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At General Conference, Adventists Weigh in on Hot Topics

Women’s ordination is overdue, according to the majority of respondents who were interviewed as they passed through the Exhibit Hall at the General Conference Session last July. They also voiced their opinions on other hot topics, such as teaching evolution, same-gender love, and bearing arms.

The idea of doing a survey was a last-minute substitution decided on by Someone to Talk to after a General Conference official refused it permission to be part of Spectrum’s “Big Tent Adventism” booth. This after the ministry had previously had a booth at ten large, division-wide church conferences since its initial booth at the 2000 General Conference session in Toronto.

As director of this ministry, I and three others who planned to help me decided that we would attend anyway, since we had already purchased air tickets and reserved a place to stay. Our main purpose in doing the survey was to look for people who might be struggling with the questions surrounding of same-gender love in an Adventist context. In this regard, we feel we were fairly successful. Although we weren’t able to spend as much time having in-depth conversations, we did talk to quite a few parents, including three pastors, who shared with us the special tensions their situation involves. We also met other family members and supportive people, as well as a number of same-gender loving people.

We simply stood in the vicinity of the Spectrum booth and asked if they would be willing to answer a few questions about controversial issues in the church. Most were happy to do so, unless they didn’t speak English, were in a hurry to get somewhere, or were with a group of people. We made a conscious effort to interview people from other countries, but quickly realized what a cosmopolitan country we live in when many of them turned out to be residing now in the US.

Although our simple survey would not meet academic standards to qualify as research, we believe it paints a fascinating picture of what the people with whom we visited in Atlanta think about several controversial issues in Adventism. We completed 1,021 surveys, with responses from 100 different countries. Of these, a little more than half (569) were from the US, but represented many different countries of origin. We also collected information on age, gender, and whether they were adult converts or had grown up in an Adventist home.

Our survey contained nine yes/no questions, although we recognize that they were not always easily answered in this way. Sometimes people wanted to qualify their answers. If they just could not give a yes/no answer, we allowed them to skip the question, which means that not all questions received the same number of answers. We tried to be careful to ask the questions in a neutral way and avoid any attempt to influence the answers. The questions were as follows:

  1. Should women be allowed to pastor Adventist churches?
  2. Should Adventist women pastors be ordained?
  3. Should the theory of evolution be included in Adventist college science curriculums
  4. Should homosexuals be allowed to have church membership?
  5. Do you have a relative or friend who is lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender or intersex?
  6. Should the church instruct members how to vote on moral issues?
  7. Should the church be more involved in promoting ecology and stewardship of the earth?
  8. Should Adventist members volunteer to bear arms in active military combat?
  9. Should Genesis 1-2 be read as a scientific account of the origin of the world 6-10,000 years ago?

The first two questions dealt with the topic of greatest interest to many people attending, and the answers proved interesting.

Fully 79% agreed that women should be allowed to pastor Adventist churches, with only 21% opposed. The strongest opposition came from the countries of Eastern Europe, with 11 out of 16 respondents against female pastors. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that Adventist women pastors should be ordained. Most surprising, perhaps, was the response in some areas of the world reported to be most strongly opposed to women’s ordination. For example, 63% of respondents from Inter-American countries agreed that women should be ordained. In the countries of Africa, a large minority of 42.6% were in favor of ordination, and several told us that opposition in their country came from church leaders, particularly male pastors who were afraid that female pastors might be better appreciated, possibly resulting in their loss of a job. There was little difference in the various age groups. The response to these questions should provide much encouragement for women, and give a reason for church leaders to move ahead more quickly.

Questions 3 and 9 are somewhat related, but a majority (58%) recognized the need for science students to understand the theory of evolution, while 64% said they read Genesis 1-2 as a scientific account. Respondents from North America, Western Europe and Australia were more likely to agree that the theory of evolution needs to be included in college science curriculum (62%) than those from the rest of the world (51%). The majority of those who favored the teaching of evolution stipulated that biblical creation should be taught as the truth. Perhaps not all who answered question 9 affirmatively were clear as to the implications of Genesis 1-2 being scientific.

Answers to the two questions on same-gender love, which were of most interest to those of us conducting the survey, were not unexpected, but still rather discouraging. As we talked to people, it became clear that many areas of the world still understand same-gender love to be a choice. Many of those who believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to be church members (50.4%), wanted to include only those who are celibate, or married to an opposite-sex partner. The USA and Canada (61.1% of 585 responses), the UK (77.7% of 18 responses), and the Philippines (72% of 25 responses) showed a decisive majority who favor church membership, while the rest of the countries opposed it by nearly two-thirds (65.8%).

Comparing those who have a gay friend or family member with approval of church membership indicated that of those who answered Yes on question 4, nearly 75% were closely acquainted with a gay/lesbian person; a little over 25% did not know anyone who is gay. Yet 52% of those who answered question 4 negatively also had a close gay/lesbian acquaintance, while 48% did not know a gay person. So, while those who know someone who is gay are more likely to be sympathetic, that is not true in many cases; while 13% of those who don’t have a close family member or friend who is gay still believe that homosexuals should be church members. Perhaps this last group could be labeled independent thinkers?

Question 6, on whether the church should tell members how to vote on moral issues, was mainly prompted by the vigorous effort of the Pacific Union Conference’s religious liberty director to convince church members in California to vote Yes on Proposition 8, repealing the right to gay marriage. A large majority (74%) felt this was not the duty of the church. Only the countries of Southern Asia Pacific Division, Eastern Europe and India, Nepal and Pakistan were about evenly divided on this issue.

Although the church has always paid lip service to our responsibility as stewards of the earth, an overwhelming majority (91%) said they believe the church needs to put more emphasis on this area. And a clear majority (70%) still hold to the traditional church view on non-combatancy in times of war.

Our survey crew enjoyed meeting, listening, and talking to people from all over the world, even though our presence at a booth was denied. We hope that the answers to our questions are significant. Perhaps a more controlled study needs to be conducted by the church in some of these areas, or perhaps church leaders are afraid of us knowing what we all actually think.

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