My conversion to Christianity came less than a month before my first mature sexual experience, and those two events have been tangled together in my understanding ever since. My conversion came out of the blue — I did not see it coming, and to this day, I can see only vague glimpses of how God was setting it up. My sexual initiation, however, had been building up for a long time, from experiences with other boys when I was younger through the fantasies I entertained about my high school classmates. But there they were, almost one after the other, and I had no idea what to make of it all.
In college I became very conservative, both theologically and politically (since the thought the two were necessarily intertwined). I went to a very good church and received a firm foundation in the doctrines of the Christian faith. The pastor, a nationally known speaker with his own radio ministry, was firmly convinced of the radical nature of the God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And he was adamant that we be honest with each other about how difficult our lives are and not pretend that everything is wonderful all the time. Ironically, even though I was there taught that homosexuality is not acceptable in the Christian life, my pastor’s emphasis on scripture, on honesty, and on radical grace remained with me and played a major part in God’s work in my life.
What God had been doing with me in college was strengthening me in my faith. I see now so many times when I could easily have walked away from it all, but God was faithful to lead me to the places where I could hear the true gospel taught and to give me real experiences of God’s power and love. What God was setting me up for, however, was something I would never have seen coming and would have resisted with all my strength had I known it:
God sent me to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Now, I mean no offense to anyone from Santa Fe. But in the context of my history and experience, Santa Fe was as different from anything I had known as day is from night. And what is most important for this story, I found myself at one of the most gay-friendly colleges in the country. God had pulled a fast one on me! For the first time in my life, I was living in close company with openly gay men and women. And try as I might, I could not help but like them. They were intelligent and kind-hearted, and a lot of fun to be around. And when they told of the problems they had had with their churches, my heart ached. Could God really despise these people? Are these really the people the church is so afraid will destroy our country?
During my first summer, I studied the book of 1 Corinthians to see how Paul dealt with living a Christian life in a very non-Christian city. To my surprise, I discovered that Paul did not agree with what my conservative colleague espoused: Paul says that we are in no way to judge non-Christians for their behavior. Our standards of holiness apply only to confessing believers! I realized that what Paul is saying is that Christian morality is only possible through the presence of Christ in our lives. To demand non-Christians to live up to our standards is to ask the impossible.
So God had cleared the first major hurdle out of my path. No longer could I accept the conservative refusal to grant gays equal status as citizens. But I was still not ready to accept that equal status belonged to gays in the church as well. In fact, I was still praying to be straight myself. And I firmly believed that God could and would do this for me.
It took two more events in my life to get beyond this point. First, I had to hear from God’s own mouth that God loved me. I do not recall all the circumstances around this event, except that I was in my car and I was furious with myself for not being able to live the life I thought God wanted me to live. My pastor in Miami had always said that God wants to tell us how much God loves us, and that all we had to do was ask. So I did.
It was not the first time I had asked, but the answer I got this time changed my life forever: I felt waves of warmth washing over me from the inside of my being, leaving me in awe and wonder. God said YES — I am really and truly loved by God. To this day, when I think about my conversion, this moment takes precedence over that moment 10 years earlier when I said yes to God. I had what I believe Kierkegaard talked about — a direct experience of the presence and love of God. No longer would I take other people’s word for it, or even the Bible’s word for it: I believe God loves me because God himself told me so.
This was my word in the desert, and it kept me going through all the confusion that lay ahead. It even kept me going the next time I heard God’s voice, when God uttered the very word I had most hoped I would never hear. For I still continued to pray that God would make me straight, that God would take away my homosexuality. And one night, less than two years after hearing God say “I love you”, I heard in the depths of my soul, “No, My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s word to Paul, God’s refusal of Paul’s request. And for the next few weeks, every time I prayed to be made straight, I heard it again: “No, My grace is sufficient for you.”
After several weeks of receiving this answer, I understood that I was not to ask any more, but to accept that God desired to keep me as I was, a gay man. God had said “NO!” and I had to start learning how to live with that.
Part II: “Call no one unclean.”
At this point, I had to make a leap of faith. I could either believe that what I had heard was not the voice of God, and return to the path I had been taking, or I could believe that it truly was the God of the universe who had spoken this to me. I chose to trust God and step out in faith. My pastor’s emphasis on grace became more real to me: I had still been trusting in my own efforts to stay pure, rather than trusting solely in the atoning work of Christ. Now, by giving up the one thing I thought I had to hold on to, I was walking only by faith in the goodness and grace of God.
Many good things came out of this: I had more desire to serve God, I had more compassion for others, and I was less angry about life. But I still did not know how far I could take God’s statement to me: Did it mean that everything gay is beautiful, or only that I was not going to change? Were gay relationships acceptable to God, or was chastity still the rule? What did God’s statement to me mean in terms of how I should live my life then?
Although many small events occurred along the way to build up to where I am now, I would like to compress this story by looking at the three texts that most stand out in my mind as influencing my thoughts. Although there were many scriptural passages and pro-gay books and articles that influenced me, these three texts in particular had the largest impact on my thinking. Interestingly, none of these three is explicitly pro-gay in intention.
The first text I want to mention is Kathleen Norris’ “The Cloister Walk”. Norris is a wonderful writer and I recommend any of her books for their graceful style and for her wonderful insights into the faith. Norris is a married Protestant poet who found herself returning to Christianity through contact with Benedictine monasticism.
In the chapter of “The Cloister Walk” to which I am referring, she discusses how monastic communities have dealt with the vow of chastity. What she says is this:
“The church learned that to be afraid of our emotional attachments to other people, either heterosexual or homosexual, and to respond to our emotions by shutting them off, causes us to be bitter and cold and unable to minister. To fall in love with someone, whether it is true love or only a crush, is to have an opportunity to serve that person in Christ. We must be careful how we express that love, but we must not try to resist it as wrong.”
What God showed me through Norris’ pen is that as soon as I close myself off to my love for another, I close myself off to God’s love for that person. If I am to be a good minister, I must learn to fall in love with everyone that comes my way, and to take that love to God and to ask how God would have me express it. By telling gay men and women that the love we feel is wrong, we are separating them from God’s love; we are saying that there is no way for God to use the love they feel. What we need is to be more open to the experience of falling in love and to seek healthy ways of expressing that love within the confines of our own vows to God. It does not matter with whom we fall in love; what matters is how we react to that love.
My second text is Jacques Ellul’s “The Subversion of Christianity.” This great French theologian discusses the history of Christianity to show how the church has become the very opposite of what it was originally. Ellul, like my pastor in Miami, also argues the radical nature of God’s grace, reminding us that Christianity is not in any way about morality or ethics, but about faith. As soon as we construct an ethical/moral system to live by, we are no longer walking by faith but by law. As Christians, as true believers in the gospel of grace, we are completely free to choose how we live, relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But this is only half of Ellul’s argument, for he obviously has to explain the nature of the Judaic Law in light of his own argument. Ellul shows that God has two concerns: to set people free, and to show the falsity of every other “god”. The Bible, therefore, is one long argument designed to show that God is the only God. And historically, God showed this through the nation of Israel: By forbidding them to practice any of the idolatrous practices of the surrounding nations, God intended to show that only Jehovah had the power of blessing people. Had the Israelites been faithful, the world would have known that their religious practices were worthless and that the God of Israel is the only true God.
What God showed me through Ellul is that all the laws of scripture are to be seen in relation to idolatry. We are completely free as Christians to do what we want. But we must be careful not to worship the world’s idols. Otherwise, the world will not be able to see that its idols are not responsible for the blessings we receive from God. Hence in the histories and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s judgment always comes after the practice of idolatry. What is important to God is the rejection of idols and compassion on the weak. Sexual morality has almost completely unimportant in these stories (as a brief look at the stories of Tamar and of Samson will show).
Ellul leads me to my third text: Leviticus. Yes, THAT book! Because now I have a context for all those laws. They are not universal, but rather they are relative to the surrounding cultures. But it also explains what had become a crucial question to me. As I read all the pro-gay arguments regarding scripture, I noticed how many times people commented that there was no explicit reference to lesbianism in the Hebrew Scriptures.
This seemed odd to me — could God secretly be a straight man, enjoying lesbian sex but not gay sex? My friends told me that the Hebrews had no understanding of lesbian sex, but this didn’t seem right either. Leviticus explicitly forbids women from mating with animals: Was this really more common than lesbianism? And even if they had no notion of lesbian sex, does that mean God had no notion of it? What would have happened when two women were caught having sex? There was no law against it, so would they go free?
This was the last straw for me. If Leviticus only prohibits male/male sex, then obviously the prohibition was not about sexuality as such. All the sexual commands in Leviticus restrict the transmission of semen. I see two possible explanations for this: First, the practice of fertility rituals, in which you pray the gods’ blessings by having intercourse. Obviously, this is idolatry and would be condemned by God.
But another explanation seems to go along side of this: in Egypt, the pharaohs married their female relatives in order to preserve the strength of the family line. Could this be why God forbids us to sleep with our relatives? Could the sexual practices in Leviticus all be ways of creating a stronger breed of humans? I think so, and again, this would explain why God condemned these practices, since they trust not in God’s provision but in man’s own strength.
With this, I could no longer accept the arguments made against gays and lesbians by people using the Bible. They don’t add up. Since we do worship the true creator of the universe, and since we are free in Christ to do as we please, I see no reason why gays and lesbians cannot have committed relationships that bring honor and glory to God. I am at last at a place where I can support a pro-gay theology and to say, with Peter, that God has told me to consider no one to be unclean, and that we, who were not a people and who had not found mercy, have found mercy and been made a people by our God. To whom be all praise and honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.