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.

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4 Replies to “When I Confused Selfishness for Faithfulness”

  1. Alicia,
    Have you ever read Ellen White’s letters to a woman friend in manuscript releases where she even tells James ” I desire to share my bed only with you” and then says ” Lucinda is an exception” ” she is a part of myself as is no other.” Lucinda Hall was the woman’s name. In the eighteen hundreds married women commonly sent each other romantic letters and would kick husbands out of bed when such women friends came to visit. I have wondered what the results are of being deprived now of what was considered normal women love then. Check out Lucinda Hall…as I recall is in either MR 8 or 10 and includes several tidbits of correspondence to dear Lucinda. Agape, Me

  2. marie…sounds like it’s a friendship EGW and LH had. no different than when i get together with my male friends in whom i confide in…are you suggesting their letters were more than one friend writing to another?

  3. Marie, thank you for sharing! That is a fascinating and thought provoking tidbit I had never heard!

    Alicia, thank you for sharing this story!

    Towards the start of the article you include a partial quote of the infamous Leviticus 18:22. I understand that what follows is somewhat outside the scope and purpose of your original article, but I am curious about what your in-depth study of this pivotal text may have revealed. I have recently become aware of various ‘issues’ regarding the translation of this passage, and that it might not be quite as straight forward and cut & dry as it is typically presented. However, I do not possess knowledge & expertise needed to even evaluate the claims properly.

    My first question has to do with the Leviticus code in general and whether Adventists believe that scripture tells us we are bound by this covenant. My intuition is that this is the ‘old law’ that Christ replaced; but if that’s the case, why would we be concerned about this text to begin with… So, clearly I’m confused or missing something somewhere. (Please excuse my ignorance, I ceased subjecting myself SDA abuse decades ago.)

    Basically, according to various sources I’ve encountered, there are several difficult, confusing or contentious points regarding the translation and meaning of this text—in addition to its “status” I just mentioned.
    Particularly the term: משכב for which a definitive, trustworthy translation is not exactly forthright. However, Strong’s Hebrew classifies it as a noun and provides this translation: place of lying, couch, bed (which clearly “fit” many other occurrences of the word). There can be no legitimate argument that the word is not derived from the verb שכב which means: to lie (down). However, I’ve also seen it classified as a participle but would this create a discontinuity/complication since the plural form is used in the text, or is there an overlap in grammatical affixes meaning it could actually be either one—creating gray area…?
    Continuing with the “noun” assumption… In our text apparently the constructive form in plural number is used (as opposed to the absolute form) which grammatically subordinates it to the following noun. This grammatical/syntactic form (constructive noun followed by absolute noun) has no direct equivalent in English—we simply use words in different ways—and therefore has no single definitive translation pattern (which creates an open ended gray area in determining the precise meaning), although in many cases inserting a preposition between the words seems to make sense; “of” is often used.
    The following noun to which “beds” is connected is: אשה which translates as: woman, wife (first seen in the first sentence of Adam in reference to Eve). So, this gives us “beds of (a married) woman”. But wait, I’ve never seen a translation containing anything along those lines—so, how is this bit usually translated then?
    Well, in one well-known translation this plural noun is somehow translated to: “as with” rendering “as with a woman”. OK, that sounds familiar… So, we get “a man shall not lie with a man AS WITH A WOMAN”. But I’m having some MAJOR issues with the translation of a plural noun derived from the verb “to lie” (which seems to translate as “bed” or “place of lying”) to mean: “AS WITH”! Is there any precedent for this unusual usage/translation? Admittedly my knowledge and understanding here is very limited, so is there something I’m missing? It is clearly impossible that no has noticed this strangeness before! However, it wouldn’t surprise me that nobody ever spoke up—or that they were discredited or otherwise “silenced” if they did. Anyway…
    So, if we go back and use this new translation, we get: “a man shall not lie with a man [in] beds of (a married) woman”. Well, I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I can tell you that it seems to convey a different meaning. This version is also more difficult to use as a blanket condemnation of modern homosexuality, that’s for sure. I clearly am not qualified to gauge whether this alternate translation has any merit or validity. But apparently, it turns out this translation would still logically fit into the Leviticus law as one of the rules governing a (married) woman’s bed.

    Another point of contention with the traditional translation seems to be with the word: תועבה which is the prominent one of half a dozen or more words (completely etymologically unrelated in Hebrew) that the KJV translates as: abomination. The exact nuances of their meanings are unclear to us now. 103 of the 150 uses of the term “abomination” in the KJV are translations of תועבה and there are clearly variations in usage and meaning within those 103 instances of the term. But the actual point I’m trying to make is that the current meaning associated with “abomination” does not accurately reflect the original concept conveyed by תועבה with is much less severe and often relates to idolatry and the practices/behaviors of other cultures in the context of the Israelites worship of God.

    As I’ve mentioned, I am not fluent, or really even familiar, with Hebrew (aside from knowledge of the alphabet and the most basic bits of syntax); but I do have a background of familiarity with other Semitic languages and cultures which sometimes does provide me with unique insight & perspectives of Biblical texts as well as a number of words with a shared root; but not so much in this instance.

    I believe there are several crucial things about this text (and Leviticus 20:13 which adds a punishment) that should be kept in mind by anyone attempting to understand it and its significance to modern culture and religion. For one thing, it is undeniably part of a fairly detailed and intricate ‘code’ of behavior which is also described as a covenant that was given to the Israelites shortly after fleeing Egypt. If I’m not mistaken Adventists divide this code into two (or more) sections (which are not actually defined or referred to within the text itself). I’ve heard analyses that there is a moral conduct group of rules, a section or segment of rules regarding worship and rituals, and a section which somewhat overlaps the others which basically sets up a system that facilitates the survival of about a million people wandering about in an arid wilderness for several decades.
    As far as I know, most—if not ALL—of the rest of this code/law/covenant is completely ignored or disregarded by modern Christians, while Adventists actually make some effort to come up with some official sounding ‘mumbo-jumbo’ about why/how this verse & some others (that we never really talk about) really are actually important while other parts are not. Am I totally off-base here?

    There seem to be a few pertinent questions here. Are we as Christians bound by any or all the Leviticus code? If so, then to what extent? Are there provisions/exceptions for us regarding conflicts with current legal codes (stoning someone to death equates to murder which is illegal, as are most of the prescribed punishments)? If not all, then which part(s) and how exactly is that determined or specified in scripture? And if, in fact, the Leviticus covenant does not include us, then it should be more than obvious that we can not just extract snippets of it to use as ammunition for our hateful games of condemnation, exclusion and division; and furthermore we need to devise solid, scripture-based, effective methods to diffuse and disarm those who would misuse God’s Word in such an unintended and abusive manner!
    It also needs to be acknowledged that the original, true meaning and social/cultural context, as well as the underlying purpose of certain rules—such as Leviticus 18:22—has been lost, or at best it has become obscured and unclear to us.

    Any comments, insights, corrections, explanations and responses are welcome and appreciated!

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