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Report from the Cape Town Summit: Fourth and Final Day

An apology

I begin my final report of the GC Summit in Cape Town with an apology.  In my second report I said the following about Lori Yingling's participation in a panel discussing the issues that brought about the conference:  “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.”  

She says she didn't say that, so Adventist Review Editor Bill Knott kindly gave me his notes from that day which put what she said this way:  “Stories of homosexuals who have left church employment of their own accord. ‘Well; I'm gay; because I know how the church feels about homosexuals.’ These individuals do not feel comfortable going to church or working in our organizations.  It's difficult in the employment realm; we must be compassionate, but in the US we are hiring only SDAs.  This is allowing us not to hire homosexuals.”  

In my summary of her remarks I evidently gave the wrong nuance for which I apologize.  This gives me the opportunity for a disclaimer:  I have made every attempt to be fair in my reporting.  I myself don't like to be misquoted. One can imagine in a meeting like this that lasts all day that a reporter, sometimes distracted, can easily mis-summarize remarks.  If that happens it is due to my human frailties and is not intentional.  If I've offended anyone else, I apologize in advance.

Daily devotional by John Nixon

March 20, 2014, has been the last day of the GC Summit, “In God's Image: Scripture, Sexuality, Society.”  It began with the last (and in my view, best) of John Nixon's three daily devotionals, “Giving Our Sexuality to God.”  It began with an account of a meeting Nixon and another university official had with a student who was addicted to pornography.  The student replied to their counsel: “You've already taken sex away from us and now you're trying to take this away, too!”  

This remark illustrates the current common view that chastity and celibacy are unreasonable expectations.  Contrast that with the Bible view that there is an ample reward from giving your sexuality to God.  Nixon's text, Genesis 39:6-8, tells the story of Potiphar's wife asking Joseph to go to bed with her, but he refused.  Why did he refuse the advance of his boss’s wife? He could have easily rationalized acquiescence due to circumstances. After all, he was only 17.  He was at the height of his sexual power with no outlet.  He could have said, “nature just took over.”  He was far from family in a foreign land.  He didn't approach her; she approached him.  He could easily have thought, “no one needs to ever know.”  There were many good excuses that would have allowed him to give in.  

But we learn that Joseph had at least two important attributes: integrity and faithfulness.  He said, “how can I sin against God!”  He showed firm adherence to the code of moral conduct passed on to him by his community.  He knew we demonstrate our values, not only by what we say, but what we do.  

Nixon shared some verses from “Sermons We See,” the poem by Edgar Guest.  The key thought was: “I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”  

Sexual sin lends itself to secrecy where no one sees, but as we all know, private moments are the ones that reveal character.  Proverbs 11:3 says the unfaithful are destroyed by duplicity.  That brings us to Joseph's second attribute:  faithfulness.  Going on with the story in Genesis 39:8-12, we learn that Joseph left his cloak in the hands of Potiphar's wife.  She didn't give up easily, did she?  But Joseph saw himself not just as Potiphar's slave, but as God's servant.  

We learn from his experience that faith allows us to accept God's plan for our lives.  Yes, faithfulness can cost us, but in the end, it is worth it. Temptations are a test of our loyalty.   Joseph said, “How can I do this thing and sin against God?”  Discipline and self-control are developed by faithfulness.  Nixon told his audience that he's lived long enough to care more about being loyal to God than anything else.  

He closed with a story about former GC president J. L. McElhany who was said to have red peppers in his garden. He also had a red stick with just the shade of red that matched the color of his peppers when they were ripe.  He would only pick his peppers when their color matched the red on his stick.  Nixon said God, too, has a stick and he will only pick for the harvest those who are ready.

Delegates’ feedback

Before the next plenary session kicked off, GC vice president Delbert Baker, chair for the day, shared with the audience some of the responses he received when he randomly asked delegates the question: “How do you feel about the conference so far?”  

The answers:  

  • balanced
  • apprehensive at first but I like how it's going
  • I'm being broadened
  • we now own a common language for discussion
  • I'm being educated and enlightened
  • I'm proud of church that reaches out without compromising
  • the Lord has been guiding
  • we needed to have done this long ago

When Baker asked us to turn to the ones sitting next to us and ask the same question, I turned to two European academics.  Their comments resonated with my own: “the social scientists seem to be ahead of the theologians in their understanding of the topic,” and “I was apprehensive at first but have been pleasantly surprised at the balance; it's a good start.”

Ethics and Ministry by Miroslav Kis

Miroslav Kis, chair of the Andrews University Seminary's Department of Theology and Philosophy, had been assigned the topic “Ethics and Ministry.”  

He called his presentation “Return to Innocence.”  He took his theme from the Genesis Creation and Fall stories where Adam and Eve were both naked but not ashamed.  He spent some time talking about the human states of innocence, guilt, and shame.  In the state of innocence, Adam and Eve were shameless and unblushing, without false modesty, and open to the future.  

Guilt can be both objective and subjective; it is possible to feel guilty without being guilty and to be guilty without feeling it.  All have sinned but forgiveness takes care of guilt.  Of course guilt can be pathological, especially when ignoring grace.  Shame arises from our failure to live up to our own image; it is humanity's grief for estrangement — we're ashamed of our nakedness.  It is pathological when internalized.  

Guilt and shame can serve a good purpose when they are a warning.  This is seen in David's Psalm 51 where he owned his shame and was clothed anew.  Compare the story to Luke 15 where innocence returned.  Contrast Romans 1 where Paul names some abominable acts where control over consequences is missing.  Homosexuality is shameless because it is unnatural, turning one's face away from God, Kis said.  Shame is private. Kis said his heart goes out to the three “redeemed” homosexuals who spoke the night before because they had to “reinvent” themselves.  

So what do we do for gays?  How do we relate?  We have to “come alongside,” walk and talk with them.  In this regard both church and society have let them down; we should have been more open to friendship and help.  We know where we want to be (the “ought”) but we're not there yet (the “is”).  Yesterday's “is” becomes today's “ought.”  

There is a social cry in the West for gays but there is a risk in imposing majority norms, Kis said.  Crowds are fickle; morality is relativized.  A majority vote is not always right.  There are factors that hinder homosexuals from finding healing.  Homosexual people and homosexual acts are not interchangeable.  Homosexual individuals are not to be treated in the abstract.  In God's eyes, homosexual acts have a cure (God's love).  They are not the unpardonable sin; Jesus can save to the uttermost.  

Kis concluded by sharing his own experience — his father died when he was a child.  A church elder used to come and play with him and mentor him and helped to make up for his loss during a very formative time.  Later, when he was in the Yugoslavian Communist army he was treated generously and kindly by a sympathetic captain.  

He then told how he tried to be the father he needed to his sons as they were growing up.  Children don't need presents; they need presence.  His appeal:  let's be sensible committed human beings to other human beings who need our friendship.

In the following question and answer period, additional insights were shared: Sensitivity to felt needs is important; no one should cry alone.  Paul said, “we're members of each other.”  It is not sinful to have doubts and problems; they are easier to bear when they're brought out into the open in the presence of a trusted companion.  

How can we expect to help gays when the church has already made clear that it rejects them?   Befriend them before the tough discussions; be mutually vulnerable to each other.  Consciously reach out in love, mingle. There is a difference between affirming a person and affirming his/her behavior.  Jesus said adultery happens in the head, not just in the bed. 

Conversation with Ron Woolsey

During the break I had a very interesting conversation with Ron Woolsey, one of the “redeemed” homosexuals who had spoken the evening before.  I asked him how he has succeeded in transitioning out of homosexuality when so few others seem able to do so.  He said he consciously decided he would no longer be gay but decided to be heterosexual.  This doesn't mean he's no longer tempted but he now knows how to resist temptation. It's a daily decision, which God blesses with the power to resist, he said. To do this, he had to move away from his friends and their influences and reestablish himself in a completely different part of the country where he constructed a new social network.  In a sense, he said, he “worked out his own salvation” — not in the sense of being works-oriented but just reading and determining his own plan for his life, with God's guidance and blessing. I asked him about his reaction to the summit.  He thinks it is high time that the denomination start talking about these issues; he had no resources, help, or understanding when he made his decision to start a new life.

Breakout sessions reports

After a quick break, certain individuals were asked to summarize and report on what had happened in the breakout sessions during the previous two days.  I found it very difficult to take notes on these brief reports, which varied a great deal in quality and usefulness.  My previous two reports listed the speakers and topics of these breakouts.  Here I will only capture a few of the comments from today's summaries:  

  • Every religion provides solutions to problems; polytheistic religions are more open to homosexuality than monotheistic religions.  
  • The biblical evidence is consistent:  no sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.  
  • Transparency and responsibility are crucial in employment; developing clear basic conditions of employment is incumbent on organizations. 
  • Church members need to know what the voted positions of the church are. 
  • Homosexuality seems to be trumping religious liberty in recent government legislation.  
  • Pastoral care needs to be more caring and less judgmental.  
  • Reparative therapy has helped very few people.  
  • Proactivity in policy development (including social media policy) is imperative for institutions.

Summit summary by Lisa Beardsley-Hardy

Lisa Beardsley-Hardy (GC Education Director) was asked to summarize the summit; she did so creatively.  Her two-word summary was:  “It's complicated!”  Ever the teacher, she reminded us that there are basic cognition tasks for learning:  

  1. Summarize.  
  2. Link to prior knowledge.  
  3. Monitor for accuracy (practice does not make perfect; practice with feedback makes perfect!).  

After making sure that everyone had paper and pencil, she proceeded to assign each of us to write one-minute essays for each of the following topics:

  1. Describe biblical teachings on alternative sexualities — such as created in the image of God, the importance of monogamous marriage in a union of a man and a woman.
  2. Development and sociobiological factors — nature vs. nurture, no consensus on cause.
  3. Describe how the church should relate to membership matters (consulting Church Manual), ministry to people of alternative sexualities, orientation, and practices.
  4. Legal issues relating to alternative sexuality practices: employment by denomination.
  5. Legal issues relating to counseling — reparative therapy not legal, for instance, in California; difference between "ought" and "is."
  6. Religious and civil liberties — advocacy and social justice, freedom of speech, “hate speech” and ‘giving the trumpet a certain sound.”
  7. Communication — better language and communication practices.
  8. Learning objectives for the summit included a greater understanding of alternative sexualities and a realization that it is more nuanced than previously considered.  In educating church members, describe the content and methods of educating on some realities of alternative sexualities.  
  9. Speak the truth in love. Clarify regarding sin and God's power to overcome it.  Hebrews 7:25 says he is able to save to the uttermost.  
  10. And finally, what are the action steps you are going to take?  

“Last Word” by Ella Simmons

Ella Simmons, GC vice president, was given the assignment of a 30-minute “Last Word.”  It proved to be the penultimate last word to be given in a shorter time period, which obviously produced some angst.  She said her heart had been gratified and she praised God for the presence of his Spirit. She continued, we've focused on a particular challenge which is at the core of our identity:  how should we live out our commission of sharing the gospel with everyone?  

She asked three further questions:  

  1. How should we live as pertains to the topic under discussion?  
  2. How do we want to impact this world?  
  3. What difference does this make?  

It is obvious that the world in which we live is not the same in which we were born.  What was “normal" has changed.  Secularism is much more aggressive. So how does the church want to impact the world? We can't avoid the challenges — not just in the world but also in the church.  

SDA Kinship International reports it works in 80 countries, wishing for the time “when our church takes a stand against demonization, hoping the church can be a safe place for gays.”  This statement, she said, helps me understand our responsibility.  

How shall we support the civil rights of people with whom we disagree?  We're not changing our beliefs, but if we ask God for wisdom, we know he is able.  Some say it is not the church's responsibility to relate to social issues, but we need to be reminded that in our history we have responded.  The establishment of the Religious Liberty Association in 1889 is an example; its mission was to safeguard civil rights and to promote understanding among people.  We need now to know when to move forward.  We need conviction.  

Dr. Simmons indicated that she had done quite a bit of work with the New Testament book of James that she had hoped to share but could not for lack of time.  From James we know that “pure religion” propels us into the world even though we may not be “of” the world.  There is such a thing as the sin of partiality.  Remember God loves us all.  James requires of us social as well as spiritual progress.  Simmons reminded us that Martin Luther King, Jr emphasized that “we have the strength to love.”  This requires both a tough mind and a soft heart.  She suggested that reviewing Jesus' miracles found in the Gospel of Mark would be a good source of instruction and encouragement for the work that lies ahead of us.  (This “manner of Jesus” is described in The Ministry of Healing, page 143.)

Final thanks

After Dr. Delbert Baker, the day's chair, introduced and thanked the planning committee for the summit, with GC vice president Pardon Mwansa as chair, Division President Ratsara thanked the delegates for coming to South Africa for the summit; he said he had been educated/edified, and now was energized to continue learning.  He affirmed Jesus as the divine role model to uphold the Word of God while following Jesus' own methods of reaching people.  

The very last word came from GC President Ted Wilson who faithfully came to all the meetings.  “As you leave,” he said, “remember clearly that God's church will not only stand firmly on Scripture, but on a plain reading of it, following Christ and using his method and his power.  Remember God's Word in Romans 12:21: ‘be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.’”  His benediction was the prayer from Jude, “and now onto him who is able . . ."

Observations

I thank Spectrum for sending me to Cape Town and I thank you for reading these reports.  Despite their shortcomings and any mistakes — for which I apologize — I hope they at least give you an accurate and fair flavor of what happened.  

I close with a few observations on what I've experienced this week:  

1.  Although I came with some misgivings, I want to affirm my church for initiating a process by which this topic can be studied and shared.  As one delegate said, “we now have a common language.”  This has been a valuable beginning.  Next time, however, it will be very important to include some representative voices such as those who appear on the video, Seventh-Gay Adventists.  I share the points recently-retired Newbold College dean and professor, Michael Pearson, articulated:

  • We come to the truth about anything claiming to be that, not by lining up witnesses who agree with us – that is by the process of verification, which may produce a cozy and misguided consensus – but by inviting contributions to debate from those who disagree with us – which may be uncomfortable.
  • Thus I believe the Church should not simply allow gay people into its midst but welcome them, and so be obliged to face that which is unwholesome in ourselves. Maybe Jesus said we should ‘love our enemies’ primarily for our own sakes not theirs.
  • This conflict over gay people is very likely a proxy war. The real war is about authority, hermeneutics, belonging, power, ownership, membership, etc. This is merely a convenient battlefield on which some choose to fight the war because they feel very sure of the terrain.
  • In the meantime, here are a couple of links to voices that need to be heard:  You love gay people? That's great, prove it; Morris Taylor's watercolor paintings of his son; and Herb Montgomery's reflections on standing up for LGBT people. No matter how painful, unbelievable, or bitter the accounts, they require us to listen.  As followers of Jesus, we are committed to both growing in wisdom and protecting "the least of these."

2.  No specialist was able to present evidence as to the etiology of homosexuality — the closest to it is a combination of genes and environment.  So it appears likely that a very  few LBGTIs have chosen their homosexuality.  We have not come to terms with the implications of this.

3.  As for me, Jesus has given me my task:  “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”  “He that is without sin, cast the first stone.”  “To whom will I be neighbor?”

4.  While the church continues to study this topic, Jesus has given it its task, too:  A loving, caring church needs to live up to its mandate.  It has taken 40 years and more to deal with women's ordination and we are not done yet; we can ill afford 40 such years on the topic of helping LGBTIs to feel welcome in the Adventist family.  

If the church does not split over the women's issue (and I hope those willing to compromise will carry the day), it might very well over gays unless we take seriously Ellen White's well-known dictum: “The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” (Ministry of Healing, page 410). Sometimes when we think we are being loving (in, for example, pointing out the self-destructive errors of others) we are not very lovable. The “and lovable” is a very challenging criterion.

Lawrence T Geraty is president emeritus of La Sierra University and is reporting from Cape Town for Spectrum.

Read the Adventist Review/ANN's report of the conference's final day here.

Image: Panel presents conclusions from breakout sessions.

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