On Friday, I discovered in a Time.com article, that my former employer, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational evangelical ministry to college campuses, had drawn a line in the sand for its employees and that any of them who did not affirm in whole the organization’s stance on sexuality, including its theological opposition to gay marriage, would be summarily fired. This came as a disappointment but not a shock.
Over the past few years, InterVarsity has had a series of high profile conflicts about their theological requirements for student leaders, accusations of discrimination against gay and lesbian students, and battles over derecognition and bans from particular private colleges. In 2014, I wrote a letter to then-president of InterVarsity Alec Hill, detailing my concerns about the unnecessarily confrontational and rigid stance that InterVarsity was taking with regards to issues of sexuality, to which I received a thoughtful and congenial but still disagreeing reply.
I was involved with InterVarsity for more than a decade (four years as a student leader, seven years as a paid staff-member and team leader), and I am still grateful for many of the things the organization gave me. I entered the fellowship as a wide-eyed college freshman from a Fundamentalist-Evangelical and only-private-Christian-school background now dislocated at a large, secular state school. I found in InterVarsity a ragtag community of fellow Christians who wanted to enjoy the college experience and maintain their faith. I liked that the IV people drank beer and cursed (strict no-nos where I came from), but more importantly they had a generous open-heartedness, a willingness to welcome people from Catholic, Mainline Protestant, evangelical, and non-religious backgrounds.
I loved the way that IV bucked the trends of many evangelical institutions, taking strong stances in favor of racial and ethnic reconciliation, advocating for social justice, and unequivocally affirming women in leadership. I was proud to come on staff with the organization after college to work mentoring students and leading Bible studies. I left IV in 2010, but many of my friends are still campus staff members there, and I have followed with interest the developments of recent years.
InterVarsity’s decision came in the last few months after a several-year process of internal theological refinement. The organization is quick to clarify that it is not doing this as an anti-gay thing, but rather as a part of their holistic commitment to an“orthodox” theology of human sexuality. I understand why InterVarsity and its leaders have felt compelled to take the stance that they have. From their perspective, our culture has shifted rapidly and evangelical faith takes courage to stand for what you believe in and, legally, they could be in a bind if they don’t strictly define what they believe before they enforce it. I also understand how they interpret the Bible as not allowing any room for sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. I used to be within their consensus.
Some in seeking to defend the firm stance InterVarsity has taken have pointed to the parallel case in the early 20th century when Fundamentalist Protestants staked out what they believed to be the clear, if previously undefined, “orthodox” commitments to the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible and to the premillennial return of Christ. This is an apt and telling comparison in that the Fundamentalists’ inelastic and narrow definitions of what you must believe and say to be a true Christian in the modern world have not stood the test of time very well. Sure, there are still inerrantists and premillennialist individuals and organizations out there, but many evangelical institutions like InterVarsity itself have eschewed those distinctions and scrupulously avoided including such phrasings in their statements of faith. I recall shrugging with my former colleagues in IV at how laughable and hair-splitting the fights among evangelicals about the metaphysics of the Bible and the timelines of eschatology can get.
The lesson I take from my study of Christian history is that orthodoxy takes centuries to define and does come with some sharp edges, but orthodoxy is also capacious and preserves the mystery of the Christian faith rather than anxiously enumerating every fine point and every jot and tittle of the Law. Sure, Arius gets kicked out of the church at the Council of Nicaea because he won’t say homoousios, but the end product of that Council is a creed that Catholics and Protestants and Eastern Orthodox can say in unison and agreement nigh 17 centuries later. There is room for disagreement and debate within orthodoxy, hence the entire adventure of Christian theology through the millennia.
InterVarsity and its defenders feel that they are defending what the Bible says and a biblical theology of human sexuality. But the Bible doesn’t say anything, or, if it does, it doesn’t speak with a single voice. What we get in the canon of the Bible is a whole lot of inspired disagreements and discussions, a cacophony of reflections on God and on the Christ event, and a strong sense of the squabbles and foibles of the early Christian church. Then, as now, the Christian faith was contentious and extroverted, and if we can in retrospect reconcile Paul and James on faith and works, we are probably going further than they ever did. Simply put, the Bible doesn’t resolve the great debates of Christian history; it occasions them. That is why Arius and Athanasius were both quoting the New Testament and why advocates for LGBTIQ rights in Christian communities and their detractors are still wrestling with and exegeting the same passages.
My difficult message to my InterVarsity friends is this: The truth of the Bible and the boundaries of orthodoxy don’t rest upon 20-page position papers on human sexuality. It’s much, much more complicated than that. There’s a reason the great ecumenical creeds don’t define sexuality (or, for that matter, a singular approach to interpreting the Bible). Orthodoxy lives in the disagreements among Christians of good will who come to the scriptures genuinely and openly.
So I am withdrawing my financial and moral support from InterVarsity. I think that they have drawn the wrong line in the sand, that it is a line that is arbitrary, that ends discussion and dialogue rather than encouraging them, that hurts real people in the name of a narrow interpretive consensus. It is my hope that my friends who remain with the organization will remain my friends. I doubt that my meager, Ph.D.-student contribution of $75 a month will make much of a dent in InterVarsity’s bottom line. And I will continue to hope that the important, nay essential theological conversations of our time will be carried forward in an irenic, ecumenical and generous spirit that is worthy of the God in whose love we have room for debate.