If something like the positions espoused by Revoice were being articulated in 2005, I almost certainly would have gravitated to them. Though I was no longer interested in dating, I think that if I had been told it was okay to identify as same-sex attracted and even to pursue celibate friendships with other women who identified that way, I would have been very receptive to the arguments.
[Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Pastor Ray Heiple on behalf of a member of his church, who prefers to remain anonymous.]
The reflections below were originally written following the PCA’s 2019 General Assembly. After prayer and discussion with my pastors, I have decided to share my story ahead of the upcoming 2021 General Assembly. Although individual stories are not the basis of our theology, such testimonies have understandably formed part of the denomination’s discussions surrounding sexual identity, especially with regard to what is considered “pastoral.” My reflections consist of a brief personal history, experiences within the PCA surrounding this issue, and a closing appeal.
Growing up, I was deeply shy and had few close friendships outside of family. By my late teens, I had seldom felt attracted to boys, and I was only beginning to form successful friendships with female peers. When I did make friends, I was overwhelmed by the warmth of my emotions. While they did not seem to be romantic in nature, they seemed more suited to a sentimental Victorian novel; at any rate, they felt out of place, awkwardly excessive, in my own circles. Sometimes I wondered if there was something wrong with me, because my peers only seemed to experience such strong affections within a romantic context.
It’s also important to note that, although I believed in Jesus and had a precocious interest in matters theological, I mistrusted the church and had not been thoroughly or consistently discipled. I arrived at college ripe for confusion.
When I found myself forming a very close, emotional bond with another girl, it didn’t take much to convince myself that I was not “straight;” I had suspected as much since high school. Also, the Bible courses at my liberal arts college, while not heavy-handed, introduced me to revisionist biblical interpretations (like those examined in the RPCNA’s Contemporary Perspectives on Sexual Orientation: A Theological and Pastoral Analysis) which reinforced my self-conception and which I was ill-equipped to debunk. Though concerned about my social immaturity, my campus minister did not caution me against my relationship on biblical grounds, and was in every other way supportive of a romantic relationship that ultimately lasted for about two years. During those years, I saw no reason to resist sin (though, in retrospect, I think I had deeply buried scruples). My understanding of grace bordered on the antinomian, and I had little grounds for mature discernment. I was encouraged to believe I could follow Jesus guided by my own perceptions of what I most needed, which certainly did not include chastity, much less the church. For much of this time, I was deeply unhappy, and this relationship only compounded my confusion. Yet, through all of this, I believe God was working to draw me back to himself.
Change of Heart
In the months before I broke off this relationship, I was already aware of a renewed appetite for God’s Word and an insatiable interest in the history of creedal, orthodox Christianity. Naïvely (though providentially, as it turned out), I entered a theological graduate program at a progressive university. One of the first things I did there was to pointedly join both the campus evangelical group (I knew that, whatever I was, I was not a theological liberal) and the campus LGBT group (I still didn’t feel “straight”). This was an intentional gesture which I did not see as inconsistent at that time.
If something like the positions espoused by Revoice were being articulated in 2005, I almost certainly would have gravitated to them. Though I was no longer interested in dating, I think that if I had been told it was okay to identify as same-sex attracted and even to pursue celibate friendships with other women who identified that way, I would have been very receptive to the arguments. However, I also craved theological consistency. I began to read more widely in sound biblical scholarship on sexual ethics, and nagging doubts, which I’d spent five years pushing aside in my conscience, were confirmed: a plain reading of Scripture, in concert with the historic teaching of the church, could not support same-sex behavior. This, combined with the ministry of my new church, brought me decisively onto the path of repentance. The pastor at my church (a mainline congregation at that) spoke to me lovingly of Scripture, repentance, and Christ’s mercy. Crucially, for the first time in my life, I was also urged toward regular participation in the means of grace—something that had been abjectly missing during my college days.
I should also note that my pastor stopped me from prematurely resorting to lifelong celibacy. Influenced by some Anglican nuns I knew, I had been—not unhappily—considering vowed celibacy as a path of discipleship. At this point, my pastor mentioned that I might first explore whether I could be interested in men. This gentle advice got me thinking about Christian marriage in the abstract, long before I began dating my now-husband.
One of these pastoral chats was followed, the same afternoon, by an invitation to go on a coffee date with a godly male friend. Some weeks later, with trepidation, I confessed about my past. He responded with grace and willingness to prayerfully walk through things with me—a major turning point in my life. About 14 months later, we got married. It’s important to say that marriage didn’t erase difficulties or questions. But growing in discipleship through Christian marriage has been one way God has continued to sanctify me. For example, in my case, a godly marriage has been key to my ability to maintain healthy same-sex friendships. Once I was on the path to marriage, and certainly afterward, I was no longer troubled, to any significant degree, by doubts about my identity or the nature of my feelings for others.
Seven Years Later: New Currents in the PCA
Happily married for most of a decade, I attended a conference at Covenant Seminary. (Though not a student there, I availed myself of its resources from time to time.) Although I had not given much thought to these matters for years, I was curious about how my new denomination, the PCA, would engage with some of the slated speakers. I was slightly familiar with some of their positions, and it seemed to me that they’d be an uncomfortable fit, at best, in confessional Presbyterianism.
I mention this event because it was a few years before Revoice (2014) and also because it shook me. After the conference, the ground seemed to have shifted beneath my feet. My takeaway from the lectures was that it’s okay to identify as a “sexual minority” or “gay Christian” if one feels oneself to be somehow outside the “heterosexual” mainstream. I had not been prepared to hear these perspectives spoken at a PCA institution. I found myself feeling fretful and anxious about aspects of my experience and identity to which I had given little thought for years. Did my experience say a definitive word about me after all? Thankfully, by that point, I had been sitting under the preaching of a faithful pastor for some time. I remembered that the only one who gets to speak a definitive word over my life is Jesus Christ, and He had already done so, as I was reminded each week through the means of grace. However, I shudder to think what path my life might have taken if I had heard teachings like these at an earlier, more spiritually vulnerable stage in my life. Since that time, I have watched with concern as such views have gained prominence in the PCA.
I don’t assume my story is like that of everyone who has experienced some form of same-sex attraction, and although it is certainly of no greater value than anyone else’s, I share it because I suspect that it isn’t unique. I have often guessed that when we talk about same-sex attraction, we are talking about a wider range of experiences than treatments of this topic generally allow for. I think this has bearing on what we consider to be “pastoral” as well. Aside from pointing me to the Word and sacraments, perhaps the most gracious pastoral response I received was my graduate school pastor’s caution about categorizing me. I am so grateful I was not encouraged to hold onto a gay or bisexual identity, even though that felt like an accurate read of my experience at the time. Had this happened, I fear it would have stalled my growth in grace at a point when God had only made a small beginning with me.
At times, placing a label on my experiences has sounded like a comforting option. However, I think it would also prove to be damaging, willfully stirring up things that the Holy Spirit has subdued. It would confuse more than it clarified. Moreover, the more I discover the surpassing beauty of Christ and His Church, the more my own past, and my temptation to exegete my own story, begins to pale by comparison.
I fear that if the PCA makes room for “Side B” gay identity out of a sense of compassion, then vulnerable young people could be led toward unbiblical self-conceptions and even sinful behaviors. The overscrupulous, or those with a sense of “being different” socially, can be led astray by Revoice-type language, even if they aren’t strongly same-sex attracted.
Finally, having been slightly exposed to LGBT subcultures in college, I know firsthand that “gay” identity isn’t something to trifle with. No matter how strongly a Christian claims (and sincerely tries) to adhere to traditional ethics otherwise, I don’t believe it’s possible to adopt the “gay” modifier without bringing along a host of destructive implications. When I see Teaching and Ruling Elders publicly arguing otherwise, I believe they’re doing pastoral harm, no matter how kind their intentions.
Looking ahead to the upcoming General Assembly, I would ask our denomination’s leaders to consider stories like mine (among the many perspectives they are hearing) as they wrestle with these issues.
Written by a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, who has chosen to remain anonymous and submitted at her request through her pastor, Ray Heiple, Senior Pastor of Providence PCA in Pittsburgh, Penn.