InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA, 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.
Staffers are not being required to sign a document agreeing with the group’s position, and supervisors are not proactively asking employees to verbally affirm it. Instead, staffers are being asked to come forward voluntarily if they disagree with the theological position. When they inform their supervisor of their disagreement, a two-week period is triggered, concluding in their last day. InterVarsity has offered to cover outplacement service costs for one month after employment ends to help dismissed staff with their résumés and job-search strategies.
“We internally categorize these as involuntary terminations due to misalignment with InterVarsity ministry principles, which is a category we use for people who leave for theological and philosophy of ministry disagreements,” Greg Jao, an InterVarsity vice president and director of campus engagement, told TIME in an email. “Our goal is not to go, ‘Oh we want you to do the dirty work of firing yourself.’ I think our thing is, if you are in disagreement, then we are going to ask you, with integrity, to identify that and leave,” he added in an interview.
InterVarsity has also said that staffers should only share views publicly that are consistent with its positions, though it’s unclear if that means someone could be fired for posting on Facebook, for example. Outlined in an internal 20-page paper, the positions include injunctions against divorce and sex before marriage, though critics say the biggest effect will be among younger staffers who support gay marriage — in essence, making it something of a theological purge.
Bianca Louie, 26, led the InterVarsity campus fellowship at Mills College, a women’s liberal-arts school in Oakland and her alma mater. When it became clear several months ago that the policy would go into effect, Louie realized she had to leave, after four years of working with the group. She is not sure what will happen to the outreach she and others worked to create at Mills. “I don’t know how InterVarsity can do ministry on campus with integrity anymore,” she says. “Mills is a women’s college with inclusive trans policies, and higher ed is overall making more efforts to be inclusive and safe for LGBTQ students … I could see us getting kicked off campus because of this.”
Louie and about 10 other InterVarsity staff formed an anonymous queer collective earlier this year to organize on behalf of staff, students and alumni who felt unsafe under the new policy. They compiled dozens of stories of individuals in InterVarsity programs and presented them to national leadership. “I think one of the hardest parts has been feeling really dismissed by InterVarsity,” she says. “The queer collective went through a very biblical, very spiritual process, with the Holy Spirit, to get to where we are. I think a lot of people think those who are affirming [same-sex marriage] reject the Bible, but we have landed where we have because of Scripture, which is what InterVarsity taught us to do.”
InterVarsity has more than 1,000 chapters on 667 college campuses around the country. More than 41,000 students and faculty were actively involved in the organization in the last school year, and donations topped $80 million last fiscal year. The group is focused on undergraduate outreach, but it also has specific programs for athletes, international students, nurses, sororities, fraternities and others. InterVarsity also hosts the Urbana conference, one of the largest student missionary conferences in the world.
Interim InterVarsity president Jim Lundgren and president-elect Tom Lin sent a letter to all staff in July to inform them of the employment policy. The decision is the outcome of a four-year internal review on what the Bible teaches about human sexuality. InterVarsity issued its conclusions in a 20-page internal position paper on human sexuality in March 2015, and then gave staff 18 months to study it and participate in a nine-part study exploring its conclusions.
In its description of sexual attraction, identity, and behavior, the paper states, “Scripture is very clear that God’s intention for sexual expression is to be between a husband and wife in marriage. Every other sexual practice is outside of God’s plan and therefore is a distortion of God’s loving design for humanity.”
The position paper also outlined theological positions against divorce, sex before marriage, pornography, cohabitation and sexual abuse, but the practical application of the study focused on implications for the LGBTQ community. The July letter states, “We expect that all staff will ‘believe and behave in a manner consonant with our “Theological Summary of Human Sexuality” paper,’ as described by the Code of Conduct. (To ‘believe and behave’ means we agree with the substance and conclusions of the ‘Theological Summary of Human Sexuality,’ will not engage in sexual immorality as defined in the paper, and will not promote positions inconsistent with the ‘Theological Summary of Human Sexuality.’)”
Jao, the director of campus engagement, says the organization’s views are not new, but the new position paper was intended to clarify InterVarsity’s understanding of Scripture, especially in response to requests from students. “Because nothing has changed, I’m hoping universities continue to welcome InterVarsity in the way they have in the past, in the way they welcome Catholic campus ministries whose official teachings are the same and whose priests are required to be celibate,” he says.
LGBTQ individuals can remain on staff if they remain celibate and affirm the position paper. LGBTQ students, Jao says, remain welcome in the campus groups. The July letter also stated that InterVarsity is “developing training for staff so that we become a place which recognizes the dignity and personhood of LGBTQI staff and students.” Even still, Jao acknowledges some campus groups may be unhappy with the decision. “I think it is unfortunate in terms of the kind of environment we want to create on campus where there is diversity of thought and pluralistic engagement with one another, and I recognize the cost of teaching what we teach,” he says.
InterVarsity’s decision reaches beyond just its campus ministry. InterVarsity Press, a division of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, is a prominent evangelical publisher that has published best sellers like J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, John Stott’s Basic Christianity, and many theological commentaries and biblical reference books used at evangelical colleges. “InterVarsity employment policies are for all employees, including employees of InterVarsity Press,” Jeff Crosby, publisher of InterVarsity Press, told TIME in a statement. “Authors are not employees.”
The exact impact for authors that InterVarsity publishes is not clear. “Authors do not have to sign anything indicating support for IVP’s theological summary on human sexuality or doctrinal basis, but the books we publish do reflect — and always have reflected — our theological convictions as an extension of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA,” Crosby says, even though no one affected is required to sign an affirmation. “The theological summary on human sexuality has no new impact on what InterVarsity Press publishes.”
Evangelicals are increasingly divided over gay marriage, and support is rising, especially in the younger generations. One in four white evangelicals supports gay marriage, according to the Pew Research Center, more than double the support from 10 years ago, and nearly half of millennialevangelicals favor or strongly favor gay marriage. That is still the lowest support of major religious groups in the U.S. — nearly 60% of Catholics, by contrast, support same-sex marriage. InterVarsity defines itself as an interdenominational organization and has not ascribed to one denomination’s theological commitments. The new decision moves the organization toward a more specific type of evangelical biblical interpretation that does not affirm gay marriage.
The move is also another sign of a trend in evangelical circles for stricter orthodoxy. Earlier this year, Wheaton College parted ways with its only tenured black female professor, Larycia Hawkins, after she wore a hijab and wrote a Facebook post expressing solidarity with the Muslim community, saying, “As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” In 2014, the U.S. branch of World Vision, an evangelical humanitarian organization, announced it would permit the hiring of married gay individuals, but the board reversed its decision after it lost more than 10,000 child sponsorships in 48 hours.
For Ginny Prince, 32, the consequences of the new policy are very difficult to discuss. Until last week, she was an assistant area director near Oakland and had worked for InterVarsity for seven years. She is an LGBTQ ally — and she has a transgender child. Already, she says, her husband has walked away from the faith largely because of how the church has dealt with the LGBTQ community. She knew she had to tell her supervisor she did not support the new policy. “This was very painful for everybody,” Prince says. “I got fired … I sent an email and said, I cannot align, and I think that this policy is discriminatory, and I cannot align. That was it. We cried, we cried really hard my last day.”
Prince does not know what she will do next. But she knows two things. One: “I want the church to be a safe place for my child to grow up,” she says. And two, she will miss InterVarsity. “They have a unique understanding of and willingness to engage in hard issues like racial justice and women in ministry and things of that nature,” she explains. “I thought that they would be more able to contain difference in this area as well, difference of opinion. I think what they do is very important, and I am very sad to go.”