Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Interview: Nicholas Miller

Nicholas Miller, Esq. was the Chairman for the Steering Committee of the Marriage, Homosexuality, and the Church Conference that met at Andrews University last week. During the conference, he agreed to an interview with apokalupto to address criticisms of the conference.

a: How did this conference germinate? What was the seed from which it sprung?

NM: At the opening of the conference I talked about the controversy over Proposition 8, which necessarily involved religious liberty leaders because gay marriage would have legal implications for [Adventist] Church institutions. During our advocacy it became clear that some thought leaders in the Church had a different view on gay marriage and underlying question of the morality of homosexual practice. And it became apparent that the Church needed to have a conversation, both about the public policy position of the church on gay marriage and about revisionist arguments that were being made against the Church’s position on homosexual practice.

a: Why, then, was it decided to exclude voices from the Conference who held a contrary view of the underlying question of the morality of homosexual practice?

NM: On your blog you talked in terms of this being a professional conference and not so much a scholarly conference. I disagree with that slightly, because it was a conference with scholarship. But if you were to define a professional conference as a conference on how to implement or use an existing or underlying philosophy, there is indeed some truth to that. And I would analogize it to a conference on the meaning and practice of the Sabbath, which our church considers a biblical institution. It’s generally considered that to have a successful conference, you wouldn’t have to bring in speakers who insist on Sunday worship. And to work out the implications of the Sabbath, you don’t have to debate the underlying question of whether the Sabbath has a biblical basis.

a: But if I could take on your analogy, we don’t have any thought leaders in our Church, who remain in the Church, who believe we should worship on Sunday. But, as you said, we do have thought leaders in our church who do have a different answer to the question of homosexual practice.

NM: I might dispute that initial statement. I think we have some thought leaders in our church who think that that maybe whether it’s Sabbath or Sunday doesn’t matter, but who are willing to stay in the church. But I will accept that there are probably a few more thought leaders who disagree on the question of homosexual practice. And because there are a handful of thought leaders who disagree on this question, perhaps there needs to be a gathering where there is a debate on that issue. But that wasn’t this conference. The leaders of this conference didn’t view that as a significantly live question to justify the resources we put into it. Our purpose was to explore and affirm the biblical basis of the Church’s existing position, but more importantly to move forward in ministry based on that position. And if we came to debate the Church’s existing position, we wouldn’t have been able to meet the goal of formulating an effective public advocacy and strengthening the church’s counseling ability. And those two flow from an underlying agreement on what the biblical position on homosexual practice is.

But that's the first answer. The second answer is that this conference didn't take place in a vacuum. The revisionist position had a complete hearing in a conference a year or two ago, which resulted in a powerful book. And all but one of the articles in that book is a revisionist argument. So those arguments are out there, and that conference was essentially univocal. So to have a dialogue, we thought this conference could respond to that book. If we had made our response a kind of an internal argument within itself, it wouldn’t have been so much of a response. But we didn't do that, and I think we now have a better basis for dialogue, where two positions have been clearly outlined. As we’ve said all along, this conference is a beginning, not the end.

a: Can you tell me about those who were invited to this conference but decided not to come?

NM: Yeah, there were several. Dr. Richard Rice was invited to give a paper about the underlying questions about homosexual practice and the Bible, but chose not to come. David Larson and Julius Nam were invited, and both initially accepted. We invited them to speak to the Church’s response to Proposition 8. But Julius Nam declined for scheduling reasons, as he’s into law school. And David Larson declined—I think that he wanted a broader topic to discuss was part of that—but he also declined the invitation for personal reasons.

a: A cynical person would ask why such a panelist would want to come and be used as a fall guy to legitimate a predetermined outcome. Why would someone want to come this conference and be on a panel where they are outnumbered?

NM: Well, they weren’t invited to be on a three to one panel. We were originally going to have an evenly divided panel. And I don’t know if there are predetermined outcomes for how the church should have responded to Proposition 8. I think there’s a lot valid points that could be made on both sides. And for the panel discussing Proposition 8 we ended up inviting two from both sides. But the formal gay marriage panel ended up being three to one, because Mitch Tyner wanted to be on the breakout session discussion panel instead of presenting a paper. [a: And I did not report on that breakout session, because I went to the pastoral/counseling session instead.}

a: It's not hard to notice that over three quarters of the presenters were white, middle-aged and almost all straight men. Why is that?

NM: You’ve got to play with the deck of cards that you’re dealt. And for whatever reasons, and probably for bad reasons including chauvinism and euro-centrism, the scholars in the Church generally have those characteristics. We were looking for those with expertise within a fairly narrow field. And we sought for some women presenters, scholars, and counselors; and for various reasons they were unable or unwilling to attend. So we had what we had.

a: Why is it that we heard so few voices in the question and answer periods challenging the traditional Christian position on homosexuality?

NM: We didn’t hand pick the questions, David. I went to the hands that I saw raised in as fair a way as I could and took the questions as they came. I think it had to do with the spirit that was prevailing at the conference. Many people had been praying about this conference, and we didn’t want to have a divisive debate over technical, arcane, or revisionist biblical issues. We wanted to have a conference that in the end would provide the church with a stronger ministry to the homosexual community. And I believe the spirit prevailed that accomplished that goal. In the final session I read a letter from a lesbian individual who said she was deeply appreciative of the love and compassion and the spirit that prevailed at the conference.

To be honest, I was going to do hand written questions for all the panels. But during that first session we had presenters who were experienced handling questions publicly and we had the time, so I thought I’d try with a live mic. And it went so well, that we decided to continue. I did in the very final panel do hand written questions, because the panel was so large and the audience was so large that we couldn’t pass the mic around.

a: I have heard an allegation that you put questions challenging the traditional position on homosexual practice to the bottom of the stack during that final panel.

NM: During that time I read a number of questions challenging the position of the Church and I also read a number of questions that were entirely supportive of the position of the Church. But we ran out of time and there were questions both from the right and from the left that went unanswered.

a: Given the above, what do you think were the strengths of the conference, and how do you think we should move forward with future events to address this issue?

NM: The strength of the conference was that it enhanced the Church’s capacity for ministry and proclamation. Theological discussion is important for the Church, but it is not an end in itself. We do not exist as a church to have a series of ongoing, continuous discussions and debates for our own purposes. And we ended up with a conference where a lot of people felt they could go out and proclaim the Church’s position more effectively and minister and counsel more effectively in light of that position. I don’t think we could have accomplished that if we’d had a debate about the underlying biblical issue of whether homosexual practice is sinful.

Moving forward, we can now explore in greater depth the three areas—religious liberty and public policy, biblical theology and ethics, and counseling and pastoral care—that the conference focused on. I could see more room for dialogue among those with differing biblical views, but that’s not something I’m particularly interested in organizing. I’m a religious liberty and church history guy, not a biblical theologian, so I’ll leave that to those in that area.

a: Thank you for your time.

NM: Thank you for your interest.

Blogging the Homosexuality Conference (other posts)


  1. Kudos on the questions, David.

    From inside the Adventists Against Prop 8 team I can certainly report that Nick did not exactly try hard to include replacements for Julius Nam.

    That Nick pushes back against the widespread recognition that this conference was less scholarly and more apologetic, reveals a lot about his standards for scholarship.

    Furthermore, it's odd to read someone justifying the conference's homogeneity by pointing to another, much smaller conference. It sounds as if he's defending it by using the old excuse, "well, they did it first!" Do two wrongs make a right? Were they equally supported by as many Adventist institutions?

    Furthermore, that they had to go so far outside Adventism into the Religious Right to find scholars (marginal at that) who agree with them also reveals a lot about their epistemological priorities.

  2. Anon:

    The fact that Alex makes an ad homonym dig against scholars you like doesn't mean you can leave a comment with nothing but ad homonym attacks. I'm deleting your comment because I want the discourse on this blog to rise above that.

  3. I'm wondering why gay marriage would have legal implications for Adventist institutions - is it not because these institutions have accepted government funds and thus are not exmpt from discrimination in hiring?

    It's my understanding that the controversy in the church over Prop 8 was concerned with religious liberty issues rather than approval of gay marriage.

    Why are those with a different understanding called "revisionist" in a perjorative way?

  4. To Alex:

    I did replace Julius, with two very competent individuals, Jason Hines, a Harvard-trained lawyer, and Mitch Tyner, who I believe was part of the Prop 8 team. With their legal backgrounds, I think they made more challenging arguments than Julius would have made. (Which is no slight against Julius, just a question of training and experience.)

    As far as apologetics versus scholarship, I think if post-modernism has taught us anything, it is that all scholarship is, at some level, apologetic. You of all people should know this. It is a question of whether the apologetics is handled with integrity or not. Or perhaps you will insist that the Forum conference on homosexuality was about scholarship and not apologetics?

    As far as "marginal Religious Right scholars" are concerned, I am surprised at your deep-seated prejudice against Christian scholars whom you have apparently never met and obviously know little to nothing about. Both Dr. Gagnon and Dr. Yarhouse are superb scholars, among the leading Christian thinkers in their respective fields.

    Alex, in your comments recently you are becoming something of a caricature of the post-modern liberal who must vent his spleen at any suggestion that any truth or standard might exist beyond the one "fundamental truth" that truth does not exist, or we cannot meaningfully know it. It is a dangerous and precarious spiritual position to be in, made even more concerning by the role you play as teacher and role model at a Christian college. I pray that you will reconsider your attitude in these matters. The seat of the scornful is not for those that lead and guide the youth.

    To Carol:

    The funding issue does not have much to do with issues of discrimination and gay marriage. Tax-exempt status can be withdrawn, irregardless of whether there is federal or state funding. Certainly funding makes the state's job easier, but since the rise of the regulatory state, no collegiate educational or health institutions can meaningfully exist without being able to accept Calgrants or medicare and medicaid.

    We were concerned with both issues, the religious liberty autonomy of the church, as well as the societal impact on children in teaching the acceptability of homosexual activity, as well as being raised in homosexual environments. Both are legitimate concerns.

    Finally, revisionist is a shorthand way of saying a "changed" view. Certainly, the pro-gay reading of the Bible is a changed way of reading the Bible from the broad consensus of the last 2,000 years. It is not an inherently prejudicial term, rather it is a convenient way of identifying the position. Here is the Wikipedia definition of historical revisionism: "Within historiography, that is part of the academic field of history, historical revisionism is the reinterpretation of orthodox views on evidence, motivations, and decision-making processes surrounding a historical event." As you can see, it is not inherently a derogatory statement.

  5. Great interview David! Wish I could have been there for the conference.