Home Uncategorized InterVarsity, Lawsuits, and Leadership

InterVarsity, Lawsuits, and Leadership

I was a bit puzzled by InterVarsity’s latest blog post, “Selecting the Right Leader,” by Gordon Govier.  The post insinuates that InterVarsity chapters around the country are being pressured by universities to let non-Christians lead chapters.  I am not as informed about the situation as some people on InterVarsity staff, I’m sure, but my understanding is that this is what is happening at a handful of campuses… but at an equal number of campuses, the issue is InterVarsity’s objection to “practicing” gay Christian leaders.  In fact, from what I’ve read, at many of these campuses these issues are really the same.  The conversation goes something like this:

IV: “Susie, you are gay and think that’s ok, so you can’t be a leader anymore.”

Univ.: “That’s discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation!”

IV: “No, it’s not!  It’s ok with us that Susie is gay.  She just shouldn’t think that’s ok.”

Univ: “Oh.  Well that’s discrimination on the basis of religion!”

IV: “So, we’re a Christian group?”

Then instead of objecting and saying something like, “Well, not all Christians agree with you” (which to me is a logical response), many universities are saying, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t let you discriminate on the basis of religion at all then.”  Which then, of course gets presented as, “They want us to put Wiccan and Muslim students in charge of our Christian group!”  Perhaps some universities would really push for that, but that’s not exactly where the conversation got started in the first place at many of these schools.  At many of them this is starting as a conflict about sexuality.

Sidenote: I put “practicing” in quotes because InterVarsity, like many Christian organizations which come down most conservatively on the issue of homosexuality in the church doesn’t clearly define what “practicing” means.  Does it mean having sex?  Does that mean it’s ok to be in a relationship where you’re not having sex?  I would think they’d have a problem with that, too, but where precisely is the line drawn and why?  I have some thoughts on this topic from my time at Fuller, but that is a discussion for another day…

Back to the main point here: I’m not certain why this was left out of the article.  InterVarsity students, parents, and financial supporters should know what is actually going on.  If InterVarsity feels confident about its position on homosexuality, this shouldn’t be a problem.  Quite honestly, I think it will gain them more donors than it will cost them.  Problems tend to come to organizations moving in the opposite direction.

So why not be honest?  I’m not certain this post was meant to be deceitful—really I rather doubt it—but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  I wonder if this is because historically InterVarsity hasn’t seemed to want to push this issue and highlight it the way many evangelical organizations do.  There’s something honorable about that: not wanting to make a fuss and draw too much attention to what is seen as a more peripheral issue, especially one that most evangelicals engage with rather poorly whenever attention is drawn to it.  At the same time, it would be good to be upfront about their position.

I agree that student groups should be allowed to “discriminate” based on beliefs, but I question the wisdom of InterVarsity’s making their stance on homosexuality an orthodoxy test while leaving similarly controversial issues such as women in ministry open for disagreement.  Is this really a line-in-the-sand sort of issue?  Are the ancient ecumenical creeds not enough?  Is a profession of Christian faith not enough?  Is a heartfelt desire to follow Jesus not enough?  Why is this the only issue on which many “interdenominational” organizations can have no diversity?  Some InterVarsity alumni and friends will disagree with this move, and they should have the information they need to make decisions about their financial support.

Only a handful of other donors may feel this way, but even so, I wish this article had been more thorough.  If nothing else, doesn’t journalism demand a higher standard?  Doesn’t a Christian love of truth?  Let’s be clear about what is going on here.

5 Responses

  1. Brad

    Very interesting and incisive post.

    As a friend of IV and former staff person, I perceive that they are struggling with two tensions. One is that they may have internal tensions to manage. Because they have not been the kind of evangelical organization that has wanted to make homosexuality a primary issue, there has developed a degree of theological diversity in perspective amongst their ranks (students, field staff, management, and donors). So, I think they may have a unity challenge.

    Secondly, my perception is that they face a missional challenge. I think they have officially affirmed the church’s traditional view on sexuality. But, as you noted, they aren’t wanting to push that view as a primary matter of faith, at least not in a strident manner. If they were as direct as you’re calling for, I think they may fear losing students, not donors (primarily). And to be clear, I don’t think they’re concerned about numbers as much as missional traction. So, it’s easier to make an argument about not letting Wiccans lead . . . which most people agree is silliness.

    Of course, one might ask: If sexuality is not a primary determiner of orthodoxy (in the way that say, affirming the Apostle’s Creed is), why put up such a big fight? And I think the answer is that many evangelicals are struggling to find language or models at adequately reflect the importance of sexuality in the Christian life. We (and I include myself here) don’t want to make one’s views on sexuality a “measure” of orthodoxy. But, neither does it seem adequate to say that our views on (and practices of) sexuality are adiaphora.

    • Ashleigh Bailey

      Hey Brad,

      From my own experience IV—which includes two years on our coordinating team at UNC, plus going through the staff app process, only to decide to go to seminary instead)— I agree with much of what you’re saying.

      I think there is definitely a degree of diversity within InterVarsity, generally, which does not exist within many evangelical organizations. Even the statement of faith’s not demanding adherence to “inerrancy” per se creates a level of freedom uncommon in evangelical circles, and I think it has allowed many students and staff to comfortably stay a part of IV after discovering more moderate positions on many issues. I’m sure that this has happened to some extent even with homosexuality. Although in my experience there was been a standard on this issue for some time, it is only more recently that it has been coming to light more often. I sort of imagine that staff already there are able to hold more diverse views than new staff coming on at this point, although I do not have any evidence of that. I do know that my more agnostic position was not welcome when I inquired about staff in multiple regions within the past year, although everyone was very kind and gracious in their response.

      I do think that a “missional challenge” and not wanting to lose students is part of why InterVarsity has been quieter about this, but I feel rather uncomfortable with that. This doesn’t need to be their main issue, but if it’s something they really believe is important, it should not be a secret either. In my own chapter we had the problematic situation of several gay students on leadership (I was only aware of one at the time), either not completely aware that they were “breaking the rules” (because these particular rules were never discussed explicitly and they could sign the statement of faith) or having to live in painful secrecy. While it is painful and challenging to be more upfront with their position, it also saves students from the awfulness of being kicked off leadership (or hiding to avoid expulsion from leadership). I do think some chapters are becoming better at stating their position on this upfront as people consider joining leadership, which I know is problematic in some ways, but at least it’s honest.

      While I think it would have been our chapter’s loss to not have some of those leaders involved, I think that the pain of exclusion is on average less than becoming super-involved in InterVarsity and THEN dealing with potential exclusion. This will limit who decides to get involved in InterVarsity in the first place, I’m sure, and probably offend other campus organizations. But I think it’s somewhat necessary. To be covert about something so potentially damaging to your relationship with students feels sneaky and mean. I think students appreciate knowing about differences of opinion upfront. If this is going to be a reason some decide not to get involved at all, then they deserve to be able to go hang out with PCUSA or UMC or some other student group where they’re going to be more welcome.

      I do think it is compassion and concern which motivates this quietness about the issue, and I think there’s an attempt to minimize damage, even if a different sort of damage persists. I certainly don’t think it would be helpful to scream about this from the rooftops, but a calm transparency is valuable.

      I understand that this may not seem to be as central as the creeds but still more important than modes of baptism. That’s a valid position. But I personally feel InterVarsity is not at all consistent. Racial reconciliation? Not the most popular issue, but a gospel non-negotiable, they say. (We experienced TONS of push-back about this in our chapter, but we still tried to promote it.) Women in ministry? An issue of freedom. I asked our regional director about the women’s issue, and despite his fierce egalitarianism, he said this was an issue for the church. As a parachurch organization, InterVarsity didn’t take positions on “doctrine.” I wasn’t certain the distinction between gender issues and racial issues and why one was “doctrine” and the other was something else, but I tried to accept the spirit of what he was saying, even if I disagreed with it. It was well-intentioned. But here, this is clearly a “doctrinal” issue, one which various churches take different stances on, using the Bible and their understandings of God’s purposes in the world as support. This doctrinal issue, however, cannot be an issue of freedom?

      I just want things to be the same across the board. Decide on racial reconciliation, women, and homosexuality. Or decide on none of them. Or come up with a better explanation than “We are parachurch, so we don’t decide those things.” Clearly, there is some picking and choosing going on. Again, I’m sure it’s well-intentioned, but I think it has more to do with what InterVarsity feels to be the limits of evangelicalism, what they can “get away with” with donors and students, etc. than anything else. It represents heartfelt convictions, but it is entirely inconsistent. I think in the coming years it will be important for the movement to figure out what levels of freedom in theology and practice are actually acceptable, and as an org, they have the right to be as narrow as they want! But it will mean they are less ecumenical as a result—it’s inevitable.

      Just my take! ;-)

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