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Searching Sabbath 23: Marriage and the Family

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As you know if you’re an avid follower of my blog (all three of you), Searching Sabbath has been on hiatus for a few weeks while I’ve been doing summer-vacation-y stuff. But I’ll be back with the last six episodes in this series over the next six weeks (I can say this with some confidence because I’ve already filmed them, which means my hairstyle is not going to change in these videos over the next six weeks, even though in real life it will). And of course I chose my single most controversial topic to come back with. Oh, go ahead, click and watch it. Along with being controversial, you’ll get to see me oversharing a bit.

First, let’s look at the SDA church’s actual statement of belief on marriage.

Marriage was divinely established in Eden and affirmed by Jesus to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman in loving companionship. For the Christian a marriage commitment is to God as well as to the spouse, and should be entered into only between partners who share a common faith. Mutual love, honor, respect, and responsibility are the fabric of this relationship, which is to reflect the love, sanctity, closeness, and permanence of the relationship between Christ and His church. Regarding divorce, Jesus taught that the person who divorces a spouse, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery. 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. God blesses the family and intends that its members shall assist each other toward complete maturity. Parents are to bring up their children to love and obey the Lord. By their example and their words they are to teach them that Christ is a loving disciplinarian, ever tender and caring, who wants them to become members of His body, the family of God. Increasing family closeness is one of the earmarks of the final gospel message.

As I say in the video above, I’m wholly in support of this statement: the only part I have a problem with is how the church is choosing to interpret the phrase “between a man and a woman.” In other words, in common with almost all conservative Christian churches, ours states that the original Biblical intent was a marriage between one man and one woman for life. However, later in the belief statement there’s an exception clause: “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.”

It’s pretty clear to me that this statement is in there to allow our denomination, like many others, to get around the plain Biblical statement that re-marriage after divorce is unacceptable. In love and compassion towards our divorced members, we have chosen to say (rightly, I believe) that the church will nurture and support those whose marriages have ended and who are embarking on second marriages. 

The question I can’t understand is: why do we not extend that same grace and compassion to gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in committed same-sex relationships?

Actually, what interests me most, after I’ve been hammering away at this question for so long (and I’ve blogged about this issue here, here and here) is not even the question itself; it’s how people react to the question. If the mere fact that I’ve raised that issue and posed the question that way makes you recoil in horror and place me in the outermost ring of extreme heretics, you might want to ask yourself “Why?” Why is this one issue — homosexuality, same-sex marriage, etc — such a deal-breaker for our faith, when other issues relating to marriage and the family, like second marriages or couples who are childless by choice (which is a pretty clear violation of the purpose of marriage according to Genesis) don’t invite that same horrified response?

The answer I’ve sometimes gotten when discussing this with fellow Adventists is that, well, there are lots of issues around adultery, divorce, second marriages, etc., that we can debate and discuss how to handle them, but gay sex is always wrong, that’s a Biblical absolute we can’t tamper with. But why? Why do we take Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female: it is an abomination”) as an absolute, always-applicable statement, and take Jesus’ own words in Luke 16:18 (“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery”) as open to negotiation?

I’m pretty sure the reason we do this has everything to do with deep-seated distrust of and bigotry against gay people, and very little to do with how we actually read and interpret the Bible. Using the same texts and the same guiding principles that drive our approach to marriage and the family now, we could just as easily conclude that monogamy, not gender, is the deal-breaking factor in decided which marriages will be accepted and supported by the church.

I realize this discussion could (and probably will) go on forever, but this blog post can’t, so I want to raise two points before I go and we leave this whatever people might want to bring up in comments.

1. I do understand that the Seventh-day Adventist church is not about to change its views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage anytime soon. But even without such a radical re-thinking of our teaching on marriage and the family, there are a number of things we could be doing to be more Christlike in our treatment of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We could return to our traditional stance on religious liberty and affirm that same-sex marriages or civil unions should be legal because it’s unfair to deny anyone else equal rights because of our religious teachings. We could speak out strongly against the bullying that gay and lesbian teens often face in schools and, yes, in churches. We could offer greater support and encouragement to those gay and lesbian Christians in our midst who attempt to do exactly what we claim they should be doing — living celibate lives, but who often still feel they need to hide who they are. And we could treat gay and lesbian couples who worship in our midst at least as respectfully as we treat divorced and remarried straight people. Without any serious re-evaluation of our theology on sexuality and marriage, we could be doing a lot more to demonstrate love, grace and compassion. I honestly think the vast majority of conservative Christians have no concept of the amount of judgement, hate and condemnation to which gays and lesbians are subjected — often in church and in the name of a loving God.

2. Finally, I want to put three situations before you and ask you to think about your response. As I read both my Bible and my SDA church teachings, these situations are roughly parallel in many ways.

a. Jan is married to Herb, who is abusive. Fearing for her own safety and that of her children, Jan leaves Herb and gets a divorce. Herb insists that she is still his wife and should come back to him. Jan moves with her children to another city, where she meets and eventually marries Frank, a kind and gentle Christian man who is a good stepfather to her children. Her ex-husband, Herb, remains unmarried.

b. Josh and Suzi get married right after high school. Though they are very much in love, they have a difficult time making their marriage work out and frequently argue. After five years of marriage, they simply can’t make it work anymore, Though neither has cheated on the other, they go their separate ways and get divorced. A few years later, Suzi remains unmarried, but Josh has fallen in love with Anne, a young woman who attends his church and is much more compatible with him than Suzi was. Josh and Anne get married and shortly afterwards start a family.

c. Trevor is a young gay man who has grown up in church believing that he has to keep his sexual identity a secret if he is to be accepted. In university he meets Derek, who is also a Christian. After being close friends and then dating for awhile, Trevor and Derek get married and later adopt a baby.

My question is, if these three couples — Jan and Frank, Josh and Anne, Trevor and Derek — showed up in your church along with their children, how would they be treated? According to the strictest interpretation of the Scriptures and of the teachings of the SDA church (and several other conservative denominations), none of these three relationships is a valid marriage. While most clergy today would be extremely sympathetic to Jan’s plight and her decision to leave Herb (though there are still some, regrettably, who would counsel her to stay with her abuser, a horrible piece of advice that would have been far more common in the past), she is not free to remarry, nor is Josh in case B, because in both situations their former partner has not committed adultery.

In practical terms in most Adventist churches, this means that the couples in cases A and B would have their wedding ceremony performed quietly either by a justice of the peace or a minister from another denomination, and then go on attending their SDA church. In many churches they would be welcomed immediately into an active role in church life (or allowed to continue an active role if that’s what they had been doing before). In some more conservative denominations there would be a period of “censure,” several months to a year, in which they would be obliquely punished for remarrying before their previous spouses did — the censure usually taking the form of not allowing them to hold church office. If that didn’t turn them off the church, they would generally be welcomed into full membership and participation when the period of censure was over. Either way, in practical terms, almost no-one would question the right of Jan and Frank, or Josh and Anne, to attend and participate in church.

But Trevor and Derek? In the vast majority of Adventist churches, they and their child would not be welcome as members of the congregation, much less allowed to hold church office or participate in any leadership role — not for a designated period of “censure,” but for life.

Why? What’s the theological difference between the three situations? And if, in reading these three stories, your immediate reaction is sympathy for Jan and Frank, and for Josh and Anne, but disgust towards Trevor and Derek — why? Where is that response coming from? From Scripture, or from your own biases?

I think, at the very least, it’s a question worth asking and discussing.

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3 thoughts on “Searching Sabbath 23: Marriage and the Family

  1. Excellent blog and questions

    I find it sad that this issue remains a hot topic in so many circles. In a month where chemical weapons and car bombs were used in the Middle East to kill thousands and where millions of refugees are fleeing war and where women are raped in India etc that some groups still rant and rave about who a consenting adult loves is beyond bizarre!

    In my circle of friends and acquaintances the issue of gay love and gay marriage is a non issue and is viewed the same as the black-white marriage/dating controversies of the 1970’s.

    I suspect that 10 years from now it will be a non issue in most SDA churches. Thank Gos

    WMSJDQC

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more! Glad to see love being brought into the equation. Wish more Adventists – even Christians – would see it the way you do.

  3. I also agree with everything you said! The gospel will have much more power when we Christians lay down our prejudice and pre-conceived ideas and say “Neither do I condemn you”.

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