A Christian organization that leads student religious groups on more than 600 college campuses will fire any of its 1,300 employees who say they do not agree with the organization’s theological interpretation on sex: that it is only appropriate within a heterosexual marriage.
That means that any InterVarsity Christian Fellowship employees who believe that churches should perform gay weddings, who endorse sex before marriage, who condone pornography or who hold any number of other beliefs might be included in what the evangelical organization calls “involuntary termination.” Coming from a major evangelical institution, the policy revives debate about how churches should handle questions of sexuality and who can define themselves as evangelicals.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, the ministry’s vice president Greg Jao said that since InterVarsity employees teach college students about biblical views, it is imperative that they share the same beliefs. Four or five people have been fired so far, and he expects more to follow in the next month.
“This was very painful for everybody,” Ginny Price, an employee who said she was fired, said to Time. “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.”
InterVarsity’s policy is similar to that of many churches, schools and other religious organizations — not only evangelical but also Catholic and Mormon — which insist that employees share the beliefs of the church to work for the church.
On Friday, after Time magazine first reported InterVarsity’s policy and the dismay of LGBT Christians who hoped to remain employees, leaders of major evangelical institutions lined up to support InterVarsity’s stance.
“InterVarsity now has the same policy of most evangelical churches. . . . It’s not only appropriate for IntervarsityUSA to acknowledge their beliefs — and make their beliefs part of their employment policies — it’s crucial,” Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, wrote in a response for Christianity Today.
Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, went on Facebook Live to talk about it. “InterVarsity has simply said what the church has repeated over and over and over again for 2,000 years, and in the Old Testament scripture before that,” he said.
Founded in 1941, InterVarsity has long been an important institution that influences evangelical teaching across the country.
The process of spelling out the ministry’s beliefs and insisting that employees subscribe to them began five years ago, with a set of focus groups for students, Jao said. The most common request from students was more resources about what they should think about homosexuality.
InterVarsity wrote up a guide, then decided to expand it to cover other subjects relating to sexuality. The result was a 20-page document meant for employees, not for students. It was circulated to staff in February of last year, Jao said.
At that point, according to Jao, InterVarsity offered staff a curriculum they could follow to learn about how the ministry arrived at its biblical interpretation. And it told them that if they did not agree with the beliefs in the document, they should state that by Nov. 11 of this year, and their employment would end.
“We trust the integrity of our staff in this process. At no point are we going to start asking staff, ‘Do you agree?’ ” Jao said. He said it’s up to employees to voluntarily come forward. “I know it’s incredibly painful for some folks.”
It’s important for InterVarsity’s educational mission, he said, that its teachers are on the same page. “Our hope was that after this 18-month period, at the end of this, everyone will understand why we believe what we do. We will all be unified in what we are teaching and how we’re engaging with students.” He said that InterVarsity knew its decision would lead to some people being fired, and that that was necessary because divergent beliefs “prevent us from having a coherent ministry on campus.”
The ministry is bracing for potential consequences, like donors who decided they will no longer fund the ministry, and college campuses that may grow more hostile to InterVarsity’s presence.
The ministry’s most recent IRS forms available show that it took in $80 million in donations and grants in 2014, the vast majority of its $98 million revenue.
Responding to the Time article, the organization said on Twitter that employees can hold whatever views they’d like on civil marriage; the new document only forbids them from believing the church should marry gay couples.
“We lament that LGBTQI people have experienced great pain, including much caused by Christians,” the group tweeted. “We believe Christlikeness includes embracing scripture’s teachings on human sexuality — uncomfortable and difficult as they may be.”
Jao noted that the policy applies only to employees, and all students should be welcomed in InterVarsity’s campus activities. “Personally, I take no joy and no pleasure in what scripture teaches in this area,” he said, about the belief that homosexuality is sinful. “I submit to it because I believe in the authority of scripture. I’ve looked and studied to see if I can find a way to interpret those texts differently with integrity, but I cannot.”
He added, “I suspect all of us, if we could selectively change scripture on these issues, we would gleefully do so.”
Theological questions on human sexuality have divided evangelicals for years, with leaders arguing about what stance they should take and how much to emphasize the issue. Time reported that a group of about 10 InterVarsity employees protesting the new policy presented the organization with their defense of LGBT sexuality based on their biblical interpretation.
In 2014, the charity World Vision set off an enormous debate when it announced it would allow its employees to be in same-sex marriages. The relief group reversed that decision within just 48 hours, after supporters threatened to pull donations.