Not all churches that are inhospitable to LGBT+ people want to stay that way. Sometimes they recognize the problem and ask me how they can do better.

Ask and honest question. Get an honest answer.

This is especially difficult for churches that do not believe in marriage between people of the same gender or who don’t affirm the gender of trans people. Yet sometimes these churches still want to learn to minister well to the LGBT+ community. They believe that their stance doesn’t mean they can’t help and be there for queer people.

In one sense, it’s always refreshing to me to hear this. I have hope that if they keep asking these kinds of questions, things can get better.

But I am also concerned if there is the assumptions that this is a matter of packaging or programming. Such simplistic approaches can come from an underlying assumption that LGBT+ people are the spiritual needy ones and the church has nothing to learn.

Most non-affirming churches need way more than a tune-up. First, they need to acknowledge that they are causing harm to LGBT+ people. Then they need to learn to stop causing harm. Only then can they hope to minister to queer people.

The transformation needed to make this switch is not superficial at all. To stop causing harm to become a positive influence in the lives of queer people, even the closeted people in their own congregations who don’t feel safe enough to come out, is frankly monumental.

But I’m here to help point you in the right direction with these suggestions:

1. Take Advantage of Existing Resources

It would be helpful to begin by learning some basics. I wrote about what pastors should consider when preaching on LGBT+ related topics and those blogs would be helpful for non-ministers as well. The glossary is something anyone who is not familiar with the terminology should read through. I’ve also written other pieces on topics such as why the phrases “homosexual lifestyle” and “love the sinner hate the sin” are not helpful.

Those are some places you can look for information. There are so many others a google search away. A lot of people have worked hard to create easily accessible information on how to show respect to LGBT+ people. Anyone who is interested can find this information quickly.

Unfortunately, it’s more than an information gap that prevents non-affirming churches from effectively ministering to LGBT+ people. The real problem is the relationship gap.

Traditionalists often don’t know how to be in relationship with LGBT+ people. Don’t believe me? According to Barna, 87% of Evangelicals believe it would be difficult for them to have a normal conversation with an LGBT+ person.

No matter how much information you have, if LGBT+ people make you uncomfortable, we will know.

What happens if you do close that gap? How ready are you to be in relationships with LGBT+ people in a way that is genuine, unforced, and mutually respectful?

This is why updating your vocabulary is not enough. If you want to do better, you need to understand what the problem is an close the relationship gap.

2. Ask Why You Currently Aren’t Effective

Why doesn’t your church or ministry already reach LGBT+ people? Are there people currently in your congregation who are out LGBT+ people? It’s inevitable that you have at least a few queer people in your congregation, why aren’t they out? What about parents of LGBT+ people? Are they open? Why not?

If you know someone who is closeted or someone who is a parent and keeps that a secret from the general congregation, have a private conversation about why.

Then flip the question around so you can better understand it. Are you spending any time in predominately LGBT+ spaces? Are you in close and mutually respectful relationships with LGBT+ people? How might life as a non-affirming Christian prevent people from having these kinds of relationships? How might Christian leaders be especially impacted?

3. Foster Relationships of Mutual Respect with LGBT+ People

The next logical step is to cross that divide. Don’t start with trying to convince us to come to your church. Go to us.

There are conferences you can go to such as Q Christian Fellowship (formerly the Gay Christian Network) or The Reformation Project. There also might be some local events through these organizations you can attend.

Another suggestions is to show up at churches that welcome and affirm LGBT+ people. You can find them on this website. Before you go, call the pastor and tell them what you want to do and ask them if they can make some introductions to LGBT+ Christians for you.

If all this makes you feel nervous, know that LGBT+ people feel at least as nervous about attending your church.

4. Try to See Your Church as We Would

Once you have LGBT+ people in your life, ask them about what it might be like going to non-affirming churches.

You might get some surprising stories. You might also hear about common problems like the bait-and-switch: Churches that try to hide their non-affirming theology until LGBT+ people have dedicated time and energy into forming relationships there. Then they ask why that can’t serve or can’t attend a marriage seminar and are told only then that it’s because of their sexual orientation.

You might hear about being involved for years but never fully being apart.

You might here about people hiding their orientation for fear of rejection, or pretending like their partners are just friends.

You might here horrible experiences of insults and rejection.

You might hear about LGBT+ people who chose to abide by the church’s requirements and still didn’t believe they were seen as equal to straight Christians, even after their sacrifices.

If you get to know the LGBT+ community, you will be surprised at how common these experiences are.

Don’t stop with asking. Use your imagination to understand as much as possible what it would be like to be an LGBT+ person in your church.

Take some time envisioning yourself walking into a church with the person you love and having that church believe your relationship is a sin. Or imagine what it would be like to tell your friends at church that you are attracted to the same sex, or that you’ve always felt you were a different gender.

When anyone walks into any church they are not part of, they enter someone else’s home. How will things be here? Will I be acceptable here?

If a queer person walks into your church, you have all the power to make us feel at home or uncomfortable. Be aware of what that’s like for someone who has likely had terrible experiences with religion because of their sexual orientation.

Be ready for questions. Can the lesbian mom can serve in the children’s department. Can the gay man can help out in the youth program? Would you baptize an out LGBT+ person and under what circumstances? What happens when the kid in your youth group comes out as transgender? Do you require divorce of people in same-sex marriages?

More importantly, what must it be like for the people on the other end of these questions? Are you ready to see this through their eyes? Are you ready to face not only the difficulties this poses for yourself, but the difficulties it poses for those in the LGBT+ community?

In my experience, it’s difficult for non-affirming people do to this kind of emotional work. The reality of what church life is like in non-affirming churches for queer folks is hard to face even if you’re only imagining it. How much more difficult is it for LGBT+ people?

But ignoring reality was never part of being a Christian. Ministry without empathy is empty. There is no power without compassion.

If non-affirming theology is your conviction, you do no favors by not being understanding the full implications of your theology. You will come off to LGBT+ people as glib, even non-affirming LGBT+ people.

5. Look at the Log in Your Own Eye

I often hear non-affirming Christians talk about how they believe themselves to be sinful and in need of God’s grace just as much as LGBT+ people are. It’s easier to say this is a general sense then it is to get honest about the specifics, isn’t it?

In my experience, many Christians who do not affirm same-sex relationships or transgender identities are tragically unwilling to consider that they might have stigma and bigotry towards queer people.

Jesus said that before you can see clearly to take the speck from another’s eye, you need to deal with the log in your own (Matthew 7:5).

Following the teachings of Jesus means the first step towards ministering to queer people is to examine yourself. It’s a requirement to effective ministry.

The other suggestions I’ve made will get you ready for this step, but it won’t complete the process. If you are unwilling to confess your own sin, you will be jamming your fingers into other people’s eyes because you can’t see clearly.

This post may not give you the answers you were expecting when you say you want to minister to LGBT+ people. It’s not a how-to. I’m suggesting you should approach this as a more ingrained challenge. I’m suggesting you grow into the type of person who could do that work.

And neither am I done addressing this, because point number five needs further explanation. You can look for Part 2 next week.

One year ago I desperately wanted to attend the Gay Christian Network’s annual conference. I recall trying to think of cover stories for leaving for a few days so that my church and people close to me wouldn’t know where I was going. People finding out could result in questions I didn’t want anyone asking, questions that could lead to me losing my job as pastor.

It wa s all too easy for me to let the date come and go without ever registering or making plans to attend. I was afraid, not only of being discovered but of being seen for who I am at that conference.

Spend all your time hiding and authenticity feels foreign and dangerous. Fear won that day, but fear did not win in the end.

Today, I am waiting for my flight to leave from Denver, having just attended the very conference I was so afraid of one year ago.

Waiting for my flight to leave, I’m reflecting on my first Gay Christian Network conference. This turned out to be the last the last conference by that name when the name was changed to Q Christian Fellowship. It’s the ending of an era that I was glad to be present for, and the beginning of a new era that I’m thrilled to be part of.

This seems like a good time to reflect on what it’s been like to go from conservative church community to queer Christian community.

This very conference that I was so afraid to attend one year ago already feels like home, maybe as much like home as Adventist meetings and conferences ever did. Having attended several progressive and LGBT+ friendly events over the last 9 months since coming out as bisexual, I’m amazed at how many people I know as I wander around the convention center.

These are people I love and who inspire me, people who see all of me and call me good and blessed, people who understand and appreciate my ministry, and people to whom I can gush about my girlfriend and they’ll simply be happy for me. Here I am known and loved. I can drop my guard because no defense is needed. They fulfill my innate need for community in a way I’m not so sure the church I grew up in is capable of anymore, if it ever was.

These conferences bring tremendous healing to all of us. I would even say they save people.

Three months ago at a conservative and LGBT+ affirming conference called The Reformation Project in Chicago, I met a young lesbian woman. She was emotionally wrecked. Constantly on the verge of tears, she seemed fragile and vulnerable because of the criticism she’d taken.

As I talked with her I realized that she was in big trouble. She was at a Christian school that made her believe her desire for intimate love and connection with a woman was a sin. Her friends only reinforced this, telling her she could never experience the love she longed for.

TRP was good for her. She was encouraged, loved, accepted, and was able to see how many queer Christians are affirming themselves and thriving because of it. She was also exposed to solid theology that shifted her thinking and gave her hope.

Still, when I left I was afraid for her. I was afraid she wouldn’t know how to deal with the stress of rejection and loneliness.

A few days ago, at the QCF conference, I saw her again. Instantly I knew that things had changed for her. She stood taller, looked people directly in the eye, and most of all she smiled easily. Clearly she was on a totally new trajectory.

We talked for a few minutes, and she simply glowed when I told her how apparent the change was. I found out she’s doing very well and made the decision to change to a different school. She’s decided to leave behind those religious systems that brought her only death and condemnation. She is finding a better way.

I wonder what would have happened to her without QCF. I wonder what would have happened to me without this beautiful world of queer Christians. I don’t know how people made it before.

I suspect they usually abandoned their faith completely or lived lives of loneliness and judgement in church. But I know there is one more outcome that was and still is all too common. The specter of LGBT+ suicide for those in non-affirming Christian spaces is ever on my mind.

Instead, for those who are in churches and organizations that affirm them, there is hope there never was before. We get to experience Christianity with no strings attached. Love is given without qualification here. Community is unconditional.

We’re here not because we all signed a belief statement or are part of the same denomination. We don’t all behave the same way. There are a variety of different approaches to ethical questions. It’s not our uniformity that unites us. We are united because we all want to help each other through this life as followers of Jesus.

This is not Christendom where discipleship means following your pastor or the tradition and teachings that have been handed down, but where discipleship means following Jesus.

I’m here to report that it’s possible, it’s real, and it’s beautiful. Breath free, beloved, and experience the body of Christ in the fullness of authenticity, messiness, and grace.

Queer Christians are not the only ones who long for this experience of faith. The hunger is universal. From the pulpit to the pew to the classroom, Christians are tired of the judgement, but don’t know the way out.

There is a way out, a way to the gospel that is good news. This is not the gospel of conformity, but the gospel of Jesus Christ, freely given, full of Grace, Peace, and Love.

To get there we need to stop being afraid, stop covering up our authentic selves with masks and lies, and be willing to seek Jesus with our full hearts.

This is the secret that is well known to queer Christians. This is the gift we offer the church of Christ.

I’ve started and failed to finish blog after blog, even though they were great topics and important, meaningful, things I believe in. It seems I’ve had writers block because of my last post about Losing My Religion, a kind of dear John letter to the Adventist church, the conservative Christian denomination in which I used to pastor before coming out.

The day after posting it, even though every word came from a very deep and honest place, something felt off. It was only a half truth. One stop on the way to wherever I’m going. Neither a final destination nor the last word on my relationships with the church I grew up in.

Every sermon is a heresy. It’s something I’ve often said. Maybe every blog post is also a heresy, guilty of the same crime for the same reason, only able to contain a small portion of the truth.

So here’s another side: Most of the best, most loving, kindest, and most generous people I know are Adventists. Many of those people are also totally unaffirming of the way I experience love and family. This is a complex truth. It’s hard for me to handle.

I’ve been looking forward to the day my anger and hurt would abate enough for me to engage more directly with individuals from my church, maybe even attend a service again. That is beginning to happen, and it’s bringing with it unexpected emotions.

During my time as an Adventist in good standing, many people invested in me. Faces flash into my mind as I write these words, faces of people whose kindness got me through difficult times, whose faith in me gave me hope as I pursued the difficult path of becoming a pastor in the Adventist church as a woman.

When I was about the graduate from my Adventist High School, I was gifted a precious book that still sits on my shelf. A book about grace signed by my teachers, one after another affirming their confidence in me and my bright future. This is a beautiful gift for an 18-year-old. I recall professors who spent endless hours guiding me through difficult questions and struggles. I can think of Administrators who offered me jobs, and more importantly whose confidence in me was so crucial for my success.

Adventists were there for me in moments of need. Offering me a room in their home when I needed it, showing up in the hospital to pray with my father who had been diagnosed with cancer when I was on the other side of the country, letting me know that he was being loved when I couldn’t be there yet. Adventist administrators gave me ridiculous amounts of time off so I could be with my father even though they knew I may well be quitting my job to be with my family. My Adventist church family put together my father’s memorial service, making all the arrangements and showing up with food for the reception, after only one phone call from me asking for help.

Adventists are the colleges who supported me through ups and downs and difficult seasons of ministry. They are people who encouraged me, mentored me, gave me opportunities I wasn’t even sure I was ready for, and helped me succeed.

Adventists, many of them anyways, are people who will be there for you if you need them, no questions asked, no thanks required, because they know how to love well.

I wounded these kind and loving people when I came out as bisexual and opposed the church’s treatment of LGBT+ people.

People I worked with side by side, building up the church, now watch me tear down our work. The energy they poured into me I now use to accomplish the opposite of their intentions. I know for certain that my coming out caused people to leave the Adventist church for good. More than that, they are afraid for me because of the choices I am making, and they are afraid of the harm they believe I am causing to others.

The word betrayal is not too strong. I betrayed them. I betrayed the church that nurtured, raised, and loved me. Over the months since coming out, I’ve only twisted that knife. I feel my betrayal, even though I believe I’m doing the right thing.

How must it be for them? Adventists who love me now struggle with my announcement and struggle with the new me. Some are cruel to me in their struggle. Some want to dialogue. Some are even cheering me on. But most seem at a loss and want mostly to care for me but don’t know how.

I know my betrayal is necessary. I’m intentionally causing those good people to struggle, and I hope by God’s good grace to continue. LGBT+ people struggle unseen and unacknowledged in the Adventist church. Straight Adventists need to feel this hidden struggle. Nor is the pain I’ve caused in any way comparable to the extreme stress and resulting mental health challenges LGBT+ people face as a result of unaffirming theology. Yet I know that for some it has felt like I punched them in the stomach. I’ve been told as much.

If I have betrayed my church, my betrayal is the best way I know of being faithful. It’s a holy betrayal.

So why does part of me want to say sorry? I guess for the simple reason that I hurt people I love and who love me. ‘Sorry’ is not the right word and apology is not what is owed. I need to be clear about that. I have no shame and no regret but know I am in the center of God’s calling in the ministry I am doing now. I do want to acknowledge something I haven’t before. Here’s what I would like to say, if it’s not too late, if anyone I’ve hurt is listening:

“I now see past my own pain enough to acknowledge yours. I know you are not malicious but well-intentioned. I see that I’ve undermined the work we were doing together and how hard that could be. I can accept that you are hurt too. I know things are forever changed between us, but I hope they aren’t over.”

If you think I owe the church an apology, I guess this is the best I can do. There is healing in these words for me; I hope there is for others as well.

And this is important because I know my story is not unique. So many of us LGBT+ Christians who are in traditional denominations or coming out of them are in this struggle, and so many of the people we left behind are struggling as well. Perhaps my words can be of some help. If I’ve missed the mark, remember, every blog post is a heresy.

What now? What hope remains for people who have so hurt each other? What reconciliation can there be after such gut-wrenching mutual betrayal?

I don’t know. But for some reason I feel hopeful.

Maybe my hope comes from this: we are all trying to follow Jesus, and even if we don’t know how to manage this mess, Jesus does.

Today I’m finally going to talk about something that has been conspicuously missing from my blog: the crazy journey I have been on in my faith since coming out publicly as bi. Perhaps I’m ready to talk about it today because I’m beginning to recover some sense of spiritual grounding again.

Before coming out, affirming theology seemed like the missing element to my faith. Things seemed to fit in a way that didn’t before. Affirming theology reconciled elements of the Bible and God that hadn’t made sense. Those things are probably still true, though for a time they seemed like they weren’t.

I realize now that the real change since coming out isn’t about the Bible or God, it’s about the church. So much of it has been about the way people and institutions responded to me coming out. As expected, there was praise from some and attacks from others. What did surprise me is the reactions I haven’t heard, reactions I fully expected to encounter from Bible-believing Christians.

Losing the Beautiful Vision

My whole life I’ve been taught that the Adventist church has no creed but the Bible, that our doctrines are based on scripture more than any other denomination.

When others reverted to tradition, Adventist theology progressed, embracing the Sabbath, new understandings of death and the nature of the soul, new prophets, and new prophecies. We were a faith unafraid to go back to the Bible. We were people of the book.

I was a true believer in this visions of the Adventist church.

Because of this, I had a framework for why it was okay to open myself up to new understandings of scripture. When I studied and changed my mind about LGBT+ affirmation, that wasn’t a big threat to me. It made sense. It’s how Christianity is supposed to work.

Since coming out, I’m unable to believe that this vision of Adventism is true in the present, even if it was in the past. Coming out has decimated my faith in the church.

The response I expected and rarely received was thoughtful, careful engagement with me in study of the text. If Adventist understandings of truth are based on scripture and not on tradition, the first response to my work should be curiosity fostered by a desire to understand the Bible better.

Instead, I found people insisting that this matter has already been decided, that it’s part of settled theology in the Adventist church. In fact, many times I’ve been asked what more an Adventist pastor could do given the limitations of our theology. But why would our theology be excluded from change? This isn’t Adventism at all.

Defaulting to the doctrines of the church rather than the study of scripture isn’t supposed to be what it means to be an Adventist. As one of our most important founders put it:

“There is no excuse for anyone taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed and that our expositions of Scripture are without error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close examination.” -Ellen White

In stark contrast to this attitude of the early founders of our church, the Adventist church has taken a settled position against same-gender marriage and against transgender people. They’ve done so despite the fact that the Adventist church has never undertaken to study this issue, but instead has assumed itself to be right with zero self-examination.

As one example, when they met at the Andrews University seminary for a conference on the subject of “homosexuality” a few years ago, they began the conference clarifying that the churches doctrine was not up for re-examination. Everything they said would be within those bounds.

This approach is not the approach our church was founded on. It’s not what we are telling people about ourselves and our values. We are telling people the Adventist church is all about being true to the text, over and above any other denomination, even when it sets us at odds with other Christians.

Where Have the Faithful Gone?

I get it. I expected the official church to take this stance. The church is becoming more creedal, theologically calcifying for decades. What I didn’t expect was the lack of curiosity and open engagement from individuals in the church.

I have seen people casually write me off, saying my hermeneutic is wrong without ever expounding. I’ve studied hermeneutics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. I know how it works. The hermeneutic I’ve used in my work is conservative.

No, I don’t use a literalistic approach, but that’s not a conservative hermeneutic, it’s an uneducated one. My hermeneutic has attempted to get at the original intent of the author and to illuminate the work that God is doing in his people through all of scripture and over time. That’s conservative hermeneutics. That’s what I’ve used every time. In every post. In every discussion.

I can understand how someone could see this matter differently than I do, and I would really love to engage in conversation around this, but I can’t see how someone who truly wants to understand scripture would be so lacking in curiosity or a willingness to learn more about scripture through someone who sees it differently than they do.

This has been the source of my frustration. It seems that this unwillingness to return to the text with humility and curiosity has met me at every turn. Nothing seems like a good enough reason to even seriously ask these questions. It doesn’t matter that there has been new and credible scholarship. It doesn’t matter that the current doctrine is doing immense harm. It doesn’t even matter that there are many Adventist pastors who privately believe the church to be wrong.

I’ve spent my time mostly fending off hateful comments rather than thoughtfully engaging and growing from serious dialogue, that in itself is revealing.

Losing My Religion

This failure of self-reflection and scriptural curiosity has been ground zero for the dissolution of my trust in the church, though it’s far from the only one. It hurts.

Before coming out, I expected the pain of the church’s rejection of me, but I’m finding more and more that I’m also rejecting the church, and it’s just as painful.

What happens when you lose faith in the church that introduced you to Jesus, nurtured you, believed in you, gave you a place, gave you a spiritual home, and helped you know God? This is what I’m discovering.

These are the types of questions I’m going to be asking and reflecting on more and more in my blog. Today I want to share with you a bit of hope that’s come my way.

Losing God

Often, in the midst of this disintegrating faith in the church, I was also caught off guard by feeling incredibly distant from God. It was like God was gone. I was trying to seek spiritual solace, but couldn’t find it.

Many times it’s seemed to me that faith, God, and religion bring nothing but pain to the world. I understand why people reject religion altogether. There are many times and many ways in which religious systems are the reason why people are xenophobic, fearing and attacking anyone different than themselves.

In other words, religion often makes people worse instead of better. I’ve struggled with this reality over the last few months. It’s hard to accept it. It’s hard to know what to do with this information when religion has been such an important part of my life.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve begun to see the appeal in being an atheist. I’ve also seen the appeal in rejecting entirely all things conservative. I’ve begun to see conservatives as selfish, afraid, and hateful. I’ve wondered if maybe the one and only thing we need is to stop hurting each other. Can it all be boiled down to that?

The reason I didn’t talk about any of this publicly is because I knew I was still sorting it out. I knew I was reacting, confused, hurting, and looking for some way to safety. Though I’m still in that process, I’ve tentatively figured some things out.

The Fuller Story

I’ve realized that religion is often a tool for oppression, but God (and even religion) are also a source for strength, hope, and the most important movements for liberation in the history of the world. People who are the most despised and feared in society find strength in God. Maybe that’s why so many atheists are straight, white men while those against whom religion has been wielded as a weapon paradoxically tend to believe in God.

As one of those who has been often targeted by religious people and institutions, I’ve found that God can be a source of strength for withstanding assault from God’s own supposed followers. After all, wasn’t Jesus crucified by religious leaders using the power of the state for violence?

Maybe God and Jesus look more like the victims of religion than the most powerful proponents of it. Maybe becoming a victim of religion has made me closer to God and not further away.

Besides, if we give up on religion, it isn’t going to go away. If we give up on conservative values, that doesn’t mean conservatism disappears, it just means it will lack our influence. We need better religion, better conservative values, and better institutions. Without this effort, we lose our influence in these spaces and abandon LGBT+ kids growing up in them as so many of us did.

In other words, I realize that I don’t want to give up on God, and surprisingly I don’t even want to give up on religion. My soul still longs for God. The divine still soothes, fills, and inspires me.

Freedom comes from loss, growth comes from pain, and God has always brought beauty from ashes. When the roof caves in you can see the stars for the first time. Destruction clears the way for growth. Losing my religion doesn’t have to mean losing religion. It could be an unimagined and desperately needed new beginning.

Renewing Faith in God

So I started to do something important. I’m separating myself from the church in my mind, and I’m doing so with great intentionality. I’m accepting the reality of who I am now in the eyes of so many Adventist leaders. I’m not included anymore. I’m a member of the LGBT+ community who affirms and celebrates the way I love. That makes me other.

What really surprises me is that the more I do so, the more aware I am that God is with me.

I am saying the following out loud, “I no longer have a place in the Adventist church, but I have a place in the Kingdom of God, and I have a place with Jesus.”

The more I repeated this phrase, the more healing I experienced. Peace flowed from these painful words, peace between myself and God. It would seem that my concept of God was more wrapped up in the church than I knew. Probably still is.

It’s necessary for me to be intentional about this loss so I can be intentional about rebuilding my life and my faith apart from the Adventist church. It’s something I never wanted to do, but something I find I must do. I can’t make an idol of the Adventist church. I must be willing to let it go.

I suppose losing a church family is like losing a spouse. You don’t realize how many pieces of yourself are wrapped up in the other person until the other person is gone. Also like the lose of a spouse, the more you are able to accept the reality of the loss, the more you are able to heal and become whole. By the grace of God, I’m becoming whole again.

In this series of blogs, we’re examining theology that impacts transgender people. Traditionalist interpretations typically forbid any gender identity that is different from person’s sexual organs at birth, or whatever is on their birth certificate. I don’t see much biblical support for this viewpoint.

For those whose internal sense of gender is out of line with their pysical appearance at birth, or for those who have a sense of gender that is somewhere in between male and female, traditionalist theology demands they live as the gender of their sexual organs and not what their brain is telling them. Trans people are often told that this is the only way to be in harmony with God’s will.

In the last blog we looked at Genesis 1:27, which is the seminal verse used by traditionalist theologians to refute trans and non-binary lives. For those for whom the entire subject might be new, I also wrote an introductory blog about trans lives. In this post we’ll look at a couple other verses and the accompanying reasoning used to support traditional, non-affirming theology.

But God Doesn’t Make Mistakes

Sometimes Psalm 139:13-14 is quoted, as it is in the document from the General Conference of SDAs Executive committee, and in the Biblical Research Institute’s statement from the Ethics Committee:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

Transgender people are often told that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” This means for the person speaking that are the gender of their anatomy. But it doesn’t take long to realize that there are lots of ways in which humans are born that are not typical. This may mean they are in need of medical intervention, or may simply be a matter of human variation.

No one would bat an eye at removing an extra finger or toe. No one would say in such a situation that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Sometimes babies are born with cancer, did God knit that cancer into their bodies when they were in the womb? Of course not!

This does not mean that being transgender should be equated to a birth defect or cancer, because it most certainly is nothing of the sort. It’s simply to point out the inconsistency in saying “God doesn’t make mistakes” as an argument that anatomy is supreme, never to be altered, and always the best indication of who we are. That is manifestly false.

When the psalmist wrote Psalm 139, anatomy was not in mind at all. Psalm 139 is a poem about God’s intimate knowledge and guiding of the psalmist’s life. It’s not about the relationship between biology and psychology. The actual message of the psalmist is not negated by someone being transgender or non-binary.

There is the other rather obvious challenge to this view. Some people are born intersex, with some degree of both male and female sexual organs or DNA. The reality of human biology is not compatible with the teaching that God creates only male and female, doesn’t make mistakes (meaning that God doesn’t deviate from this typical pattern), and that the binary distinction of gender are ever-present.

If God’s will for someone’s gender is expressed clearly in their sexual organs, what is God’s will for intersex people? Sometimes, in their misplaced discomfort with anyone who isn’t typical, doctors have surgically altered newborn intersex babies to make them more typically male or more typically female. This has been disastrous for intersex people whose lives and sense of gender often don’t align with the doctor’s hasty decision.

Sometimes people are unwilling to test their particular theology or ideology against the physical world around us, the world God has given us. This is one such example. Only a steadfast refusal to engage with the implications of the truth of God’s creation as we know it can allow a traditionalist understanding to be maintained on this point.

Even though it might make cisgender people uncomfortable, sex organs don’t always fit the binary. And if sexual organs can refuse to fit the binary, why can’t the central nervous system also refuse to fit the binary? Of course it can and does.

Seeing Trans People as God Sees All People

I’m disturbed at how quickly theologians claim to know the will of God, based on so little scripture and with so little understanding of the lives of trans and intersex people.

I’m disturbed by how easy it is to judge intersex and transgender people.

I’m disturbed by how quickly religious people sometimes make decisions about what is best for others without paying attention to medical consensus, the reality of God’s creation, scripture itself, and the wisdom and insight of trans and intersex people.

I’m disturbed that making these judgments come so easily even though they result in severe danger to transgender lives.

Why these hasty decisions? Why this focus on exterior anatomy? Why this cavalier disregard for the psychological impact of our judgments?

And here’s a question you may not have considered, when talking about this issue, why do traditionalists always assume that God will change a person’s mind to match their anatomy? Why not the other way around?

The Bible gives us an answer to this question. It’s because people tend to focus on what they can understand themselves. They tend to focus on what they can see. We prefer to make judgement based on outward appearance, on what we can confirm. Human understanding hates trusting in what we may not see or understand. What do we understand? Externals.

But is this the way that God sees us? 1 Samuel 16:7 says,

“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

So why are cisgender people so confident to say they understand the will of God for transgender people despite the fact that nowhere in scripture is gender defined in terms of sexual organs? Is it possible that, as this verse suggests, this preference for exterior organs that we can understand over another person’s mind that we do not understand is only an expression our fallen nature? Is it our sin that leads us to focus on outward appearances and does not see the heart? Could it be that we have labeled trans people as sinners when we are the sinners?

God Made Us to Be Whole

What the Bible does teach is that we should be whole. The concept of wholeness is used by traditionalists to argue that transgender people should live as the gender of their sexual organs.

Is that a logical interpretations of scripture’s call to be whole? Here’s the statement made by the Executive Committee of the General Conference of SDAs:

From a biblical perspective, the human being is a psychosomatic unity. For example, Scripture repeatedly calls the entire human being a soul (Gen 2:7; Jer 13:17; 52:28-30; Ezek 18:4; Acts 2:41; 1 Cor 15:45), a body (Eph 5:28; Rom 12:1-2; Rev 18:13), flesh (1 Pet 1:24), and spirit (2 Tim 4:22; 1 John 4:1-3). Thus, the Bible does not endorse dualism in the sense of a separation between one’s body and one’s sense of sexuality.

This statement is problematic because it does not confirm, but ignores the “psychosomatic unity” of transgender people. It says that you can be whole by ignoring your own brain and what it is telling you about your gender, or it assumes despite no evidence or scripture to support them, that God will change a person’s brain. This reasoning works by preserving appearances over internal lives. It demands people to present themselves in a way that is consistent with their appearance without regard to their psychology, and paradoxically calls this wholeness.

Is this not a common problem in the church? Who of us has not had the frustrating experience of people wanting us to keep quiet about our ideas, our choices, or our values when they conflict with expectations? Being whole does not mean presenting an exterior appearance that is not a challenge to anyone. True wholeness is being genuine. It’s authenticity. It’s integrity. How I wish we would learn this lesson!

Wholeness is when what shows up on the outside is a true expression of the inside. It’s not the appearance of wholeness in the judgement of those who affirm only what they understand. Such a preoccupation with the exterior is in fact brokenness, dishonesty, and hypocrisy. Wholeness is not the person who makes big public gestures that make people admire them, it’s the person who is true and honest with God who sees the heart (Matthew 6:1-6).

So if transgender people threaten the external appearance too many are focused on, they are not expressing brokenness, but a level of integrity that is extreme. They are willing to defy social expectation for the sake of wholeness.

We who are cisgender must learn to stop focusing on outward appearance and be more like God, who sees the heart.

Instead of trying to make trans people change to be cisgender like us, we should appreciate them for who they are. When we do, we learn from them. We learn how to live with integrity, how to be brave, and how to be whole. Trans people can and should be fully embraced members of our communities. They can build up the church, enrich us, and teach us. They can be a corrective for our fallen tendency to focus on appearance and devalue integrity.

How like fallen humanity is it to vilify those who are most vulnerable in society? How like God is it to use those who are despised and rejected by man (Isaiah 53:3)? If we are not careful, we will fail to see Christ in transgender people. Such is the nature of our obsession with appearance.

For many people, maybe most people, there is a rush of excitement after coming out. There’s nothing so sweet as the pleasure never before tasted, and the pleasure of loving who you are is intoxicating. I lovingly call this time “rainbow phase,” and it typically does include a lot of rainbows, like the one I wear on my wrist and the rather large one the rear bumper of my car I excitedly plastered there the first day of pride month. The rainbow phase is also a welcome emotional lift during a time most of us experience rejection and a shift in social situations that is painful and disorienting.

The rainbow phase provides us with something important, the opportunity to live into our identities in a new way. One delightful aspect of this phase is the reclaiming of the phrase “you look so gay” from insult to compliment. When I was first out (not long ago), I was obsessed with looking gay. But I realized one day that I kept talking about looking gay, but I’m not gay, I’m bisexual. What does it mean to “look so bi”? What is the bi look?

Of course the right answer is that I always look bi because I am bi, therefore bi looks like me. But when I was trying to establish that identity, it would have been easier in many ways to have a more developed cultural sense of what it is to be bisexual. I didn’t have a lane. There was a straight lane. There was a gay lane. There was no bisexual lane. This is also a problem for straight girls who are tomboys, or gay women who are femme, and don’t look the way people expect them to look based on their orientation. There are a lot of problems with the whole idea, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to be seen for who I am, and not knowing how to go about it.

Then there was the gay community. From my first cautious steps into the queer community, dipping my toes into a pool I hoped was swimable, I realized that not everyone wanted the likes of me in their swim space.

Sitting around a table at a social gathering for LGBT+ people, I tried to keep my cool despite the newness of it all, when an older lesbian woman began to dominate the conversation. As I have found to often be the case listening to people who lived through the early days of the Gay Liberation Movement, I was interested in her stories, her history, and her perspective on her life and career.

She talked about working as a teacher in a sometimes hostile environment, about gay cruises, about things that have changed and things that have stayed the same, then she started to veer into different territory. She started to talk about how lesbians aren’t lesbian enough these days, and how too many women she knows have been with men.

Just like that, I went from inside to outside. There is no way I could be lesbian enough, because I’m not lesbian at all. I sat silently, invisible, letting everyone assume I’m gay and not bisexual.

I would handle it differently today. I’ve had other instances like this come up, and I’m learning to speak up, as well as learning to ask questions and listen. I know that this tendency in the gay community to subtly or no-so-subtly distrust or discredit people who are bisexual, and in many ways I understand it. They are afraid that someone who has the option to be in a relationship with heterosexual privilege would never choose a relationship without it. Though I think the real issue is not that they’re dating bisexuals, but they’re dating women who aren’t out, women who haven’t made the decision to openly claim their identity as part of the queer community.

There have also been those who have questioned me from the other side. Am I sure I’m not gay? I seem pretty gay. Was I ever really into guys? I never had a serious relationship with one in all those years. Or, as one person put it, “welcome to being lesbian, because bisexual is just a stop on the lesbian train.”

Sadly, my rainbow phase seems to be waning as I settle into the reality of my new openly-queer existence with new freedoms, new friends, a tremendous sense of the goodness of my existence on this planet, and of course an ever-expanding set of challenges related to living authentically in a world that would prefer I were straight, and a gay community that would sometimes prefer I were gay.

This is more than just an annoyance for me, because the invisibility of the bisexual identity meant that I didn’t know who I was for a very, very long time.

Like most people who are bi, awareness of my attraction for the opposite gender came first. Because I was clearly attracted to men from an early age, the answer to the question, “Am I gay?”, came very easily. The answer was no. Lesbians aren’t attracted to men. Duh.

People thought I was gay, not random people but people who were closest to me and knew me well. I felt deeply misunderstood. I sometimes dreamed of getting married, and when I did it was always a dream of marrying a woman. I was obsessive about particular female friends, sometimes having to intentionally stop myself from talking about a girl because I knew it was weird.

Still, it never occurred to me that I was attracted to them. I just really wanted a super-close lifelong best friend who would be like family. I knew it was possible, because my favorite TV show had such a friendship. Xena and Gabriel were the perfect model of what I wanted. Seriously. This is what my teenage self thought. The subtext went completely over my head.

And for that reason, because I didn’t even know who I was, I put a weird pressure on my female friendships, didn’t know how to evaluate my relationships with men, and in general was angsty and clueless about the whole dating process. Dating felt hopeless. Having romance and a partner felt hopeless.

Then, when I really did fall in love with a woman in a way that was undeniable, I felt really, really confused. How could this be happening? I’m not gay?!

It seems so obvious now, but at the time I didn’t have a word for it. An analogy may be helpful: as I was driving one day, I saw a strange white spot in my vision, moving up and down. It was perfectly white, perfectly round, and perfectly strange. Then suddenly I realized it was an errant golf ball from a nearby course, and I was about to run right into it.

When we don’t have a category for something, it’s hard to make sense of the experiences we are having. When we suddenly realize what to call it, everything makes sense and we know what to do.

People say bisexuals are confused. That’s not true. What’s confusing is being bisexual and not having a word for it or any examples of bi people. Understanding that I was bi made sense of my entire life. It was the Rosetta stone for my history, translating feelings and relationships in a way that finally made sense, helping me realize and accept myself for the first time, helping me understand how to navigate friendships with straight women as well as the wide world of dating.

What I’m learning is this. There is no right or wrong way to be bisexual. It doesn’t mean I have to prove my sexuality with my dating history or my current dating practices. It makes sense of my life. That is all. And I offer you this incredible definition from Robyn Ochs in case your not sure what bisexuality is:

I call myself bisexual because I acknowledge that I have in myself the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.

The upside of the waning of the rainbow phase is that I care less and less whether I look gay, straight, or bi. I am bisexual. I’m comfortable saying that these days. It’s not a big deal, it’s just a part of who I am. If someone is threatened by it, that’s okay. I’ll probably ask some questions of that person and try to understand why. If someone questions whether I might be gay or straight instead of bi, I know I don’t need to defend or explain myself, but I might explain if I feel like it.

Right now, I only want to date women, and even if I never date another man, I’m no less bisexual. Bisexual is not a verb. I don’t have to demonstrate it. I don’t think of it as a noun either. It’s one of the adjectives in my life, but it’s an adjective for which I have a particular fondness.

I’m grateful to be bisexual. It’s a gift. I’m so glad I was finally able to receive it.

In my faith tradition, which teaches that the Sabbath is on the seventh day of the week (Saturday) and that it was never changed to Sunday, it’s popular for evangelists to offer huge amounts of money to people if they can find the verse that says it was changed. The same challenge could be offered to find the verse that condemns transgender identities. It’s not there.

Once I was really open to asking the question, coming to affirm transgender and non-binary identities was easy. There isn’t any condemnation of trans people in the Bible. Yes. You read that right. There is no condemnation of trans people in the Bible.

There are a lot of misinformation or partial information about trans people in traditionalist settings, and I’ve written about those here. If this topic is new for you, or if you’ve only heard it from one side, you really should read it.

Today I want to talk about the main text of scripture that is offered as the reason trans people should be discouraged from affirming their gender when it differs from their exterior appearance, particularly sexual organs. There are a couple other minor texts to be addressed, but the lion’s share of the argument rests on one verse alone.

“God Created Them Male and Female”

The Biblical Research Institute (the official theological branch of the Seventh-day Adventist church) said that “in scripture, our gender identity is, to a significant extent, determined by our birth sex with God being the author of gender identity.” But does the Bible say this?

They provide Genesis 1:27 and a couple verses that quote Genesis 1:27 (Gen 5:1-2; Mark 10:6) as evidence, but where does this text teach “our gender identity is… determined by our birth sex”? Particularly since by “birth sex” they generally mean sexual organs? I don’t see anything at all about anatomy. Here’s the verse:

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

On these three lines rests nearly all non-trans-affirming theology. Yet this verse simply does not say what they say it does. They are looking for a passage to prove that gender is determined by the way a person’s exterior presents their gender, but this verse says literally nothing about that subject.

God created gender. Yes. Gender exists. But just because gender exists doesn’t mean it exists in a binary way. How might gender be expressed? What do we do when someone’s brain is at odds with their reproductive organs? What should we do when someone’s brain is telling them they are a different gender than what can be perceived on their exterior? What do we do when people are intersex? It certainly doesn’t offer clarity on these kinds of questions.

Deconstructing Gender

Sometimes trans affirmation is interpreted as a war on gender, or a denial of gender, and therefore out of harmony with this verse in which God created gender. But trans people are not destroying gender.

What transgender and gender non-binary people are doing as a way of exploring life as they live it is looking at gender in a ways that explore innate and culturally constructed understandings of gender. In my experience, trans and gender non-conforming people think with more depth and insight about gender than anyone else. They aren’t erasing it. They are delving into the meaning of gender for themselves and society.

In fact, if anyone confirms the innate nature of gender it’s trans people. They experience a deep innate sense of gender that goes against every experience of socialization they have. Because their exterior often presents as a different gender than their innate sense of gender, they are treated as boys their whole lives, for example, but gender is so innate psychologically that they still know themselves to be girls. Trans people don’t destroy gender, they testify to it. If gender is innate even for them, it must be for cisgender people as well.

Getting back to the text, trans people don’t deny the creation of male and female, not by any means. I see in them a beautiful expression of God’s good creation of gender.

Plain Meaning

If there is a more sophisticated way of understanding this text, I’m open to it, but I haven’t heard it yet. What I do hear from non-affirming people is that this text is clear in condemning trans and non-binary people, but it is not. The plain meaning is simply that men and women are both expressions of the nature of God. That’s what it says. Men and women. Both in God’s image. Simple.

I’ve always loved Genesis 1:27. Despite the history of Christianity, and it’s persistent struggles with misogyny, this verse unequivocally states that the image of God is not reserved only for men. It speaks to me of the power of scripture to challenge injustice, even in this most ancient text. What a beautiful testimony to inspiration.

The interpretation of this text that it means that gender must match genitalia only makes sense if you begin with that understanding of gender and read it into the text. It does not say that gender is based on genitalia. It does not say that minority gender presentations are an affront to God or to creation. It does not require people to live as the gender society perceives them as. It gives no advice or indication of what to do when the brain is out of odds with the sexual organs. Nor does it give advice on what to do when a person is intersex, presenting physiology that is neither distinctly male or female, and living the biological reality that not all people are created male and female in the sense of either/or, some are male and female in the sense of both/and.

People use this text to say other must be completely male or completely female. When some people don’t present that way, either because they are transgender or intersex, they want to force people into those boxes no matter what the consequences. But such a reading is imposed on the text. As we shall see, there are good reasons to see that this text itself illuminates the beauty of transgender identity.

God’s Gender

Here’s another part of Genesis 1:27 that is so simple yet easy to miss. If we, as male and female, are created in God’s image, what does that say about the gender of God?

God is both male and female. Not male one day and female the next, but always and eternally composing all it is to be male and all it is to be female.

Being more like God certainly does not require a harsh gender binary. Quite the opposite. Sin goes against the character of God and is not in harmony with it. To do something evil means to do something that is in violation of the character and nature of God. But God’s gender is neither male nor female, but both.

So how could a transgender or non-binary gender identity be out of step with God’s character? Why would we want to force non-binary or transgender people into an unbending standard that is out of harmony with the way God describes themselves?

There are people in the world who experience gender in non-binary ways, and those people can teach us something about the nature of God. We should not exclude them or force them to try and fit the mold of our own understanding. Such an attempt is out of harmony with Genesis 1:27 and not an affirmation of it.

Many people in the LGBT community celebrate such expressions. I’ve been taught by genderqueer people how to acknowledge and embrace my own more masculine characteristics that I never was able to change anyways. I’ve learned from my transgender friends how destructive it can be to deny this diversity, and how beautiful and life-affirming it is to celebrate gender diversity.

Hebrew Merism

The Hebrew language also offers a clue for why this texts should not be understood as describing gender in terms of a binary. Hebrew thinking and language in fact precludes such an understanding. Binary and dualistic thinking is a product of Greek thought, not Hebrew thought.

Genesis 1:27 could be a Hebrew merism, a statement which “combines two words to express a single idea; it expresses ‘totality’ by combining two contrasts or two extremes.” This definition is from an article published by the Biblical Research Institute, a conservative, Seventh-day Adventist theological entity.

An example of merism is saying “heavens and earth” to express all of creation, including the sun and moon which were understood to be between the heavens and earth. Another example is describing all of the Hebrew scriptures as the “Law” and the “Prophets,” when in fact they also include a third section described as the “Writings.” The intention is not to exclude the Writings, but to include them.

Is the statement “male and female” a merism? Maybe, maybe not, but to say the the verse is clearly and definitively a prohibition against anything but a strict binary in which all of humanity must fit fully on either one side or the other is to violate the way the Hebrew language functions. Such an interpretation cannot be supported by the text.

By now I hope you see that the primary text used to limit the treatment options of transgender people, to force them to live as if they were cisgender, simply does not hold up to scrutiny. There are a couple other texts to examine, but this is the main text offered as a clear statement against transgender people.

All transgender people want is the freedom to make their own decisions about how to best handle the difficult decisions they face. What they need from us is support for the lives they choose to live. What they can teach us about God and gender is profound. We need to extend the basic dignity of allowing them to define themselves, to choose their pronouns, and to choose their treatment options.

My wish for the church is that cisgender people would have more humility, more compassion, and more clear thinking on the reality of the biblical text and its teachings.

In the next blog, I look at a couple other texts used to condemn trans and non-binary identities and discuss the argument that a trans identity implies that God messed up: With Transgender People, God Doesn’t Make Mistakes, but We Do

“She says she’s a man, but you should watch her play with babies. Her motherly instinct just comes out.”

I was talking with a saccharine woman, all nicety and propriety, as she described her female-to-male trans relative to me.

“But she told all of us that she was changing to a man. She even got sex change therapy.” She said in a softer voice now, “she told me she regrets it, but you can’t go back, you know?” She gave me a long look. It was that look that says she’s made the ultimate point.

I felt sad for the poor man who has to deal with this woman, but didn’t know what to say. Her and I were coming from completely different understandings on some very basic issues.

There is a lot of fear on the part of cisgender people, particularly traditional people, when they think of transgender people. This fear is especially intensified when they think of surgery. They are afraid for the trans people themselves. They don’t want to see them hurt by making irreversible and tragic decisions. It’s difficult for any of us to step outside of our own experience, and to step so far outside as to have some level of understanding transgender people requires intention. I believe that this intention is necessary to alleviate the fear.

I want to suggest with this article that those who love trans people consider another risk, not the risk of their loved one making decisions that are scary and seem radical, but the risk that they themselves might not understand the reality of trans lives and may fail to provide the support and care their loved one needs. If that happens, they may lose the opportunity to see and love an exceptional person, someone courageous enough to do hard things for the sake of authenticity.

From the perspective of mental health professionals and transgender people, the woman I was speaking with and her traditional, non-affirming Christian family was likely contributing to their loved one’s difficulty adjusting to his transition. It may be that the trans relative felt regret because he underestimated the degree of rejection and questioning he would experience from his family and community.

In this first post, I had originally planned to address the biblical reasoning behind not affirming the gender of trans and non-binary people. But as I read the statements from theological institutions, and listened to the ideas that are present in traditionalist circles, I realized there are some more basic issues that need to be addressed first, issues about the nature of trans lives. So this post is going to talk about the basics, and about some misconceptions.

In the next blog I discuss common misconceptions about biblical teachings, particularly from the creation narrative. Then I look at biblical arguments around the idea that trans people should conform to the gender of their anatomy because God doesn’t make mistakes. For now, let’s look at some of the basics.

By the way, the terms “trans lives” or similar phrases are used rather than the term “transgenderism.” “Trans lives” focuses on the people who are living the reality we are speaking of, and “transgenderism” implies a philosophy or even a prejudice. If racism is prejudice towards race, what is transgenderism?

What is it to be Transgender?

I’m a woman. I’ve always known I was a woman. Being treated as a woman is something that always felt right to me.

The transgender people I know don’t experience life that way. The best way I can understand the experience of trans people is to imagine people treating me as a man based on their perception of my gender.

No matter how much people might treat me like a man, I would still be a woman. I would still know I was a woman. I would feel incredibly uncomfortable being forced to use a men’s restroom, being called male pronouns, and having women and men alike treat me like a man. No matter what, I wouldn’t stop knowing I’m a woman.

That’s something of the experience of being transgender or of a non-binary gender. Sometimes people know they are trans when they are very young, sometimes it takes years or even decades to unpack the meaning of a difference they’ve felt their whole lives, but it’s always there, unsought and unbidden.

Believing Transgender People

Transgender people don’t feel this way on a whim, it’s deeply ingrained. They aren’t changing their gender so they can have a relationship with someone of the same-sex as is sometimes suggested. They aren’t changing their gender to deal with other problems in their lives. They aren’t changing their gender because it’s a cultural trend or they admire Caitlyn Jenner.

They aren’t changing their gender at all. They are confirming their gender. They are confirming the gender they have always known themselves to be.

Many older transgender people haven’t even known the word transgender for most of their lives, they just knew something was different, and they had a consistent and persistent desire to live as a gender different than the gender they are assumed to have.

They know they are a different gender. They have this knowledge from that most important part of the body, the brain. It’s not something they would have chosen, given the difficulties of living as a trans person in our society, and not something they are able to talk or pray themselves out of.

It’s important to start here, because often people who speak theologically about transgender people misunderstand some key points as a result of not including trans people in the discussion.

Understanding doesn’t supply all the answers, but it does set the stage. Trans people are living a reality that is not typical, and they sometimes have difficult decisions to make about how they should live their lives in their reality. Failure to understand the reality of their lives is failure to pursue truth. It is these lives that we are speaking to when we speak of transgender identity.

What Are The Options?

Trans people have several options. Some trans and gender non-binary people are simply content expressing who they are, they live in families and communities who largely accept them as they are and as they present, and they experience few problems related to their gender identity. These people may never experience mental health problems such as Gender Dysphoria, a mood disorder related to gender identity, and they may never even have the desire for hormone or surgical intervention.

However, in an age where trans people are frequent victims of sexual assault, physical assault, harassment, and discriminator firing, leading to a suicide attempt rate of over 40%,  it can be hard to navigate the world as an openly transgender or gender non-binary person. Add non-affirmation by religious folks who prevent full inclusion of trans people in the life of the church, and it gets even harder. I never had this reality hit me so hard as when I saw a transgender child breakdown crying because she’d lost her best friend after coming out. It’s not easy, and that’s our fault, not theirs.

Transgender people have a few options for how they try and navigate this difficult world. This is probably over simplification, but I’ll start here.

1) They could continue to live as the gender society assigns them based on their physical appearance. In other words, they could stay in the closet.

2) They could present differently externally than what most of society expects and make no medical interventions, being content to live as a gender that is different than their biological sex without medical intervention.

3) If they can afford it, they could choose any one of many medical interventions such as taking hormones or having gender confirmation surgery. (By the way, there are many different types of gender confirmation surgery, many do not involve reproductive organs.)

Medical research, mental health organizations, and transgender people agree that leaving all these options open to transgender people results in their best life, reduced mental health problems, and people who are better adjusted and better able to contribute to society.

Most conservative Christian denominations disagree with this. They believe that only the first option, continuing to live as the gender society assigns to them, is morally correct. I will examine some of the biblical reasons that are offered for this belief.

Helping Not Hurting

One thing I know about conservative Christians is that they are not usually out to harm transgender people. They believe that denying two of these three options is the best thing for trans people. I see this when I read conservative explanations for their theology and when I speak to people who don’t affirm transgender identity.

The information they are given leads them to believe that non-affirmation of trans and non-binary identities is the best option. What if those reasons are not accurate? What if the church’s teachings are not helping people, but are hurting them? Wouldn’t you like to know?

When reading the two major documents offered by my denonination, one from the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), and one from the General Conference Executive Session (GCES), I found a good summary of many of the views of various conservative groups.

What I found difficult to accept was that most of these statements were made without biblical or medical citations. They were simply stated with no evidence. I don’t think that’s good enough. It’s not good enough to make assumptions without checking out those assumptions. It’s not kind, compassionate, or diligent. It’s not a desire to seek the truth.

I want to look at some of the key assumptions of those documents:

Does Surgery Harm Transgender People?

From the BRI:

It remains unclear, however, if this disturbance or brokenness can be overcome through sex-change surgery. Such treatment may disturb the patient even more.

First, I take exception with calling trans people disturbed and broken. It is pejorative and marginalizes trans people. It also makes it more difficult to understand the lives of trans people because it undermines their voices and opinions when in reality they are the best people, maybe the one people, who can help us understand their lives.

Second, the data does not support this. It’s the collective conclusion of the medical community that gender confirmation surgery should be one of the options available to transgender people. It’s also what trans people will tell you. If you have questions, this video does a great job of addressing the issues.

If conservatives don’t want to trust the medical community, where is their evidence? Don’t they owe it to the trans community to do more than make unsupported statements? Shouldn’t Christians take an objective and honest looks at the lives of trans people and try to present the most accurate information possible? Where did this information come from?

Do People Usually Regret Gender Confirmation Surgery?

Again, from the BRI:

So far, sex-change surgeries are irreversible. Persons undergoing these procedures have to use hormones for the rest of their lives, which indicates that an integrated sexual identity is not achieved through surgery. Surgery does not solve the problem completely. What aggravates the situation is that while surgery is irreversible, people may change psychologically as they grow and mature, seeking again a new identity.

Again, this statement is not supported. There is also a logical problem here. If surgery is problematic because it’s not changeable, therefore it is forbidden, it creates less opportunity for change and not more. By allowing the surgery, trans people can make decisions for themselves. I also don’t see the problem with people taking hormones long-term. There are many things we do everyday to care for ourselves. If it makes there lives better, what’s the problem?

Before people undergo these surgeries, extensive counseling is required. Hormones are also generally taken first and often are the only treatment people receive. Regret for the decision is rare, and usually a result of disapproval and lack of support. Those who have support generally do quite well.

Being Transgender Is Not A Disorder

From the GCEC:

On the mental-emotional level misalignment occurs with transgender people whose sexual anatomy is clearly male or female but who identify with the opposite gender of their biological sex. They may describe themselves as being trapped in the wrong body. Transgenderism, formerly clinically diagnosed as ‘gender identity disorder’ and now termed ‘gender dysphoria,’ may be understood as a general term to describe the variety of ways individuals interpret and express their gender identity differently from those who determine gender on the basis of biological sex.

This quote is inaccurate. The medical community didn’t just change the term, they changed the concept. Gender Identity Disorder (GID) labeled all transgender people as disordered. It focused on the identity. The new diagnosis focuses on people who experience psychological distress related to their identity, but the source could be societal pressures and not the identity itself.

New understandings are based on the growth of research and treatment in the psychological community after extensive effort to understand how best to improve the lives of trans people. I suspect that this inaccuracy is more than incidental, but intentional. It’s one thing to disagree with the psychological community, but they shouldn’t be misrepresented, especially in an official statement with lots of eyes on it. It gives me the feeling that I’ve had more trans people review this blog than the world church had review their statement.

I’ve also never heard a trans person describe themselves as “trapped in the wrong body,” though I hear cisgender people describe it this way regularly. What I hear transgender people describe is a society, family, and friends who refuse to accept their gender because of their exterior presentation. Some transgender people experience psychological distress about the sexual presentations of their bodies, and some do not. Even if they do, it doesn’t mean they feel trapped in someone else’s body. They may wish to modify their bodies, as cisgender people sometimes do with no exclusion or condemnation from the church or society, but they don’t often describe themselves as trapped in the wrong body.

Now We’re Grasping at Straws

From the BRI:

In some cases, sex-change surgery may be motivated by a sophisticated desire for homosexual activity.

Nope. That’s just not true. I date women. I would never want to be a man. I would never lie about my gender to be able to date women. No gay people I know would want to change their gender to date the gender they are attracted to. Who would ever want to do that? It’s harder to be transgender than to be gay or bisexual.

I’ve covered some of the myths and misunderstandings about transgender people, but there are many more. Here are some suggestions if you want to learn more:

In the next two (or more) blogs, I’ll be looking specifically at the biblical arguments. Genesis 1:27 will be in the next blog which will be out in one week. It’s written already and ready to go. I’m looking forward to sharing it.

**I consulted with several trans and non-binary people and had this blog reviewed by them as well as consulting sources which include experts and trans people. I myself am not trans nor am I an expert on the topic. Please let me know if you are and have feedback for me. I would welcome your input.**

What is the worst possible time to question your sexuality? To begin to admit you are something other than straight? Probably when you’re a student at a conservative seminary, relentlessly pursuing the calling you know you’ve received from God.

What could make it even worse? Probably being a woman in the Seventh-day Adventist church, afraid that any rumor or suspicion of your sexuality would doom your already slim chances of being hired.

This is the exact situation I found myself in. At the time I believed, though tenuously, that same-sex relationships were wrong. Despite the fact that my beliefs were orthodox, I didn’t trust anyone with the knowledge that my private feelings of attraction were not entirely directed towards the opposite gender.

So when I found myself in the office of a seminary counselor, smack in the middle of a row of professor’s offices, only sheer desperation that lead me to ask for help.

Sitting down in his office, I surveyed the vents near the ceiling, wondering if sound could carry through them to the offices next door. I looked at the stern face across the desk from me as he assumed a practiced expression of concern. I wondered if he could really be trusted to keep my secret.

“Is there anything you would like to talk about?” He asked.

“There is something it would probably be good to talk about. Could you tell me, what is your policy of confidentiality? Would you be willing to now write anything down about the conversation we have?”

I was completely paranoid. On his shelves, stacked one on top of another, was a veritable library on “homosexuality.” It was clearly something he cared about. I hoped he could help me.

He assured me that our conversation would be confidential, but that he does keep a record of his sessions. I could hardly stand the thought that somewhere in the seminary would be a written record of my deviant sexual feelings. But like I said, I was desperate. My feelings seemed uncontrollable. What was more terrifying, I found myself less and less willing to control them.

It had begun with one woman, a friend of mine. It’s taken me years to acknowledge to myself the obvious reality that I’d fallen in love with her. Barely, and I still don’t know how I managed it, I brought my feelings under control, somehow without ever crossing the line of trying to be with her or God forbid trying to kiss her. Not that she was interested. And maybe that’s the only way I had survived, believing she wasn’t. God only knows what I would have done if she would have loved me back. We all have our limits, after all.

To my dismay, it didn’t stop with her. Suddenly I was experiencing life in an entirely different and terrifying way. I would smile at a woman I met out and about, with no intention but simple friendliness, then I would feel an energy pass between us and wonder, did she feel that? Is she attracted to me? Am I attracted to her?

Despite my best efforts, I was definitely attracted to women. I was never safe. I could feel the pull at any time, drawing me to certain women with an intensity I hadn’t realized before, making friendship seem perilous. At all costs my inner life must stay a secret. But secrets breed fear, shame, and anxiety. I was coming apart.

There I was: desperate enough to seek help when the slightest hint could destroy me, desperate enough to turn to someone who could drop that hint.

Somehow I found the words. “I’ve realized that I’m attracted to women. It’s not something I was aware of before. I think I’m handling it okay, but it would probably be good for me to talk about it.”

I might as well have casually placed a live grenade between us and asked him to keep his cool about it. He was obviously uncomfortable. This is more than he had bargained for with his innocent question. He fell back on what was clearly a familiar metaphor for him.

“Think about it like a picture gallery. You have several images on the wall in your mind, and you can choose to walk over and look at them, or you can choose to leave them be. That’s what lust is like. It’s up to you whether or not you choose to dwell on these images.”

Lust!? He thinks this is about lust? Little does he know that not once, not even one solitary time have I allowed myself to fantasize sexually about a woman. If self-control were an Olympic sport I would be standing on the podium listening to my national anthem. You can’t control your dreams, but I never chosen to dwell on the image of a woman in my mind.

Lust was not the problem. The problem was that despite my total commitment to not lusting after women, I was drawn to them. The problem was love. It was a desire deep in my heart that I was fighting every day. It was an undeniable instinct that there was something beautiful waiting for me in the arms of a woman.

This is the strange part, though. In those days, before I had accepted myself, the sexual part of it didn’t even sound appealing. It seemed strange. I had accepted what I had heard again and again. I had been the recipient of a million images of straight intimacy and none of same-sex intimacy. At the time, it seemed like an excellent safe-guard. But it wasn’t enough. No matter now much I was able to control my lust and my sexual desire, I knew in my bones that the right woman could make me happy for the rest of my life.

Of course I was drawn to the sexual experience of being with a woman despite how strange it seemed, but it was something that I never, ever, ever allowed myself the luxury of pondering. This was war. And in the battle with lust, I was winning. But in the battle with love, it was a losing fight. It was war against my own, natural sense of beauty and goodness. I could not convince myself that goodness was sin.

How could I explain all this? All I said was, “No, that’s not it. It isn’t lust.”

He changed his approach, “Do you really want to be in a lesbian relationship?”

There it was. I was pinned down with no escape. “Lesbian relationship.” Was this who I was? Those words, so long used to describe the reprobate, the enemies of Christ, the lost people of the world. And that’s exactly what this man meant when he used them. That’s exactly what the esteemed professors sitting all around me in their offices would think of me. These people on whom my future was entirely dependent would lose all respect for me. I prayed no one else could hear his question through the vents.

I shifted in my chair, suddenly unable to find a comfortable position. My face reddened. I stammered. Somehow I found words to dismiss the whole idea, “No, I’m not really thinking about having a relationships with anyone. It’s just something I’ve been feeling lately.”

“So this isn’t something you are considering with one one right now?”

“No. It’s just something I’ve been feeling.”

“Okay. Come back sometime and let me know how it’s going. And by the way, this isn’t the kind of thing I usually write down.”

This thing was too much even for a professional to write down in confidentiality. In fact, it was more than he even wanted to talk about. I was out of his office within ten minutes of entering. I never returned.

Later I learned more about the approach he uses for counseling, and that what he said to me that day was intended to bring a sense of guilt and shame, in order to keep me from sinning.

I can’t tell you what it looks like to tell lesbian, gay, and bisexual people that their sense of love and connection is sinful, and not do us harm. I don’t know how the theology that our sense of love and connection is sinful is part of the good news of the gospel.

I do know that sometimes people who study it the most, who dedicate large portions of their careers to helping people like me, and who churches turn to with their questions, are failing miserably. I was ready to do anything that day and every day for years to be faithful.

I didn’t come to these realizations about myself until much later in life than most, and I had personal and emotional resources that only come with age. Many struggling with these questions are just kids, vulnerable and scared about their future. What do non-affirming churches offer to them? How do they help them? What is the impact of this type of teaching on their young lives?

I was so encouraged to get this message for a pastor friend of mine recently. He recently reached out with such an open heart and mind, that I wanted to share his questions and my responses. He actually asked a couple other questions as well, and I’ll be mentioning one of those later. I know he’s probably not the only one who’s asking, so that’s why I made it a post. His statements were framed in grace and understanding. I edited for brevity.

How big of a role does experience play in your journey, vs hermeneutics and solid biblical data? Now, just to clarify, I have not been keeping up with your blog, so I’m not implying you don’t have hard hermeneutical data (in fact, it seems that you do have at least some), I’m just asking, from your view, is your journey mostly founded on experience or hermeneutics? I also don’t want to bash experience, as we all have those mystical experiences in Christianity, separate from our intellectually religious pursuits. But I ask because anyone can say they had an experience or a feeling or an impulse, but most critics will care more about the data (scientifically modern people as Adventists tend to be these days).

The short answer is “yes!” I wouldn’t ever have come to the view I did if scripture didn’t allow for theology that affirms LGBT sexuality and gender with a solid, conservative hermeneutic. I don’t think experience would ever have been enough for me in the absence of good biblical “data,” as you say. I was utterly unwilling to go against scripture in favor of my experience. I’m also not sure I would have asked the question as seriously as I did without experience of the reality of non-affirming theology.

I used the hermentutics (the way of interpreting scripture) taught to me at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. I applied the approaches I was taught to test affirming theology, test non-affirming theology, and examine the text for myself. Non-affirming theology fails the test. Affirming theology makes all of scripture make sense, not only the texts applied to LGBTQ people, but the major themes and promises of scripture as well.

In looking at the texts that are usually seen as prohibitions (Gen 19:1-5, Lev 18:22; 20:12, Rom 1:24-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10, 1 Tim 1:9-10), if you focus on the author’s intent it’s not hard to see what they authors themselves had in mind. Applying these texts in ways that are out of harmony with the author’s intent is not sound hermenutics. That’s what non-affirming theology does.

Non-affirming theology also relies on the argument from absence. This argument says that since there are no same-sex relationships or alternate gender identities in scripture they are sinful now. But just because something didn’t happen then doesn’t mean it’s prohibited now.

These are the basic arguments that non-affirming theology are built on, and I don’t believe them to be hermeneuticly sound. In fact, according to what I was taught in my conservative seminary, they are not sound principles.

When I think about the way I thought before this theological shift, my biggest regret is that I relied too much on my social context, a type of experience. Everyone around me seemed in agreement that same-sex relationships are wrong and scripture was clear. Even those who weren’t didn’t speak publicly about their disagreement.

My conclusions at the time did not come from hermeneutics. I never had studied it carefully and prayerfully, because my social context was uniform in this belief. I didn’t realize this until later, but the signs were all there.

Unfortunately, my social context came from an organization that doesn’t base its theology on hermeneutics, at least not in this instance. It has never once in its history made a serious biblical inquiry on the topic, neither have most non-affirming theological organizations. Non-affirming theology has been assumed and scholars have worked to support it.

This is clear from the fact that each time they gather in the Adventist denomination to discuss theology as related to LGBTQ people they begin by saying they already agree on non-affirming theology. You cannot be a professor at the Adventist seminary or a scholar at the Biblical Research Institute if you dissent from the accepted position.

So how can you accept a position as scriptural without ever undertaking to study it with integrity and objectivity? Not based on hermenutics and scripture.

So my shift towards affirming theology is a shift towards greater integrity in my interpretation of scripture. It’s away from a purely experiential perspective towards one that relies on sound hermeneutics.

My ability to move forward on this issue also came from my Adventism and the values of progressive revelation, justice, and reliance on scripture rather than creeds or tradition. In order to move forward, we need only reconnect with these core Adventist values. We need to again think of ourselves as a movement and not an organization.

I could see how someone could read this particular post on hermeneutics and think I’m not using a conservative hermenutic.

I add a caveat. When our theology seems to be causing harm, or when a minority group claims it is harming them, we should be willing to re-examine our theology.

I’m not advocating changing theology to match what we think is compassionate. I’m advocating a humble approach and a willingness to seriously re-examine scripture with integrity and an open heart and mind.

Scripture itself teaches us that we should pay attention to the fruits of our theology and care about the lives of others (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 7:12, 16, 23:4; Luke 6:31, 11:46). Scripture also makes promises about the results of following Jesus (Matthew 7:9-11; Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 4:7).

Good theology produces good fruit.

In that sense, I’m not sure hermeneutics and experience are ever supposed to be divided. One is the study of inspired words, the other is the study of God’s creation. If we understand correctly, they will be in complete harmony.

I don’t see the authors of scripture burying themselves in the text and failing to look at the world around them, and neither should we.

Neither do I see them using scripture to make excuses for doing whatever they want, and neither should we.

The Bible is not a closed book, and our understanding never arrives at perfection. We need to be more humble and keep searching, praying, and learning until we get it right.