by Monte Sahlin
An Official Release from the Adventist News Network, March 18, 2014
A panel of experts discussed how best to negotiate issues surrounding the gay and lesbian (LGBT) community in a way that both upholds the doctrinal position of the denomination and acknowledges the realities faced by people with alternative sexual orientations. Those realities are already impacting the life of the church, panelists said Tuesday (March 18) at the summit on sexuality convened this week by the General Conference (GC) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“Church membership runs the gamut between actively gay people and those who deny that reality,” said Pastor Willie Oliver, co-director of the denomination’s family ministries department. “We’ve encountered [these realities] everywhere for years. People are hurting and experiencing feelings that some of us may not want to acknowledge.”
Currently, the governments of 18 nations and 15 U.S. states recognize gay marriage. More than 100 countries have decriminalized homosexual behavior. Thirty-four of 54 African countries, however, prosecute it as a crime, said Karnik Doukmetzian, general counsel for the denomination, in an overview of legal realities.
One practical example, Doukmetzian said, is whether an Adventist pastor can legally choose not to marry same-sex couples based on conscience. “Make sure legislation in your country allows clergy to opt out,” he said, urging administrators and pastors to advance a response designed to protect religious liberty.
In the sphere of employment, too, the law can affect the Adventist Church, said Lori Yingling, associate director of human resources at the GC office in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Because we are a religious organization, in the U.S. we have a legal ‘carve out’ that allows us to hire only Seventh-day Adventists,” Yingling said, noting that the exception allows church institutions to require conditions of employment based on the working policies and beliefs of the church that potential employees must agree to.
But beyond the legal and employment questions are the struggles of real people, said Pastor Brett Townend, president of the denomination’s Northern Australian Conference. “We think it is about policies, politics and protocols, but it is about people,” he said. “If we just make pronouncements that rub salt in very open wounds, we aren’t helping. We must both preserve our church and deal with the very real pain these individuals are experiencing.”
Panelists also considered the growing need to minister to Adventist young adults exploring or struggling with questions of sexual identity. “What we’re seeing, particularly on college campuses, are students trying to discover who they are,” said Elaine Oliver, co-director of the GC family ministries department. “Sadly, many Christian parents are silent about this topic. When we’re silent dealing with our children’s identity issues, there are many voices out there willing to help them figure out how to deal with their identity. We can no longer afford to be silent.”
Pastor Ekkehardt Mueller, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, strongly agreed. Young adults today are “bombarded with messages in the media.” Mueller noted a “shift” in mindset as younger generations increasingly approach gay and lesbian issues through the lens of social justice rather than morality.
The panel, moderated by Pastor Pardon Mwansa, a GC vice president, also discussed whether church membership should be granted to LGBT people who are celibate. “The very least we can do is recognize that orientation itself is not sinful,” Townend said. “Did Jesus die for [LGBT people]? Does he want them to enter into a relationship with him? I would baptize them without too much hesitation.”
Townend acknowledged that such a move could generate a surge of conversation in local congregations, but said that “discussions must start from the position of listening, not condemnation.” Church, he said, should be a “safe place” where mentors are assigned to newly baptized members who are wrestling with sexual issues.
Asked how he would respond to an LGBT person actively working to change their sexual orientation, but failing, Dr. Peter Swanson, seminary associate professor of pastoral care at Andrews University, said he would “affirm” the person’s “persistence,” but would ask whether the person’s goals were “unrealistic or unattainable.” Another factor, he said, could be whether the person has the love and support of a circle of Christian friends and family members.
Earlier in the day, Dr. Kwabena Donkor, an associate director at the Biblical Research Institute, presented a paper on the hermeneutics of Bible passages about homosexuality. He said a main point of contention is that people who disagree on an interpretation are often coming to the text with different suppositions: “traditional” versus “contemporary” hermeneutics.
“Contemporary hermeneutics creates a distinction between what the text meant [at the time it was written] and what it means [today], and this marks the shift from traditional hermeneutics,” Donkor said. The goal of contemporary hermeneutics “is to set in motion this so-called extra linguistic world, the projection of new worlds of meaning.”
One anonymous delegate asked in a handwritten note if a believer in contemporary hermeneutics would be accepted at the conference. Donkor replied that the church needed to maintain open discussion with people who believe in such an approach. For example, he said, those who espouse contemporary hermeneutics offer an exegetical viewpoint on the Genesis 19 story about Sodom, which is translated into semiotic and literary terms to show how homosexuality has come to dominate the meaning of the story. Donkor said contemporary hermeneutics assert that the Sodom story is taken as a linguistic signifier, where the primary referent is not homosexuality, but injustice, which is expressed as a breach of hospitality customs and attempted homosexual rape. “They are denying the basic premise that this was actually an attempt at homosexuality,” Donkor later told ANN. “But as a church we need to dialogue with people who have these presuppositions. … We write them off as ‘liberals,’ but labels don’t help. They are committed and we need to understand them and talk with them.”