InterVarsity, Sexuality, and the Importance of Christian Unity

If you don’t spend your evenings following Twitter, you’re both a better steward of your time than me and perhaps unaware that the evangelical internet exploded last night, after Time magazine published this story:

Elisabeth Dias reported that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA, which has 667 chapters on college and university campuses, “will start a process for ‘involuntary terminations’ for any staffer who comes forward to disagree with its positions on human sexuality, which hold that any sexual activity outside of a husband and wife is immoral.”

InterVarsity responded with a Facebook post:

We’re disappointed that Elizabeth Dias’ headline and article wrongly stated that InterVarsity is firing employees for supporting gay marriage. That is not the case. In fact, InterVarsity doesn’t have a policy regarding employee views on civil marriage….

We do continue to hold to an orthodox view of human sexuality and Christian marriage, as you can read in our Theology of Human Sexuality Document at the bottom of the article.

That said, we believe Christlikeness, for our part, includes both embracing Scripture’s teachings on human sexuality—uncomfortable and difficult as they may be—as well as upholding the dignity of all people, because we are all made in God’s image.

In any event, Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today didn’t think IVCF had anything to apologize for:

InterVarsity is an Evangelical Christian organization, and people who work at InterVarsity are, not surprisingly, expected to hold evangelical beliefs.

…why is it news that Evangelicals think their ministry staff should hold mainstream evangelical beliefs?

It’s becuase [sic] there is a new orthodoxy, and the old one just won’t do for many.

But several moderate and progressive evangelicals wondered why it was unacceptable to disagree on this issue when evangelical opinion is so varied on others.

As it happens, my pastor, Mark Pattie, and I are just a couple weeks away from submitting a manuscript to InterVarsity Press, on Pietism and the future of Christianity. And my previous book also came out from IVP’s academic imprint. So while I knew from Dias’ article that IVP employees were also subject to this policy, I was (selfishly) interested to see IVP’s tweets about implications for authors and current book projects:

It’s precisely because IVP maintains a “broadly evangelical” identity (look for that header in its publishing philosophy) and is committed to “[prompting] robust and respectful conversations in the church and culture” that I’ve been happy to work with them. At the same time, I know that what’s happening is extraordinarily frustrating, disappointing, and stressful for many who work at IVP and IVCF, and I hope you all join us in praying for them.

But more than ever, this newest flare-up of the wider Christian debate about human sexuality and same-sex marriage makes me think that we’re right to devote a whole chapter to one Pietist instinct: to trust that Christians are better together, even when (especially when!) Christian unity seems most difficult.

So I thought I’d share some excerpts from my working draft of that chapter (which I’ve left mostly untouched since August). We’ve solicited feedback from potential readers at multiple points in this process, so — whether you agree or disagree with me — I’d like to know what you think before we submit the manuscript at the end of this month.

* * * * *

At least for now, here’s how I start:

When my wife and I got married, we asked friends to read two scriptures. The first was Psalm 100. Besides being a great song of worship and thanksgiving, it contains a profound statement of who we are, and whose: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps 100:3). Especially at the wedding of one to another, the accents land on the plurals: he made us; we are his people.

And that should remind us that God made humanity in a particular way: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26,27). This claim has helped inspire a widespread belief in the equality, dignity, and freedom of every single person alive. But Christians should not see only individuals in the Imago Dei. People were made, for God and for each other. Humankind was created like a God who is not solitary but united: Three-in-One.

So we bear this image most fully when we are together with others: distinct, yet unified. Or as our second wedding text put it:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Phi 2:1-2)

It’s a good word for a couple to hear as they begin their life together. But Paul meant it for a larger community of believers. Would that more churches and Christian organizations take it as seriously as they take their stances on marriage!

Instead, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3) seems like the easiest platitude to mouth and the easiest conviction to set aside. But the Pietist ethos can help Christians understand that seeking unity — while impossible to achieve perfectly — is essential to Christian community, mission, and witness.

InterVarsity Press logoI empathize with Christians on both sides of debates like the one swirling around InterVarsity. (And around our pietistic denomination and Christian colleges like my pietistic employer, for that matter.) But while some debates necessarily do need to end in separation, Pietists would exhort Christians to view that step as a last resort. Not only our community, but our mission and witness are at stake. As I continue…

How can we engage in… reconciliation if members of our own Body readily accept estrangement from each other? If the Great Commandment (“love the Lord your God… love your neighbor as yourself,” Mk 12:30-31) animates the Great Commission (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” Mt 28:19), then a missional church should take the shape of an ever-widening circle of ever-deepening intimacy, with Jesus Christ at its center.

And:

Jesus told his first followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As heirs of that charge, we can bear no better witness than to “become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:23). To strive for unity is to show a watching world an image of a Three-in-One God whose members are different yet “completely one.”

Again, I’m not naive or conflict-avoidant enough to believe that there can never be a good reason for a split in a Christian community. And my instinct to keep seeking unity can be wrong. But I would urge those quick to defend IVCF and those quick to condemn it to step back and consider how reliable those responses are:

Trusting that we’re better together than apart is an instinct — a fallible, but deep-seated emotional impulse. But if it can steer us wrong, it can also counteract other fallible religious instincts: for example, the one that tempts some Christians to think that the chief proof of biblical faith is always to hold defiantly to one’s convictions….

Like Martin Luther before them, Protestants bind their individual conscience to God’s Word alone, even to the point of breaking fellowship with those trying to do the same thing. But when other post-Reformation cousins have been too prone to say, “Here I stand,” Pietists have wanted to ask, “Can we do other?”

“Here I stand” might feel more emotionally satisfying than the subtle, slow-arriving, and inevitably compromised joys of consensus — but that feeling isn’t always trustworthy. First, it tends to produce a kind of tunnel vision, blinding us to other possibilities. Worse yet, it replaces self-awareness with self-righteousness, as we forget that conviction is less a belief that you decide to hold firmly than something that happens to you, a sinner who still “[sees] in a mirror, dimly” and “[knows] only in part” (1 Cor 13:12).

That doesn’t mean that the Pietist’s conscience isn’t captive to the Word of God. But Pietists know that that kind of conviction requires humility, a readiness to bend the knee to Scripture as we read it together. In the Covenant we hold that “the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct” is the Bible itself — not any one person’s interpretation of the Bible. Conviction of this sort requires more patience, not less. But if something is that meaningful, shouldn’t it sustain more conversation, not less?


6 thoughts on “InterVarsity, Sexuality, and the Importance of Christian Unity

  1. Chris, thanks for this. Like Rusty, I appreciate the tone, balance, and grace you consistently bring to your writing.

    I appreciate, too, your call to Christian unity. I heartily agree that we evangelicals have often been too quick to split on issues where we might still hope to find greater common ground, or at least maintain fellowship over despite of our differences.

    What I think your post overlooks, though, is InterVarsity’s specific situation. InterVarsity has never said that they will withhold Christian fellowship from those who think differently about human sexuality than they do, or even that they are going to fire whoever disagrees (that was an error in the initial reporting from TIME). But InterVarsity is involved every day in ministry with students who either are themselves members of the LGBTQ community or are asking questions about these issues. It’s vital for InterVarsity’s own identity that they maintain a unified position. Since InterVarsity affirms the traditional Christian teaching about human sexuality, it follows that they believe that affirming the LGBTQ lifestyle would be harmful to their students, and that holding to the church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality—with grace, humility, acceptance, and understanding—is the best way to love these students. So leaving this area gray and undefined would be untenable for their practical, day-to-day ministry. It would only lead to further friction, questions, disagreements, etc.

    This gets at another question that’s coming up repeatedly in the aftermath of the TIME article: Why make this a primary issue? I think a big part of the answer is that they’re not making it a primary issue. In their day-to-day ministry, it already is a primary issue. It may not be “in the creed” per se, but it is still a vitally important issue in our culture, especially for the kind of ministry IVCF is doing. They needed to codify their position and make sure their employees are on the same page.

    Finally, there’s the legal angle, which I imagine was the primary impetus for the document. Federal law makes it very difficult for institutions to defend their values and beliefs in court if those values and beliefs are not clearly outlined and codified. Leaving this area undefined would be asking for legal trouble down the line—the kind of legal trouble we’ve seen in other places in the recent past.

    1. Thanks, Ethan. I appreciate the insight about how IV functions – one thing that I should note is that I’ve had no personal experience with IV apart from their publishing wing; but I can certainly envision the kinds of situations you describe. However, I’m confused when you say that the claim “they are going to fire whoever disagrees” is mistaken… I get that IV wanted to clarify that no one would be dismissed for an opinion on *civil* marriage. But are you saying that IV will keep in its employ staff who disagree with their stance on sexual morality? (If true, then the reporting was indeed way off the mark. But that’s not how I read from the IV post, and I haven’t seen any further comment.)

      1. Chris, my comment was based on this statement, which IVCF made today. “A report in TIME magazine incorrectly stated that InterVarsity was firing employees who support gay marriage. This is not accurate. No InterVarsity employee will be fired for their views on gay marriage.” Now that I read it again I wonder if their point here isn’t to distinguish gay marriage from affirming the LGBTQ lifestyle. I guess they should make that clearer, though in a post-Obergefell society, the distinction between supporting gay marriage and affirming the lifestyle is diminished.

        The statement goes on to quote Greg Jao, vice president of IVCF, as saying, “We have always expected employees to reflect the ministry’s theological beliefs, as would be true for any church, synagogue, mosque, or religious organization. We recognize employees who disagree, or whose beliefs have changed over time, will leave employment because we have reiterated our beliefs.” So there’s some gray area there as to how that’ll work out in practice.

        Full statement here: https://intervarsity.org/news/intervarsity-reiterates-theology-human-sexuality

      2. Thanks for that link, Ethan. I hadn’t seen that statement, just the earlier post on the Facebook page. Has Time or Dias issued a response? It doesn’t look like the article has been changed…

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