for what the text actually says – and does not say.
We can never stop being textual. And occasionally . . . we can celebrate the freedom that comes from the silences in our texts.
Julius Nam writes from California's Inland Empire.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6022