Nancy R. Kelso
A faith closed to the conclusions of science is suffocating our LGBTQ+ children.
I often tell people that had I been coming of age in today’s world, I would have known I was gay when I was 12. Walking home from school one warm September afternoon, I was talking about a girl one grade ahead of me.
“Kristi Green this and Kristi Green that. You talk about her like she’s your boyfriend or something.” Those words, spoken to me by my sister, immediately filled me with shame and panic. Was that what I sounded like? What was wrong with me? What did she see in me? How can I hide?
I was a devoted, born again, saved and sanctified Nazarene. Third generation in fact. All in the same church. My grandmothers on both sides were my Sunday School teachers. My father was the music leader. Missionary society presidents, board members, Assembly delegates—my family was part of the core of my home congregation. I made my first appearance at church when I was six days old and attended every Sunday service, Wednesday prayer meeting, and twice a year revival meeting for the next 18 years of my life. I had bona fides.
I chose a local Christian high school because I was serious about my faith and wanted teachers who would be mentors for me not only academically, athletically, and socially, but also spiritually. If there was a way to cultivate my relationship with Jesus, I was sure to be sincerely engaged.
When I elected to attend college, the same rationale won out. I opted for a Nazarene school so that I would be surrounded by others who loved the Lord and enjoyed serving Him. That’s why I was so surprised when late one night in the fall of my freshman year while chatting away with a fellow dorm mate, I kissed her. It felt like something out of left field; it also felt true and right in the moment.
My college years were full of personal turmoil. I was faced with the fact that I was most attracted to my girl friends, yet I knew this was forbidden and displeased God. Over and over, I repented, resolved not to give in to sin, and fell into the same situation. Once. Twice. Three times. All with Nazarene girls who had denominational pedigrees similar to mine.
I tried to live a straight life. I had boyfriends. I prayed. I pleaded. The attractions never left. I was told that I had lesbian demons, that I was broken, that I was sinful, that I was selfish, that I was, most certainly, sexually abused. Because, what else could explain this attraction to women?
I tried a different Nazarene college for a fresh start. And by Christmas, I was knee deep in my same old patterns. There were tears. Sobbing. Gut-wrenching sobbing with pleading prayers. “I don’t want to be this way. Please, God help me.” I hated this thing inside me. “Like a dog returns to its vomit,” I used to say quoting Proverbs, “I return to my sin.” No matter the approach, I could not escape myself.
Sublimation is one of the classic defense mechanisms. It is the directing of unwanted energies toward good things. The next twenty years of my life qualify as a case study in sublimation. I was utterly devoted to Christ and His cause. I attended seminary. I entered a pastoral internship program. I went overseas to do mission work. I was a leader. Everyone who knew me would say that I was an example of Christ’s love and light. I helped plant a church. I lead worship and small groups. I got married. I had a son. I became a staff pastor at my home church. It was all real. I was real. I was thoroughly committed to Jesus.
In those days I would say that I managed my sexuality. “We can’t help who we are attracted to,” I used to say, “but we can choose what we do about it.” I had been a celibate single person for twelve years before I met my husband. We had as good a marriage that a straight man and a lesbian can create together. He was my best friend. We had just celebrated our tenth anniversary, yet my desire to be with a woman was still there, as strong as ever. I was depressed. I wanted to die.
It had been thirty years since I first felt the shame of being clocked by my sister, and after all of it, I knew that I was gay. Nothing had changed my core longing. For so long I believed that if I gave into my homosexual desires, I would have to turn my back on God. But something had shifted in my understanding of God’s infinite love. Maybe instead of wanting me to live as a heterosexual, it was more important to God that I live as my true self. Maybe my sexuality wasn’t evil, warped, broken, or forbidden. Maybe it was good. Maybe I could embrace myself fully as God’s child without having to sever a core component of myself.
My story can be heard in the stories of thousands of others. Our lives and our experiences are not tales of rebellious sinners turning our backs on God, but stories of sincere, mature, devoted followers of Jesus. What do we, the Church of the Nazarene, do with this lived experience of thousands of born again, sold out Christians who could not and cannot rid themselves of their homosexual attractions?
If we are not offered acceptance and blessing, do we, the believers who are homosexual, leave the Church of the Nazarene to find more accepting denominations? Do we run away and live our lives far from the communities where we were raised, isolating ourselves from the support systems our hetero friends and couples maintain? Do we live double lives as church going hetero couples on the outside, while indulging our core need for intimacy with same-sex partners on the side? To date, these are the experiences I have seen in my gay friends and family—leaving, hiding, lying.
How will the Church of the Nazarene respond? Do we continue to respond with a message of turn from it or burn for it? Do we at best offer some compassion and community for the LGBTQ people who remain single and celibate? Is it enough to say, “The Bible says one man and one woman for life. Period. End of discussion”? Does that simple summary align with the complex and varied sexuality that is evident in our world? Is there room for us to consider what the realm of medicine and social sciences have come to understand about human sexuality?
In the 1970s, the medical community officially dismissed the idea that homosexuality is an illness. For years, social science research has indicated that human sexuality is formed through a complex interplay of biological conditions. Both communities have concluded that homosexuality is a normal, albeit less common, expression of human sexuality and that sexual attraction is best understood to be a continuum – some exclusively attracted to the opposite sex, some exclusively to the same sex, and many people along the spectrum in between, experiencing both.
Today there is no reputable professional medical or social scientific organization that considers homosexuality as anything less than normal. Furthermore, and this is equally important to consider, these same organizations denounce all reparative therapies as injurious to LGBTQ+ individuals. Sexuality is hardwired into us in the same manner as left-handedness or redheadedness and cannot be changed.
I am a product of Christian education—Mennonite high school, Nazarene colleges, Evangelical and Nazarene seminaries. For my entire life it has been my understanding that science and faith are never mutually exclusive. Faith in God and biblical Christianity must always encompass truth wherever it is found.
If scientific conclusions conflict with some details of our faith, we must look again at our religious beliefs. Perhaps they need to widen, to open, to shift, to become less restrictive and more gracious. In all of my years in Christian education, I never once felt that my faith was so weak and rigid that it could not expand to encompass the findings of science.
Gay and lesbian children will keep coming into this world, and they will keep being born and raised in the Church of the Nazarene. I tell my story for them. As my sexuality unfolded, it filled my mind and heart with panic, fear, self-loathing, disgust, shame, sadness, frustration, loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. I carried that weight for thirty years before I finally laid it down at the feet of religion and trusted that the God of Love made me who I am—and I am good.
It is my hope that the Church of the Nazarene will make space for blessing, including, and affirming people who are gay. The body of Christ will be more whole and healthy for it.
Nancy R. Kelso has spent her life serving youth and young adults as a coach, teacher, pastor, and school counselor. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English at Olivet Nazarene University and her Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.