The Andrews University Conference on Marriage, Homosexuality and the Church was a significant event in the unfolding story of Seventh-day Adventists' understandings of and positions on homosexuality. The conference was a response to two things: the Adventists Against Prop 8 website and Facebook group, and the recently-published book, Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives.
The conference was significant for its participants. It brought together General Conference administrators, religious liberty representatives and governmental liaisons, the Adventist Review's editor, biblical and ethical scholars, clinicians from both inside and outside of Adventism.
The conference was also significant for the topics it broached: questions of biblical understandings and interpretations, the innateness/immutability of homosexuality and its causes, the possibility and desirability of change, the civil and religious implications of same-sex marriage, and methods of ministering to and counseling homosexual individuals.
As with any conference of such far-reaching scope, this conference had numerous strengths and as many weaknesses. I offer my assessment of both below.
1. Conference organizers stated their commitments/biases at the outset. The first page of the heavy conference binders handed to atendees admitted that participants were selected on the basis of their acceptance of and adherence to "a biblically-faithful view on homosexual practice, as measured by a consensus within the Christian Church for the last two millennia, as well as by the virtually unanimous view of the worldwide Adventist Church."
2. Conference planners acknowledged that the conference could not resolve all the questions raised by the issues, and that the conference is a beginning point, not an ending point, thus leaving the conversation open-ended.
3. Conference participants acknowledged that biological factors are at play. In particular, Dr. Mark Yarhouse of Regent University, in his numerous addresses noted several possible contributing factors: environment, biology, childhood experiences and adult experiences.
4. Presenters offered a reality check on change from homosexuality to heterosexuality. Yarhouse reported that while gay-cessation programs like Exodus International do result in some people making "meaningful change along a continuum" from homosexual orientation to heterosexual orientation for undetermined reasons, some who participate in such programs also end up being more set in their homosexual orientation as a result.
5. Participants recognized the need for the church to be a safe place for homosexual individuals, and acknowledged the church’s failure in this regard. Participants repeatedly stressed the need for love.
6. The conference took a multi-disciplinary approach to the subject. Participants included representatives of the following fields: Old Testament, New Testament, Philosophical Ethics, Psychology, Publishing, Religious Liberties, and Independent Ministry.
7. The conference included contrary viewpoints. Presenters addressed (and argued against) biblical and civil arguments in favor of same-gender marriage. Mitchell Tyner, a retired lawyer and ordained SDA minister, and Jason Hines, a graduate of Harvard Law School and current Andrews University graduate student, offered arguments against Adventists' involvement in legislation outlawing equality for same-gender couples.
8. Numerous presenters placed heavy emphasis on Scripture as a source of Christian morality and ethics. This emphasis aligned presenters with the "sola scriptura" ideal.
9. At least one participant publicly recognized the value of SDA Kinship, a GLBT support ministry for Seventh-day Adventists. Inge Anderson, the engine behind an online ministry targeting homosexual individuals noted that Kinship has saved many people from committing suicide. Anderson suggested that the value of this is that it is impossible to reach people with the Gospel who commit suicide.
Members of Theology Panel
10. Alan Reinach recognized that "Love the sinner, hate the sin," is an unhelpful approach to the issue of homosexuality. Reinach noted that hatred is communicated while love is not.
1. Presenters conflated fundamentalist hermeneutics and God's will/desire. Andrews OT chair Richard Davidson, for instance, insisted that the Bible is all inspired, equally valid, and supremely normative as God's word. He posited that it is the final arbiter of truth over and against reason, but failed to provide cogent explication of why we disobey Scriptural mandates to kill disobedient children and those who work on Sabbath, or fail to forbid women from teaching in sacred assemblies.
2. Presenters asserted that homosexuality is among the most evil and egregious offenses in God's eyes--worse than incest, even bestiality. Robert A. J. Gagnon of the University of Pittsburgh in particular followed this argument.
3. Dwight K. Nelson, senior pastor of the Pioneer Memorial Church preached the Sabbath sermon against homosexuality. In it, he quoted a letter from a gay student who wanted to be monogamous and wait for the right person. Nelson then blasted the student's pledge to wait until making a life-long commitment before having sex. In front of a live and television audience of thousands.
Nelson Preaching on Homosexuality
4. Participants were overwhelmingly male, straight, and white. No homosexual individuals spoke (we presume), a glaring omission. Two self-described formerly gay men offered testimonies about their journeys out of homosexuality. Out of some 30 conference participants, only two were female. This was especially strange given the conference's stated purpose of addressing marriage. Of the two women that participated, neither was a main speaker. A very small handful of ethnic minorities were represented among presenters. These demographic peculiarities gave the impression that men define marriage for women and straight men define homosexuality for homosexual individuals.
5. Conference presenters did not differentiate between human sexuality and animal sexuality. They failed to recognize the human ability to make sex meaningful, instead discussing sexuality only in terms of procreation and pleasure. Put crudely, participants seemed unable to distinguish between meaningful, meaning-making and humanizing sexual acts and mere f***ing.
6. The rhetorical tone and argumentation suggested implicitly and explicitly that homosexual individuals are abominable to God and are going to hell. Then presenters turned around and implored the church to “love the sinner,” oftentimes employing the phrase Reinach rejected.
7. The conference seemed a cross between a revival meeting and a pep rally. It was not scholarly except in the sense that some of the presenters are recognized as scholars, a large percentage with in-house degrees from Andrews University. In scholarly conferences, the papers are all generally made available, the presenters are scholars all, and there are not testimonials like those offered by "former" homosexuals during this conference. Nor do attendees generally shout, "Amen."
8. Presenters demanded that homosexual individuals choose from two possibilities—have sex only with a spouse of the opposite gender (whether sexually attracted or not), or be celibate. Identifying straight sex and celibacy as the crosses homosexual individuals must bear, they refused to entertain the possibility of a permanent, monogamous non-sexual homosexual relationship, thereby reducing marriage to a single function--reproductive coitus. Marriage was seldom discussed except as a vehicle for procreation.
Attendees With Pink Carnations
9. The conference marginalized voices of opposition. Jason Hines was allowed to argue against religious, civil and "natural law" arguments opposing same-gender marriage, which he did convincingly. Nicholas Miller, who chaired the session, then took the opportunity to offer extemporaneous rebuttals, though two proponents of Miller's views preceded Hines. In the breakout session on Proposition 8 in which Tyner and Hines were scheduled to speak, Reinach, who was to discuss the issue asked to withdraw from the panel citing past impasses with Tyner, and Miller, though chairing the session, took an active role in arguing against Tyner and Hines. Further, several attendees wearing pink carnations as signs of solidarity with the gay community were overlooked repeatedly during Q & A sessions, whether deliberately or not.
10. Presenters used inflammatory, patriarchal rhetoric to describe why we are supposed to oppose homosexuality (Scot Zentner of Cal State San Bernardino in particular - see here) and showed numerous slides of ancient Near Eastern homosexual pornography during a Friday evening vespers service in the Pioneer Memorial Church (Robert Gagnon). Both seemed very out of place.
In sum, the conference shone brightest in the fleeting moments when presenters upheld Christian charity as the highest value in the discourse on homosexuality. Its light flickered dimly when marriage became synonymous with sex, and sex was described with coarse and demeaning language.
While some tacitly admitted that "Hate homosexuality, love the homosexual" is not a constructive approach for the church's ongoing and crescendoing discourse on homosexuality, it remained the primary underlying frame of reference for presenters at the Andrews University conference. In that regard, the church still awaits a useful "script," to borrow a term from Yarhouse, for those who on moral grounds stand in opposition to homosexuality.
Full disclosure: As a relative and friend of homosexual individuals whose experiences I have heard and whose lives have impacted my own, I joined those who pinned on pink carnations during the conference.
See more conference photos here.