InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has hit the news over the past 24 hours after TIME Magazine published a response to the organization’s recent decision to clarify its theological standards on sexuality and request that disagreeing staff come forward for removal. This is a significant move by a significant ministry. With British roots dating to 1877 and American roots dating to 1941, InterVarsity is active on 667 college campuses across the U.S., with 1,300 employees.
The basis for InterVarsity’s decision is explained in a 20-page “Theological Summary of Human Sexuality” which addresses sexual abuse, divorce, premarital sex, cohabitation, lust, adultery, pornography, and same-sex relationships. The last on the list — same-sex relationships — receives extended treatment in the document, and has expectedly taken the headlines.
After reading InterVarsity’s position paper, Elizabeth Dias’s TIME article, InterVarsity’s public responses, some of the ensuing discussion, and several other notable responses posted over the past day, I want to share a few reflections on InterVarsity’s decision, their critics, and the church’s full-voiced response.
First, InterVarsity’s “position paper” models a grounded theological approach that roots relational love in the doctrine of the Trinity, addresses sexual sin in broad terms and diverse categories (despite Dias’s focus on the LGBTQ element), and walks through a redemptive-historical treatment of human sexuality through the creation-fall-redemption-restoration rubric. They could do more work on transgender issues, intersex complexities, and the hamartiology of same-sex attraction, but all in all, their grounding document is biblical, thoughtful, and well-organized.
Second, the document carefully navigates same-sex categories of attraction, identity, and behavior rather than lumping all same-sex desires together. There’s a spectrum of experiences when it comes to same-sex desire, and InterVarsity attempts to acknowledge and address that spectrum. Those who identify as homosexuals, Christians struggling with same-sex attraction, and those well-read in these areas may desire more nuance, but in my view (having talked with many Christian college students struggling with same-sex attraction), the document seems to strike a balance of conciseness and clarity while addressing the sensitive textures and inherent complexities of the issues under discussion. For instance, InterVarsity’s document clearly states that Christians struggling with same-sex attraction are welcome on their teams and in their ministry, but will be removed if they choose or affirm a homosexual lifestyle.
Third, in line with its theological and practical carefulness, the document also speaks with a blended tone of conviction and humility, seeking to call sin sin while speaking mercifully about fellow sinners and humbly about our shared brokenness. Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, has been criticizing InterVarsity since the TIME article was published, blaming the organization for “directly causing great harm to LGBTQ people,” “persecuting a small minority of people,” and committing a sort of genocide-by-ideology — “there are countless more LGBTQ people who have died as a direct result of your theology.” The problems with Vines’s responses are too numerous to address here, but at the most basic level, his arguments fail because they sever love from holiness. The reality is that love and holiness are mutually reinforcing qualities, interwoven threads in the tapestry of God-designed human sexuality. The withered form of love which Vines is harboring sits sadly in the shadows of true biblical love which is robust, full-bodied, kaleidoscopic, and untame. You can’t cage love and keep it away from human sexuality. You can’t shackle it and make it the slave of your progressive ideology. Biblical love runs afoul of cultural mores from the cities around the ancient Mediterranean seaboard to campuses across the United States of America. From Corinthian temples to Columbia University, the unchanging sexual ethic of Christian Scripture lights the true path to freedom and flourishing — that’s love, and no degree of hermeneutical gymnastics or rhetorical posturing can redefine it.
Fourth, TIME’s article shows that InterVarsity followed a careful and loving process marked by institutional sensitivity as it sought to explore these issues in a biblical and communal way. I’m no insider, so I can’t speak conclusively on the issue, but I’ve worked at large parachurch organizations for the past 14 years, and I sense that they took their time, did their homework, and involved the community in their deliberations. In her TIME piece, Dias writes:
[IVP leaders] sent a letter to all staff in July to inform them of the employment policy. The decision is the outcome of a four-year internal review on what the Bible teaches about human sexuality. InterVarsity issued its conclusions in a 20-page internal position paper on human sexuality in March 2015, and then gave staff 18 months to study it and participate in a nine-part study exploring its conclusions.
Fifth, despite the careful research and tone Dias presents, the TIME article’s approach is unbalanced in its focus and crafting, calling attention only to LGBTQ issues and neglecting to affirm the beauty and purity of self-giving love or a Christian vision of lifelong covenantal marriage or a strong confrontation of sexual abuse, all of which mark InterVarsity’s theological document. In headlining the currently controversial and sidelining the undeniably beautiful, news outlets like TIME do a disservice to their readers and to the ongoing debate about sexual ethics. They zero in on hot-button topics involving Christianity, pulling them free from the full tapestry of Scripture’s vision for humanity. This approach, wherever it appears, hyperfocuses the conversation, decontextualizing Christian views whose very aim is to best serve and love the same marginalized people the sexual progressives are claiming to protect. This kind of selective critique refuses to evaluate a wholesale sexual ethic or examine the robust worldview claims that undergird biblical sexuality. In response, rather than simply complaining, the church must keep our focus, laboring to continue clarifying the backstory of the Bible’s sexual ethics as we continue sharing the full-bodied gospel of Christ.
Sixth, amidst the blaze of ideological battles, it’s vital to remember who’s getting burned. The church does its worst when we lick our wounds and cry foul and fire back at all who may disagree, oppose, or even oppress. But the church does its best when we drink deeply of Christ’s love for the world and share that love indiscriminately with all whom God has made, opening our hearts and homes and families and friendships to every kind of person who wanders this lonely planet alongside us. We must remember that those who live an LGBTQ lifestyle are deeply loved by God as his children by creation even as he seeks to redeem and adopt them to be his children by salvation. And we must also remember that there are many in our own midst who are struggling in the arena of same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria, faithful saints who are marching upward to Zion with us, rugged Christians living celibate and pure lives or maintaining painful covenants of marriage or waiting for a prodigal husband or wife or son or daughter to come home to God and to them. I have known some of them, and I know some of them still. Daily and willingly these brothers and sisters undergo unimaginable crucifixions as they die to their own desires and hopes, living in the already-not-yet of their salvation.
Seventh, as the church speaks, we must speak with a multi-toned voice, saying several things simultaneously. We cannot simply have a political voice, or a legislative voice, or a compassionate voice, or a voice of judgment and warning. Depending on the situation and the audience and the person and the moment, we must speak the whole counsel of God on matters of sexuality and sin and salvation and society. (1) We must affirm the value and image-bearing dignity of every human being regardless of sexual orientation or personal conviction. (2) We must confess our individual and corporate sins as fellow sinners who together need the good news of an exodus in which God’s wrath is absorbed, our sins are covered, our slavery is broken, and our identity is resurrected. (3) We must warn our own hearts and our own Christian communities, along with the world around us, that sexual deviances call down the righteous judgment of God, precisely because they dishonor our Maker and distort our affections and disorder our relationships in ways that must be spoken of in inescapably moral and consequential terms. And (4) we must share and explain and graciously exemplify the good news that the God of heaven and earth has sent his Son to forgive and redeem and restore all who come to him, a bright reality that should make us the most welcoming people on earth. We must recognize that we are not communicating a Christian sexual ethic until we speak in fullness about creation and design, sin and judgment, Christ and grace, and redemption and flourishing, and how each of these saturates our responsibilities as sexual beings.
Finally, with all the previous points in mind, I want to state clearly that the decision made by the leadership of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is a bold and right decision. It is right because they are seeking to clarify and enforce doctrinal standards that are vital issues in our day. Lack of clarity on these issues would be ministry malpractice. It is bold because many, if not most, will disagree with their stance. Larycia Hawkins, recently dismissed from Wheaton’s faculty, tweeted: “This new evangelical litmus test will backfire. The evangelical crackup has fully commenced.” Hawkins is right about one thing and wrong about another: The doctrine of human sexuality is indeed a “litmus test” for Christian faithfulness in our day. But there’s nothing “new” about it. What’s new is the opposition to an orthodox sexual ethic that the people of God have held across the testaments. This age-old ethic has not been due to governmental control or social conditioning or sexual repression but because that sexual ethic captures the holy imagination of all who read the biblical text in humble submission to God and see clearly his unhidden blueprint for human and sexual flourishing.
From Old Testament to New, from the patriarchs to the apostles, from the prophets to the epistles, you do you just isn’t the Bible’s message — not about sexuality, not about gender, not about anything. I know my sentiment here is anathema to many, but in broad terms, InterVarsity is standing where they should stand, doing what they should do, and saying what they should say.
In fact, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is standing where they’ve always stood, and standing where the faithful church has always stood. But now they’re not just standing. They’re also leaning — leaning into the wind, leaning into the cultural pressure, and leaning into holy love, for the eternal good (ironically) of those who are so vocally opposing them, and for the eternal good (ironically) of those claiming to be oppressed by InterVarsity’s convictions.
In our day, we’re going to keep finding that it’s the old robes of scriptural teaching that form the wardrobe of Christian faithfulness. It’s this ancient message of holy love, and not just love-by-whatever-name, that will ruffle feathers and stir the pot. And it’s the mystery and beauty of biblical sexual flourishing that will testify most prophetically and controversially to God’s grand design, witnessing to the love of God for his people, a love writ large in the cosmos through our maleness, our femaleness, our marriages, and the holy love of his single Son for sexualized sinners like us.
We cannot remake the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in our image, so I’m thankful that InterVarsity isn’t going to try. Because it’s that eternal and true God, and no other, who stands with arms outstretched, holding out hope for human history. It’s his progressive redemption, not our progressive ideas, that offers us forgiveness, freedom, life, and peace. And it’s his Christ, who lived and taught a holy love, whose death and resurrection keeps remaking us and reshaping us until all things are new. On that day, we will rise, perfected, to the glory of God. Until then, we stand, convicted, for the good of the world.