Andrews University continued its conversation on LGBT issues within the church and on campus yesterday, Sabbath, April 26, with a panel discussion featuring five faculty members (Roy Gane, Miroslav Kiš, Nicholas Miller, Peter Swanson, and Steve Yeagley) who participated and/or presented at the Adventist Church’s Cape Town Summit in March 2014.
The previous Sabbath, April 19, the University hosted a “Conversation with LGBT Students” that focused on bridge-building, listening, understanding and caring within a context that affirms the Church and its standards. Though the goal of each presentation was the same, the dichotomous structure of the presentations was evident. Whereas the student-led presentation last week featured deeply personal stories, reflections, poems and artwork, this week’s faculty panelists brought with them binders, tablets, statistics and clinical definitions. Handouts stating the church’s stance on homosexuality and same-sex unions were available at both presentations.
Chaplain Timothy Nixon opened the discussion with a reminder that we are not here to debate the Church’s position, but rather to discuss the issues openly. Each panelist was then asked to give his reflections on the Summit and what next steps need to be taken on this issue, both as a church and as a campus community.
Steve Yeagley, Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Director of Co-Curricular Education, began with the sentiment, “theology should begin with listening. We should first begin with listening to ‘other,’ so we can better listen to the Word of God.” He reminded that this Summit was the first time our church had officially discussed this topic.
He continued, “As a campus, we represent the World Church. . . perhaps more than any other University, we have the opportunity to continue the work of the Summit.” He concluded by stating that though the Bible may be clear on this issue, in life it’s complicated and, “let’s not assume LGBT students are any more prone to sexual sin than straight students. . . Let’s not speak to others as if we are morally superior to them.”
Roy Gane, Professor of Hebrew Bible & Ancient Near Eastern Languages, spoke next, and immediately brought up what has often been a criticism of discussions on LGBT issues by stating, “Let’s be real. We are five older, white, straight guys up here. . . what right do we have to be up here?” He answered this with, “Our role is to be a dialogue partner with you about what happened at the Summit, and with our LGBT students.”
He said that the biggest thing he had taken away from Cape Town was the “dragon in the room that needs to be slayed,” which is the assumption that an LGBT person is a sinner simply because of his or her orientation. He told the audience that this idea of orientation as sin was firmly rejected at the Summit. “A person in Biblical law is never an abomination,” he stated, then went on to say that in his opinion, he would not have a problem with an LGBT individual rising to the highest possible position within the Church. He concluded with the gentle reminder that we are called to “Love your neighbor as yourself, and as Paul says, bear your neighbor’s burdens.”
Miroslav Kiš, Professor of Ethics, discussed the fact that the church has a tendency to use the terms “homosexual,” “homosexuality,” and “homosexual acts,” interchangeably, and this is a mistake. He described homosexuality as the desire for a relationship with a same-sex individual, a homosexual as someone who has these desires, and a homosexual act as a sin that can be confessed and repented from. He restated an earlier sentiment from Steve Yeagley that we cannot assume an LGBT individual is in the act of sin.
Peter Swanson, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care, began his remarks by stating how touched he was to hear the stories shared last week by students, and that he is looking forward to further discussions and understanding. When discussing his reflections on Cape Town, he spoke from his psychological background and understanding, reminding the audience that psychology does not consider homosexuality to be a diagnosable disorder that one can be “cured” from. As a church, many still think in these terms, but it behooves us to change our way of thinking and instead focus on being “a safe place for sinners of all kinds.”
Nicholas Miller, Associate Professor of Church History and Director of the International Religious Liberty Institute, stated that even though the panelists are straight, that doesn’t mean they can’t understand sexual temptation. He stated that the Adventist church does not condone discrimination, shaming or treating badly any individual, including those in the LGBT community.
He relayed his belief that the issue of homosexuality is more important than others in our church because it involves our prophetic identity. He spoke to the twin institutions of Eden that Ellen G. White mentions, and stated, “It’s hard for Adventists to reflect on this issue and not feel a call to our prophetic identity and a desire to stand for traditional marriage and family.” He said this topic is an opportunity for proclamation on the importance of heterosexual marriage and our call to uphold the importance of child-rearing.
After the panelists had concluded these remarks, the audience was given the opportunity to text any questions to the panel. Tim Nixon moderated, and also asked a few initial questions while the panel waited for the audience to send questions.
Some of the questions from both Nixon and the audience included:
Q: There has been strong criticism that LGBTs were not invited to the Summit. Did you agree with that decision?
A (Kiš): “We were not asked, we don’t know how that decision was made.”
A (Swanson): “I had a little reservation – I firmly believe the LGBT community has important things we need to hear, consider and bring into our discussions. But I was in full agreement with the decision because those in attendance knew very little about this issue and needed to be approached from more of an undergraduate 101 perspective, not a graduate level.”
A (Miller): “It’s worth pushing back against that question. There were people who were there who are part of the LGBT community, or had been.”
Q: Statistics suggest that white evangelicals, and Hispanic and black protestants are the least tolerant of the LGBT community. What does that say about our church?
A (Yeagley): “We are seen as less loving and tolerant in the church than the pagans outside the church. . . There is a tremendous challenge to uphold the call to both holiness and compassion.”
A (Miller): “For the first time in history, we are at a place where Christians are seen as politically incorrect for our beliefs. Some are not going to view us as loving unless we change our standards and embrace them.”
Q: The updated church guidelines from the GC state that any sexual act outside of marriage is a reason for expulsion from the church.”
A (Gane): “This is really a tough one. It’s pretty easy to answer in terms of the Biblical justification for it, but if the church is like a family, how can you possibly throw anyone out of the family? However, another function of the church is that of revelation. . . the church has an evangelistic function in our lives and lifestyle.”
Q: We’ll have a problem in our church if we can’t admit anyone who is having sex outside of marriage.
A (Gane): “There is tremendous inconsistency in churches’ dealings with heterosexual behaviors and failings; we focus in on LGBT relationships. We need education within church on holding up standards in a fair and consistent way.”
A (Swanson): “Updating these guidelines began two years ago. These updates are not in response to Cape Town.”
Q: Why is celibacy discussed in the context of LGBT individuals and not all single adults?
A (Swanson): “We should be more affirming of all adults who choose celibacy.”
A (Yeagley): “There is a married, heterosexual privilege within the church and we don’t speak about that. The church has to have a response to provide that supports and removes that privilege so that all single adults really feel they are included in the church.”
Q: Will LGBT members go to heaven?
A (everyone): “Of course.”
Q: Please give us practical, specific actions we can demonstrate to show greater acceptance.
A (Swanson): “We need to listen with our ears and hearts. This involves an investment in time which is a precious commodity on our campus. I think lunch is a very good idea.”
Q: Could you support the campus having an official support group for those facing sexual temptations such as pornography, lust, etc.?
A (Yeagley): “All across our Adventist campuses, we have had unofficial groups spring up with a quiet blessing from Administration. The unofficial nature provides a safer space for those involved. At this point, that’s where we’re at.”
Q: How do we approach the topic of homosexuality with our children?
A (Swanson): “The tangential question is what causes homosexuality, and that depends on who you ask. Many psychologists believe it is biological, as do many non-professionals. Other psychologists argue that it is deficient parenting or other psychological issues. The American Psychological Association states there is no consensus among scientists as to how one’s sexual orientation is formed. No findings have emerged that lets them conclude it is caused by any specific factors.”
A (Kiš): “Develop deep friendships with your children. Let them know all questions are okay.”
A (Gane): “The topic of sex is huge in the Bible, so I don’t know why we don’t talk about it more in the Church. . . it’s healthy to do so.”
A (Nixon): “I read a study recently that said boys begin watching pornography at the age of 10. If we as parents are not talking about sex with our children, the internet will.”
There were more questions submitted by the audience that the panel did not have time to answer. Chaplain Nixon asked each panelist to provide a 30-second statement to conclude the discussion:
Many panelists restated the need for grace, love, a listening heart, and a safe space for LGBT students. Yeagley, who was the last to speak, provided a poignant response: “Look at Jesus and his ministry. I am awed at how often he reached out to the misfits on the margins and started a movement on the backs of those misfits. If you want to reenergize the church, reach out to the margins. That’s the Jesus way.”
Nixon concluded the discussion by thanking our church leaders for encouraging and allowing discussions like these to take place where we can learn, grow and understand each other more, and therefore better serve others.
Audience reactions at the conclusion of the program were generally positive, with many people stating they thought the past two weeks have been very informative and helpful. Concerns were expressed, however, as well as the need for continued discussion.
A faculty member said, “It’s a good first step, but we have a ways to go. How do we start moving the church forward on its positions on topics? Right now, it’s hard to change a stance at a public level; we have to do so privately.”
One student expressed concern about the newly updated church guidelines and said: “I think the complexity of the church’s statement is in itself a demonstration of their lack of understanding and their condemnation. A church that bases membership on the presence of visible sin ends up closeting sin. It becomes an honor society instead of a home for the hurting.”
Eliel Cruz, founder and president of the Intercollegiate Adventist Gay-Straight Alliance Coalition, and Andrews University senior international business and French studies major, issued this statement in regards to the discussion:
“For those of us who follow the conversation, the panel today was nothing new but it was informative to the general public. I hope AU will continue to have more conversations on this topic furthering the dialogue. We can argue six verses back and forth that everyone knows but we have yet to give practical responses to the LGBT community. I also think LGBT students will be leading this conversation nationwide. Last week’s program happened because LGBT people knocked on administration’s door for years to have this conversation. I’m looking forward to the day when our GSA groups are official on campus, and we have officially recognized spaces on our campuses that are safe for LGBT students.”