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.
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.