Summit panellists address sensitive issues


Cape Town, South Africa

A panel of experts at the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s summit on sexuality yesterday 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.

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

Those realities are already impacting the life of the church, said panellists at the “In God’s Image” summit in Cape Town, South Africa, on March 18.   

“Church membership runs the gamut between actively gay people and those who deny that reality,” said Willie Oliver, 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 acknowledge.”

Currently, the governments of 18 countries and 15 US states recognise same-sex marriage. More than 100 countries have decriminalised 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 realities.

“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 allow 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 organisation, in the US 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.”

Pastor Brett Townend (left), president of the Northern Australian Conference, and Lori Yingling (middle), associate director of the General Conference Human Resources department. The panel is part of the “In God’s Image: Scripture. Sexuality. Society.” conference in Cape Town, South Africa. [Photo courtesy: Ansel Oliver]

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, associate 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, he said, 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 recognise 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 baptise 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 baptised members still wrestling with sexual identity.

Pastor Pardon Mwansa (left) a general vice president of the Adventist Church, listens to Pastor Brett Townend, president of the Northern Australian Conference on March 18, 2014. [Photo courtesy: Ansel Oliver]

When 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.

Earlier in the day, Kwabena Donkor, associate director of the Adventist world church’s Biblical Research Institute, presented the hermeneutics, or interpretation, of homosexuality in the Bible. He said the main points of contention are differing interpretations of scripture—“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.”

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

For example, Donkor said, theorists supporting contemporary hermeneutics say the Sodom story in Genesis 19 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.”