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The heart of Christianity

Aaron Neff, who grew up in a religiously fundamental environment, shares how studying the Bible taught him to stop using it as a weapon against LGBTQIA+ folx.

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

I grew up in a fundamentalist religious context where traditional views on human sexuality weren’t just taught but were strictly enforced and considered non-negotiable. As I grew older in that context, it didn’t even occur to me, a straight person,  that my church’s teaching could be wrong. My only desire was to be a faithful follower of the God that I had come to dearly love. However, I had been taught that, in order to faithfully follow Jesus, I had to condemn all non-traditional views of marriage and sexuality. So, I did. I didn’t know how to separate the two things. As a 17-year-old, I remember attending a festival and observing a gay couple holding hands and enjoying the festival together. It was one of the first times I had seen a public display of affection from a non-straight couple. Their simple act of affection filled my heart with rage. Now, when I recall that memory, my heart fills with sadness and shame over how I felt and reacted to those beloved children of God.

My church taught me that the Bible was not just the sacred text that reveals God to us but also the source of truth on all matters of life, including human sexuality. I had been taught that the Bible unequivocally condemned all same-sex relations. I wanted to love God, and I loved the Bible (and still do.) So I made understanding the Bible my life’s goal. Ironically, my views on sexuality began to change as I studied more of the Bible. I went to two evangelical colleges where I earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in biblical languages. The more I learned, the more I discovered that most of my church’s teaching about what the Bible is and how we should use it … was wrong. The narratives I had always believed about what the Bible is, how it came to be, and what it says just didn’t square with its historical and textual reality. By the time I finished my first master’s degree, my faith was hanging by a thread.

I still loved God and wanted to follow Jesus, but I didn’t know what to do with the Bible anymore. It was during this faith crisis that I began asking myself other questions. If what I believed about the Bible was wrong, what else did I believe that might also be wrong? What I had been taught as plain interpretations of the Bible now all seemed like open questions or even obvious misunderstandings. At the time, my wife and I were attending a PC(USA) church, shortly after amendment 10-A was ratified which amended the Book of Order and allowed persons in same-sex relationships to be ordained.

For the first time in my life, the question was in front of me: “Could I have been wrong about what God thinks of human sexuality?” I had been taught that Romans 1:26 said that same-sex relations were “against nature” because it is “procreatively unprofitable.” Yet, I found myself questioning that assumption while watching documentaries about same-sex behaviors among bonobos and dolphins. I had been taught that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality. Yet, I discovered that the Bible itself names the sin of Sodom as pride and failing to help the poor (Ezekiel 16:49). I had been taught that sexual orientation was a choice. Yet, I learned about how unsuccessful (and, therefore, egregiously immoral) all attempts at conversion therapy have been. I had been taught that the Bible clearly labeled same-sex relationships as sinful. Yet, I came to understand that non-exploitative, consensual same-sex relationships were not what the Biblical authors could possibly have been referring to.

After experiencing a massive deconstruction of my beliefs, I felt hurt and betrayed because my church had used the Bible as a weapon against me and taught me to use it that way against others. I also felt alone and uncertain, because I wasn’t sure what to base my beliefs in anymore. All I had was my desire to follow Jesus. It turns out that was more than enough.

My pursuit of Jesus ultimately led me to understand that at the heart of the Christian faith is God’s radical and unconditional love and acceptance. My pursuit of Jesus also helped me to learn to love the Bible again and to see it as a tool to help nurture God’s love in me, which – it turns out – was Christ’s hope all along (Matthew 22:30). I’ve learned that the way God created humanity is far more complex than I ever imagined, and, rather than a tool to snuff out diversity, the Bible is a tool to help us lovingly navigate our complexity and see God’s beauty and wisdom in it.