The Adventist Church and Its LGBT Members — Part 1

The Adventist Church and Its LGBT Members — Part 1

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Published:
March 19, 2021

Editor’s Note: In this four-part series for Spectrum, Adventist sociologist Ronald Lawson explores the historical and current relationship between the Adventist Church and its LGBT members. This article originally appeared in the Spectrum print journal (volume 48, issue 4). Read Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.


How has Adventism responded to social issues over time? We have exhibited two different patterns and one unique case. In one pattern, early sectarian Adventism did not care how a category of people was regarded by other groups, but focused on using all available resources to get its message out; concurrently, it reduced hindrances to conversion that were common in the practices of other churches. This response was urged strongly by Ellen White. Consequently, it used women as well as men as pastors, evangelists, and administrators. When it evangelized African Americans along the Mississippi River it created mixed-race congregations, even though this provoked anger among other whites: all were welcome. And in Africa it did not follow the example of other mission churches by insisting that polygamous male converts send their additional wives away, but instead accepted whole polygamous families, only insisting that the men not add any additional wives after their baptism. However, as Adventism became less sectarian over time, and therefore more concerned with its reputation in society and especially among the more conservative churches that became its reference group, Adventists segregated their churches, stopped appointing women to the ministry, and changed their policy on polygamy to match those of the other churches, in spite of the damage such changes caused.

In the second pattern, Adventists accepted the judgment of most of society and the other churches of morally unacceptable behavior, as a sign that the end was near, but as otherwise not their issue; they assumed that Adventists did not get pregnant outside of marriage, divorce their spouses, or abuse their wives or children. When this assumption proved incorrect, they regarded the members concerned as a blotch on the church’s reputation that must be removed immediately, and disfellowshipped them.

Homosexuals also fell into the second category: just as an unmarried pregnant member was seen as shaming the church, when a gay or lesbian was discovered among its members — and in those days discovery was usually the result of the publication in the press of the names of those arrested following a police raid on a gay meeting place — this was seen as embarrassing, and that person was purged immediately.

Religious and Civil Contexts

Condemnation of homosexuality by Christian churches long fostered discrimination against homosexuals in many countries. This was reflected both in law, where criminal penalties were often harsh, extending to capital punishment in some parts, and in public opinion, where it was invoked to justify ridicule, physical violence, eviction from housing, and loss of employment. However, growing concern for justice and civil rights in the United States during the 1960s, beginning with discrimination against blacks and women, was extended at length to homosexuals. The new current fostered the emergence of the gay liberation movement in 1969. This quickly garnered support from key organizations: the American Bar Association issued a call for the decriminalization of homosexual behavior between consenting adults in 1973, and the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders in the same year. The more liberal denominations also responded: the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian-Universalist Churches, emphasizing that God loved all his children, voted to ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors. Most of the mainline churches began to debate such issues, and some of their congregations declared that they welcomed gay members.

However, conservative religious groups quickly mounted several political crusades that tapped deep reservoirs of hatred and prejudice within society. For example, when, in 1977, Anita Bryant successfully took the lead in the campaign to reverse a civil rights ordinance that had helped protect homosexuals against discrimination in employment and housing in Dade County, Florida, her campaign spawned bumper stickers that urged people to “Kill a gay for Christ.”

In recent years, the situation has changed dramatically: same-sex marriage and the right of LGBT couples to adopt children are the law now in many countries in the developed world. Several US states, beginning with Massachusetts in 2004, legalized same-sex marriage, and the US Supreme Court extended it to the whole nation in 2015. The previous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military was overthrown, making it OK to be openly gay, lesbian, or transgender. Gay and lesbian clergy and bishops are now common in several of the Mainline Protestant denominations. However, the religious right, made up of fundamentalists, Mormons, and many Catholics and Evangelicals, is striving to undermine same-sex marriage, and their congregations rarely welcome people known to be homosexual.

Where does the Adventist Church fit into this evolving picture?

The Emergence of Gay Issues

The Adventist Church largely ignored the topic of homosexuality until the early 1970s. The Adventists’ prophet, Ellen White, never referred to it directly in her vast published works or correspondence. Consequently, when I was a teen in the 1950s and at university in the 1960s, wrestling with my realization that I was different from most people in terms of the gender I was attracted to, it was never mentioned in church services or publications. But I sensed, correctly, that I could not go to a pastor for help, or even to my parents.

Church leaders generally assumed that there were no homosexual Adventists. This assumption was false. However, most homosexual members were deeply closeted, living desperate lives. Their discomfort caused many to exit the church, and those who were discovered often faced rejection by their families and church, expulsion from church schools if they were students, loss of their jobs if they were church employed, and exposure to guilt, shame, and humiliation. Vernon Hendershot, who was president of the Adventist Seminary when it was located at the General Conference complex in Washington, DC, disappeared suddenly after being arrested during a police raid on a gay meeting place in 1952. Such experiences were repeated throughout the global Adventist Church. For example, a student at Avondale College, in Australia, in the 1970s, who confessed to being homosexual between his final examinations and graduation, was not allowed to graduate and finally received his degree in the mail a year later. Our church was concerned with protecting its purity and reputation rather than loving and supporting such members.

Although most “sins” committed by church employees could be forgiven, this was not true of sexual sin. Of these sins, homosexuality was considered the worst. In 1983, when Grady Smoot, the president of Andrews University, was arrested after propositioning an undercover vice officer while in Washington for Annual Council at the General Conference (GC), it was reported to me that several dispirited church leaders had exclaimed, “If only it had been with a woman!” Although the number of church members whose homosexuality was discovered so dramatically was relatively small, the proportion of gay and lesbian members who grew up in the church was no doubt about average, and many others also joined as adults.

Many Adventist pastors, evangelists, and publications interpreted the emergence of the gay liberation movement in 1969 as a sign of the end of the world. Although counselors and pastors regularly advised homosexuals to pray for deliverance, and to date a woman and marry her in expectation that God would answer their prayers, two books on sex published during the 1970s recognized that change in orientation was unlikely and urged that divine strength be enlisted to resist temptations. Even though I was heavily involved in church during my university years as choir director, organist, and Youth Sabbath School Superintendent and teacher, I spent those years in agony as I wrestled with my problem, dated women I liked but was not attracted to, and had fleeting sex with strangers that caused overwhelming guilt. I felt incredibly alone, for I did not have a single gay friend. Fortunately, I did not marry; I think it would have been a sin for me to have done so.

In 1973, two years after moving to New York from Australia, I took stock of my turbulent life. I had been praying that God would change my attractions for fifteen years, but there had been no answer. I asked God and myself why so, and realized suddenly that I must have been praying for something that God did not want to give me, for surely the absence of an answer indicated that he was happy with the way he had made me. Wow! After that, I gradually became willing to look for a gay man I wanted to date. But I so much wanted him to be an Adventist! In 1977, I was one of at least three Adventists who independently placed ads in the national gay paper and invited gay Adventists to write to us. I received between 40 and 50 replies — all from far away. But these ads helped to create networks among some gay Adventists, and this resulted in the formation of a support organization ambitiously named Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International. By following networks and placing advertisements in gay and lesbian publications, Kinship expanded rapidly around North America. It became global soon after the creation of the internet.

As time passed, church leaders felt pressure to respond to the needs of homosexual Adventists. In 1976, a series of articles in Insight proclaiming that victory over homosexuality through faith was possible drew a large pile of letters from young people seeking help. The author was Colin Cook, a former pastor who had been fired when he was found to be gay. Distraught, he had sought spiritual healing for his unwelcome drives and had eventually married. He held himself up as proof of what he advocated, and responded to the interest by distributing ten hours of tapes under the title “Homosexuality and the Power to Change.” In another contribution to Insight, in 1980, he estimated that there were between ten and twenty thousand homosexuals within the Adventist Church in the United States alone, and chastised the church for failing to foster ministries to help these members.

On January 10, 1976, Kinship was founded at a meeting in Palm Desert, California, as a result of an ad placed by two gay Adventist men. Within four months, Kinship had 75 members, a temporary chairperson, and four committees.


The First Kinship Kampmeeting

The membership and leadership of SDA Kinship was initially concentrated in Southern California. However, toward the end of 1979 its members decided to sponsor a national “Kampmeeting” the next summer, and invited me to a meeting in Los Angeles to help plan it. I found a group of gay men who were much like me: they were uncertain whether God accepted them, their guilt and self-hatred had made it difficult to form a relationship with another man even after marriages had failed, and this had resulted in promiscuity and loneliness. The church had no answers for us, for no Adventist biblical scholar had researched our issue, and its rejection of us was based on proofreading a few isolated “clobber texts” that had not been examined in historical context. Since we were closeted and anyone discovered was disfellowshipped, the church leaders knew almost nothing about our lives, or how important our faith was to us.

I suggested that we invite the best Adventist scholars we could find, and leading pastors also, to minister to us at the Kampmeeting. I got the job of recruiting them, even though I knew no suitable candidates at that time. I recruited the heads of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Theology departments in the Seminary, the pastor of Sligo Church, and the only woman pastor in the church at that time. I asked each of the Seminary professors to tell us whether God would accept gays and lesbians as Christians; all said that would be something new for them to explore, but they were eager to do so. Each initially thought that he could slip away to the Kampmeeting without seeking permission, but, when the Seminary professors discovered that three of them were coming, they realized that they would need permission. Jim Cox, the chair of the New Testament department, contacted Neal Wilson, president of the GC, who responded sympathetically. (It turned out that he had a gay brother and at least one other gay person in his extended family.) He sent Duncan Eva, his special assistant, to meet with Jim and me at La Guardia Airport in New York City. The church leadership had at last taken a step toward addressing our situation.

During the negotiations, Eva said to me: “You have approached us; it is the responsibility of the church to reach out to you.” However, he insisted on two conditions: Kinship could not use the participation of clergy as an opportunity to claim in the press that the GC had accepted homosexuality; and Colin Cook, whose claim to be able to help homosexuals change their sexual orientations was attracting favorable attention among church leaders, should be added to the five invited. In return, the GC would pay the fares of all six. The scholars were expected to submit a written report afterwards.

About forty gay and lesbian Adventists attended the Kampmeeting in Arizona. The most emotional experience there was telling, and listening to, personal narratives, which were dubbed “the horror stories.” One person after another told of the isolation each had felt because almost all had been convinced that he or she was the only gay Adventist in the world; of years of unavailing struggle and unanswered prayer for a miracle that would make them heterosexual; of overwhelming guilt and self-rejection; of consequent difficulty in establishing relationships; of promiscuous patterns and more guilt; of rejection by their families and estrangement from their congregations. Since they had been taught that it was impossible to be both Christian and gay, but had found themselves irretrievably gay, they had despaired because they assumed that they were eternally lost — some had been told that homosexuality was the unpardonable sin. Many told of being bullied, some of being attacked. Some told how deep depression had led to suicide attempts. Almost everyone had found no one within the church to whom they could turn for help; those who had sought counseling there had met platitudes, such as, “It’s only a phase. Pray about it, date a girl, and get married — everything will turn out all right.” But the stories of those who had married were especially poignant, with guilt and defeat within their marriage relationships and sorrow over ultimate estrangement from their children.

The biblical scholars concluded, as a result of their study in advance of the Kampmeeting, that the Bible was silent about persons with a homosexual orientation and that the little it said there was directed to heterosexuals involved in pagan fertility rites or having same-sex fun on the side. They were deeply moved by the personal stories they heard. They argued that homosexuals, like heterosexuals, were called to faithfulness within a committed relationship and to chastity outside of such a relationship. The biblical proscriptions were also the same for homosexuals as for heterosexuals: sexual exploitation, promiscuity, rape, and temple prostitution. Wilson may not have anticipated such an accepting response.

These scholars also drew up recommendations for the church leadership. However, these were forgotten when the attention of the church focused on the aftermath of the firing of Dr. Desmond Ford after his trial, held at Glacier View, Colorado, the week following the Kampmeeting, and were buried when a letter campaign, orchestrated by a right-wing publication, queried whether the participation of GC-sponsored clergy in a homosexual “kampmeeting” indicated that the denomination had “accepted homosexuality.” At its Spring Council in 1981, the church leaders explicitly rejected Kinship:

“The problem of homosexuality in the church was discussed, emphasizing the need to help those who are enslaved by this perversion to find deliverance …It is not possible for the church to condone practicing homosexuals …The efforts of the church must be focused on individuals, rather than groups, who desire help and deliverance …We cannot negotiate with organized groups who refer to themselves as SDA gays and lesbians, and we cannot establish “diplomatic relations” with corporations which in the minds of most people, would be considered as recognition and official endorsement of a deviant philosophy and lifestyle. Counsel will be sought as to what appropriate action can be taken to prevent such groups from using the name of the church.”

Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International.


Estrangement

A series of mailings that Kinship sent to college administrators, teachers, students, and pastors caused heartburn among many Adventists. The Adventist Review explained that Kinship was not associated with the church in an editorial titled “The Church and the Homosexual.” Church administrators also set out to add a statement on homosexuality to the Church Manual. The new statement, which was voted at the 1985 General Conference Session, for the first time labeled these “practices” as unacceptable and a basis for discipline.

In a further effort to distance the church from Seventh-day Adventist Kinship, the GC demanded in 1985 that Kinship remove the name of the church from its name. We refused, for it was seeing that name when we marched in gay pride parades that brought Adventists on the sidewalks running to us for information. Our Adventist roots and identity were central to the reasons for our existence and ministry. But the church leaders interpreted our use of the denominational name as “dragging it in the mud.” We waited nervously for the other shoe to drop, for the GC had registered “Seventh-day Adventist” as a trade name with the US Patent and Trademark Office in 1981.

Colin Cook and the Quest Learning Center

Church leaders were much more comfortable with the approach of Colin Cook, a self-described “recovered homosexual,” who had founded the Quest Learning Center in late 1980. His program, which proclaimed “deliverance from homosexuality,” brought homosexuals together in Reading, Pennsylvania, for counseling and involvement in a support group called Homosexuals Anonymous (HA). Within a few months, the General Conference and Columbia Union opted to fund Quest and provided more than half of its budget. The Adventist Church thus became the first denomination to fund a “change ministry” for homosexuals.

Church periodicals provided the Quest-HA program with extensive publicity within Adventism, presenting it as the answer to homosexuality. Adventist pastors and counselors in Adventist schools began to recommend that anyone who came to them with a homosexual issue contact Quest. Ministry, the church’s publication for ministers, featured a long interview with Cook in an issue distributed free to thousands of clergy from other denominations. As Quest grew, it attracted a great deal of attention from both the press and TV and radio talk shows and drew endorsements from conservative clergy of other denominations. Adventist leaders basked in the favorable publicity.

The Adventist Church never conducted a study of the impact of the program on counselees, nor did it even require a written report before extending funding. It ignored Kinship’s informed questions and listened only to the glowing reports of Cook and to orchestrated testimonies from counselees who were still in the midst of their time at Quest. It failed to understand that the reported healings were claimed by faith rather than achieved in experience. Church leaders eagerly extended funding when Cook and his wife appeared hand-in-hand before the Annual Council of the church leaders: Cook became their representative “ex-gay.”

The denominational role in financing and publicizing the Quest program helped make church members more conscious of homosexual Adventists. Three articles published by Spectrum in the spring of 1982 had a similar effect. These reported in detail on the 1980 Kampmeeting, recounted ten of the personal stories shared there, and, in order to provide “balanced” coverage, provided Cook with an opportunity to describe the Quest program. The arrest of the president of Andrews University in 1983 and of an associate pastor of the Takoma Park Church near the GC headquarters the following year, both on vice charges, brought further awareness. The sense of church leaders that they were under scrutiny made them more eager to proclaim the success of their program in changing sexual orientations and more careful to avoid appearing as if they were accepting of homosexuals.

When Cook conducted a weekend seminar at a NYC church in 1984 I attended it, and found his claims of healing unbelievable. I decided it was necessary to interview a sample of people who had been through his program as part of the study of global Adventism that I was preparing to launch. I interviewed fourteen Quest participants in 1985 and 1986. I found that they were fragile, very conservative church members, with high levels of guilt and self-rejection; Quest, the church-endorsed program for “recovery,” was their only hope.

But Quest turned out to be a nightmare experience for them — one that they did not describe in their testimonies before church leaders. Suddenly, they had found that they were no longer the only homosexual Adventists in the world; isolation was replaced by community, a community under stress because its members were trying to change their orientation and yet were often sexually attracted to one another. The immediate result was confusion, turmoil, and considerable sexual contact. Their confusion was greatly increased when they discovered that a regular feature of counseling sessions was massage from Cook with both counselor and counselee naked, sexual arousal, and repeated sexual advances. None of the interviewees reported that his sexual orientation had changed, nor did any of them know anyone who had changed. Indeed, eleven of the fourteen had come to accept their homosexuality.

I had thought Quest’s claims and testimonies of “healing from homosexuality” hard to believe, so I was not surprised to discover that the testimonies I had heard were not real. However, I was taken aback by the evidence that Cook had sexually used and abused almost every counselee. Realizing that I had a moral obligation to report such abuse, I wrote to GC President Wilson in October 1986, telling him what I had found. To try to ensure that he would not ignore my letter, I sent copies to twenty-nine other church leaders and academics. Cook admitted that my findings were correct and was removed within a week. Church leaders decided shortly afterward to close the Quest counseling program, but to continue support for Homosexuals Anonymous chapters.

The Adventist press initially ignored the closing of Quest and the removal of its director, so that the widespread image of the program as the solution to the problem of homosexuality remained uncorrected. Eventually, I asked the editor of the Adventist Review about this omission, and he responded with a “newsbreak” announcing merely that Quest had been closed because of the resignation of Colin Cook as its director. Ironically, the same issue included a full-page advertisement urging Adventists to subscribe to the Review with the heading, “It’s my church. I want an honest picture of what’s going on.” In September 1987, eleven months after the situation was disclosed, Ministry published another long interview with Cook which, although indicating that there had been improprieties, strongly endorsed Cook’s methods as the answer to homosexuality and announced (in a photo caption apparently left in by mistake) that he would “soon resume leading seminars for recovery by homosexuals.” By December, Cook had recovered enough confidence to announce, in a report addressed to Wilson and copied to forty others, that he had launched Quest II and was working with his first two counselees.

In 1989, an article by Cook appeared in the Evangelical publication Christianity Today, trumpeting how he had “found freedom” from homosexuality. Cook was beginning to find new sources of support among Evangelicals and, ultimately, the religious right, which, because of its frequent attacks on homosexuals, sorely needed a “solution” to showcase. In 1993, Cook moved to Denver, where he founded a new ministry, FaithQuest. This grew and became prominent thanks to close alliances with organizations such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Cook also reappeared once again on national television on the Phil Donohue Show. He spoke frequently at Adventist churches in Denver and spoke at a series of meetings at PUC. These opportunities in Adventist circles emerged because of the failure of the church to inform Adventists of his fall. Consequently, young Adventists troubled by their homosexual desires continued to contact him for help.

My interest in Cook and his ministries was rekindled when two of his new counselees brought their new painful stories to my attention. They had discovered that the would-be healer was still a sexual predator, and had learned about my earlier role in unmasking him via the Adventist grapevine. Consequently, I set out to research Cook’s activities in Denver, and confirmed their stories about him. In an endeavor to prevent further abuse, I provided the results of my research to the religion reporter at the Denver Post, who then carried out a full investigation of her own, and published a front-page story. This then forced the religious right to back off. FaithQuest and Cook largely disappeared from view while the furor subsided. The Adventist Church announced that it was not connected to Cook’s seminars and counseling activities. Meanwhile, Cook was greatly hampered because his wife, who had separated from him earlier, then divorced him. Shortly afterward, he happened to ask a female researcher, whom he did not realize was a friend of mine, for help in finding a replacement. He explained that he needed a wife to give his program legitimacy.

General Conference vs. SDA Kinship

In December 1987, the General Conference filed a suit against Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, Inc. in the US District Court for the Central District of California for “breach of trademark.” Because the suit had to be shaped to address commercial law, it did not even mention that Kinship members are homosexual and Adventist; its case had to be shaped in terms of unfair commercial competition. Its brief consequently made the absurd claims that by using the name Seventh-day Adventist or its acronym as part of its name, competition from Kinship’s newsletter was undermining the church’s publishing empire and that Adventists were likely to contribute heavily to Kinship, mistaking it for the church’s official tithe/offering conduit. However, the accompanying press release, titled “Church Moves Against Homosexual Support Group,” made it clear that the GC was rejecting Adventist homosexuals and the ministry of Kinship. In addition to seeking to compel Kinship to change its name, the suit also demanded “exemplary, punitive, and treble” monetary damages.

This Goliath-versus-David suit was poorly timed from the church’s point of view, for it coincided with the media’s belated discovery of the Quest scandal and the filing of a suit against the church by abused counselees. Although the latter suit was independent of Kinship, the press drew all these issues together, which resulted in considerable negative publicity for the church.

In filing this suit against an organization with fewer than one thousand members, church leaders expected an easy pushover. The GC hired two major law firms to present its case, at an admitted cost of more than $200,000. However, it failed to take the strength of the gay movement into account: the case was accepted by National Gay Rights Advocates, which arranged for Fulbright and Jaworski, a major legal firm, to defend Kinship on a pro bono basis. Depositions were taken in the fall of 1990, and the case was argued in the federal court in Los Angeles in February 1991. I was one of those deposed and one of two Kinship leaders called to give evidence in court. The legal proceedings were traumatic for us; it was hard not to feel estranged from the church that was attacking us. Since the lawyer who deposed me, Douglas Welebir, was an Adventist, I suggested we begin with prayer. He ignored the suggestion. However, in its verdict, which was announced in October, the court rejected the suit, thus allowing Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International Inc. to keep its full name.

In her opinion, Judge Mariana Pfaelzer pointed out that the term Seventh-day Adventist has a dual meaning, applying to the church structure, but also to adherents of the religion. She found that the Seventh-day Adventist religion pre-dated the Seventh-day Adventist Church; that the uncontested use of the name by schismatic groups such as the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement indicated that it does more than suggest membership in the mother church; and that, as used by Kinship, the name merely describes that organization in terms of what it is, an international organization of Seventh-day Adventists. Consequently, she found that “as used by SDA Kinship, the terms ‘Seventh-day Adventist,’ and its acronym ‘SDA’ are generic, and are not entitled to trademark protection.” Left with no good grounds on which to appeal the decision, and advised to avoid the risk of a more devastating loss in a higher court, the GC chose not to appeal this result.

The fact that a group of gays and lesbians could continue to identify themselves as Seventh-day Adventists, and that nothing could be done about this, continued to irritate church leaders. After the verdict, Kinship approached the GC, suggesting that enmities be forgotten and communication begin concerning such common problems as HIV/AIDS. However, the GC spurned Kinship’s overtures. The church press also persisted in referring to “Kinship International” rather than “Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International.”

 

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

 

Ronald Lawson is a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist, and a sociologist studying urban conflicts and sectarian religions. He is retired from Queens College, CUNY, and now lives in Loma Linda, CA.

Main image credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash / Spectrum. All in-line images courtesy of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International.

 

This article originally appeared in the current Spectrum print journal, volume 48, issue 4.

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