InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA is a student ministry with over 1000 staff members serving over 40,000 students and faculty on over 665 college campuses across the United States. The evangelical group has been making headlines recently for its new policy of “involuntary terminations” for staff who disagree with its theology on human sexuality.
Is InterVarsity really dismissing employees who support gay marriage as reported in Time magazine? What are we to make of their employment practice, and what issues does this raise for other Christian organizations?
First of all, in response to the Time article, InterVarsity has clarified that their concern is “primarily theological in nature.” Over the last four years, they have produced a number of video modules, a new staff code of conduct, and a theological position paper entitled A Theological Summary of Human Sexuality which sets out their understanding of marriage, singleness, sexual abuse, premarital sex, divorce, same-sex relationships, and other matters of human sexuality. Staff were given 18 months to process these materials until November 11, 2016. If they are not in theological agreement, they are to identify themselves, and so trigger a two-week notice period to the end of their employment. (For a detailed account of events leading up to this, see The Roots of InterVarsity’s Line in the Sand on LGBTQ Inclusion).
“We have always expected employees to reflect the ministry’s theological beliefs, as would be true for any church, synagogue, mosque, or religious organization,” says Greg Jao, InterVarsity vice president and director of campus engagement. “We recognize employees who disagree, or whose beliefs have changed over time, will leave employment because we have reiterated our beliefs.”
Since the story appeared in Time magazine, InterVarsity has received both kudos and criticism, and with the deadline looming tomorrow, let’s take a closer look.
On the one side, some say that InterVarsity has gone too far.
Over 50 authors who have books published by InterVarsity Press have signed a letter protesting the new policy. Over 1800 InterVarsity alumni have signed a petition against what they’re calling the #InterVarsityPurge. Concerns expressed include:
The recognition that Christians who sincerely study Scripture may come to different conclusions on gender, marriage, and sexuality. In both the author letter and alumni petition, those who have signed acknowledge that they hold a range of beliefs.
At the same time, they assert that such differences should be allowed to exist within InterVarsity in a spirit of inclusion and in keeping with InterVarsity’s own values of “authentic community, loving-kindness, intellectual rigor, and abundant grace.”
In their view, this would further healing and best support InterVarsity’s campus ministry, especially among students and faculty who may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex.
Both the author letter and alumni petition address this as an employment concern. The author letter says,
. . . we are united in our concern for the dignity and care of our fellow Christians whose jobs are threatened by your policy.
The alumni petition reads,
. . . we are not convinced that a difference of opinion in this area rises to the level of a core theological belief that must be affirmed as a condition of employment or leadership in a diverse, multi-denominational parachurch organization.
On the other side, some see InterVarsity’s move as courageous and even necessary.
After all, for any ministry to be effective, doesn’t it need staff who share the same theological approach, the same philosophy, the same vision? As a Christian ministry, InterVarsity is simply defining itself and its expectations of staff. World Vision, Fuller Seminary, and other evangelical organizations across the spectrum are similarly articulating their beliefs around marriage and sexuality.
Staff were given 18 months to process the materials, and instead of being asked to sign a document, it was left up to their own integrity to identify themselves and set their own employment termination in motion. Says one former human resources director,
If I were still an HR director and they were part of my mission agency I would be grieved to see them go — I was never happy to see a staff member be terminated either voluntarily or involuntarily — but I would say that they had made their decision. They don’t belong as staff members in a mission organization they disagree with so fundamentally.
The InterVarsity policy is not focused solely on same-sex relationships, but includes premarital sex, adultery, divorce, pornography, and other understandings related to sexuality. Several years ago, a former staff member who had been let go after her divorce sued the organization for wrongful dismissal. But the courts sided with InterVarsity who maintained:
A vital element of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty is the freedom of religious employers to make hiring decisions through the use of faith-based criteria. . . . As a Christian organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s credibility and witness depends on its ability to hire and retain personnel who share and abide by InterVarsity’s faith commitments. It is deeply regrettable that a former employee has chosen to challenge this key constitutional liberty.
I’m still mulling all of this over. As employers, is it fair for churches and Christian organizations to expect their employees to “believe and behave” in a way that’s consistent with the organization? Can there be healthy disagreement within an organization, and to what degree before the organization loses its sense of shared identity and purpose?
When I taught English and Bible at a Christian college, I was required to sign the college statement of faith every year. My only problem with it at the time was the statement’s consistent use of male pronouns for all people, and so every year I would sign and add a hand-written note saying I would prefer alternate wording. If anyone ever noticed, no one said anything, and sometime after I changed employment the statement was eventually changed. Are you required to sign a statement of faith or code of conduct as a requirement of your employment, and how does that impact you?
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Next Up: A pastor shared a personal struggle with a group of other pastors at a denominational gathering. Several expressed support, and the group prayed together, but one of the pastors later expressed this caution: “You probably shared because you thought it was a safe place, but I submit to you that it’s not.” Do pastors need a safe place to share their personal concerns, and where can they find it? If you’d like to receive this and future posts by email, please sign up for free email updates.