It probably goes without saying that the conversation on faith and sexual orientation is a hot topic at many Christian colleges these days. A growing number of students are talking about their own experiences as sexual minorities, and many people both gay and straight are asking questions about the doctrines they grew up with. Particularly in the evangelical world, I’ve seen some encouraging trends coming from the leadership of some of these colleges, but also some trends that cause me great concern. Campus leaders should not try to hide or suppress conversation about sexual ethics and sexual minorities, but instead should seek to help the campus think through these things openly.
At best, some Christian colleges facilitate conversations on sexual identity openly and show that, as one Calvin College staff member put it, “we love our students.” At worst, some colleges try to hide these conversations as much as possible, sometimes to the extent of practicing overt censorship. I will not name individual institutions, but I’m aware of at least two cases in which Christian colleges have exerted power to prevent students from accessing unofficial student publications that include stories of sexual minority students. In those cases, some of the students did advocate for changing Christian teaching, but a primary purpose of the publications was for students to tell their stories. I also know of at least one Christian college at which the administration has prevented the student newspaper from publishing articles about sexual minority students online. I know for a fact that several of those articles did not advocate such a change in teaching. Any of this censorship not only throws sexual minority students, faculty, and staff under the bus, but it actually pushes people away from the traditional sexual ethic.
In any Christian college, as in any institution of significant size, there are sexual minorities present. It’s likely that these people are not unified in belief. Even on a Christian campus, there are probably some who are trying to live by a traditional sexual ethic, others who view such an ethic as oppressive, and yet others who are still trying to work out what they believe. It is increasingly the case that straight members of the campus community are similarly divided on questions of sexual ethics. This conversation isn’t going to go away, no matter how badly some people want it to. As faculty, staff, and administrators make decisions about how (or whether) to facilitate the conversation, they need to think about the messages they are sending with the decisions they make.
Institutions do have to think through how to respond to those who disagree with their official stances. While I would never expect Christian colleges to use their chapel time to promote views that contradict their doctrine, I hope they facilitate discussion of these views in other venues. If institutions suppress discussion outside of venues understood as officially representing the institution’s beliefs, they inadvertently support these views, as they seem to show a lack of confidence in their own beliefs. If we really think our beliefs are true, we should also trust that they stand up to scrutiny. And if an institution claims to pursue the integration of faith and learning, examining these views is an important part of that mission.
If a college truly wants to defend traditional doctrine while showing care for their own sexual minority students, those of us who hold to the same doctrine but are sexual minorities ourselves are in a unique position to further the conversation. We have a credibility that straight people will never have.
I have seen many good developments in the past few years. For example, several contributors to this blog have been invited to speak at Christian colleges. Wesley Hill has been featured in chapel at places like Wheaton, Taylor, Calvin, and Biola, and Ron Belgau has been included in talks at places like Pepperdine, Seattle Pacific, and Gordon. Although straight himself, Mark Yarhouse has been in conversation with our community for quite some time, in addition to performing research on sexual identity, and has also offered useful insights at various Christian colleges. All three of these guys have done a great job discussing some of the pastoral issues surrounding sexual identity, rather than focusing only on theological questions.
These leaders with personal and relational experience should especially be given a platform by institutions that hold to the traditional doctrine on sexual ethics. However, I am aware of more than one case in which a Christian college practiced censorship against a person who openly held to the same ethic as the university. These reactions probably came from a fear of what donors and parents of prospective students would think, but any time people react primarily out of fear or prejudice, it becomes palpably harder for those of us defending a traditional ethic to convince others that our ethic is not itself a result of fear and prejudice.
Beyond including leaders in the chapel lineup who discuss sexual minorities while sharing the university’s doctrinal views, some Christian colleges have also been willing to listen to those who disagree with those views. For example, Calvin, Pepperdine, Seattle Pacific, and Gordon have included Justin Lee in public events discussing sexuality. Wheaton College has started a campus club called Refuge [pdf], and my own alma mater, Taylor University, has started a campus club called Choros. Both clubs provide opportunities for students to discuss sexuality openly and for sexual minority students to find places to belong. Participants of Refuge and Choros are not required to affirm the doctrine held by the university in order to participate. In allowing these speakers and clubs, Christian colleges show that they are not afraid to address students’ questions and promote helpful discussion.
The most important contribution to the conversations on campus with regard to the pastoral realities facing LGBT people is that from sexual minority students, faculty, and staff themselves. Clubs like Refuge and Choros provide some context for this. When students are willing to share their experiences with the whole campus or with media, this can lead to a bigger impact. For example, Calvin showed their commitment to loving their students by allowing the student newspaper to publish a feature on several LGBT students. The students featured did not publicly take a position on sexual ethics, as that was a way to help the rest of the community get past theological debates into grappling with the personal nature of the surrounding questions.
We all must keep in mind that sexual ethics matters in the first place because it affects people. While not every Christian college has sexual minority students who are willing to speak so publicly, when such students do come forward, their openness can help the college fulfill its mission to prepare students to love a world in need. Furthermore, if a student or group of students does decide to speak openly, the administration’s response will speak volumes about the degree to which they care about their sexual minority students.
While the culture war often makes conversations about sexuality tense and frustrating, I am hopeful that Christian colleges can learn how to facilitate better conversations. I’ve seen some good things happening, and I hope to see the trend continue.
Jeremy Erickson is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He previously studied Mathematics and Computer Science at Taylor University in Upland, IN.