InterVarsity in the Culture War

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By Gabriel Blanchard

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s (IVCF) recent clarification of its stance on homosexuality—not only explicitly confirming the organization’s commitment to the traditional Christian ethic, but also asking that employees who dissent from it come forward and leave its employ—has inspired a lot of angry and disapproving responses. Writing for The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt described it as “an unnecessary line in the sand that may alienate donors, frighten members, and force employees … to choose between their loved ones and their livelihoods.” Merritt questions whether it is necessary for a collegiate parachurch ministry to have defined beliefs about marriage in the first place and argues that a consistent application of this policy would be impossible. His concerns seem to be shared by many.

The difficulty is that any organization that is defined by a belief—like a church or a parachurch organization—has both the right and the duty to state that belief: the right, because that’s what makes the organization itself, and the duty, because to ignore or conceal its reason for existing would be foolish, dishonest, and just plain weird. Of course, an organization could choose to define itself by not having an answer to a given question. But InterVarsity has not. And they have that right, quite as much as Dignity or the Reformation Project have, to define themselves in contradiction.

However, the manner in which InterVarsity has handled the clarification is distinctly open to criticism. A friend of mine pointed out that it would be laudably courteous to include a “grandfather clause,” more or less establishing the ministry’s doctrine on homosexuality as a guide for future hiring practices, without asking those already in its employ (some of whom have devoted years to the ministry) to leave so abruptly.

Moreover, IVCF’s history of hospitality for ex-gay thought[1] is a disquieting background against which to issue a clarification of this kind (though it does at least confirm that this is a clarification of a preexisting stance, and not a novelty masked by Orwellian relabeling). The paper InterVarsity issued would have been far more effective if it had included a decisive rejection of ex-gay thought; or, if that’s too much to ask, a detailed, biblically grounded condemnation of homophobic violence—especially given the massacre in Orlando this past June. Doubtless the ministry felt they had covered this territory in admitting that Christians have often sinned against the LGBT community; unfortunately, the confession is delivered in the kind of Christianese that makes it sound like hollow rhetoric. It is very probably a sincere confession, yet few people will believe it.

In a vacuum, homosexuality is no more important than any other theological issue, but it has been a cultural flashpoint for well over a decade, and many among both inquiring students and prospective employees are likely to want a definite position.

However, none of these errors of judgment make InterVarsity’s stance, or the decision to have a stance, wrong. And frankly, they probably can’t do without a stance on this: In a vacuum, homosexuality is no more important than any other theological issue, but it has been a cultural flashpoint for well over a decade, and many among both inquiring students and prospective employees are likely to want a definite position. Admittedly, they may not agree with or like the definite position that InterVarsity has articulated, but the idea that the organization could leave such a now-potent question unanswered is pure moonshine—instead of being attacked by progressives for intolerance, they’d be attacked by both progressives and traditionalists for being silent about the truth in the face of a social and spiritual crisis. That scares off donors, too.

The notion that this couldn’t be important enough to determine hiring practices is even a little insulting. If the traditional Christian ethic is true, then the nature of marriage is wrapped up with the nature of humanity created in God’s image; therefore, what we think about marriage is part of how we follow Christ: to treat it as debatable is to subtract from the total message of Scripture. Conversely, if a progressive theology of marriage is true, it should be defended firmly and without apology; anything less would be a disservice to us who are LGBT, and who, on that premise, are being slandered and excluded in a grossly unjust way. In neither case can the definition of marriage be reasonably relegated to the footnotes of what it means to be a Christian.

That’s not to say that Christians cannot sincerely disagree on the issue; and InterVarsity hasn’t said that, either. But it isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be, the home of all Christians. It is a parachurch ministry, not a substitute for the church invisible. It is not above rebuke; it is also not beneath confession.

An Oriented to Love alumnus and a convert to Catholicism, Gabriel Blanchard is the author of the blog Mudblood Catholic. He writes about faith, gay issues, the arts, and politics, and his Victorian gothic novel, Death’s Dream Kingdom, was published in 2015.

Related reading by the same author: Please Stop “Loving” Us (to Death)

Also on IVCF: Weeping for (InterVarsity) Christian Fellowship by Lindsey Nelson

[1] See this article about an IVCF-sponsored presentation and this ex-gay booklist, which contains four InterVarsity Press titles.

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