Day 4: Last but not final words

The day of departure is always more hectic than one expects. Getting myself checked in for the night flight to London Heathrow with a faltering Wi-Fi connection and trying to squeeze everything in that one carry-on suitcase took more time than I expected. Therefore for a report of the morning session by dr. Miroslav Kiš, department chair of theology and christian philosophy at Andrews University, on ethics and ministry, you have to look somewhere else. Lawrence Geraty in his blogs on the website of Spectrum Magazine does an excellent job at giving summaries of each day ( I joined the meeting, after a good cup of coffee, during the presentation of the reports on the more than 10 breakout sessions.

It would take too much space to cover the complete summary and it would still do no justice to all that was said. Two things that were mentioned I thought were interesting as it shows that the issues are far more real than we think and that our response needs to be careful and considerate. During the breakout session on “alternative sexualities and university campuses” a case study was discussed to show that Adventist universities and colleges really need to also be prepared to deal with issues related to transgender, transsexual or intersex persons. A male person registered at the start of his studies at an Adventist college somewhere in Asia. I know Asia is big, but I really cannot remember the country and I don’t want to speculate about it. During the course of his studies he underwent a sex-change operation and requested after his and now her recovery to be moved from the boys-dorm to the girls-dorm. The college ran into all sorts of difficulties as they never had thought about this situation. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have either. The boys did not accept her anymore in the dorm as they saw her as a girl and the girls felt uncomfortable to accept her as they had a hard time seeing her as a girl. In the end the college decided to place her in a more private dorm, where there were les communal areas. However as they were taken by surprise they weren’t able to make the proper arrangements in accepting her back on campus.

The other summary worth mentioning was that of dr. Fox’s breakout session “relating to children and youth challenged by alternative sexualities”. The breakout session basically stressed to teach parents to manage their emotions when they are confronted by a coming-out of their son or daughter. Off course not all emotions can be easily controlled but he stressed to be the adult in the relationship when faced with these matters. Especially because these issues tend to surface in a critical time of our children’s development, where the response of the parents can either be detrimental or supportive of the child’s further development to stable adulthood.

The next, but not the final item on the agenda, was for me a little bit of a disappointment. Dr. Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, director of education at the General Conference, did an excellent job in explaining and taking us through the steps of the theory of learning. By telling us to write small 1 minute essays on each of the  goals of the summit we were compelled to go through the summit in huge steps. Unfortunately this method is excellent for students to learn new material which do not necessarily have to be questioned, it is not the right method to summarize a summit which raised many unanswered questions and caused considerable discussion among the delegates. I really looked forward to a presentation that would summarize, synergize and perhaps draw some conclusions from all the presentations, breakout sessions and panel discussions. Off course this was a huge and perhaps impossible task, hence my disappointment. Still I have to commend dr. Beardsley-Hardy for her interactive manner of dealing with this presentation, even though it forced us to treat the presented material as uncontested.

Another presentation that I looked forward too, as I didn’t know what to expect, was the “last word” by dr. Ella Simmons, vice-president, the highest ranking female administrator in the General Conference. If I would say that this presentation was a pleasant surprise, I wouldn’t do it justice. I hope her complete presentation will be available somewhere on the internet soon, as her presentation was cut short from 30 minutes to 15 minutes and the content was of a very high quality. This was the speech that one could expect from an administrator of the world church on this sensitive topic. She started by saying that the core of dealing with LGBTI persons, careful to not define it as the gay-lifestyle, is about how to live out the gospel. In the core it is not about others but about us, we all are facing issues of change and choice. She continued by saying that for many societies “normal” is changing and many societies are becoming increasingly hostile towards Christianity or its values. We cannot ignore the challenges that face us and these challenges, particularly the ones discussed during this summit, are not just found in the outside world but inside the church. “They are us, they are integral of us.” Dr. Simmons could not be more inclusive, when talking about LGBTI issues, we are essentially talking about us as a church family and not just about them or those.

To many a surprise, at least mine and people around me, she then continued to honour and commend Kinship for their ministry among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and intersex Adventists and former Adventists. She even quoted from some Kinship communication as to what this organization would really like to convey to the delegates at the summit. As soon as I get my hands on her speech I will post the quote here. For not clear reasons dr. Simmons had to cut her speech short, apparently it had something to do with people of the organization having to check out of their hotels and prepare for travel earlier than expected. I guess they hadn’t skipped the early morning session. She wanted to show how in Mark you can find 13 ways in which Jesus lived out the gospel to broken and hurt people. In the end, she stressed, that we as a religious organization and believers exist to promote understanding, peace and friendship among all people. False and true teachings are determined in action and living.  I must say dr. Simmons made me proud again of my church and gave me hope that we as a church can find a way to address the challenges in a careful, loving, considerate and humane way, without damaging, hurting or dehumanizing people. I say: dr. Ella Simmons for GC president! I guess we have to then first deal with another issue where we lag behind several decades. I am up for the next summit to deal with this issue. 2015? Texas?

Day 3: Professional discomfort

The day started with two disappointments. When I opened the curtains this morning it actually rained, or perhaps a better description would be it drizzled. The second, far smaller, disappointment was that I opened the curtains at 08:00 hrs. at least 30 minutes removed from being ready to show myself to the world, or at least to the people at the breakfast table. Again the first order of the day, the devotion by John Nixon, was already in full swing while I was brushing my teeth getting ready for another day of conversing, gaining understanding and counselling together. My apologies.

Every day follows a similar par course. It starts with a devotion, followed by a panel discussion and a plenary lecture, after lunch a breakout session, another plenary lecture, followed by dinner and a final plenary lecture. Whereas yesterday was mainly focused on the biblical and theological aspects today the sciences (social, medical and psychological) and legal employment aspects received our undivided attention, clearly fields that I and many delegates are no experts in.

Before I continue to give a summary and some commentary about today’s proceedings, I have to tell you that I write these reports at the end of the day mainly from notes and my memory. So if I wrongly quote or describe someone or a situation, please forgive me and contact me to see whether I can correct it. Preferably in that order.

The day started with a presenter having perhaps the coolest name of the summit: dr. Fox. Dr. Curtis Fox is the department chair of counselling and family sciences of Loma Linda University. When I arrived on Sunday morning at the international airport of Cape Town, both dr. Fox and I shared a ride to our respective hotels. When we loaded our luggage into the car I asked him how long he was staying in South Africa. He answered that he had to take a flight back on Saturday evening, two days after I would fly back to Brussels. I prompted this question as I managed to squeeze all my luggage in one suitcase which was small enough to be carried on board as hand luggage. Dr. Fox on the other hand carried two massive suitcases, at least three times the size of mine, with enough space for a two month holiday. For some this would qualify dr. Fox, more than others, to be speaking at a summit concerning homosexual issues, besides his professional qualifications off course.

Each presenter today would wrestle with similar questions and would try to answer these questions from their respective fields of expertise. The first question to wrestle with is where homosexuality actually comes from, how is it developed, caused or formed? The second question is whether homosexuality can or should be changed? And the final question how should the church respond?

The presentation of dr. Fox came from the social sciences perspective and provided some very crucial information related to LGBTI issues. First of all he stated that social sciences clearly indicate that sexual abuse, parental influence and parental relationships are no factors in the forming of homosexuality. Especially the last two factors are important for us to realise: homosexuality is not caused by wrong parenting or by homosexual parents. Apparently children raised by homosexual parents score higher in social skills and intelligence. According to dr. Fox it remains a mystery, at least from the social sciences perspective how homosexuality is caused. He further went on to say that he would not recommend any reorientation therapy. From a professional perspective any therapy whereby the therapist beforehand decides what the solution is, is not considered to be therapy and can even be dangerous for the wellbeing of the “patient”. Dr. Fox made it clear what his personal biblical and moral convictions were regarding homosexuality, yet he made it also very clear that church pastors should have an open conversation with LGBTI people in their congregations. The conversation would be to help the homosexual reconcile his orientation with his own moral convictions. He emphasized that the objective of the conversation was not to steer the homosexual towards the pastor’s “solution”, but that we would help him or her to find his or her own solution.

Two other important points were made by dr. Fox. First he discussed some myths about gays and lesbians:

  • Most paedophiles are actually not gay, the majority of paedophiles identify themselves as heterosexual.
  • Gay relationships are not transient, but are just as stable and committed as heterosexual relationships.
  • Gays do make good parents, there is no study indicating that children raised by homosexuals are worse off.
  • Gay parents do not make children gay and being gay is not a contagious lifestyle.

Secondly he shared different quotes from homosexual students he had interviewed, which he called “missing voices” of the summit. One quote read: “It is necessary to change the way we treat people. If the mission of the church is to save souls, then, you must approach them differently … It is hard to be in a place where it does not matter what you think or what you feel, you are lost and you are not going to heaven.”

Dr. Peter Landless was the next speaker after lunch and the panel discussion. He is probably the person with the most titles behind his name: MB, Bch, MMe., FCP, FACC and FASNC, a true alphabet person. He is the director of health ministries at the General Conference and gave the delegates a crash-course in the medical and biological aspects of conceiving a child, but also the complications that can arise during that conception. Particularly what happens if there are not enough or too many chromosomes fused together or when a child receives only an X or an XXY, as opposed to an XX (female) or XY (male) sex chromosome. Even though the children born with these anomalies can be either genetically male (XY chromosomes) and biologically female (having female genetalia) or vice versa or have ambiguous genetalia (both female and male). Yet none of these factors, either genetically or biologically, explain the cause of or account for homosexuality. Medical science accepts homosexuality as a normal variation of human sexuality. The presenter also did not support reorientation therapy, as on medical grounds one’s orientation is so complex any change is likely to fail. Dr. Landless further showed that homosexuals have higher health risks, besides hiv, AIDS or other STD’s. The majority of these health risks, such as higher blood pressure, vascular aging, diabetics, are caused by unsupportive environments or societal persecution. Landless was unambiguous about his moral and biblical standpoint on homosexuality, as with the previous presenter, he asserted the biblical viewpoints shared by the two theologians yesterday, yet he did call for a much more supportive environment in the church.

The final presentation of the day was given by dr. Peter Swanson, associate professor of pastoral care at Andrews University. Dr. Swanson challenged the audience by asking them a total of almost 19 questions sprinkled throughout his presentation. Even though the content of the presentation was very interesting, it was presented in a very monotonous manner, luckily the dry humour of the presenter kept us sharp enough to follow his presentation. Again the cause of homosexuality could not be explained from a psychological perspective, it is not a psychological disorder and it is seen by the APA (American Psychological Association) as a normal form of human sexuality. He also confirmed that results from change therapies were rare, likely to be unsuccessful and very often result in harm for the individual. Some of the questions Dr. Swanson posed were:

“Given that some of those seeking change have experienced harm, even when abusive and coercive practices were not employed during Sexual Orientation Change Efforts, what position should the religious community  take with reference to Reparative Therapy as a means of changing individuals sexual orientation?”
“If sexual involvement and romantic interest are ruled out, what religious constraints are there against people living together that might apply to two men, two women or to a man and a woman?”
“Is the church in the business of regulating members’ behaviour, or is it responsible for creating a religious environment conductive to Spirit-directed changes in members’ lives?”
“Acknowledging that many of our churches are not viewed as safe and friendly places for non-heterosexual people to worship, how can we fulfil our mission to take the gospel to every nation, kindred tribe and people which obviously includes LGBTI individuals?”

These challenging questions should have been asked at the start of the summit, as they would have created more productive conversations and discussions.

I gave this day the title “professional discomfort”, as all three professional presenters showed some degree of discomfort when they were asked in the Q&A section of each presentation how they reconciled the scientific findings of their respective fields with their own biblical and moral convictions regarding homosexuality. All of them responded eventually that their biblical and moral convictions actually took precedence over the scientific findings, or at least played a more important role in dealing with the issue of homosexuality. I believe this stand will cause the church serious problems in the future. If our moral and biblical convictions are not reflected nor related to our experiences in live or in observed reality in general, we set ourselves up to cling to perceived truths in the order of the flat earth. Our biblical interpretations cannot solely be based upon theoretical deliberations, but need also a grounding or at least be informed by scientific findings in other fields and real life experiences.

Not applying this principle can lead to some, I believe, disturbing conclusions in other areas of the church, as the panel discussion on legal and employment issues, in my opinion, showed. The main thrust of the discussion was how to secure for the church in relation to employment the possibility to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation especially in countries where anti-discriminatory laws against homosexuals are in place. Four lawyers and an HR director of the GC discussed at length how church administrators should make sure to get involved in the process of legislation to secure this right to discriminate. The majority of the panel concluded that because of the biblical teachings of the bible on homosexuality, as presented yesterday by the BRI, and our duty to uphold the high standards of Christian living, the church or its institutions should not employ homosexuals. What the panel really asked from the church administrators is to fire or not employ people based on something they cannot choose or change, as social, medical and psychological sciences showed, yet this is justified because we apply a biblical interpretation which we don’t allow to be informed by these sciences. If we did allow these sciences to inform our biblical interpretations, I believe, we would come to different conclusions on homosexuality and therefore the need to discriminate would be greatly reduced. The panel discussion did close with a very positive advice given by dr. Nick Miller, director of the International Religious Liberty Institute: “Be a good neighbour before you need a good neighbour!” I hope that includes my homosexual neighbour.

Day 2: Shared view points

Conferences like these have the tendency to start the day very early and I have to admit that I am definitely not a morning person. So when I arrived at breakfast, the meeting at the Cape Town International Convention Centre had already started with a devotional by John Nixon. Luckily I found myself in good company at the breakfast table with the president of Collonge University, the president of the Swiss Union and the secretary of the Inter-European Division.

By the time I did arrive at the convention centre a panel discussion was in full swing. Moderated by dr. Pardon Mwansa a discussion was held with directors of the family department of the GC, a president of the Northern Australian Conference, an associate director on human resources at the GC, an associate professor of pastoral care at Andrews University and the general counsel of the GC. You could say a panel in the heavy-weight league of the church, very capable of addressing the different issues facing the church. The discussion started with a map of the world with different markers indicating in green the countries which had some legal status for same-sex relationships and in orange and red the countries where homosexuality is criminalized or even punishable by death, Karnik Doukmetzian, general counsel of the GC remarked that the church was facing much less problems in the orange shaded countries than in the green shaded countries, from a legal and employment perspective. The discussion was a very nuanced and open discussion about how to relate to our homosexual brothers and sisters. The president of the Northern Australian Conference, Brett Townend, said that he would baptize a homosexual and that he finds it important that churches become safe places for LGBTI people. He strongly discouraged any sermons that would condemn their lifestyle as this would only place these people in a greater isolation or further in the closet. The General Conference through the associate director on human resources, Lori Yingling, was ambivalent in its answer to the question whether people at the General Conference office could still be employed in supportive staff after they disclose that they are non-practicing homosexuals. In general it was her experience that people would leave church employment by themselves.

One red line through the discussions of this day is the insistence on the differentiation of the homosexual individual and homosexual activity. All people that have been presenting or were part of the panel discussions have tried to separate the two by insisting to love the sinner (the homosexual individual) but not the sin (homosexual activity). Each session follows a two-step trajectory. First the panel or the presenter shares its presentation and secondly delegates can ask questions by writing them down and handing them to the different ushers in the hall. This seems to be a very effective way of getting the delegates involved but also to gauge the sentiment in the hall. One of the questions I was able to ask the panel that morning was to define what a practicing homosexual lifestyle was? The answer given by the dr. Peter Swanson, associate professor of pastoral care at Andrews University was both startling yet also very telling of the perception of homosexuality in the church. Dr. Swanson defined a practicing homosexual as someone who participates in genital same-sex activities. Holding hands, kissing, cuddling, sleeping in one bed, living in one house are not seen as part of a practicing homosexual as long as genitals are not involved.

The tendency of this summit is to reduce the issue of homosexuality or even define homosexuality to a sexual genital activity. As if  a heterosexual relationship is only defined or can be reduced to the mere act of having sex with your wife or husband. I hope my church and especially the leadership of the church realizes that intimate and loving relationships are more than simple sexual activities.

The second part of the morning and the first part of the afternoon was designated to the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.  We were given a crash course in hermeneutics (how one reads or should read the Bible) by dr. Kwabena Donkor. He rightly indicated that the discussion on how to interpret the so-called anti-gay texts in the Bible is really a discussion about hermeneutics. He continued to pitch two general hermeneutical theories against each other, the traditional hermeneutics also known as historical interpretation and the more contemporary hermeneutics also understood as the historical-critical method. It would require too many pages to explain the differences between the two, yet what was striking during the presentation, which seems to become the general attitude of the presenters associated with the GC, was the assumption that its audience completely agrees with their point of view. So the contemporary hermeneutics was laid aside without giving any proper explanation or argumentation, it was simply assumed that we all agreed that this hermeneutics (which the majority of theological scholars use nowadays) was invalid.

Dr. Ekkehardt Mueller, director of the BRI, had the difficult task to take the audience through Old and New Testament Bible texts that seem to be explicit anti-gay texts. The presentation focused mainly on the texts in Leviticus, Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6. Dr. Mueller first dismissed the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as having anything to do with homosexuality, but this story merely dealt with inhospitality, rape and abuse. Unfortunately dr. Mueller’s further presentation was of a low scholarly and theological standard. His main argument was to recognize that the texts in Leviticus were mainly in the context of idolatry and were therefore dealing with temple prostitution, yet without any further textual evidence or argumentation he extended it to all homosexual relationships. He then used this argument to proof that Paul in his letter to the Romans was also talking about all homosexual relationships, because Paul was referring in his argument to Leviticus 18. And because Paul was referring to Leviticus 18 in his argument, Leviticus 18 was actually dealing with all homosexual relationships, you can see the circular argument here. Furthermore he actually argued that the list of vices mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 included homosexuality, despite that many translations translate the actual Greek words in more general terms as fornication. This is because scholars have a hard time determining what the actual Greek words mean. I believe the BRI can do a much better job at explaining these texts, yet this would involve admitting that these texts do not say anything about loving monogamous homosexual relationships as we understand them today.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in a break-out session, not to be confused with a coming-out session. I was assigned the discussion on “global legislation, religious liberty and alternative sexual issues.” The main objective of this break-out session was to discuss the different implications and possible responses to differing legislation surrounding same-sex marriages. It was interesting to hear three lawyers talking about American legislation and their perceptions of the countries that have fully legalised same-sex marriages. The main concern of the church is how to protect their right not to perform these marriages. It was relieving to hear that the church was not interested in enforcing their particular view of marriage through civil legislation. Todd McFarland, associate general counsel of the GC, admitted that they didn’t have any proper policies in place on how to respond legally to, for example, anti-homosexual laws in Uganda, especially as local union presidents have responded positively to this law or similar laws in other African countries. Even though the GC clearly opposes any violence and persecution of homosexuals, yet reserves the right to be able to discriminate with regards to employment. Again the presenters associated with the GC assumed that all delegates were sharing the GC’s point of view on homosexuality, insisting that all statements on homosexuality made by the General Conference were done so with complete democratic transparency, as we are used from the GC.

The day was closed with personal testimonies of three former homosexuals. This former has to be understood as no longer practicing homosexuals, as all three admitted that they still have homosexual tendencies and, in their words, temptations. The stories of these three individuals are incredible testimonies of redeemed lives after an upbringing of sexual abuse, parental neglect and drug fuelled relationships. Despite the powerful changes that they experienced in their lives, their stories are in no-way reflective of the average homosexual Adventist raised in a stable, loving family. In the end all they managed to do, which is by all means a great feat in and of itself, was to suppress their feelings and to despise their homosexual nature. All three presenters started their own change-ministries and actually encourage youth not to accept their homosexuality, but to suppress it. Again their homosexuality is reduced to the mere sexual act, suppressing that act is, according to them required by Jesus.

The last presentations were received by the audience with applause, a large minority remained quiet during these applause sessions, yet it is not clear whether they didn’t agree or were pre-occupied with other things. After the presentation I managed to talk to an associate dean for student affairs of one of our larger universities and asked him whether he would invite these ministries to his campus. He assured me that his university would not actively support change-ministries and that actually most Adventist universities and its professors would not agree with what was presented that evening. Again the General Conference assumes that its audience shares its point of view.

Tomorrow there will be another day with more perspectives, this time from a social, medical and psychological perspective. I will try to wake up early this time.

Day 1: a conversation of hope?

After two days of wandering around Cape Town, South Africa, soaking up the sun, enjoying a good Springbok steak, being impressed by the beautiful sights of Table Mountain and meeting the ever friendly and polite people of this town, I had to start the work for which I had really come. Tonight was the first evening of the General Conference summit “In God’s Image”. In our welcome letter, which was sent a couple of months before, the purpose of this summit is to have “a conversation with key people in the global leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to gain a greater understanding of the issues surrounding alternative sexualities, and to counsel together regarding the challenges the church is facing in this area, in order to find a way to be redemptive as well as obedient to the teachings of Scripture in a more consistent manner around the world.”

Before the summit started, it was already the centre of some discussion, especially among the more supportive groups of the GC coined term: alternative sexualities. A blog on the Huffington Post ( argues that the summit is just another “echo chamber” and only allows voices to be heard that follow the GC’s party line. Kinship, an organisation that tries to give a voice to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and intersexual Adventists, complained in an open-letter to the chairman of the organizing committee, dr. Pardon Mwansa, also general vice-president of the General Conference, that they, and other similar organizations were excluded from this conversation. Even a letter of an Adventist parent of a gay son, addressed to the same chairman, is floating around, pointing out that delegates to the summit will only hear stories from so called ex-gays, which are in no way representative for the stories of the many LGBTI’s in our church.

So you could say that the summit is off to a good start. My hopes for an open conversation and a gain of better understanding were a little bit raised by the welcoming speeches of the respective presidents or representatives of the division, union and conference. Especially the representative of the Cape Conference lifted my hopes, he suggested to the delegates that perhaps an unorthodox yet very Adventist solution was needed for this challenge. According to Mandla S. Lupondwana, the Cape Conference representative, we needed to move beyond names and labels. This was after the division president, Paul Ratsara was happy that this summit took place in South Africa, the rainbow nation of Nelson Mandela. So at least our hosts seem to be open for this conversation.

Unfortunately that was about all the hopes for an open and honest conversation about the topic for that evening. The General Conference president, Ted Wilson, tried to make sure that the outcome of this counselling together of key people in the global leadership was that we would not “revise our definition of brokenness” but that we renewed our “commitment to hold up God’s biblical standard in all sexual behaviour”. So the purpose of this conversation and the gaining of understanding is to better and more friendly condemn LGBTI’s behaviour. Br. Wilson in his opening speech made sure to emphasize that we were all sinners and that no sin was worse than the other, yet all sin could be overcome by the power of Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t come “only to save but also to change.”

This truth, that Jesus can change, even the homosexual and that homosexual behaviour is sin (note not homosexual being is sin, but just acting upon the feelings is sin), seems to play, at least according to brother Wilson, the key role in our discussions the coming week. I wonder how much of the truth is left over after we’ve heard the speeches on medical, psychological and social perspectives and not to forget the testimonies of the change ministries.