It was the opening night of the General Conference Cape Town Summit (March 17-20, 2014), "In God's Image:' Scripture, Sexuality and Society," but it felt like campmeeting or a giant "workers' meeting" — nearly 400 people from around the world greeting one another with hugs and kisses. The keynote speaker was GC President Ted N. C. Wilson himself.
He prayed that the Lord would bring the delegates to unity and perfect peace. He acknowledged that some very simple words, like "I love you," are the most difficult to say for some people. Another difficult phrase to say is, "I am a sinner." But Romans 3:23 says that is the condition of all of us. He said: We've come from around the world to talk about brokenness. We've not come to change or revise what the Bible says about brokenness. And we're all broken. No one sin is more damaging than another. Then he quoted from Steps to Christ, page 12, where Ellen White tells us how Jesus related to sinners. Jesus was never rude but always spoke the truth in love. Our mission is the same, Wilson said.
He then came to the specific reason for the summit: There are many voices today which are unwilling to acknowledge the brokenness of homosexual behavior, he said. God intended wholeness for all of us. Homosexual behavior is a departure from God's plan. There are people, of course, who twist the Word of God into saying something it does not say. It is critical that we explain the plain teaching of Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy. Wilson quoted Ellen White's Desire of Ages, page 258:
History is repeating. With the open Bible before them, and professing to reverence its teachings, many of the religious leaders of our time are destroying faith in it as the word of God. They busy themselves with dissecting the word, and set their own opinions above its plainest statements. In their hands God’s word loses its regenerating power. This is why infidelity runs riot, and iniquity is rife.
Common these days are editorials and legislation which seek to erase God's ideal, Wilson said. We're warned to remain quiet but none can keep the Remnant Church from speaking the truth as it is in Jesus — in other words, with candor and love. We're coming face to face with human brokenness in every region of the church. We must have the courage to speak against homosexual behavior with both clarity and tact, Wilson stated.
The reason we are here for the next three days is to listen to many knowledgeable voices regarding both word and practice, Wilson continued. We need to learn all we can learn while we are here so as to sharpen our understanding. He thanked the speakers for their scholarship. Your church depends on your faithfulness, he told them.
Among the voices we will hear are those of homosexuals who have found change and redemption, Wilson said. We will listen to their struggles and pain. He exhorted listeners to remember that their sins are no more deplorable than ours. Each of us has to admit our brokenness. We will learn how Adventists can minister to homosexuals, he said. The way some of them have been treated by the church may be hard to hear. We have failed to communicate to them God's love. We're more accustomed to our own "regular" sins — sins of pride, hypocracy, lust, adultery, sexual abuse. But sin is sin, he said.
Wilson went on: We learn from the Bible that man was created on the sixth day of a literal creation week, and in the splendor of Eden one man and one woman were married, so marriage was initiated by God in the beginning. Wilson quoted Patriarchs and Prophets, page 46:
God celebrated the first marriage. Thus the institution has for its originator the Creator of the universe. “Marriage is honorable” (Hebrews 13:4); it was one of the first gifts of God to man, and it is one of the two institutions that, after the Fall, Adam brought with him beyond the gates of Paradise. When the divine principles are recognized and obeyed in this relation, marriage is a blessing; it guards the purity and happiness of the race, it provides for man’s social needs, it elevates the physical, the intellectual, and the moral nature.
Our work must be to help those with distorted views, but to do so in the love language of John 3:16, 17, Wilson said. Romans 12:2, in the translation of J. B. Phillips, says that we cannot allow ourselves to be squeezed into our own mould. High standards are expected. The phrase "sexual orientation" is foreign to our use, Wilson asserted. Homosexual activity and pre-marital heterosexual activity are both proscribed — both are outside marriage. We are called to complete restoration in Him, available only in Christ and with His power, he said.
Wilson said that he welcomes the anticipated results of this summit; we are determined to call Seventh-day Adventists and the world to sexual purity. It is time for God's people to hear a clear word from our pulpits, in our classrooms, and in the pages of our publications. Matthew 19:4-6 tells us why two become one flesh, he said. Like Jesus, we must declare it with openness and tact. Never in this world do we have smooth sailing. In fact the challenge gets bigger every day, but remember Jesus is in the boat with us.
The disciples forgot that Jesus was in the boat with them, Wilson said. There couldn't be a safer place than in the boat with Jesus; He holds all the power in His hands. Our confidence must not be in humanistic social trends but in the truths of God's Word, he asserted. We've been witnesses to human hopelessness. Our task is to restore hope in biblical truth and to do it with compassion. God has the power to change sinners.
Elder Wilson closed with the challenge: Let's affirm our belief in God's Word, submit ourselves to Him, and look forward to Christ's soon Second Coming.
The principal purpose of the summit, as outlined in a letter to the delegates, presenters, and invitees from around the world was "to have a conversation with key people in the global leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to gain a greater understanding of the issues surrounding alternative sexualities, and to counsel together regarding the challenges the church is facing in this area, in order to find a way to be redemptive as well as obedient to the teachings of Scripture in a more consistent manner around the world."
The contrast to how society deals with this topic could not be starker than in the very continent chosen for the summit. Thanks to Nelson Mandela, South Africa itself has a constitution protecting the right of LGBTIs to marry, while Uganda and Nigeria — reportedly abetted by fundamentalist Christians — have recently passed laws that severely restrict the human rights of gays and lesbians.
It is laudable that the SDA Church is making the time, effort, and expense to carefully and thoughtfully consider this topic with a view to educating the church on a consistent redemptive Adventist response. Whether the range of Adventist views on the topic will be fairly considered remains to be seen. It was not expected tonight. One would not expect it from the General Conference president any more than one would expect it from the Pope (though Francis did say that while the church is not about to change its teachings, it does not have to concentrate on the teachings that are divisive).
So, in some conversations after the keynote speech tonight, worries abounded. It appears that the only LGBTI voices invited to participate come from three people who now profess to be either heterosexual or celibate and who head "ministries" in which they give testimonials of successful conversion. One worries that the denomination did not learn the lessons for its support of Colin Cook's disastrous attempt in the 1970s and 1980s to transform homosexuals into heterosexuals through his Quest Learning Center in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, a support and resource organiztion for LGBTI Adventists since 1976, has issued a response to its members' voices being entirely excluded from the summit, despite its offer to participate. Another place to hear those voices is WeAreSDAs.com.
Some have suggested that the current situation is analogous to a conference of "Reformed Adventists" holding a summit on SDA beliefs and practices without including the voices of recognizable SDAs. This was only one speech on one night — but admittedly a very important one; after all, it came from our world leader and sets the tone for what is expected to come. However, given some of the capable delegates we'll be hearing from in the days ahead, there will definitely be other views.
With Elder Wilson, I'm looking forward to how God will bring us all together in unity and perfect peace.
Lawrence T Geraty is president emeritus of La Sierra University and is reporting from Cape Town for Spectrum.