Preserve Identity of Church, But Minister to Gay and Lesbian Community, Panelists at Adventist Sexuality Summit say

By Adventist Review / Adventist News

A panel of experts at the
Seventh-day Adventist Church’s summit on sexuality today discussed how best to
negotiate issues surrounding the gay and lesbian community in a way that both
upholds the theological identity of the church and acknowledges the realities
faced by people struggling with sexual orientation.

Those realities are
already impacting the life of the church, panelists said this morning at the
Adventist Church’s summit on sexuality meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.

“Church membership runs
the gamut between actively gay people and those who deny that reality,” said
Willie Oliver, co-director of the Adventist world church’s Family Ministries
department. “We’ve encountered [these realities] everywhere for years. People
are hurting and experiencing feelings that some of us may not want to

Currently, the
governments of 18 countries and 15 U.S. states recognize gay marriage. More
than 100 countries have decriminalized homosexual
behavior. Thirty-four of 54 African countries, however, prosecute it as a
criminal act, said Karnik Doukmetzian,
general counsel for the Adventist world church, in an overview of legal

“Get involved in
understanding the laws in your country,” he said. “Legislative issues are
progressing; laws are constantly changing.”

One practical example, Doukmetzian
said, is whether an Adventist pastor can legally choose not to marry same-sex couples,
citing a conflict of conscience. “Make sure legislation in your country allows
clergy to opt-out,” he said, urging administrators and pastors to work together
to craft in advance a response rooted in Adventist doctrine and belief.

In the sphere of
employment, too, legislation can affect the Adventist Church, said Lori
Yingling, associate director of Human Resources at Adventist world church
headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

“Because we are a
religious organization, in the U.S. we have a legal ‘carve out’ that allows us
to hire only Seventh-day Adventists,” Yingling said, noting that the exception
allows church institutions to require conditions of employment based on the
working policies and beliefs of the church that potential employees must read
and sign.

But beyond the legal
and employment questions are the struggles of real people, said Brett Townend,
president of the Adventist Church’s Northern Australian Conference.

“We think it is about
policies, politics and protocols, but it is about people,” Townend said. “If we
just make pronouncements that rub salt in very open wounds, we aren’t helping.
We must both preserve our church and deal with the very real pain these
individuals are experiencing.”

Panelists also
considered the growing need to minister to Adventist young adults exploring or
struggling with questions of sexual identity.

“What we’re seeing,
particularly on college campuses, are students trying to discover who they
are,” said Elaine Oliver, co-director of the Adventist world church’s Family
Ministries department.

“Sadly, many Christian
parents are silent about this topic,” Oliver said. “When we’re silent dealing
with our children’s identity issues, there are many voices out there willing to
help them figure out how to deal with their identity. We can no longer afford
to be silent.”

Ekkehardt Mueller, deputy director of the Adventist world church’s Biblical Research
Institute, strongly agreed. Young adults today are “bombarded with
messages in the media.” Mueller noted a “shift” in mindset as younger
generations increasingly approach gay and lesbian issues through the lens of
social justice rather than morality.

The panel, moderated by
Adventist world church Vice President Pardon Mwansa, also discussed whether
church membership should be granted to same-sex attracted people who are not
acting on that attraction.

“The very least we can
do is recognize that orientation itself is not sinful,” Townend said. “Did
Jesus die for [same-sex attracted people]? Does he want them to enter into a
relationship with him? I would baptize them without too much hesitation.”

Townend acknowledged
that such a move could generate a surge of conversation in local congregations,
but said that “discussions must start from the position of listening, not
condemnation.” Church, he said, should be a “safe place” where mentors are
assigned to newly baptized members still wrestling with sexual identity.

Asked how he would
respond to a same-sex attracted person actively working to change their
orientation, but failing, Peter Swanson, associate professor of Pastoral Care
at the church’s Andrews University, said he would “affirm” the person’s
“persistence,” but would ask whether the person’s goals were “unrealistic or
unattainable.” Another factor, he said, could be whether the person has the
love and support of a circle of Christian friends and family members.
Kwabena Donkor

Earlier in the day, Kwabena Donkor, associate director of
the Adventist Church’s Biblical Research Institute, presented on the
hermeneutics, or interpretation, of homosexuality in the Bible. He said a main
point of contention is that people who disagree on an interpretation are often
coming to the text with different suppositions: “traditional” versus
“contemporary” hermeneutics.

“Contemporary hermeneutics creates a distinction between
what the text meant and what it means, and this marks the shift from
traditional hermeneutics,” Donkor said. The goal of contemporary hermeneutics,
he said, “is to set in motion this so-called extra linguistic world, the
projection of new worlds of meaning.”

One anonymous delegate asked in a handwritten note if, as a
subscriber to contemporary hermeneutics, they would be accepted at the
conference. Donkor replied that the church needed to maintain discussion with
people who have other “presuppositions” rooted in such an approach.

For example, he said, those who espouse contemporary
hermeneutics offer an exegetical viewpoint on the Genesis 19 story about Sodom,
which is then translated into semiotic and literary terms to show supposedly
how homosexuality has merely come to dominate the meaning of the story. Donkor
said theorists supporting contemporary hermeneutics assert that the Sodom story
is taken as a linguistic signifier, where the primary referent is not
homosexuality, but injustice, which is expressed as a breach of hospitality
customs and attempted homosexual rape.

“They are denying the basic premise that this was actually
an attempt at homosexuality and they’re trying to get around it,” Donkor later
said on the conference sidelines. “But as a church we need to dialogue with
people who have these presuppositions,” he said. “We write them off as
‘liberals,’ but labels don’t help. They are committed and we need to understand
them and talk with them.”

Daily news bulletins from the summit provided by
Adventist Review and Adventist News Network (ANN) will be available at and