Yesterday, Elizabeth Dias at Time broke the news that InterVarsity, a leading evangelical college ministry, will “dismiss employees who support gay marriage” starting November 11. As one would expect, social media has erupted. Many evangelicals are dismissing the controversy by saying a Christian ministry affirming the orthodox Christian position on marriage and sexuality is hardly newsworthy. But here are three reasons why InterVarsity’s decision is actually a big deal.
ONE: Marriage has gone from an assumed belief to an essential doctrine
Defenders of InterVarsity have pointed out that the ministry had to clarify its position on marriage only because the culture has shifted on the issue so far and so rapidly, and that IV wasn’t changing its beliefs but only reaffirming what orthodox Christianity has always assumed. That is all very true. However, the real story is not that InterVarsity doesn’t affirm gay marriage, but that disagreeing with InterVarsity will now cost you your job. This represents an important elevation of the Christian view of marriage from an assumed belief to a core doctrine.
For many evangelical ministries it is necessary for employees to affirm certain core doctrines—the divinity of Jesus being one example. Other matters, however, like one’s view of baptism, the existence of a historical Adam, or drinking alcohol are usually regarded as non-essential matters that denominations may disagree over and that broadly evangelical ministries, like InterVarsity, generally avoid. Marriage used to be in this category of non-essential doctrines. IV’s new policy changes that.
Although InterVarsity has held an orthodox view of marriage and sexuality for many years, the decision to now dismiss employees who disagree is a significant step toward making marriage an inviolable doctrine.
Here’s a parallel scenario. I have many friends serving in denominations that do not ordain women. Some disagree with their church’s stated position on the issue, and while submitting to the ecclesiastical authorities, these friends appropriately voice their disagreement and make a biblical case for the full inclusion of women. Holding an opposing view, however, is not seen as grounds for dismissal. The ordination of women is an important issue in the denomination, but it is not a core doctrine.
If, however, the denomination suddenly moved to fire anyone calling for the ordination of women, that would represent a significant shift. That’s what InterVarsity has done on the matter of gay marriage. They’ve elevated an important issue to an essential one.
TWO: Evangelicalism is defined by parachurch ministries like InterVarsity
In case you didn’t know, Protestant evangelicalism doesn’t have a pope—no, Billy Graham doesn’t count, and it isn’t united around a creed or doctrinal statement. Instead, what has always bound evangelicalism together has been its shared, non-church institutions like publishers, colleges, mission agencies, and campus ministries. They have always served the function of defining what is essentially evangelical, and what peculiarities of each expression of evangelicalism can be ignored. For example, historians have identified the launch of Christianity Today magazine 60 years ago as critical in coalescing modern evangelicalism in the U.S. CT indirectly defined who and what was, and was not, evangelical.
So, when a leading parachurch campus ministry like InterVarsity shifts the issue of marriage from the back burner to the front, it may be a harbinger for evangelicalism as a whole. It’s not the same as when a single pastor or even a single denomination declares a position. IV is part of the sinew that binds evangelicalism together in a way a denomination is not.
Sometimes we look at the doctrinal statements of a ministry and wonder how certain things got there. Does it really matter whether I hold a pre-millennial or post-millennial view of eschatology? It did a century ago. Christians divided bitterly over the matter because it was a litmus test in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy at the time.
A century from now, future Christians will probably wonder why their organizations’ doctrinal statements make such a big deal about marriage. What’s happening in our culture right now is the answer. The marriage/sexuality controversies facing campus ministries like IV, and many Christian colleges and universities, will soon be erupting in every evangelical denomination and church in the country. What InterVarsity has done is important because it is more evidence that church leaders won’t be able to avoid the marriage/sexuality issue much longer.
THREE: Fence sitting on gay marriage is no longer allowed
A few years ago I had lunch with a young pastor. He was struggling with his thoughts on gay marriage. He was in a long process of study and research. Our conversation was part of his ongoing exploration of the issue. By his own admission, the pastor was sitting on the fence. Given the speed with which this issue has appeared on the cultural and ecclesiastical radar, his lack of conviction was understandable, but that won’t be the case much longer.
InterVarsity’s new policy means a young person considering joining the ministry’s staff will have to be crystal clear on his or her view of marriage before entering. This intolerance of ambiguity stretches well beyond individual ministries. Rob Dreher, in his article responding to the InterVarsity news, quotes an attorney:
Federal law makes it pretty much impossible to take a stance along the lines of, “This is what we believe, but out of compassion and pragmatism we’re willing to be flexible for a certain amount of time, with certain people, and/or in certain situations.” Either you have a blanket policy that applies to all people in all instances, or federal courts will rule that you don’t “really” have a principled position and invalidate the broader policy because of the exceptions. Personally I think that’s unfortunate, because it encourages polarization and an unyielding one-size-fits-all approach to disagreement. But InterVarsity is certainly making the right decision here based on how its commitment to its values and beliefs will be judged in court.
Simply put, the litigious nature of our society means organizations have to be clear and consistent on matters of sexuality and marriage whether they want to be or not. In this regard, InterVarsity’s decision represents how polarized and inflexible we are becoming as a society.
In the end, I do not disagree with InterVarsity’s decision because I recognize both the organizational necessity and because I affirm IV’s doctrinal position. However, I do grieve that rather than allowing Christians, and particularly younger Christians, grow in their understanding of these matters in an environment of grace and inclusivity, wonderful ministries like InterVarsity are being forced to take premature and artificially divisive stands. As IV’s leaders navigate these treacherous waters, we should all be praying for them and learning from their example because we will be sailing in their wake sooner than we’d like.