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.

I won’t ever forget my cowardice. It was fostered by a thousand small decisions to turn away from pricks of conscience, little warning signs that all was not well in my beloved denomination.

One of my favorite classes in seminary was a difficult, small class. The few brave souls who volunteered for this academic endeavor sat around a table with the professor, and we talked about Old Testament Law. Together we dissected the minutiae of the Hebrew text, disagreed with each other about the meaning, drew comparisons with parallel texts, and tried to understand the minds of ancient Hebrews and what they knew of God.

I loved every minute. It was just the type of intense Bible study I craved. In our discussions I was bold, at times contrarian, and always searching for the strand of justice that I began to see running through this ancient text.

I was thrilled with the dawning understanding that even seemingly restrictive texts were bringing justice and healing for vulnerable people. We saw how the law improved the lives of women and slaves, not as much as we have today, but certainly more than the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern nations.

Sitting here, at this table, with these people, holding my own—it was thrilling. I loved the professor. He was and is kind, intelligent, and willing to learn and grow from his students even after decades of study. I was with my people and in my element. This, if anywhere, is where I wanted to be appreciated, where I wanted to shine.

“A Man Shall Not Lie with a Man”

It was bound to happen. One day we began talking about the dreaded verses in Leviticus. “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” In everyone’s opinion, these verses turned out to be verses that had no nuance. Our professor explained how the restriction could be applied to women as well a men, but that was the limit of understanding beyond the literal. These texts, far from being more liberating than other nations, were more restrictive. They were clear. Important. Undeniable.

Then he started talking about a friend from college. I don’t remember the exact words, but I’m not exaggerating to say it was something like this: “He got caught up in the whole gay lifestyle. He left the church and God completely, had hundreds of sexual partners, was always at gay clubs, developed health problems, and it was decades before he finally returned to God and gave up homosexuality. Homosexuality is a dangerous thing, and God has no tolerance for it.”

I sat there stunned. He doesn’t understand at all. He doesn’t realize that there are countless queer people living out their sexuality in committed relationships, raising families, and generally being stable and healthy. Here is the man who literally wrote the book on sexuality in this church, and he doesn’t know the first thing about queer people. He has accepted and is perpetuating dangerous stereotypes.

A response rose in my mind but died before it reached my lips. I wanted to speak out, but I didn’t. I was afraid. I didn’t want anyone to know I was attracted to women.

Confronting My Selfishness

An unexpected lesson I’ve learned in all of this is how much more selfish I was than I ever thought. I used to think it would be selfish to do what I wanted to do, pursuing relationships with women. Before I pushed it down deep into the recesses of my psyche, dating women seemed so right to me. In my mind, selfishness would be giving into these desires.

I’ve since realized that my true selfishness lie in another direction. There were a million little domesticated selfish decisions in my religious life.

This story is an example. I should have spoken up. It was a difficult position. I was already afraid that people would think I was gay, how much more so if I appeared to know something about gay people? Yet it was one of hundreds of acts of self-preservation. Some were less innocent.

Theological Selfishness

Even before I acknowledge my own queer identity, when I was trying desperately to label my attractions to women as simply feelings that had nothing to do with identity, I was still acutely aware of the lack of compassion in the church. I couldn’t get my conscience to shut up about it. I worried that we were wrong, not just about LGBT people, but about our approach to scripture.

One thing stuck with me from that class, and it disturbed me. In each discussion we had to find a strict biblical argument to justify unjust laws, such as those about slavery. It was implicit that our goal was to show that unjust laws were accommodations to move people in the right direction, even if the laws didn’t get them all the way there.

We used a small arsenal of theological tools to accomplish this, but one argument that was never used was simple human compassion. No one ever said that slavery was wrong because it hurts people and is incompatible with a loving God. We seemed to be missing the forest for the trees.

Why were we all Christian in the first place if it wasn’t for the teachings of Jesus to have love for all? It bothered me. The whole thing bothered me. Why did we care more about these tools than we did about people?

But I still wanted a seat at this table. I’d worked so hard to be here. In in my selfishness I labeled these pricks of conscience “doubt.” This turned out to be a useful label for dismissing compassion.

Looking back it’s clear that those things that became unquestionable in my mind turned out to be all the things it was most convenient for me not to question. Those questions could cost me any chance at a job. Later when I was hired as a pastor, they could quickly get me dismissed.

If I paid too much attention to the wrong hurting people, the one’s the church was uncomfortable talking about, and if I cared about them too much, spoke about them too much, or even changed the way I thought about what behaviors are and aren’t sinful, I would be putting myself at risk. The loss could be devastating.

Spiritual Growth

So I didn’t question. Now that I have stepped forward, now that I have lost all those things, I can see my former doubts for what they were. Selfishness. Plain, simple, naked, selfishness. It caused me to abandon the ones Christ cared for the most all the while calling myself a Christian minister. I got so much out of hanging out with the 99 sheep that were never lost that I didn’t care about the 1 sheep we were not only leaving behind, but banishing from our midst.

The collective behaviors of the ministers and leaders of churches, of which I was one, are causing more suffering than I cared to admit. I was also far more culpable than I let myself believe. It’s easy in large organizations to disperse the guilt to everyone but yourself, thinking you’re better, you’re different, you’re balanced and reasonable.

The true extent of my knowledge and compassion was that I sometimes felt guilty, and in my attempts at better understanding I had read two books on the subject. They were both non-affirming opposed. How I could be so selfish? The answer is terribly simple. I wanted to belong.

Already, I have had people dismiss my views on same-sex relationships because of my own orientation. The accusation is that I’m selfish. I just want to do what I want to do. I’m sure I am many things, and I’m sure I have lots of ways I need to grow, but affirming my sexuality and the sexuality of other LGBT people is a sign of spiritual growth, and doing so was not a selfish act.

Losing my career, risking loss of family, testing every relationships that has sustained me from my childhood, and becoming an outsider in the church I’ve spent my life serving was the cost I paid. I paid it gladly because I saw I pure vision of God, the gospel, and compassion. It gave me great joy, enough to sell all I had to attain it. It was not selfishness. Selfishness kept me in the closet for years, and it was compassion that finally brought me out.