Earlier this month, the California State University system decided to stop recognizing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a campus organization. This was far from being the first time that a campus ministry has faced such a challenge. Perhaps most famously, several years ago Hastings College of the Law withdrew recognition from the Christian Legal Society, resulting in a 2010 Supreme Court decision in favor of Hastings. InterVarsity itself has previously faced a number of challenges at a number of institutions such as Vanderbilt, SUNY Buffalo, and others.
In several of these decisions, the controversy was centered on the issue of sexual orientation, with school administrators asserting that the ministries’s leadership requirements discriminated against gay students. In other cases, such as the recent California State decision, only discrimination with respect to religious beliefs was cited. However, this has not stopped some commentators from arguing that discrimination with regard to sexual orientation was in view. Here I will focus on sexual orientation, even though it is not always the most important issue at play.
It is commonly argued that holding to a traditional sexual ethic is really an excuse to exclude gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from full participation in the group. If that were true in an uncomplicated sense, I should have lost my position in 2011 as a leader of the graduate chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at UNC Chapel Hill. During a meeting that year, I brought up my experience being sexually attracted to people of both sexes.
However, this had no impact on my status as a leader. You see, I was convicted at the time, and have remained convicted, that sexual behavior between members of the same sex is forbidden within Scripture. I was also (and still am) committed to living within the bounds of that teaching.
My experience with the InterVarsity chapter did show that it is indeed possible to uphold a traditional doctrine of sexuality without discriminating simply on the basis of sexual orientation. Those of us who hold to traditional doctrine despite being gay, lesbian, or bisexual are not merely a theoretical construct. We are real people who study at real universities. This point is important for university administrators to consider as they weigh the possibilities for non-discrimination policies.
Unfortunately, however, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation does exist within the Christian world. I have several friends who have lost positions of leadership or employment within Christian organizations because they were open about being attracted to the same sex. My friends were in full agreement with the doctrinal positions of the respective organizations. They were also in compliance with the codes of conduct of those organizations. In several of these cases, the relevant decision makers only found out about my friends’ sexualities as a result of their public defenses of the traditional understanding of sexual ethics.
I used to keep count of how many times I’ve heard about this sort of thing happening. I lost count around eight or ten. This type of discrimination is a common problem in both Catholic and Protestant circles.
Fortunately, my experience at UNC shows that we can do better. There are ways we can continue to uphold traditional doctrine without discriminating merely on the basis of someone’s orientation. The first and most necessary step is for organizations to be committed to not participate in discrimination simply on the basis of sexual orientation. If “doctrine” really is just a smokescreen for excluding certain people who share the group’s beliefs, values, and standards of conduct, then universities have no moral obligation to respect it.
A second step is for those gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who are already in leadership positions within campus ministries to open up about their experiences. Many such students are quite secretive. This secrecy contributes to the perception that only straight students are welcome as leaders within the organization, making it more difficult to accept belief and conduct standards as legitimate. It furthermore makes it more difficult for other gay, lesbian, and bisexual students to feel safe talking about their own lives in a campus ministry context.
Campus ministries ought to create a climate where student leaders can feel safe opening up about their own sexuality. I know from experience many ways that a Christian group can feel very unsafe. For example, if the experience of same-sex attraction is condemned or if sexual orientation is rarely discussed outside of a political context, opening up is exceptionally terrifying and difficult.
A practical improvement, then, is for ministries to directly bring up sexual orientation in helpful ways. For example, they should work to address the practical needs of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual people within their midst. There are many day-to-day issues living with a non-heterosexual orientation that must be addressed with more than merely “don’t have sex.” I’ve really appreciated the conversations hosted at Spiritual Friendship in this regard. In a context where these discussions are already happening, opening up is comparably easier.
It’s not clear to me whether such changes will ever be enough to stop the tide against recognizing Christian ministries with traditional stances. However, I think the changes I’m proposing will help ministries act more justly and better minister to people in a world in need. They should stand on their own as good and proper things to do. Let’s work together to accomplish them.
Jeremy Erickson is a software engineer in Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. See more of his writing at Spiritual Friendship, where a version of this column first appeared.