Tuesday, March 18, was the first full day of the Cape Town Summit: "'In God's Image:' Scriptures, Sexuality, Society." Weatherwise it was another beautiful sunny 70 F-degree day in Cape Town, one of the world's favorite cities. People have been friendly and helpful. Most delegates are staying in nearby downtown hotels, within walking distance of the commodious modern Cape Town International Convention Center where most of the meetings are being held. I am surprised at how large a group has gathered for the plenary sessions, but Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, GC Education Director, thought it was a small group compared to the many education conferences she is used to.
There are 330 delegates, 40 spouses, plus others such as myself; though not invited, I have been treated graciously. Thanks to GC General Counsel Karnik Doukmetzian and Willie Oliver, GC Director of Family Ministries, I was able to begin the day with an official name badge so I feel included — a feeling I wish I could share with Adventist LGBTIs who had wished for a voice at this session. Like other attendees, I was given a program booklet, a small booklet by Ekkehardt Mueller from the Biblical Research Institute, "Homosexuality, Scripture, and the Church," together with the hefty volume "Homosexuality, Marriage, and the Church: Biblical, Counseling, and Religious Liberty Issues," edited by Roy Gane, Nicholas Miller, and Peter Swanson, all from Andrews University.
It has been a very full day, starting at 8am with a devotional by John Nixon and concluding at 9pm with the life experiences of three "former homosexuals": Wayne Blakely, Virna Santos, and Ron Woolsey. In between there were four other sessions: an "issues overview panel" of eight, a rather technical lecture on hermeneutics, the choice of a breakout session from among six options, and a lecture on the Old and New Testament texts touching on the subject. Though still suffering from jet lag, I'll attempt a brief summary of each.
John Nixon, Professor of Religion and Spirituality at Southern Adventist University, gave his first daily devotion of three, "Thank God for the Difference [between men and women]." He began by sharing at least five recent examples from the media to support his thesis that "it's a brave new world of freedom out there to choose your gender." This situation produces confusion in the church where many of our young people are seeing it as a social justice issue. Nixon said to understand the nature of something, you have to go back to the beginning, so he went on to tell the story of Adam and Eve's creation, exegeting from verses in Genesis 2 after learning from Genesis 2:18 that "it is not good for man to be alone." But, Nixon said, God was there, so he must have been making an ontological statement rather than a social one. It takes both male and female to make one whole; only then is it "very good." Our task is obedience to what God intended. Quoting a Hebrew authority, Nixon said in Genesis 1:27 and 2:22 the names can be translated "the sharp one/strong one" and "the perforated one/delicate one." In biblical anthropology, Nixon noted that humankind is always one or the other so masculinity and femininity are innate, not constructs. Nixon concluded with the observation based on pastoring and teaching on four Adventist college campuses that students are increasingly concerned about gender identity and sexual issues. They obviously need help (that's our mission on campus, he said) but moralizing does not help them. The devotional series will continue tomorrow and Thursday.
Next came the Issues Overview Panel briefly touching on the issues that have brought us to this Summit and what we need to know about them. What follows is a list of topics and their presenters:
Employment—Lori Yingling (GC Associate Director, Human Resources)
Family—Willie and Elaine Oliver (GC Family Ministry Directors)
Legal—Karnik Doukmetzian (GC General Counsel)
Pastoral—Brett Townend (President of the New Zealand Union)
Psychological—Peter Swanson (Pastoral Care Professor, Andrews University)
Theological—Ekkehardt Mueller (Biblical Research Institute)
Panel Moderator—Pardon Mwansa (GC Vice President)
For the first time during the Summit there were voices heard, however tentatively, questioning the traditional consensus. Some examples:
Willie Oliver: "Is this a real issue? Definitely; it is being encountered everywhere, people are hurting."
Elaine Oliver: "It's especially an issue among adolescents and parents; many are struggling with who they are and what to do about it. They're dealing with guilt but are silent about it. There are so many voices out there, the church cannot afford to be silent."
Ekkehardt Mueller: "The GC Committee on Ethical Issues is spending most of its time on sexual issues. For instance, a transgender member asked that her name be changed on her baptismal certificate. A single female member, never married, wishes to have her own baby by artificial insemination. How does the Bible help us answer these questions? Many young people see these as social justice issues."
Karnik Doukmetzian: "As states break new legal ground, more restrictions are being placed on churches and members (think Nigeria); societal views are driving legislation; advocates are needed to protect rights."
Brett Townend: "Unfortunately, the church is the most homophobic place on earth; this concerns me. People who are hurting aren't coming to church; they hear us making pronouncements but what are we saying about people, some of whom are struggling to the point of suicide. Our challenge is to do the work of the church which is helping people."
Lori Yingling: "People shun gays at church; those who have worked for the church have largely left of their own accord; they don't want to be where they are not recognized and supported. The GC doesn't get job applications from LGBTIs."
Peter Swanson: "We're pushing gays into the shadows; we're not safe to talk to."
To the general question "Is same sex attraction real or are LGBTIs rebelling?" the Olivers (who direct Family Ministries at the GC) said they run the gamut but their experience is that gays don't choose; leading up to the Summit they received lots of letters, and many members are in real pain.
To the question "What does psychology say about the causes of homosexuality?" Peter Swanson said it depends on who you ask; there is no consensus in the APA on how sexual orientation comes about.
To the question "What should ministers do about gay marriages?" Karnik Doukmetzian said "Be prepared with an answer before you are asked; possibly by your own children. Know the rules in your jurisdiction along with the church's doctrine and beliefs."
To the question, "What if a gay asks for baptism?" Brett Townend said, "Whatever you do, recognize that orientation is not sinful. I'd baptize without a problem; after all, Jesus died for them, but keep a close eye on them and protect them from certain members!"
To the question "Can a baptized gay be employed by the church?" Lori Yingling said as long as they are not "practicing," there is no problem of employment.
The panelists were asked for the most important question they are looking forward to hearing the answer to. Willie Oliver said, "How can we better understand woundedness?" Elaine Oliver said, "Finding a better response than 'hate the sin but love the sinner'." Brett Townend said, "How can we make the church a place gays want to be?" Peter Swanson said, "How can we make college a safe place for gays?"
Pardon Mwansa asked, "When the Summit is over, what hope will you be able to give loyal gay Adventists?" Willie Oliver responded, "We're all broken; submit to the lordship of Christ."
To a question from the audience, "What is practicing a gay lifestyle?" Peter Swanson responded, "Genital sexual activity." Another question from the audience, "What resources are available to help people learn about sexual identity?" Swanson answered, "A few on campus but not widely available; it is a protracted journey." From the audience, "We have heard about the pain of LGBTIs who stay in church; what about the pain of those who give in to the lifestyle?" Brett Townend commented, "Lifestyle conjures up the notion of promiscuity but many are just caring and monogamous."
From the audience, "Is it not unrealistic to think that homosexuals are not practicing?" Willie Oliver said, "The assumption is that if you are not married, you're not having sex. Both homosexuals and heterosexuals need to be treated the same way, sensitive to everyone."
When asked, "How many gays were invited to this summit?" Willie Oliver said the delegates were chosen by their respective divisions, but that there were three who had been invited to speak tonight.
Someone else wanted to know if homosexuals were demon-possessed. Ekkehardt Mueller said, "I'd be careful to go there."
One pastor wanted to know how one identifies gays at church in order to help them. Brett Townend said, "if you're open, people will start coming to you." Karnik Doukmetzian warned people about confidentiality.
Pardon Mwansa closed the session with the reminder that while we're upholding biblical values, being a loving and lovable Christian is still the best.
The disquisition on "Hermeneutics" by Kwabena Donkor of the Biblical Research Institute was timely, appropriate, and well prepared, but also quite technical for most of the audience, even with the full PowerPoints. He pointed out that the hermeneutical issue is critical among Christians because some say homosexuality is okay while others believe it is wrong. We need to understand hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation — in this case, of the Scriptures. He divided his approach into two parts, traditional and contemporary. Traditionally, it involves determining what an author "meant" as against what the text "means" today; often they are close. We also have to recognize that each of us has his or her "glasses" or "windows" which we look through that help us make sense of the world. For instance, presuming that the Bible is divine, elevating the Bible as normative, reading Scripture literally, seeing the male/female differentiation as rooted in the image of God, etc. Contemporary hermeneutics says what the text meant at the time of the author is very different from what it means today. Both the text and the interpreters are historically conditioned so we have to go behind the text to find reality. Then when a text is written down, that act changes the text in significant ways. A text is given to whoever can read; two academics will read the text from his/her own perspectives; meaning is a construct of relations. And it is not enough for exegesis to tell us what the text says; "semiotics" comes to our aid. Donkor went on to illustrate the different approaches used by traditional and contemporary methods in looking at the biblical texts touching on homosexuality. Traditionalists see what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah as sinful, wrong; the contemporary approach looks at what happened as a breach of hospitality. Traditionalists take literally the abominations of the Levitical Code while these are contextualized by the contemporary approach. So Donkor argued that the issue confronting us today is how we understand the nature of biblical authority. Traditionalists say God and humans have given us dependable texts.
During the lunch period I sat down with various union presidents and educational directors from Asia, Africa, and Australia. I asked how they thought the Summit was going. They felt it was good in conveying information and views but that we were too big a group to try and come to consensus on anything, so they worried that not much would change going forward. However, they thought we would have accomplished something if the church worldwide now treats LGBTIs as loved of God as well as of the church. A university representative derived some hope from some of the views expressed on the panel that showed sensitivity to the issues. A Nigerian said these things have not risen to issues in the church yet but he assured me that even now, members would never turn gays in to the government, etc., as is being advocated by some in his country.
Six breakout sessions were offered in different locations after lunch:
1. Church membership, ministry and alternative sexualities—with John Thomas (a GC Associate Secretary) and Elias Brasil de Souza (Biblical Research Institute).
2. Speaking to the media: hate speech laws and talking, preaching and teaching about alternative sexualities—with Garrett Caldwell (GC PR Director) and Karnik Doukmetzian (GC General Counsel)
3. Alternative sexualities and university campuses—with Loren Agrey (President, Asia Pacific International University), Lisa Bissel Paulson (PUC VP for Student Services), and Michael Jefferson (PUC Counseling Center Director)
4. Global legislation, religious liberty and alternative sexualities issues—with Dwayne Leslie (GC Director of Legislative Affairs), Todd McFarland (GC Associate General Counsel), and Alan Reinach (Pacific Union Conference Church State Council Director)
5. World religions' attitudes about alternative sexualities and implications for missiology—with Ganoune Diop (Director for UN Relations for the GC)
6. Medical and phsysiological factors in alternative sexualities: developmental perspectives and health risks associated with alternative sexualities lifestyle—with William Murdoch (LLU Chair of Psychiatry) was CANCELLED
7. Old Testament, Biblical Foundations and Levitical Law—with Roy Gane (AU Seminary Professor of Hebrew Bible and ANE Languages)
I would like to have attended all of them but I had to choose, so I went to the one I know most about: number 7. Roy Gane passed out an excellent paper, "Old Testament Principles Relevant to Consensual Homoerotic Activity." Its introduction states, "This study seeks to identify principles in the OT that are relevant to the relationship between God's community of faith and individuals who engage in some forms of sexual activity outside of (heterosexual) marriage. My primary focus is on consensual homoerotic activity as practiced by people within the LGBTQ spectrum The trajectory of subtopics will proceed as follows; first, the impact of the Fall into sin on the Creation ideal for human sexuality; second, evidence from the most important OT legal and narrative passages that certainly or possibly concern consensual homosexual activity, and third, some areas of interest to modern people that the OT does not address. Finally, I will draw some conclusions regarding the perspective that a faith community guided by the Bible should have toward homoerotic activity."
In my opinion the paper succeeds better than anything else I've read in being careful scholarship, coming to conservative Adventist conclusions, but doing so in a consistent, loving, and sensitive way. The paper concludes, "This presentation has identified an OT principle regarding sexuality that is non-negotiable for a Christian church that claims to follow all of Scripture. God sanctions sexual activity only when it takes place within marriage between a man and a woman. However, we have also found another non-negotiable OT principle that is just as relevant to our treatment of LGBTQ people: 'you shall love your neighbor as yourself.' The topic of this discussion is not merely their issue; it is our issue. If they are being tested, so are we, and it appears that we have plenty of room for improvement. May God help us to balance our application of his principles in accordance with his love which includes both justice and mercy!" As I observed in the Q & A after the presentation, this places an exceedingly heavy burden on LGBTIs, particularly those without the gift of celibacy, and I weep for the consequences.
Ekkehardt Mueller (BRI) presented the final paper of the afternoon: "Homosexuality and Scripture." It was a workmanlike PowerPoint presentation with an expected approach that characterizes BRI. He shared useful definitions, a history of the evidence from the ancient world and in Christianity, including common presuppositions. He rightly pointed out that the nature, authority and interpretation of Scripture is the real issue. He then went through each of the usual biblical texts that have been related to the topic of homosexuality. His conclusion: Adventists don't condone homosexual activity but they do support and help gays.
The day's concluding meeting introduced three redeemed former homosexuals: Wayne Blakely (Know His Love Ministries), Virna Santos (By Beholding His Love Ministry), and Ron Woolsey (The Narrow Way Ministry). Bill Knott (Adventist Review Editor) skillfully interviewed them about their early lives, their journeys into homosexuality, how redemption/recovery came about, and their views on current issues. All were abused as children, had parental issues, drifted into promiscuity and had difficulty with relationships, including rebelling against the church. Our hearts went out to them as they told their stories. I personally have heard many stories but none more dramatic. They are definitely not typical of the LGBTIs I know who have mostly grown up in loving homes, have and continue to struggle with their orientations, and are currently in stable relationships, still seeking the Lord and His purpose for their lives. Typical would be the three couples who tell their stories in the recent documentary "Seventh-Gay Adventists." One does not for a minute doubt the testimonies of the three redeemed speakers but it is quite clear that they are not representative of, for instance, members of SDA Kinship International and their stories. In my view it was unfortunate that "normal" LGBTIs were not also interviewed so Summit participants could get a more balanced perspective on the people we have been talking about, but not to, at this conference.
I close with a prayer for all LGBTIs everywhere and for the church which is attempting to understand and minister to them more effectively.
Lawrence T Geraty is president emeritus of La Sierra University and is reporting from Cape Town for Spectrum.
See also today's news bulletin about the Cape Town Summit by the Adventist Review/ANN.