Why InterVarsity Needs Generous Space

Last week Time magazine ran a story indicating that InterVarsity U.S.A would fire staff members who theologically affirmed marriage for same-sex couples. After the weekend’s social media commentary on the article, IVCF’s vice-president Greg Jao gave an interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network to clarify things.

In a nutshell, Jao explained:

  1. IVCF desires to have a clear and consistent position. They believe this will help them to invite people to engage the Scriptures and to teach in an effective manner on the topic of sexuality.

  2. IVCF staff who have been studying and prayerfully reflecting on this matter have found it easier to be compassionate, to confess the sins of the church toward LGBTQ+ people, and to offer a relevant message when they have clarity.

  3. Students have asked IVCF for a clear position.

At New Direction, we honour people’s convictions and beliefs as they work out their salvation with “fear and trembling.”  We’re free to do so because, “it is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12, 13) We choose to live in the tension of individual autonomy in discerning one’s spiritual journey and the call to mutual submission within the community of faith.  There isn’t a formula for this and it gets messy sometimes. But, we see people learning to entrust one another to Holy Spirit’s leading.  We see people growing in confident faith that when God starts a good work in someone, God will bring it to completion. (Philippians 1:6) Cultivating this paradox of individual freedom and communal discernment and accountability seemed really important for building trust and community among those who had regularly been marginalized and excluded within their churches. LGBTQ+ people often experienced rigid expectations about what to believe, how to identify, what Christian discipleship had to look like (for them), and what sacrifices were essential for them to make.  They also saw a double standard when others were afforded much more flexibility in making their way as a follower of Jesus. Honoring individual autonomy wasn’t capitulation to individualism, it was a bold statement of faith that God could be trusted to lead each person into grace and truth uniquely …. because God is a God who knows our name and counts the hairs on our head.  We matter to God. We belong to God. God knows us.  What we keep on discovering, however, is that this paradox is an incubator for maturation at both an individual and communal level.  With freedom comes responsibility. With freedom comes engagement.  With freedom comes the challenge to love well, to listen well, to disagree well, to dialogue well, to discern well, to pray much and to extend and receive much grace.

Generous Space recognizes that we won’t always agree, but we commit to dialogue respectfully, and to journey with Jesus together.

In this commitment, we are seeing people mature as disciples of Christ.

The InterVarsity decision seems to be the exact opposite of what we see God doing within our Generous Space community.  Here are a few reflections on why.

  1. Scriptural Authority:  If, as Jao seemed to say, the question of marriage for same-sex couples is not a core doctrine; but Scriptural authority is a core doctrine; and therefore marriage is a core doctrine ….. then any interpretation of Scripture can be chalked up to Biblical authority and therefore anything can be considered a core doctrine.  The problem is, the authors of Scripture, particularly the apostle Paul, seem to be very explicit about the potential for Christians to disagree, still be faithful, and still be in relationship with each other.  The Scriptures also point out, most poignantly in Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, that our public witness is impacted by our ability to remain unified even in the midst of diversity.

At New Direction, we recognize that our best attempts to understand and discern Scripture are interpretive. We can’t read Scripture plainly without any interpretive filters.  That is just part of being human.  We need the Spirit to enliven our study and our discernment.  While Jao in his interview said that having a clear and consistent position would enable IVCF staff to engage with greater humility, we have found that humility comes with the willingness to recognize, “I could be wrong” and that there may be more light and truth to discover as we dialogue with the one who interprets Scripture differently.

Does this mean there are no core doctrines?  Is everything relative?  Doesn’t that sound a lot like the slippery slope?  Does this mean you don’t believe in the authority of Scripture?

  1. Clear and Consistent: One of the myths in the post-Enlightenment church is that we have to teach people the right propositions in order for Christians to be faithful.  This shift to right thinking and good behaviour rather than vigorous participation with God in the extension of shalom (the flourishing of all that God has made) has had tragic results in the world! The idea that learned teachers impart the right truths with the expectation of obedient and consistent follow-through has led to a milk-dependent church with little capacity for meat – let alone the gumption to go forage, pursue, and procure one’s own BBQ supplies. (My apologies to my vegetarian friends.) Is it really wisdom to assume that the best opportunity to disciple university students is to tell them what the right view of sexuality is?  Is it really beyond our imagination that staff who hold different interpretive conclusions might have the love, trust, and intelligence to teach together and invite students into the wild adventure of interpretive discernment where we walk in step with the Spirit? It seems that IVCF has had the imagination to do this on other challenging topics – why not this one?

  2. Difference brings Growth: Within our Generous Space community we have LGBTQ+ people who have landed in different places in the formation of their sexual ethics. The strength of our community is our differences!  It means we need to exercise the fruits of the Spirit as we relate to one another.  It means we need to really trust God.  It means we dig into the Scriptures more robustly. It means we learn to love without conditions. It means we do the hard work of relinquishing the desire to control other people.  We have people sharing different perspectives based on prayerful, deeply committed, study of the Scriptures all the time and it has only strengthened and matured us.

I’m mom to three millennials. Hands down, the best conversations with my kids about matters of faith, ethics, values, and beliefs, are the ones where we explore, test, consider, and compare.  And the conversations guaranteed to garner the least amount of engagement would be any simplistic proclamations or expectations of conformity.  Lived faith, owned faith, engaged faith is sustainable faith.

  1. Pastoral Care: After many years of ministry with LGBTQ+ folks, I know that one of the worst things I could do is capitulate to the request, “Just tell me what to believe?”  It isn’t the most common response, but I do occasionally get asked this type of question.  Usually it means that the individual is exhausted and afraid.  Wise pastoral care doesn’t pounce on someone in this vulnerable place with a “clear and consistent” expectation.  Truly compassionate pastoral care invites the individual into a place of rest where they can consider how their questions might be experienced differently if they were energized by love rather than fear. 

Just last week I sat with a young woman who clearly has passionately followed Jesus for her whole life.  She has well practiced spiritual disciplines and a deep sense of God’s presence.  But when it comes to her sexuality, she feels the push & pull of Christians around her and it has left her feeling battered and bruised, unsure and insecure, and with a fear of hell.  She has endured uninvited exorcisms, accusations and assumptions, and unbelievable pressure from straight Christians who want her to think, believe, and act like they think she should.  The last thing this woman needs is for me or anyone else to tell her what the “clear and consistent” Biblical message about sexuality is.  She already knows that there are good theologians on both sides of this question.  She already knows it isn’t as simple and clear when your heart and mind and body all seem to be pulled in a thousand directions.  She doesn’t need to be pressured to love Jesus more or pray more or have more faith.  She needs a safe place, to be with people who actually know what it is like to be gay and deeply committed to Jesus, to share her reflections on Scripture and what she is discerning the Spirit is whispering to her spirit, and where she is reminded, deeply and profoundly, that she is Beloved of God.  It would actually be deeply dishonouring to her spiritual struggle and journey to simply say, “This is clearly and consistently what the Bible says.  You might not like it, we know its hard, but with enough faith you can do it.”  It would also be deeply dishonouring to her spiritual struggle and journey to simply say, “This is clearly and consistently what the Bible says. Get over your internalized homophobia and the shame heaped on you by the church, and celebrate who God made you to be.”  Those are the easy ways out – but they aren’t effective invitations to discipleship.  Within the love, trust, discernment, and accountability of community, each individual LGBTQ+ person needs to wrestle with God to know the path that God is asking them to take.  That’s what Generous Space is all about.  We want people to own a faith that will sustain them through the joys and challenges of being human in a broken world. The Scriptures tell us that God wants that too – and that in the mystery of Spirit, Word, and Sacrament God will be the author and the One who perfects our faith.  We trust him to do it.

No LGBTQ+ person who receives the good news that Christ has fully reconciled them to God through his life, death, and resurrection, should ever fear going to hell.  No matter what your interpretive conclusion about marriage for same-sex couples is, there is room for you in the Body of Christ!