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An unavoidable collision

Different visions of what it means to be human make conflict between Christian institutions and the world inevitable

The struggle at Seattle Pacific University over the institution’s policy on not hiring those who identify as LGBTQ+ is surely a harbinger of what is to come at many Christian colleges. That the turmoil has been generated not so much by external challenges as internal discontent with the policy is sobering, to say the least. It is also complicated by the fact that the policy applies to all employees, not just faculty. It is therefore not simply a matter of who teaches and what is taught. It is a matter of who can and cannot work in any capacity at the school.

That raises questions of how to connect public life as an employee with private life at home. But for an explicitly Christian organization, such an issue is unavoidable. At this moment in time, Christianity of a professed Christian community stands or falls by its ethic.

The problem is obvious: traditional Christianity regards legitimate forms of sexual behavior as confined to a man and a woman within the lifelong bounds of marriage. Today’s world sees sex not so much as behavior but as a matter of identity. The 15-year-old who tells his parents that he is gay is not necessarily making a statement about some sexual experience he may have had. Indeed, he may not have had any such experience at all. Rather, he is making a statement about how he sees his sexual desires as connecting to his identity as a person. And there’s the rub for Christian institutions: to refuse to hire someone who is gay is to refuse to grant the person who identifies as gay legitimate status.

To the contemporary mind, it is on a continuum with refusing to hire somebody because of the color of his skin or his ethnicity.

Given the incommensurability of these two approaches—one that denies legitimacy to forms of sexual behavior and one that sees such denial as cover for a much deeper refusal to acknowledge the identity of gay people—collisions between Christianity and the wider world are unavoidable. And since Christian institutions are not hermetically sealed off from the world, such are also inevitable at places such as Seattle Pacific.

Compromised Christian institutions may find themselves trapped in a web of their own making.

The stakes are high. To concede the point at issue will be to adopt a notion of what it means to be human that is defined by desire, specifically sexual desire, and thus to abandon one which grounds humanity in the moral framework of traditional Christianity. The question is: Do Christian institutions have the fortitude to hold the line on this? To do so will set them not only against the aesthetics of the age, where the emotionally powerful rhetoric of diversity, equity, and inclusion is the order of the day. It will also, as Seattle Pacific is finding out, set them against some—perhaps many—of their own employees and alumni.

And yet here is where some Christian institutions face a further problem. Has the argument already been lost because of other precedents that they have set? LGBTQ people represent only some of those who do not conform to orthodox Christian sexual codes. What of no-fault divorcees?

Compromised Christian institutions may find themselves trapped in a web of their own making. To single out homosexuality as the unforgivable employment sin, when others may have been tolerated for many years, surely makes institutions vulnerable not simply to accusations of homophobia and hypocrisy but also to some rather pungent legal questions.

I have no way of knowing if such is the case at Seattle Pacific. But it is something upon which all our Christian institutions need to reflect at this point, given the legal situations that are likely to develop in coming months and years.

It is easy to look at Seattle Pacific and shake our heads concerning the internal pressure for change. But shaking heads need to be connected to clean hands. All Christian institutions need to be consistent in their ethical requirements of employees, not simply on those areas we find most distasteful or personally unacceptable or politically highly charged. Failure to do that will prove problematic. Indeed, failure to have done that in the past is likely to prove lethal to Christian faithfulness in the future.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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