I have been forever marked by the years I identified with lesbianism — not simply because of my sexuality, but because of the perspective I gained on human dignity and belonging.
When I publicly came out, I entered into a world within a world. In day-to-day life, I looked and felt increasingly different from everyone else around me. I became more radical in appearance and affect. Without consciously perceiving it, I was separating from normal society while also feeling exasperated that I wasn’t accepted. It felt painful to be noticed as “different,” yet I was “butch.” There was a perpetual tension of belonging and exclusion.
My commitment to Christian faith heightened this conflict.
I had been an ordained elder in my church for a few years when I chose to apply to seminary. I was admitted and awarded a full scholarship. I recall sitting at the boardroom table in my final elders’ meeting. For most, it would be a time of community celebration, but I was bracing for a response that I would receive multiple times from then on: “You are not fit for ministry.” Under the encouragement of my pastor, I chose to fully disclose my sexual orientation to the board that night and resigned because of “immorality.”
It was 1999.
My decision to go to seminary was radical and courageous and fraught with uncertainty. I went forward hoping to find clarity and direction. I had desired to study theology since in my teens and at various times had been granted scholarships to begin before “coming out.” But now was my season. Once there, I quickly found a handful of others like me: called to ministry yet barred from it because of our sexual orientation. I found solace among these other LGBT seminarians. My peers and the staff welcomed me. They celebrated my courage to pursue a life in ministry despite great odds.
Together, we pressured our denomination to embrace the LGBT worldview so we could belong.
We weren’t aiming to radically overthrow orthodox beliefs or reduce the Bible for the sake of cheap grace. We simply desired to fully become part of the regular fabric of the Body of Christ. The dilemma was that our identification with LGBT seemed to require that radical shift. There was no real comprehension of the ultimate impact of such changes, which today include devastating reinterpretations of family, marriage, parenthood, and promiscuity.
I don’t think I can highlight adequately the strain of feeling called to ministry while also experiencing same-sex attraction. And this is where I want to comment on human dignity.
While in seminary, I was dramatically impacted by a few people particularly. One, a man who had attempted to pursue his postgraduate degree in theology at Oral Roberts University when someone “outed” him to the faculty. He was dismissed, his family was notified and he was horribly, publicly shamed. His family was devastated. Above all, he was deeply and painfully humiliated. Now, he was finding space to express his love for God.
Each weekend he would don a clerical collar and walk the streets of our large metropolitan LGBT neighborhood praying with gay men. He would go into bars and sip a glass of cranberry juice listening to and praying with the men there. He established an outreach in that neighborhood to teens and I was privileged to see it begin to grow as gay kids joined us each Friday night for pizza and games until midnight. It was safe. It was family. No one was excluded and no topic was out of bounds. Gay friends stopped in and laughingly spoke of their sexual forays together, all while he patiently and compassionately listened. He used his life as a witness against the pain, torment, and rejection he had experienced, offering a lifeline to dozens of men on the streets. He died of AIDS shortly after I left the seminary.
At various times in my journey since those days, I have responded to this part of my life with shame, disgust, anger, and outrage because of my own spiritual arrogance. How dare I attempt to change the face of Christianity with LGBT in mind? Of course, it is outrageous. Despite the popular mantra that “love is love,” there is nothing kind, gentle, or honorable about the gay bar scene in its objectification of sex. The strip where I spent hours congregating for community was full of debauchery, porn, BDSM, and sexual fetishism. I was blind to its reality. But that wasn’t what my friend saw. He saw the dignity of the men caught up in that world and did what he could to highlight it. He was inadequate and perhaps misled. The message didn’t call all men to repentance. Nor did it extinguish gay identity or desires. Nevertheless, today I believe I see more and more the beauty of Jesus in this man’s life and work.
It’s common to hear these stories as a plea to fully embrace LGBT. That is not my aim.
I’m sharing my story here because I believe Christians need a new way forward that neither exalts LGBT nor condemns. I want you to consider this dilemma and recognize that a way forward requires accepting people who experience same-sex sexual feelings without victimizing or otherwise isolating them.
With the founding of CHANGED (an international network of people who no longer identify as LGBT), I have done my best to share this part of my life openly in order to respond to LGBT in such a way that highlights human dignity. Jesus modeled an outlook that extended beyond the superficial in order to cherish those around Him. I have experienced His gaze, which treasures our soul (our reality) today while also cultivating our potential.
Jesus is the factor that is most overlooked in the Christian debate around LGBT. Relationship with Him is the treasure that we are willing to sacrifice for. But, it turns out that His journey is abundant. His ways overcome theory, psychology, and philosophy. Typically, Jesus is the last to be offered LGBT identifying people. Instead, we are given a system of discipline to yield repentance.
Jesus saved my life. He addressed my mental and emotional health — rescuing me from suicidality. He redeemed my identity as a woman and ultimately my sexuality. As time goes on, He continues to reveal Himself to me in life-changing ways as I aspire to live as He lived and assume His heart within my own life. I am a woman, a daughter, a wife to my husband of 16 years… all because of Jesus. I no longer identify as LGBT.
What was my friend from seminary seeking? Wasn’t it full communion with Jesus and His family? Because of his orientation, he had been cast out of the fellowship of his original family and community. Together we LGBT were creating a kind of parallel universe that had a shade of what we believed we were missing. Calling ourselves gay was an act of defiance, a response to ease the pain of rejection, but what we really wanted was to belong. The crevasse, however, between our worldview and the communities from which we came, seemed (still seems) irreconcilable.
What should one do to follow Christ when they experience LGBT?
For centuries the church has categorized homosexual practice as sin and demanded repentance without offering effective discipleship to address the experience. You see, LGBT identifying people are trapped within the dilemma of being treasured today versus the promises of sanctification. This conflict is common to the Christian experience, but relatively few LGBT identifying people are given the leadership and mercy to fully walk through discipleship within the Body of Christ to embrace their adoption as sons and daughters.
In 2019, the results of a30-year study on genetics relating to same-sex sexuality were released. It concluded there are multiple genetic (biological) factors involved, but that they have only a small fraction of influence in the development of same-sex sexuality. Instead, it is “environmental factors” that play the largest role. Fundamentally, “gay” people are the same as everyone else at birth — no determinative genetic factor was discovered. What happens as we mature inspires the development of sexual desires or gender confusion. That is, one’s family, community, social status, ethnicity, even religion all play a role in the development of same-sex sexual behavior. These factors shape our personality and perceptions, and their impact is not easily reversed.
And so, in my opinion, the best way to respond to same-sex sexuality is holistic. Simply embracing the desires as innate and determinative keeps many from adequately addressing relational dysfunction (such as codependency), issues relating to sexual abuse, abandonment or rejection wounds, and self-rejection. We tend to protect gay identity above resolution of these problems, which means that adequate wholeness never comes. Unfortunately, there is rarely a middle ground. One either fully embraces gay identity or hides.
For Christians, the way forward requires acknowledgment that sanctification through a relationship with Jesus restores our common human identity. We must invite believers into a way of life that emphasizes our new identity in Christ. This involves accepting people authentically while pointing to (and having confidence in) the teachings and leadership of Christ. Unfortunately, this is not the message most with an LGBT background experience.
Following Christ is not a “gay to straight” journey (both are false constructs.) Discipleship is a matter of changing one’s mind and worldview to believe we are all simply human beings. Together. That path requires real repentance (a change of mind) and an environment that can facilitate life in Christ alongside self-knowledge, understanding of our past, perspective on our gifts or strengths, honor, dignity, transformation, hope… essentially, it requires the kingdom of God. We need an environment where we can be cherished while being authentic as we lay down our LGBT identity. One that is undaunted by temptation.
God can restore what has been lost to the worldview that our sexual desires are central to our self-understanding.
For some, following Jesus in this way results in radical changes in sexual experience. For others, there is reconciliation to one’s biological gender (sex). We experience freedom from life dominating and compelling sexual desires. Above all, we find we measure up as men and women, with shared passions and goals. We belong.
My friend from seminary never heard a message like this. He was never given a chance to understand his life experiences more thoroughly, or to release the trauma of years of both self- and societal rejection among a life-giving Christian community. Above all, he was never allowed to experience life as a healthy man among other healthy men.
It has never been more important to formulate language for one’s new life in Jesus, which enables us to escape LGBT labels and cultural demands.
Being “born again” is the doorway to the restoration of our identity as men and women. Through Christ, we may step into a new identity, defined by Jesus, that allows us to belong as sons and daughters within His family with no caveats.
“The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” Mark 1:15 NLT
“Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3 ESV
“He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” John 1:11-13 NLT
“So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 NLT
And so, I am praying for a way forward for Christian LGBT identifying people to step out of that worldview, which tells us we are different from others. That message is subtly dehumanizing, causing us to forever be excluded from the larger body of humanity because of our sexual experience. At the same time, churches also need to reframe their perspectives toward us by focusing on our common humanity. Clearly, our temptations do not define us and so congregations must become welcoming environments for spiritual maturation.
We must all see the vision of restoration of our personhood that Christ offers.
The goal isn’t “straight”; the goal is human, redeemed. Then we will be free from every life-dominating behavior that draws us away from Christ’s vision for human identity, whether in singleness or marriage. Only then can we become the family and the body of Christ that brings healing to the nations — together.
Elizabeth Woning is co-founder of the CHANGED Movement, an international network of men and women who have left the LGBT subculture and identity to follow Jesus. She earned her master’s degree from a PCUSA seminary while openly lesbian and ministered within the LGBT-affirming church movement. A radical revelation of Jesus led her to a different path. Today, she is a licensed pastor at Bethel Church in Redding, California, where she lives with her husband, Doug.