First-year Ryan Pope, who identifies as a bisexual man, poses at Miller Town Square on Oct. 20. Pope said his sexuality has caused questions and struggles within his own faith. Photo courtesy William Koning
First-year Ryan Pope grew up going to church every Sunday in Dallas. He attended a traditional Churches of Christ congregation solely a cappella, no band. He said he considered himself a practicing Christian who worshiped God regularly, and he attended a Christian middle school.
Every night, he said he’d pray to God he’d wake up straight.
“I’d pray that I wouldn’t feel this way in the morning,” Pope said. “And nothing changed.”
Throughout middle school and leading into high school, Pope said he found it hard to reconcile his identity and his religion.
Religion Professor Chris Doran said even those outside the LGBTQ+ community may struggle with fundamentalist interpretations of Bible verses that describe homosexuality and related activity as sinful. Doran said he feels that, on the contrary, sitting and listening to those who stand out from the mainstream is in line with the Biblical witness, which often displays characters who stand out of the mainstream comforted and attended to.
Despite this, mutual animosity between Christians and members of the LGBTQ+ community can often enflame this struggle, Doran said.A Human Dilemma by Maximilian Pohlenz ‘student’
Pepperdine’s History With LGBTQ+ Recognition
Pepperdine has an extensive history of struggle with this issue, as administrators, faculty, staff and fellow students wrestle with how to accept LGBTQ+ peers while also holding to a traditional Christian view, according to previous Graphic reporting. Pepperdine’s Student Code of Conduct maintains an official stance that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Recent Graphic articles have explored this stance, the conversation between Queerness and Christianity and how Pepperdine’s treatment of LGBTQ+ students compares with other institutions. The Graphic has also covered the decade of struggle for LGBTQ+ students to establish an official Gender and Sexuality Alliance.
Alumni Jason Sim (’17) and David Hylton (’16) established Pepperdine Crossroads Gender and Sexuality Alliance in 2016, according to previous Graphic reporting. Homophobic backlash against Crossroads occurred, culminating in an anonymous student leaving anti-gay messages on the Freedom Wall in 2019.
To achieve further insight on the relationship between LGBTQ+ individuals and Christianity at Pepperdine, the Graphic requested interviews with Daniel Rodriguez, divisional dean of the Religion and Philosophy Division; Cameron Gilliam, director of Student Ministries in the Hub for Spiritual Life, who oversees Seaver 200 — Gilliam said this mandatory religious education program for first-years and sophomores will be handed over to the Seaver Dean’s Office — and Parker King, associate director for Discipleship at the Hub. All three declined interviews.
Psychology Professor Steven Rouse, who said he identifies as a bisexual man and a practicing Christian, said he understands the perspective of fundamentalist Christians, having grown up in a conservative congregation within the Churches of Christ.
“When you have a group of people that are actively flying in the face of how you think the way the world is organized, that can be kind of threatening,” Rouse said. “Because that shakes a person’s sense of certainty. It shakes a person’s sense that there is an order to their own faith.”
Opposing Biblical Interpretations
Sophomore Ariana Henry, a former member of the Graphic staff, said she identifies as a straight woman and a practicing Christian. She grew up in a Lutheran community and said she believes homosexuality is a sin.
“Yes, I’m going to accept them for who they are,” Henry said. “But they also can’t force things on me and to believe what they believe just because the way that times have changed today.”
Although Henry said she was hesitant to be open about her perspective on such a sensitive issue, she felt compelled to do so as a part of her faith. While she believes certain verses proclaim homosexuality a sin — such as Leviticus 18:22 — she also said she does not know enough to offer a definite conclusion on the debate surrounding the intent of such verses.
Senior PJ Smith identifies as a straight man. Smith is vice president of communications for Alpha Omega, an on-campus Christian student ministry for the International Churches of Christ. Being in this role for Alpha Omega, Smith said he has experience having conversations surrounding this topic.
Smith said verses such as Leviticus 18:22, along with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and certain scriptures in the New Testament and the letters that surround sexual immorality are characterized as the “hammer scriptures” — scriptures that certain Christians use as an argument against LGBTQ+ identities.
Smith said he absolutely believes the LGBTQ+ community and the Bible can be reconciled and coexist.
How believers interpret the Bible today, is a core issue he said he believes impacts many of the other struggles the Churches of Christ deal with today, including those relating to the LGBTQ+ community.
“Below the surface issues is a deeper understanding of how we should approach the Bible and think about the Bible,” Rouse said.
On one hand, there are many who believe the Bible is the unerring word of God and should be taken literally, including the hammer scriptures, Rouse said.
Alternatively, Rouse said there are Christian traditions with a more historical perspective, believing the Bible is a way of understanding the mind and will of God, but those who wrote it were situated in their own times and cultures.
Doran said he thinks many are too quick to assign a particular meaning to the scriptures — such as the hammer scriptures — that conservative Christians traditionally interpret as going against the LGBTQ+ community.
“I don’t think that’s a very nuanced approach,” Doran said. “It doesn’t speak to a lot of difficult passages in the scriptures that can be interpreted in a million different ways but have to be interpreted within some broader context of love and justice and fairness and hospitality.”
Smith said he also finds nuance examining the historical background of the authors when looking at these hammer scriptures.
“In Leviticus, when it’s talking about ‘a man shall not sleep with another boy,’ it’s not specifically saying, ‘gay is bad,'” Smith said.
The verse, Smith said, references how the Jewish people encountered nations where older men and young boys had sexual relationships.
“That alone doesn’t necessarily exclude the potential for homosexuality to be viewed as a sin,” Smith said. “But that’s not the main focus of what the scriptures are talking about, and there’s room to argue with that.”
Rouse said he experienced the conflict between these two interpretations internally during his own spiritual and personal struggles.
“For me, I was able to approach that deeper underlying issue by having honest conversations with people from other Christian traditions and other worldviews,” Rouse said. “Where I really tried to understand, ‘How are you approaching your world?’ and, ‘How are you trying to see the world?’”
Wrestling With Oneself and God
Despite his Christian upbringing, Pope said he feels a divide between himself and Christianity due to his sexuality.
“You feel like you can’t fully be yourself, even though you probably can,” Pope said. “There’s just some sort of invisible barrier that stops this.”
Around 49% of lesbian and gay people reject religious ideas and communities, according to the APA handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. That is significantly higher than a rate of 12% found in the general population.
Senior Danica Christy, a lesbian woman and co-president of Crossroads, said during the time she came into her sexuality, she struggled with her relationship with God and her Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod community.
“When someone tells you that you’re sinful, that you’re going to hell for something that you can’t control, the automatic response is, ‘Well f— you,’” Christy said. “‘Screw you. You don’t matter to me.’”
Christy said how her own congregation treated the conversation about the LGBTQ+ community and religion greatly impacted her own personal struggles and conversations with God, leading her to distance herself from Christianity.
“If being gay is wrong, why would [God] make one of [his] followers gay,” Christy said. “If it’s not, then why would you allow so many of your other followers to believe otherwise and say such awful things?”
Christy said these conversations with God, along with others, constituted much of her spiritual wrestling in middle school and high school. Now, after wrestling for so long, Christy feels she’d rather take a break and be happy than wrestling any further.
During middle school and high school, Pope said he felt his sexuality prevented him from fitting in and being a good Christian. Pope said he considers himself agnostic. During his time at Pepperdine, Pope also said he hopes to explore and continue to form his own beliefs, despite still feeling a divide between himself and Christianity.
“That’s one of the big reasons I came to Pepperdine,” Pope said. “I felt shunned from religion for the longest time as I was trying to figure myself out. But now I know that it’s not just black and white and that there’s gray areas.”
Doran said he believes in the value of exploring and talking about difficult issues.
“Uncertainty and wrestling with God is what a lot of biblical figures and characters do,” Doran said. “So, if that’s good enough for the last four or five thousand years of Jewish and Christian history, then it’s probably pretty normal for me to not have great answers all the time.”
More specifically, Doran said he thinks this can be directly applied to internal struggles between Christianity and LGBTQ+ ideas, both for those in the LGBTQ+ community and those who are not.
“I’m far less likely to say that there’s certain answers to those things and that there’s some ways of living that I don’t fully understand because I’m cisgender, I’m white, I’m heterosexual,” Doran said. “So if someone else is struggling with understanding their identity, sexual identity, gender identity or any of those other identities that are within that context, I want to listen to them and understand why they’re struggling with that.”
Approaching an Understanding
Christy said having a place where she feels heard and can listen to others has been a crucial part of her experiences with Crossroads, both as a member and a leader.
“A lot of people are at a point where they’ve accepted their sexuality, but they’re still in that wrestling period,” Christy said. “And sometimes they just need to hear ‘it’s OK if you still believe in God,’ and sometimes they need to hear ‘it’s OK if you don’t.’”
Christy said she believes no matter where a person is on their spiritual journey, it in no way impacts their identity, and she believes both religion and sexuality can coexist within a person.
Rouse said he has found peace with this struggle, which spanned a significant portion of his life and resulted in him reconciling his sexuality and religion.
“It was a long period of a lot of conflict and a lot of self-hatred,” Rouse said.
He said he eventually could find a resolution where his faith and identity coexisted.
“Once I got to the point where I really could really honestly start having conversations where I would be wanting to find out in sincerity how they understand the world and God and their place in the context above,” Rouse said. “Then I started to see that there were very profound and sincere ways of approaching an understanding that were very different from the way I was raised.”
While conversations surrounding the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and religion were hard to have, Doran said he thought they were essential to understanding the issue and better knowing God.
“It’s kind of the human dilemma,” Doran said. “We want to know exactly what God is thinking and doing, and we can’t because we’re not God, and we’re finite, and God is infinite.”
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Contact Max Pohlenz via email email@example.com