Last week, the General Conference (GC) approved a statement written by the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) at their annual Spring Meeting. According to Alissa Williams’ article on the statement in Spectrum Magazine, the statement passed the vote with no audible opposition. Essentially, the statement proposes ideas for how the church could consider dealing with transgender individuals, using primarily biblical interpretation. The statement, which presents ten “Biblical Principles Relating to Sexuality and the Transgender Phenomenon,” makes suggestions on how members of the church should act in regards to transgender people. The document even says church membership can include transgender people “As long as [they] are committed to ordering their lives according to the biblical teachings on sexuality and marriage.” According to President Andrea Luxton, who was in attendance at the Spring Meeting, several others there who thought the statement could be more progressive and accepting were still encouraged by the progress it means to instigate. She believes the statement is the church acknowledging that they do not have all of the answers on this topic, necessitating further conversation. Likewise, she notes, it leaves many questions unanswered for Andrews University. President Luxton does see that it reinforces the need for the church to be welcoming to all people, as Andrews will also continue this policy.
Although there may be some cause to hope for more progress within the text of the statement and the conversations it will inspire, the text itself still has several issues. The title of the approved statement, “Statement on Transgenderism,” makes its purpose and perspective apparent. Although the use of the word “transgenderism” is used in some medical and psychological journals, the use of the word is contentious in these fields. “Transgenderism” is certainly not a word transgender individuals or their allies would use to describe themselves. “Transgenderism” treats the identity, or the person, as a disease or “phenomenon,” another word the statement uses repeatedly. Both Adventist Review and Spectrum report that during comments after the statement was read, Dr. Allan Handysides, the retired Director of the Department of Health Ministries in the GC, expressed concerns about this wording, stating that, due to the committee members’ “distance” from actual transgender individuals, it is “very difficult for a group such as this to understand pain and anxiety this type of condition causes.” It would have improved the efficacy of the researchers to have approached actual transgender individuals to help inform their research. Spectrum published several responses to the statement from transgender individuals, all of whom note the use of the word “transgenderism” as problematic and troubling to them. Each cites this as the reason they read the statement with trepidation. If the research group and those who voted on the statement truly care about providing a welcoming place for transgender people in the church, their word choices need to be more intentional.
On top of its use of problematic language, the GC’s statement contains several inaccuracies. Primarily, the idea presented in the statement that “certain choices triggered by the transgender condition have come to be regarded as normal and accepted in contemporary culture” is not only blind to reality, but laughably so, as society is overwhelmingly transphobic. At the moment, at least sixteen states have “bathroom bills” in some level of consideration. In this year alone, eight transgender women of color have been killed, according to GLAAD. Even LGBTQ+ rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign have acknowledged their own erasing of trans issues and continual internal marginalization of this group. Just last week, a staffer in the Oklahoma statehouse sent an email derogatorily calling members of a visiting LGBTQ+ student group “cross dressers.” Inaccurately portraying transgender people’s position in society allows the members of the committee who wrote this statement to set themselves up as bastions of “Christian values” facing off against the world seeking to oppress them. Rather, the way in this case of standing apart from “contemporary culture” would be by providing overwhelming support of transgender individuals.
In Spectrum’s first article on the statement, it notes problems Randy Roberts, Loma Linda University Church’s senior pastor, voiced about the use of certain verses from Biblical texts, while other verses from the texts are ignored. Though it is relegated to a footnote, the prime example is the statement’s use of Deuteronomy 22 to condemn cross-dressing. Along with crossdressing, Deuteronomy 22 condemns wearing cotton and linen together, and recommends taking bird eggs that one finds, but leaving the mother behind. As far as I know, the GC has not issued statements on what sorts of fabrics should or should not be mixed, nor on what one should do when coming across downed bird nests. In fact, in reference to the mixing of linen and wool, the director of the Ellen White Estate’s website says, “In general, it seems to me that the elements of the ceremonial law are not to be seen as binding on Christians, according to Acts 15.” Yet, the GC is willing to use these same texts to support their ideas about how a person should dress. This contradiction seems to imply that texts such as Deuteronomy 22 should be upheld only when the BRI finds it convenient to do so. The church has acknowledged the distinction between moral and ceremonial law in the past, yet here, the group creating this statement seems to still be sifting through to find pieces which they can continue to use to ballast their points.
Another Spectrum article, written by an anonymous writer, discusses the problems with the statement from the angle of how it will be read by transgender individuals trying to find a place in the church. The writer points out various problems with its terminology and definitions, concluding that while the GC may have been trying to be accepting in creating the statement, they have failed to recognize the actual struggles of transgender individuals, and thus, have failed to craft a welcoming statement. Indeed, it seems the GC could have allocated resources in crafting this statement to researching ways to make the church more inclusive and to better relate to others rather than finding more ways to marginalize. It is encouraging that, as President Luxton noted, many who voted on the statement view it as a foundation for continuing to question how the church should mediate this conversation in the future. However, this statement, and the reactions it has been inspiring, prove that the church is still a long way from being the refuge and fortress it should be if it is indeed supposed to be, as the GC’s website states, “the hands and feet of ‘the body of Christ.’”