The InterVarsity problem: maintaining fidelity, breaking fellowship

I just finished up a presentation to a group of ministries on “Strengthening Religious Identity,” identifying legal strategies for ministries to maintain their Christian witness while carrying out their missions. It’s a topic particularly salient for faith-based organizations who hold to orthodox Christian views on sexual ethics and sexual identity and who dissent from the ascendant cultural ideology around these issues.

In the wake of my talk comes news that InterVarsity is graciously asking employees to step away from the ministry if they cannot agree with its positions on human sexuality, including same-sex relationships. From Elizabeth Dias at Time:

One of the largest evangelical organizations on college campuses nationwide has told its 1,300 staff members they will be fired if they personally support gay marriage or otherwise disagree with its newly detailed positions on sexuality starting on Nov. 11.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA says it will start a process for “involuntary terminations” for any staffer who comes forward to disagree with its positions on human sexuality, which hold that any sexual activity outside of a husband and wife is immoral.

Cue social media firestorm. This Tweet from Jonathan Merritt caught my eye:

My sense is that many people, including evangelicals, share Merritt’s view: ministries should be encouraging these conversations, not excluding people who hold different views, forcing them to hide or lie about who they are and what they believe.

The trouble is, the law forces ministries into this position. It forces them to be exclusionary.

Lawyers like me who advise ministries like InterVarsity routinely tell them two things:

1. You need to clearly articulate your religious identity, purpose, and convictions throughout your organization, and

2. You need to consistently apply these convictions across your organization.

We don’t give this advice because we’re being “sticklers” or “legalists.” We give it because it’s what the law says ministries must do if they want to maintain their identity as Christian organizations and defend against ideological colonization by the culture.

The principles come out of cases like LeBoon  v. Lancaster Jewish Community Center (3rd Circuit) and Spencer v. World Vision (9th Circuit). In these cases, the courts combed through the ministries’ foundational documents, statements of faith, employment policies — even their logos and office artwork — to determine whether the ministries really believed what they said they believed and acted consistently with those beliefs.

These and similar cases are why lawyers tell ministries to clearly articulate and consistently apply. It motivates a kind of theological, ideological purity across the organization. And it punishes ministries for holding convictions too loosely, for allowing the kind of internal, grace-filled conversation that Merritt calls for.

The law forces ministries to exclude. And that, in itself, impacts a ministry’s witness for Christ. So it’s worth asking whether the law gets this right. Maybe the problem isn’t with the ministry, but with the legal framework ministries operate in.

Can a ministry as an organization hold to specific views on issues like marriage and sexuality and yet permit differences among its people (staff, ministry leadership, board) on those issues?  At what level does a ministry have to hold the line — corporately, operationally, and with employees? And how deeply must a ministry embed its beliefs in its policies, practices, and procedures?

At present, there aren’t precise answers to these questions. The most conservative strategy is to articulate and apply religious convictions at every level and embed them as deeply as possible within the organization. Anything else is risky. And in a hostile secular environment, especially on college campuses where InterVarsity operates, that risk that approaches being existential.

Here’s what I’d like to see.

  • First, a ministry willing to draw the line differently — one that commits the organization to biblically informed, evangelically orthodox views on marriage and sexuality, and yet graciously and openly permits staff to believe differently.
  • Second, articulation of this position in explicitly religious terms: “We hold these views as a ministry consistent with the historic teachings of the Christian faith. But we permit employees to hold different views conscientiously, with grace, consistent with the obligation of all believers to pursue spiritual maturity and a Gospel-formed conscience ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love’ (Eph. 4:2).”
  • Finally, courage to take this position and push the law in a different direction.

We shouldn’t have to break fellowship with believers to maintain fidelity to our beliefs. We need courts to recognize that ministries can articulate a Christian orthodoxy and yet apply it graciously.

(For the record: I am not InterVarsity’s counsel, and you shouldn’t take anything I’ve said here as legal advice.)

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