To those of us who’ve been paying attention, it’s seemed obvious for a while that conservative Christians are at the forefront of a growing backlash against greater inclusion for LGBTQIA people, particularly within their own institutions. In 2014, nondenominational charity World Vision publicly rescinded a policy change that would have allowed married gay people to work for them; earlier this year, evangelical bastion Wheaton College drew media attention after a staff member they had hired to support sexual minorities on campus—and subsequently fired for being too affirming—spoke publicly about why she and Wheaton had parted ways.
In both of the above cases, the organization in question made a partial gesture towards inclusion, and then rescinded said gesture due to backlash from hardline conservatives. Now, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—the parent organization for college ministries on 667 college campuses in the U.S.—has initiated its own ideological purge by asking gay-affirming employees to submit to “involuntary termination.”
As in the cases cited above, InterVarsity’s change in policy comes not on the heels of a major doctrinal shift, but due to a recent decision to explicitly articulate and enforce its theological position on sexuality. The internal document that led to the policy change—issued in March 2015 after a four-year internal review process—reiterates several conservative Christian positions, including the sinfulness of same-sex relationships. While the document laments the failure of Christians to adequately love “same-sex-attracted people,” it maintains that “Scripture is very clear that God’s intention for sexual expression is to be between a husband and wife in marriage. Every other sexual practice is outside of God’s plan and therefore is a distortion of God’s loving design for humanity.”
Furthermore, in a section labeled “identity,” it argues that sexuality should not be the defining factor in a person’s identity, and that the “sexualization” of identities is an unfortunate result of cultural pressures. The document, in other words, not only advocates a “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach to homosexuality, but erases the very existence of queer people as a category.
While InterVarsity is not technically asking employees to agree to the document’s positions, staff who disagree are expected to identify themselves and thus trigger their own terminations. Staff who themselves identify as a sexual minority face the additional expectation of remaining celibate if they want to keep their jobs. In a series of tweets responding to Friday’s article in Time Magazine on the new policy, InterVarsity USA reiterated the belief that “Christlikeness” requires both the affirmation of “orthodox” views of human sexuality, and the recognition of the dignity of all people.
“Within InterVarsity and elsewhere, some LGBTIQ people agree with this theology, at great personal cost. We are learning together,” reads the final tweet, implying that the “personal cost” which some LGBTQIA Christians accept—namely, remaining celibate—is inevitable rather than imposed from without, and that queer people who accept that cost are admirable for choosing their faith communities over their sexuality. The tweet, in other words, uses queer Christians who choose to remain celibate as shields against criticism, while obscuring the reality that InterVarsity has played an active role in exacting the “personal cost” of which they speak.
It remains unclear how many of InterVarsity’s 1,300 staff members will leave as a result of the new policy. Vice president and director of campus engagement Greg Jao told Christianity Today that he knows fewer than 10, but given that the Time article quotes two InterVarsity staff in the Bay Area alone who have left because of their unwillingness to align with the policy, it seems likely that the final count will be much higher. While InterVarsity’s conservative stance on sexuality is not new, it seems clear enough that before the new policy there was space within the organization for more affirming views, or at least for the people who hold them. This development points to a closing of the ranks within InterVarsity, an unwillingness to allow for any nuance or dissent.
In effect, InterVarsity’s leadership has rejected any possibility of a “third way,” a term sometimes used by Christians who maintain that there must be room within their faith for opposing viewpoints on divisive social issues. “Third way” approaches often fall short, as theologian Amaryah Shaye pointed out in a 2014 essay, by failing to take power differentials across different viewpoints into account, asking, for example, queer Christians who have been marginalized by the church to remain open to dialogue with those who have caused them immeasurable hurt. However, sometimes a “third way” approach is the best that LGBTQIA Christians and their allies can expect when operating within conservative organizations, and the fact that InterVarsity has eliminated that possibility will undoubtedly have direct negative effects on queer students.
Indeed, as is often the case when such ideological purges occur, those who are most vulnerable—the queer students who can no longer expect affirmation or even acceptance from InterVarsity staff—will ultimately suffer the most. While larger campuses provide an array of options for students seeking a campus ministry, on some smaller campuses InterVarsity might be the only Protestant organization operating. LGBTQIA students who also identify as Christian already face the threat of marginalization or outright rejection from other Christians who refuse to recognize or affirm them.
The fact that InterVarsity staff members are no longer allowed to express affirming viewpoints, and that staff who were previously expressing such viewpoints now face certain termination, sends the message to these students that InterVarsity as an organization will never accept them unconditionally. Even worse, InterVarsity’s understanding of sexuality, as expressed in the document quoted above, encourages these students not to accept themselves unconditionally. It’s hard to avoid the impression that here is yet another case of an evangelical organization using queer students as cannon fodder in a culture war. One can only hope that InterVarsity’s leaders will come to recognize the human cost of their latest campaign.
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