Last week I joined peacemakers working and volunteering with Faith in America to reach out to attendees at the Southern Baptist Convention. We were there to talk about the devastating harm being done to LGBT+ kids in their families and churches. Hitting the pavement in the Phoenix heat, we passed out pamphlets and started conversations with those who were willing to engage on the sidewalks. We shared statistics, our stories, and strove for mutually beneficial conversations. Almost to a person those I encountered were unaware of the suffering of LGBT+ children raised in their churches. Several people from our group had credentials and entered the convention. Though they broke no rules and distributed no material, they were kicked out. But I was inspired by the passion, grace, and love of my fellow activists.
The work is particularly personal for me: Just eight weeks ago, when I came out as LGBT+ affirming and as bisexual, I lost my job as a minister. My painful exit from my pastoral ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the denomination that was the cradle of my faith and the bedrock of my life, began with a simple question: How can we stop causing harm to LGBT+ people?
This question was in the back of my mind since a friend came out to me in college. Later when I studied psychology in graduate school and became a counselor, I became more aware of the impact and inner workings of discrimination and marginalization. But the question gained fresh urgency when I was no longer able to ignore my own ability to fall in love with women. I experienced shame about the way I love and knew the need to hide it in order to be a pastor.
Despite my persistent refusal to take a queer identity even in the privacy of my own thinking, when 49 people were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I fell into a depression. I felt fear the way others in the queer community felt it, and I knew I was part of the community even in my silence. Among my pastoral colleagues I alone was driven to soul-searching by this tragedy. My question became a desperate demand: How can we stop causing harm to LGBT+ people?
I believed then and still believe today that asking such questions is essential to following Jesus or having healthy faith of any variety. My question lead me to re-examine the foundational texts that are used to label same-sex love a sin. I found that in recent years excellent scholarship from a conservative Christian perspective had shed new light on these texts.
There is agreement that the specific texts addressing same-sex sexual acts are referring to exploitative and unhealthy practices. The difference in how these texts are applied is found almost entirely in the assumptions the theologian makes about LGBT+ people. In my study, I was shocked to read non-affirming theologians assume that texts applying to temple prostitutes and exploited boys were representative of LGBT+ people in the ancient world. Often they expressed belief in “a gay lifestyle,” one that is unhealthy and out of control. I recalled professors from seminary who had expressed similar viewpoints. At minimum, they had no problem applying these texts about abuse and exploitation to LGBT+ people today. They certainly did not see same-sex love as being anything like heterosexual love. I realized that those who have not learned from LGBT+ people should never presume to apply scripture to their lives.
“As I prayed and opened myself to hearing God, I experienced pure joy. I smiled. I laughed. I realized two things: I am bisexual, and it is a beautiful gift.”
Why this resistance to learn directly from the affected communities? At its core, theology that fails to affirm LGBT+ people is resistant to change. They believe that since same-sex marriage and gender transitions didn’t happen in the Bible they can’t happen today. They say that since Adam was male and Eve was female, this is the only legitimate configuration for marriage even today. Their concern is not the greater scriptural values of compassion and justice, but institutional values of resisting change. Even in the absence of a specific biblical prohibition of same-sex marriage or gender transitions as we know them today, and despite clear harm to the LGBT+ community, they persist in their condemnation.
These revelations worked their way into my heart and began to eat away at every psychological barrier that kept me from embracing my own sexuality. Then one day the barriers fell to pieces. As I prayed and opened myself to hearing God, I experienced pure joy. I smiled. I laughed. I realized two things: I am bisexual, and it is a beautiful gift.
I also finally had the answer to my desperate question: We can stop causing harm by fully affirming LGBT+ people for how they love and how they identify. The church can shower the queer community with support, affirmation, and respect. This is what Jesus would do.
No matter how ostensibly loving the packaging, theology that labels LGBT+ people sinful for affirming themselves is both fundamentally unloving and destructive. They often call their condemnation “love,” but that only confuses the issue. When I realized these things, leaving my leadership role in a denomination that forbids affirmation of LGBT+ people was my only option. I determined to live my life with integrity.
I haven’t stopped caring about the denomination in which I can no longer pastor. I worry because the failure of the Seventh-day Adventist church to affirm LGBT+ people is also self-destructive. Their failure results in lost credibility and dwindling church participation. They accuse society of tolerating sin, but it’s clear to most that society cares more about me than my own denomination.
There is hope. Hope is in continuing the work of Jesus by seeking justice for the vulnerable. Jesus embraced everyone the religious leaders of his day rejected. Jesus followers today do the same. Traditional churches desperately need the queer people they are turning away if they are to recover this heart of the faith. They also need to give leadership positions and places of respect to women, people of color, and the poor. That’s how the church can regain the integrity it’s lost in the eyes of society and cooperate with God’s work in the world. The faith of Jesus must once more be an instrument of hope and compassion in the world.
I saw that hope this week as we engaged one-on-one with Southern Baptists, having the difficult conversations, answering the challenging questions and yes, even praying for each other. Was it painful? Yes. Was it difficult? Often. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Never have I known myself so clearly to be doing the work of Jesus. It is crucial that we save our kids. It is crucial for the kids themselves, and for the moral integrity of the churches who have yet to see the truth of the destruction their theology is wielding. Many churches have taken up the work of Jesus and affirmed LGBT+ people, it’s past-due for conservative churches to do the same. Conservative churches need queer people and allies to remind them of who they are: followers of Jesus, who taught that love, compassion, and justice are the heart of faith.