Most Adventists are not aware that their denomination funded and widely promoted one of the first so-called “change therapy” programs in the 1980s. Colin Cook (no relation), an Adventist pastor who had been fired for sexual misconduct with a male acquaintance made through his evangelistic work, was by all accounts very charismatic and engaging. He began promoting his own “success” story, claiming that he had “overcome” his sexual orientation, and he convinced the General Conference and President Neal C. Wilson to sponsor his “therapy” program at Quest Learning Center in Reading, Pennsylvania, as well as later to help underwrite Homosexuals Anonymous, which he co-founded. Cook taught that homosexuality was caused by bad parenting—either an absentee or emotionally unavailable father or an overbearing mother. He felt that everyone was created heterosexual by God and that with therapy people could return to their innate, heterosexual nature.
Cook and his programs were widely advertised by the Adventist church in their magazines, including youth-focused Insight and Ministry, which is distributed to a wider audience of Christian pastors. He was even featured in Christianity Today and twice on the Phil Donahue television show. Parents began sending their sons to Quest to be “cured," and many gay Adventist men, including closeted pastors, bought his tapes and went to his program’s headquarters in hope of changing their sexual orientation.
Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, a support and advocacy organization for LGBTQ Adventists, began to investigate these stories upon hearing “change” stories from supposedly straight men. Ronald Lawson, a sociologist in New York City where Cook had once pastored, took the lead. Lawson began interviewing many of the men who had been through Cook’s program and quickly realized that none of them had actually experienced a change in their sexual orientation. They were being told by Cook to testify to Neal Wilson and other church officials about their “change,” taking on faith that this is what God would do for them in the future even though the much-desired change had not actually happened.
Lawson also uncovered stories that showed that Cook was not only fraudulently claiming that gay men in his program had changed their orientation, but he was actually molesting many of them. He often engaged in nude massage and erotic touching while praying with them, often including mutual masturbation and more. One of these young men was 16 years old and had been sent to Cook’s program as soon as his parents learned of his sexual orientation.
The Adventist church quietly withdrew all support of this program when this predatory behavior came to light, but there were no official retractions or apologies, and the church continued to advocate various forms of conversion as a way to change. In a 1987 LA Times article on Cook’s programs and transgressions, Adventist church spokesman Robert L. Dale is quoted as saying that while the church no longer endorsed Cook, “it does intend to ‘redouble’ its efforts to aid individuals who wish to convert from gay to straight.” After Quest collapsed, the GC transferred its financial support to Homosexuals Anonymous under new leadership. The Adventist church has not made much progress in affirming its LGBTQ members—quite the opposite. The church held its first conference on homosexuality in South Africa in 2014 without inviting any representatives of the LGBTQ community to speak. It exerts various forms of political and financial pressure on Adventist college and university administrators who support LGBTQ students, especially those who allow them to meet in groups on campus.
In August of this year, the GC released a YouTube video of a presentation by Mark Finley titled, “Love, Compassion, and Truth: A Biblical View on Homosexuality.” In it, Finley claims that the church has hesitated to speak on this issue, that “one can’t be silent, it’s time to speak up.” Given the history I previously outlined, the claim that the church has been keeping silent strains credulity. In this presentation he utilizes homophobic tropes about LGBTQ people, sensationalized headlines, and information from the politically partisan Heritage Foundation. He asserts that children are endangered by merely learning of same-sex marriage and that American media is indoctrinating our children by including queer characters in film and TV shows.
He then goes on to justify his political argument utilizing his own interpretation of various prooftexts, GC statements, and commentary from the GC-supported Biblical Research Institute. The North American Division’s more scientifically informed and inclusively produced Guiding Families resource was not mentioned. The problem with his analysis is that it selectively takes texts out of context and claims that they are referring to LGBTQ people. For example, the “sin of Sodom” had nothing to do with LGBTQ people. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezekiel 16:49–50 NIV).
The few texts in the Bible that do refer to same sex relations have the holiness codes of Leviticus as their background and have been explored in depth by numerous biblical scholars (including in Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives (2008)). During this part of the video, Finley seemed to struggle as he tried to explain which part of the code applies today and which does not. None of these texts refer to LGBTQ people with our modern understanding that sexual orientation and gender identity are a complex part of who a person is. In fact, the term homosexuality was not added to translations of the Bible until 1946.
Another problem in framing a biblical vision for marriage as only between a man and woman fails to account for all the variations of marriage in the Bible, which include polygamy, or the historical differences in understanding marriage and sex. From the ancient world of Paul until the medieval period, Christians held an ascetic view that celibacy was superior to marriage. This shifted with the Protestant Reformation where marriage came to be viewed as equal, if not superior, to celibacy. More recently ideas around sex, power, pleasure, and divorce have given more freedom to married women. But these changes were initiated in the disciplines of science and the humanities, with theology often late to the ethical change or resistant. It’s no coincidence that after Finley’s taped presentation, current GC president Ted Wilson, the son of the Wilson who funneled funds to the sexually abusive Cook, appeared on the screen stating that LGBTQ people are not truly converted until they change.
Increasing numbers of Adventists have loving and ethical reasons for wanting same-sex couples to marry. Traditional arguments calling for celibacy for LGBTQ people echo medieval pre-modern ideas around suffering as a way to eternal life. The ability to adapt our theology to present scientific and biblical truth has allowed the Adventist movement to progress. As our understanding of sexuality has changed over the centuries, Christianity has had the ability to adapt its theology to changes in our understanding. From ancient asceticism to our modern view on love, sex, and marriage, Christianity’s two millennia have seen quite different understandings of biblical approaches to these topics. An appeal to narrowly understand what “the Bible says” about LGBTQ people does not create a consensus about Christian ethics.
The Adventist Church is at a crossroads. The GC will have to decide if it wants to continue to assert that being LGBTQ and Adventist is incompatible. Or it can decide to embark on a journey of listening to the stories of LGBTQ people and prioritizing being in community even in disagreement. To do this, the church should recognize the obvious and allow a diversity of biblical interpretations within our faith community.
At an ethical minimum, the Adventist church needs to apologize for its history of abuse of LGBTQ people through so-called “change therapy” that it funded nearly fifty years ago.
I hope my church will prioritize love over fear.
Jonathan Cook is a musician and non-profit executive. He is a graduate of Pacific Union College. He previously served on the board of directors for Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International. Currently he serves as executive director of the Solano Pride Center in Fairfield, CA.
Title image: Screengrab from “Love, Compassion, and Truth: A Biblical View on Homosexuality” (Mark Finley YouTube presentation, 2023).
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