By Nathan Brown … As school was opening for the new year in Australia, a Christian (not Adventist) school made national headlines after its new principal sent an ultimatum to parents. An email sent on the eve of the school’s re-opening, included a new enrollment contract that required parents to commit to their children respecting traditional sexual orientation and gender identities. In a heated political and cultural environment, the news about this school’s demands sparked media attention and debate. But talking with a parent from the school, I was struck by the reality that, while this ultimatum was perhaps intended as a shot in the ongoing “culture wars,” it was felt less as a matter of public debate or point-scoring than an action attacking existing members of the school community and destroying much of the school’s hard-earned community spirit.1
Or consider a different kind of example. A recent book I helped publish tells the story of a pastor—the author— who specifically invited six mothers of gay children he was aware of in his “normal” suburban Adventist congregation to meet at his home one Sabbath afternoon. Because not often talked about, most of these women were not aware that they shared experiences in common with others with whom they had attended church for many years. They arrived nervously, but the conversation soon flowed and new understandings and friendships were formed, with affirmation of their love for the respective children.2
More than a decade ago, I wrote a “controversial” editorial that asked questions about how we relate to LGBTQ people and dared to suggest that our first response ought to be modeled on the “scandalous inclusiveness” of Jesus.3 There was much response—a surprising amount of it positive. But one of the most treasured responses came some years later when, at a large church event, I fell into conversation with a retired church evangelist who thanked me for “that editorial.” He told me that the editorial had begun a personal journey for him that had a profound impact in his family over the ensuing years.
When one of his younger relatives had come out, this reputedly-conservative evangelist was the last in the extended family to be told because the family feared how he would react. Instead, he told me, he was able to respond with love—and a number of relationships in his family were strengthened, where they might otherwise have been seriously damaged.
I was struck by how these stories from different contexts demonstrate the introductory comments from a recent book pointing out that the primary challenge when it comes to how we respond to many social issues is not external pressures but internal realities: “We’ve done a disservice by painting sexual minorities as outsiders and painting this issue as originating in the outside world. LGBTQ people are already in our churches, silently observing, asking if they are wanted. We face the primary challenge of gay, bisexual, and transgender people growing up inside our churches and schools. The first challenge is about our own people.” 4
We can apply this recognition, by analogy, to many of the social and cultural issues that create controversy in our churches and communities. As much as we might assume about our neighbors, our family members, those we share a pew with, and those we work with, we are more diverse than we often assume. And we can do damage when we seek to impose our expectations of “normal” faith and action on others. While there are times when we should speak up, our railing against perceived outrages in the world around us are likely to be heard less “out there” than they are heard and felt much closer to home.
This article is not about the specific issues of sexual orientation and gender identities. I am not going to quote any of the Bible verses that are often cited—or employed as cudgels—in these cultural debates. Yet it is no less an article about theology—perhaps more so. It is about the theology of how we live together, love each other, listen to each other, and learn together. Something the Bible says so much more about.
These principles—and questions and challenges—also apply to our lives beyond the church and our witness in the wider world. Some years ago, the then Australian Attorney General made headlines and sparked public discussion when he made a speech to the national parliament in which he asserted that people should have the “right to be bigots.” He was speaking in the context of debating possible limits on freedom of speech, particularly in considering how that speech might hurt or harm others. It was awkward for some to have this question put so bluntly, even if in supporting that right. But there are certainly those among the Christian community who consider being considered a bigot a badge of honor.
Even as we might defend the principles of freedom, we must also recognize that the unbridled exercise of some of these freedoms are not without consequences. Whether in our churches, families, or communities, what we say matters and how we listen and respond matters. This is as true for our neighbor down the street or that mother sitting along the pew or the faceless person you are arguing with on social media. We might insist on our freedom to speak, but others will be equally free to dismiss us as jerks or bigots. Sometimes we and they might both be right—but by virtue of them being right, we are wrong.
When we resort to the language of rights and freedoms to defend what we might say or how we respond to people around us and among us, we have probably already lost the debate, even if only by turning it into a debate. We are called to live beyond the law, above insisting on our freedom of expression, laying down the verse-cudgels of the culture wars. Instead, we offer an alternative vision for life, for community, for well-being and seek to live it out in our churches and in the world around us: “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” (Galatians 5:22, 23, NLT).
We might have the right to speak, freedom to insist on our view of the world and how we think it should be, but we have the greater responsibility to love, the calling to kindness and the practices of faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we focus more on these, we will not only change our attitude to the world around us, but, it seems will also transform the environment of our churches. Them is us; they are we. That should require us to re-imagine and reformat our churches and communities, and rethink some of our assumptions, even some of how we have formed and expressed our theology in the past. But there’s no law against that.
–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. His Christmas devotional book Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth is great for seasonal reading and gifting. Email him at: [email protected]
1 Concerned Parents of Citipointe Christian College, “Why we, as Christian parents, cannot sign a school contract that condemns gay or transgender students,” The Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 2022, www.smh.com.au/national/why-we-as-christian-parents-cannot-sign-a-school-contract-that-condemns-gay-or-transgender-students-20220202-p59t68.html
2 Bruce Manners, The Command: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Signs Publishing Company, 2021), pages 90–1..
3 Nathan Brown, “Beyond Assumptions,” Record, October 4, 2008, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/AAR/AAR20081004-V113-38.pdf
4 Alicia Johnston, The Bible & LGBTQ Adventists: A Theological Conversation About Same-sex Marriage, Gender, and Identity (Affirmative Collective, 2022), page 4.