When a college employee referring to my participation in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship told me “You are the good ones,” I was flattered. Most evangelical Christians might be weird or crazy, she was saying, but—as the ‘70s hit said of Jesus— InterVarsity is just alright with me. InterVarsity students and staff have encountered similar sentiments coast to coast. To many, InterVarsity Christians are the good guys; more conservative Christians from groups like Cru are the bad ones.
One of the reasons the evangelical campus ministry has earned credibility in progressive and secular circles is the organization’s long and consistent track record of opposing racism. InterVarsity’s British roots have also immunized the organization against the anti-intellectualism present in much of American evangelicalism, an obvious plus in academia. InterVarsity also basically turned its back on the culture wars to focus on fighting poverty and racism, while still preaching Christianity on campus.
Through all of this, and other, smaller actions of goodwill and conciliation, InterVarsity has been filling up a reservoir of trust with college administrators, faculty, and other campus organizations. That’s why I represented InterVarsity on our college’s Interfaith Council back in 2014 and 2015. And I’m glad I did. Not only did I add perhaps a few more drops of trust to that reservoir, but I learned that other Christians, as well as the Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists on campus, suffered from the same stifling secularism. We were all in it together—and we, the Christians of InterVarsity, got to be “the good ones.” It was pretty nice, I have to admit.
So it has been especially hard to watch the story of InterVarsity’s “involuntary terminations” develop, a story Time magazine broke on October 6. The Time story quickly engendered #InterVarsityPurge on social media, as current and former staff, students, and others protested its decision to ask staff who disagreed with its “Document on Human Sexuality” to step down. The document is long, and covers topics from pornography to divorce and premarital sex, but the public has fixated on this claim:
We conclude, therefore, that God’s loving intention—seen in the clear teaching of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments—restricts sexual expression to a committed marriage relationship between a husband and wife.
While the issues of sexuality this document covers are wide-ranging, the implications in our current moment are clear: staff who affirm same-sex relationships as blessed by God are resigning their posts. Hence the article in Time, #InterVarsityPurge, the petition on change.org, and the numerous articles and videos of protest, which continue to come out. In addition, a group of former InterVarsity staff recently founded Incarnation Ministries, a new “LGBTQ-inclusive campus ministry.”
Doctrinal Clarification Comes After Challenges
One of the earliest to write about this, Jonathan Merritt in The Atlantic acknowledges that believing in traditional marriage is not bigoted, but calls InterVarsity’s step “extreme,” saying “punishing those who support it [LGBT marriage] can hardly be called loving.” After all, the issue of same-sex relationships doesn’t seem especially central to the gospel narrative. So why does InterVarsity need to elevate the issue? Why wade into the culture war now, when it’s basically over?
Merritt notes that “the organization has not codified a position on marriage into its purpose, core values, or doctrinal statements in nearly 80 years of operation. To do so now is to fundamentally alter its organizational identity.” “The good ones” no longer.
InterVarsity has never published an explicit position on same-sex marriage, but this is not because the answer doesn’t matter—it’s because the answer had been assumed for so long. Merritt fails to see that people clarify doctrine in times of challenge. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t form a central part of the gospel narrative, either. Yet early church history contains a drawn-out saga of argument over the Trinity, which the creeds reflect. In the same way, since Jesus preached almost exclusively to Jews, he never had to clarify whom people could have sex with, since within his community that was a settled question. Only once Paul went to the Greeks did this issue come up.
Today, Christians are faced with the same question Paul was. After a four-year process, InterVarsity has stuck with the traditional position, attested to in Old and New Testaments: Sex belongs within marriage, and marriage is between a man and a woman.
Not ‘the Good Ones’ Any More
Upholding this position will come with a cost. Indeed, it already has. Hours after the Time article about InterVarsity appeared, I saw Facebook and Twitter posts calling for colleges to kick the group off campus. According to sources, within 48 hours at least two colleges had begun that process, numerous InterVarsity staff had been publicly “named and shamed” as bigots, and one received an anonymous threat.
To be frank, it seems odd that InterVarsity is suddenly a target of protest, derision, and attack. Yes, the organization could doubtless have done better in rolling out the Document on Human Sexuality. But even these oversights don’t explain the level of vitriol being directed toward InterVarsity, which almost uniquely among evangelicals is willing to allow space for same-sex civil marriage (by contrast, just look at the list of Christian groups that filed amicus briefs opposing Obergefell v Hodges). What happened to that deep reservoir, the cistern of goodwill, filled with the water of trust?
The anger of InterVarsity’s critics is not just about the new policy. Yes, the Document on Human Sexuality and terminating dissenting employees contradicts the sexual libertinism of the twenty-first century West. But many other organizations, including Christian campus ministries, hold similar ethical stances, and even more forcefully, notable examples including Cru and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But they’re not being protested. This is, therefore, about something else.
They’re Turning Back History!
It’s about history. Think about the language used in our cultural and moral debates. Defenders of traditional marriage are frequently told they are “on the wrong side of history.” It’s not particularly appalling to many advocates of same-sex marriage (like Jonathan Merritt) that organizations exist which oppose same-sex marriage. These traditionalist organizations are remnants of old thinking, remnants that haven’t caught up with the times… yet.
They either will catch up and affirm the new sexual morality, or else fade away into irrelevance as the younger generation, without the hang-ups of their elders, universally accepts same-sex marriage. Adaptation or extinction. It’s actually a similar argument to the one conservatives make about liberal churches: Their decline will prove us right. I dislike this argument from either side, since it reduces truth to tactic, and measures the gospel like it’s some kind of head-counting popularity contest.
But understanding the argument is crucial for understanding what seems to some conservative commentators as baffling anger over an obvious and non-controversial step. The anger from same-sex marriage defenders comes from the fact that InterVarsity appears to be moving backwards. Moving from the right side of history over to the wrong side of history.
Look at it this way: If InterVarsity sticks with its policy and continues to exist or, even more menacingly, continues to grow, how can that be explained? After all, it’s 2016—we thought people, especially young, college-educated people, were getting over the old prejudices!
We Don’t Like These Implications
This is why InterVarsity’s Document on Human Sexuality is so threatening to the intellectual system of same-sex marriage defenders. The new sexual morality teaches that the traditional understanding of marriage is arbitrary and oppressive. Once we are freed from the patriarchy, we should be able to shrug off the traditional view like so much prehistoric slime. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if the traditional understanding endures, and the “slime” sticks, especially among those who, like InterVarsity, are “forward-thinking” enough to embrace Black Lives Matter?
In that case, perhaps it is evidence that the traditional understanding of marriage is not an arbitrary imposition of patriarchy, but a natural and inherent disposition of humankind. Perhaps the traditional understanding of marriage is written into natural moral law, that this is the reason—not prejudice—that nearly every human culture and holy text attests to the traditional view, including right at the beginning of Genesis.
By walking backwards on the marriage question, InterVarsity has put the very intellectual framework of same-sex marriage supporters at stake. Ministries and churches that have long and explicitly defended traditional marriage can be explained away as holdovers, facing the necessity of updating or being reduced to, at best, marginal relevance. But InterVarsity, for so long on the right side of history, e.g. when it banned racially segregated gatherings in 1945, is now moving to the wrong side of history. Progress doesn’t seem to be so unidirectional and inevitable after all.
Hence the question: “What happened to my InterVarsity?” Weren’t we the good ones?
So, About that ‘Tolerance’
I can understand, therefore, not only the heartache but also the panic of InterVarsity students and staff. They are, indeed, no longer “the good ones.” That reservoir of goodwill, carefully stewarded and cultivated during decades of growing hostility to Christianity, has gushed out the side of the cistern through a crack that, barring an unlikely backtrack, will prove irreparable.
I grew up in the age of DOMA and California’s Proposition 8, when support for same-sex marriage was on the rise but still in the minority. Back then, proponents of same-sex marriage urged tolerance. The principled pluralist position of InterVarsity, which distinguishes between civil marriage and its own theological position on marriage, has been maligned as mere semantics. But that very stance actually reflects the tolerance urged upon Christians in the DOMA days: “You have your own religious beliefs about marriage, which are fine for you, but just don’t force them on people who don’t share your religion.”
Once DOMA was overturned, and even more importantly, once Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage the law of the land, the former majority—those in favor of traditional marriage—became the minority, and a foe to be crushed. This is clear enough in the case of InterVarsity, which has had the audacity to stake a position on the wrong side of history.
The furor doesn’t appear to show any sign of dying down, which leaves me wondering about Merritt, who in The Atlantic called InterVarsity’s position “extreme.” Mr. Merritt, will you tolerate us? Or was tolerance just a bait-and-switch all along?