“Courage,” said Atticus Finch, is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Harper Lee’s southern hero understood a truth that many religious conservatives must now embrace: Bravery often isn’t rewarded.
Last week Time broke the news that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a large, evangelical group that organizes Christian gatherings and networks on college campuses, had begun to enforce its doctrinal standards with its staff. Or at least, that was the real news that Time broke—Elizabeth Dias’s sensationalist framing gave the impression that IVCF would begin policing its staff’s political views on same-sex marriage. InterVarsity’s leadership has since debunked that (rather sizable) part of Dias’s reporting.
But it does appear to be true that, as Dias wrote, InterVarsity will maintain doctrinal accountability by asking any staff who disagree with IVCF’s conservative stance on homosexuality, same-sex relationships, and gender to inform their leadership, triggering a process of “involuntary termination.”
In other words, a Christian ministry will ensure that its ministers are actually saying Christian things.
This kind of event is breaking news to only two kinds of people: those who have no inkling whatsoever of historic Christian theology, and those who expect religious conviction always to yield to pop culture. Yet it is breaking news precisely because those two categories describe an increasing number of Americans, especially millennials. The former group often can’t understand why the folks at InterVarsity won’t get over their antiquarian hang-up; the latter group often thinks anti-discrimination law means they have to get over it.
What neither group comprehends is that InterVarsity’s decisiveness is not the result of pressure by evangelical culture warriors. Rather, the political and cultural pressure has been coming from the left—from Obergefell champions and theological revisionists, secular and religious alike. Consider that a couple years ago the organization was “de-recognized” by the California State University system because InterVarsity requires its leaders to abstain from sexual practices that the New Testament condemns. Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, a similar evangelical network on Bowdoin University’s campus, recently met the same fate for an identical reason. InterVarsity’s announcement is not a calculated move in the culture war; it’s a defensive posture, taken only after the ministry conducted a four-year evaluation of its doctrine and its future. It’s a result, in other words, not of new animus toward LGBT students—but of new animus toward conservative evangelical sentiment.
This is why it is a complete whiff to argue, as some critics have, that InterVarsity has made a mountain out of a theological molehill. Many evangelicals, Catholics, and others sincerely believe that Christianity’s doctrines on marriage and sex are inextricably tied up with the foundations of the faith. You don’t have to agree with them in order to see that this debate has been thrust upon them from the outside—it is not one they decided to have upon realizing they needed another group to exclude. If progressive evangelicals want more free exchange and less institutional solidarity, perhaps they should lobby a bit more aggressively for the conscience rights of beleaguered institutions like Biola University and groups like Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.
This brings me to another point. While I don’t doubt that this is a difficult time for many LGBT students, staff, and others who feel alienated right now by InterVarsity, it seems obvious to me that they stand to benefit from this move. Campus ministry and fellowship groups are not merely clubs or think tanks; they are parachurch organizations, meaning that they serve students in many of the same ways a local congregation does. This means that InterVarsity seeks to foster close-knit communities, tied together by a common faith and a common vision of what that faith ultimately means for one another.
Could this system function, much less flourish, if InterVarsity were to play both ends against the middle on these issues? If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the evaporation of mainline Protestantism, it’s that theological identity provides the basis of confessional discipleship and spiritual fellowship. The churches in the early twentieth century that tried to hollow out their confessions to “make room” for fundamentally opposing notions of God and man are the same churches now being turned into museums. You can grow businesses and political programs with pragmatism, but you cannot grow a church.
By choosing clarity over obfuscation and identity over politics, InterVarsity is refusing to profit from confusion. It would be easy for a campus ministry group to wink and nod toward their evangelical ancestors, pointing to a doctrinal statement that doesn’t exactly say the right things but doesn’t contradict them either, while buying political protection and cultural shelter through equivocation and virtue signaling. That would be easy, and from a PR standpoint, that would be wise. But it wouldn’t be evangelical, and it wouldn’t be ministry.
For confessional Christians, InterVarsity’s courage should be both an example and a warning. In a time of tremendous political incentive to the contrary, InterVarsity has chosen to practice Christian orthodoxy. That is courageous, and deserves commendation and emulation. This is a decision made by real people with real names who have real personal and professional prices to pay for their convictions. In a year that has exposed the cravenness of so many evangelical celebrities, it’s heartening to realize that there are still leaders among us.
But it’s also a warning. The days of polite silence and pragmatism are gone beyond recall. InterVarsity and Bowdoin Christian Fellowship are not soldiers of the culture war; they are ministries that have been culture-warred against. The illusion that Christian institutions can survive based on unspoken assumptions of shared beliefs has been shattered by cultural revolution and legal transformation. Believers who want to introduce their generation to the risen Christ must announce Him explicitly and await the consequences. We may be “licked” before we begin, but the gates of hell will not endure.
Samuel D. James currently serves as Communications Specialist to the Office of the President at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His writing has been featured in such places as TIME, World Magazine, The Gospel Coalition, 9 Marks, and more.