landmark conference on Seventh-day Adventism’s response to homosexuality and the social phenomenon of “gay marriage” convened on the campus of Andrews University October 15-17 amid growing evidence that many of the church’s North American members are uncertain about its positions on the difficult spiritual and social issues involved.
The “Marriage, Homosexuality and the Church” conference drew more than 200 registered participants and hundreds of students, faculty, and community residents to the three-day gathering on the Berrien Springs, Michigan, campus. Organized by the university’s International Religious Liberty Institute, the event highlighted speakers and presenters “who have a biblically-faithful view on homosexual practice,” according to a welcoming letter from steering committee chair Nicholas Miller, an Andrews faculty member and director of the Institute. Billed as a “series of meetings, presentations, and discussions on one of the most challenging issues to confront both church and society in recent years,” the event also attracted theologians and lay members advocating for change in the church’s historic position, including the pro-gay group Adventist Kinship.
Presenters and panelists at the conference included leading Adventist and evangelical biblical scholars and psychologists, as well as attorneys, pastors, counselors, editors, and administrators. Two Adventists who have emerged from a homosexual lifestyle—Wayne Blakely, a lay member from Portland, Oregon, and Ron Woolsey, now an Adventist pastor from Marshall, Arkansas—were also featured in presentations and panels, as was Inge Anderson of Chase, British Columbia, founder of a ministry aimed at homosexually-oriented Christians.
The conference opened Thursday evening with a keynote address by Mark Yarhouse, professor of psychology at Regent University and author of a major study of Christian organizations offering the promise of “deliverance” from homosexual orientation. Research he coauthored with Wheaton College provost and psychology professor Stanton Jones “contradict[s] the commonly-expressed view of the mental health establishment that sexual orientation is not changeable and that the attempt to change is highly likely to produce harm for those who make such an attempt.”*
Robert Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and coauthor of the critically acclaimed Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, challenged his audiences Friday night at the Pioneer Memorial Church and Sabbath morning in Chan Shun Hall to take a clear-eyed and candid view of the biblical injunctions against homosexual behavior. “If God says this is behavior that excludes you from the kingdom, who are we to say otherwise?” Gagnon asked. Noting that some Christians urge revision of historic Christian teaching against homosexuality in the name of tolerance and inclusion, Gagnon urged, “If you are going to be loving, you don’t leave people in sins . . . that lead them to fall into God’s wrath.”
Dwight Nelson, pastor of the Pioneer church, focused his Sabbath morning messages in both services on Christian sexuality, urging his large congregation of students and faculty to recognize their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.
Several Adventist attorneys--including James Standish (GC PARL): Barry Bussey (GC PARL); Gerald Chipeur, a partner with the Canadian law firm Miller Thomson; and Alan Reinach, executive director of the Church State Council that supported California Proposition 8 against gay marriage--addressed the challenges to education and health-care hiring practices posed by gay marriage legislation enacted in Canada and being considered in several American states.
A strong and persistent call for Adventist members and congregations to practice compassion toward persons involved in sinful lifestyles was also made by several presenters, including Richard Davidson, Old Testament professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Candidly acknowledging his own mocking of homosexuals as a young man, Davidson called for “a radical change in the way our church treats sinners.” “What is at stake,” he asserted, “is God’s power to change those of us who do not have the gay lifestyle.”
Adventist Review editor Bill Knott, a church historian whose seminar presentation focused on the history of Adventist involvement in social issues, also urged church administrators to “lead our congregations to become communities where all manner of broken people find love and support.” Knott noted that the Adventist Church has taken public positions on moral issues throughout its history, and called attention to both the “compassion and the clarity” seen in the church’s 1996 statement “An Affirmation of Marriage,” and the “Seventh-day Adventist Position Statement on Homosexuality,” adopted by the General Conference Executive Committee 10 years ago. (See sidebars for the text of these statements.)
A variety of church and educational institutions supported the conference, including the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute, GC Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, Southern Adventist University and Oakwood University, the North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA), the North American Division Ministerial Department, and regional religious liberty associations in the Pacific and North Pacific union conferences.
* “Ex Gays? An Extended Longitudinal Study of Attempted Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation,” Sexual Orientation and Faith Tradition Symposium, American Psychological Association Convention, 2009.