If you were following religion-beat news on Twitter yesterday then you know that the first big question for today is: "What did the leaders of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship say and when did they say it?" Mainstream reporters also need to keep asking, "Why did they say it now?"
The buzz started with a Time article that ran with this very direct headline: "Top Evangelical College Group to Dismiss Employees Who Support Gay Marriage."
It's clear that the story began with material and input from InterVarsity staffers who disagree with the theology behind this decision by the parachurch ministry's leadership. This is not surprising, to anyone who follows trends and news among evangelical progressives.
Thus, the online piece actually ends with the full text of the document circulated among InterVarsity staffers (following a four-year "discernment" process in the organization) that is at the heart of the dispute. Here is the top of the article:
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.
The theological stance articulated in the paper -- the "newly details positions on sexuality" -- centers on the ancient Christian belief that sex outside of marriage is sin, a doctrine affirmed by the Vatican, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the majority of the world's Anglicans and most Protestant Christian denominations, with the exceptions of some progressive flocks such as, for example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Thus, the Time piece later states:
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.
And then a few paragraphs later:
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.’)”
InterVarsity leadership quickly responded to the Time article -- especially to the headline -- denying that it's document focused exclusively, or even primarily, on same-sex marriage or gay unions.
So what is going on here?
Basically, the Time article includes plenty of material that allows readers to understand what is happening in this clash between two camps inside the InterVarsity organization. While the story is framed in the point of view of the progressive critics, it does contain quite a bit of material representing the theological point of view of the organization's leaders.
Still, I was left with several questions.
For starters, the Time story states that staffers are "not being required to sign a document agreeing with the group’s position." Does this mean that InterVarsity leaders do or do not have -- after the release of this new theological document -- a doctrinal covenant in place defining their organization as a voluntary association of believers? Do staff members voluntarily sign this covenant or not?
This is crucial because, beginning with debates about Obamacare and the Health and Human Services mandates, government leaders have increasingly warned that religious organizations and nonprofit groups must be very clear about what they believe and how these doctrines affect their work. This is why your GetReligionistas have been stressing that journalists dig into the details of these doctrinal and "lifestyle" covenants when covering these kinds of disputes.
In other words, this new theological document did not come out of the blue.
You see, for years many evangelical groups and schools have operated with very vague (or nonexistent) covenants in their employee (and student) handbooks. The leaders of these institutions acted as if everyone -- in the surrounding culture and even within their institutions -- agreed on what the Bible said on matters of moral theology.
Clearly, those days are gone. Thus, it's perfectly valid for reporters to dig into stories linked to the often bitter conflicts that result when these groups try -- sometimes after painful disputes inside their ranks -- to clarify their doctrines and policies.
This brings us back to that Time headline. Is InterVarsity "firing" these staff members -- as stated in tweet after tweet by critics -- or is it more accurate to say that people who cannot affirm the doctrines that define the organizations work are being asked, as a matter of integrity, to leave?
It certainly would have helped if this Time story had briefly noted that relatively recent 9-0 vote at the U.S. Supreme Court (click here for more information) affirming that the leaders of doctrinally defined religious institutions can hire and fire employees when these decisions center on matters of belief and practice of the faith.
Journalists also have every right to ask if the departure of these staff members is being handled in a fair and compassionate manner.
Also, is the central accusation made by the critics accurate -- as in the statement that the only part of the new covenant that matters is LGBTQ issues?
In other words, how has InterVarsity handled matters linked to premarital sex among straights? How about pornography? InterVarsity leaders stress that LGBTQ staff members can remain with the organization if they affirm the group's doctrines and remain celibate. How is that policy working out in terms of discipline for straight staff members who struggle with sexual sins?
The other interesting question, which the Time article addresses (in a rather one-side fashion) is this: How long has the InterVarsity staff been been split over these issues?
A key voice in the article is Bianca Louie, the leader of the InterVarsity chapter at Mills College. The Time piece notes:
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.”
Similar stories will certainly keep popping up in other evangelical groups. Why?
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 millennial evangelicals favor or strongly favor gay marriage. That is still the lowest support of major religious groups in the U.S. ... 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.
That final statement -- that this is a uniquely "evangelical" statement on sexuality -- would certainly be questioned by traditional believers in many other flocks. What part of this document is inconsistent with 2,000 years of Christian doctrine?
Still, the central point remains: There is a story here on the evangelical left, especially in organizations that work with the young and in academic settings. Journalists have every right to cover these stories and ask hard questions.
It also helps when the leaders of these religious groups speak clearly when offering a defense of their beliefs. Did anyone working with InterVarsity mention, for example, the Hosanna-Tabor decision by the Supreme Court? Did anyone openly address why this doctrinal statement emerged at this point in the life of InterVarsity?
Oh, and why had InterVarsity waited so long to clarify its doctrinal stance on these issues?