A Third Way: Seattle Pacific University’s Calling as a Christian University
- LGBTQ+ Divisions in the Global Christian Church
- LGBTQ+ Divisions in Christian Higher Education
- The Christian University as a “Sacred Liminal Space”
- Seattle Pacific University as a Sacred Liminal Space
- Denominational Affiliation: Advantages, Challenges, & Opportunities
- Market Realities as a Moral Consideration in Christian Mission
- The LGBTQIA+ Work Group Report
First posted: September 18, 2022
In January 2021, an adjunct instructor filed suit against Seattle Pacific University, alleging that he was denied the opportunity to apply for a full-time tenure-track position because he is in a same-sex marriage. This lawsuit ignited a campus debate over SPU’s Employee Lifestyle Expectations, which prohibit sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage and thus prevent the employment of individuals in same-sex marriages. (LGBTQIA+ applicants are not excluded from employment at SPU under the condition that they are celibate or in a heterosexual marriage. The reasons as to why SPU hired an adjunct instructor in a same-sex marriage in the first place remain obscure.) In a campus survey later that month, a large majority of both faculty (75%) and staff (68%) objected to the conduct policy. Despite strong pressure from faculty, staff, students, and alumni, on April 12th the Board of Trustees announced that it had declined to change the Employment Lifestyle Expectations, thus leaving individuals in same-sex marriages ineligible for employment. One week later, the Faculty Senate, with 90% of all eligible faculty voting, passed a Statement of No Confidence in the Board of trustees, with 72% voting in favor of the resolution, 21% voting against, and 6% abstaining.
In response to this unprecedented public display of faculty disagreement with the Board, the on-going pressure from multiple SPU constituencies, and the negative public reaction to the Board’s decision, external consultants were hired in September 2021 to help SPU resolve the crisis. In December, as a result of the consultants’ report, an institutionally heterogeneous LGBTQIA+ Work Group (LWG) was formed consisting of faculty, administrators, staff, and trustees, with one Trustee and one faculty member as co-chairs. The Board President and the Interim President of the University also served ex officio. Among the LWG’s membership, a wide range of stances on human sexuality, from conservative to progressive, was represented. The LWG was “empowered to educate the Board, Faculty and staff on key issues, recommendations, and options,” and it was given the following charge:
In the face of diverse perspectives, what options might create a shared direction regarding sexual conduct expectations and employment policy (specifically with respect to LGBTQIA+ individuals) within a Free Methodist Christian context, and how do these potential options align with SPU’s mission and Statement of Faith?
In the face of diverse perspectives, what options might be considered to strengthen community, value and respect all people, and remain true to the SPU mission and faith values? (“Charge to the Work Group”)
The LWG began its deliberations in January 2022 and submitted its final LGBTQIA+ Work Group Report (LWGR) to the Board as a PowerPoint presentation on April 22 and in full written form on May 6. The LWGR described and assessed five options the Board might take, ranging from 1) reaffirming SPU’s prohibition on all same-sex relations to 5) affirming same-sex marital relations and queer identities as acceptable to God. Between these two opposed “affirmations” (which reproduce the current polarization of the church), the report also outlined three variations of a “Third Way” option, which the Work Group ultimately recommended as the preferred and most viable way forward for SPU.
Although all the potential options can be aligned with SPU’s mission and Statement of Faith, the Third Way had the additional advantage of more closely adhering to the long-established and widely embraced “idea of a Christian university,” one which refrains from staking out a “closed” position in ongoing religious and secular debates and seeks to create a space where every perspective on a given issue can be respectfully welcomed and significantly engaged, rather than merely tolerated or militantly suppressed. It was felt that in the context of current LGBTQ+ debates, the highest ideal for such a space required allowing the employment of Christian LGBTQ+ faculty and staff in same-sex marriages; this would enable SPU’s educational community to benefit from the widest range of Christian wisdom, experience, and mentorship possible regarding human sexuality issues. In the Third Way option, SPU would choose “to position itself as a grace-filled learning community that recognizes, respects, and invites inquiry into the diversity of Christian opinion on same-sex relations and gender identity” by
- seeking a different level of affiliation with the Free Methodist Church;
- removing the section of the conduct policy that prohibits SPU from employing Christian persons in same-sex marriages; and
- either re-framing, substantially revising, or eliminating SPU’s Statement on Human Sexuality.
The LWG was committed to maintaining a relationship with the Free Methodist Church—USA (FMC) for a variety of reasons, including historical significance and ecclesial support for SPU’s Wesleyan mission (although the financial support from the denomination over the last 40 years has amounted to only $324,000). The FMC’s 2019 Book of Discipline (BOD) requires schools at the “denominational” level of affiliation not only to conform to its Articles of Religion (as SPU’s Statement of Faith does) but also to “have a statement of lifestyle expectations for the campus community, which is consistent with the principles and practices of the Book of Discipline” (FMC BOD ¶4810). SPU has already received permission to have school policies that are not in compliance with the BOD (e.g., SPU students may be in same-sex marriages), but the Work Group knew that changing the sexual conduct policy for employees was beyond the pale of denominational-level affiliation. However, the BOD’s guidelines as written for the “affiliated” level require only that “all instruction shall be in harmony with and conformity to the teachings of the Scriptures and the Free Methodist Articles of Religion” (¶4820). The LWG regarded a move to affiliated status to be an elegant way for university and church to remain in communion while navigating the turbulence of competing views and interests in both institutions.
The hope that the FMC would regard the Third Way as a mutually beneficial compromise, or would at least enter into conversation with SPU about the possibility, was dashed soon after the LGWR was orally presented to the trustees on April 22, 2022. Even before the full written report was submitted, two SPU trustees (one being an FMC bishop and both being members of the FMC Board of Administrators) brought a resolution to the FMC BOA, which then decreed on May 5 that
Any AFMEI [Affiliated Free Methodist Educational Institution] institution that alters their hiring policy to permit the hiring of individuals living a lifestyle inconsistent with the Free Methodist Book of Discipline’s teachings on sexual purity will be considered to have disaffiliated with the denomination and will not be considered for any level of affiliation as long as this hiring policy is in place.
Thus, before the SPU Board could carefully consider and actively debate the Work Group’s “Third Way” recommendation, the FMC vetoed a major feature of the proposal at the behest of two of SPU’s own trustees. This deeply compromised the shared governance process, and it undoubtedly complicated the Board’s ability to vote on the Third Way recommendation, as it had been significantly gutted with no opportunity for the LWG to propose revisions or alternatives. It also meant that a vote to change the policy (requiring a simple majority) would now also need to be accompanied by a 75% vote to disaffiliate, in order to implement the policy—it would be impossible to consider the policy on its own terms. In light of these events, SPU’s Faculty Council requested that the two trustees be recused from discussing and voting on the conduct policy, a request that was granted. The Faculty Chair’s address to the Board on May 19 responded to the unforeseen complications by focusing on SPU’s identity as a Christian institution of higher learning (vs. a church), the biblically invitational posture of the Third Way model, and widespread fears regarding potential disaffiliation from the Free Methodist Church. (It is worth noting that although the FMC BOA decree was effective immediately, it is a provisional measure that needs to be ratified by the FMC General Conference).
After its deliberations on May 19th and 20th, the SPU Board declined to change the conduct policy. On June 3, 2022, the SPU Faculty Senate resolved to endorse the Third Way recommendation by a vote of 80%; the resolution repudiated the Board’s decision, urged the Free Methodist Church to discuss directly with SPU possibilities for a more mutually beneficial institutional arrangement, and authorized the formation of a faculty task force to explore alternatives to affiliation with the FMC.
Although the full, official LGBTQIA+ Work Group Report (72 pages) was shared with SPU faculty and staff, it is not currently available for public viewing. The following essay summarizes the spirit and substance of the official report and details the rationale for the Third Way recommendation; it also provides additional context, rationale, argumentation, and supporting research that was not included in the original report. The essay’s purpose is
- to demonstrate to SPU how the Third Way is still a viable and preferable option for our institution, whether or not the Free Methodist Church chooses to accompany us on this path, and
- to provide a witness—to the church and to the world—regarding the ideals of the Third Way specifically and of Christian higher education in general.
LGBTQ+ Divisions in the Global Church
In being asked to find a “shared direction” forward for SPU, the LGBTQIA+ Work Group had been assigned a challenge that has its roots in a much larger problem. It is no understatement to say that for several decades, and especially in the last two, the global Christian Church has been deeply divided as well-intentioned people of faith attempt to discern God’s will regarding the expression of human sexuality and gender identity. In the U.S., these debates have been occurring in the context of a general populace that is increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage (68% in 2021, compared to 54% in 2014) and nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ persons (79% in 2021, compared to 71% in 2015), according to the most recent data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Although the rhetoric in religious debates on sexuality and gender identity often depicts Christianity as struggling with secular culture as an external foe, a breakdown of the national data by religious affiliation reveals that we are wrestling with a difference of opinion within Christianity itself. According to PRRI, majorities of almost all major Christian sects in the US now support same-sex marriage, with white evangelical Protestants as one of the few outliers at only 35% supporting (up from 28% in 2014). But denominational and ethnic differences within those supportive Christian majorities tell a complex story resistant to easy generalization:
|Christian Demographic||% Supporting Same-Sex Marriage|
|White Mainline Protestants||76|
|Other Protestants of Color||51|
|White Evangelical Protestants||35|
|Non-Hispanic Catholics of Color||80|
|Orthodox Christians||58 [down from 66 in 2017]|
See also the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study for a detailed (though dated) analysis of views on same-sex marriage within various religious groups, such as evangelical Protestants.
The LGBTQ+ question has been contentious enough to splinter not just individual congregations but whole denominations. The debate in the West has been further complicated by the growth of Christianity in the Global South, where large populations of Christians hold conservative views on human sexuality that conflict with the liberalizing trends in the U.S. and elsewhere. The United Methodist Church is in the midst of a years-long debate and slowly unfolding schism as many traditionalist U.S. congregations leave to form a new Global Methodist denomination. As another example, the U.S. Episcopal church, which affirmed LGB congregants in 1974 and sanctioned same-sex marriage in 2015, has long been at theological odds with the Worldwide Anglican Communion, which is itself currently in turmoil over a movement from the Global South Fellowship to reaffirm a 1998 resolution declaring that same-sex sexual practice and marriage are “incompatible with scripture.”
Attempting to resolve these conflicts, some denominations have attempted a charitable-disagreement approach, such as the Mennonite Church USA, which in 2015 adopted a “forbearance resolution” that allowed individual congregations latitude in how they address LGBTQ issues, even as the denomination rejected a proposal to authorize same-sex marriages; in 2022, however, the Mennonite Church moved toward an affirming stance, with 82% of assembly delegates rescinding its prohibition against clergy officiating same-sex marriages and 55% passing a “Repentance and Transformation” resolution, moves that some felt abandoned “the third way we are known for.” Others have opted for “radical obedience” as a unifying tactic, as did the Christian Reformed Church, which in 2022 decided to grant confessional status to the Human Sexuality Report’s conclusion that the term unchastity in the Heidelberg Catechism should be interpreted to include “homosexual sex” (an interpretation previously left to pastoral discretion). But whether the approaches have leaned toward pastoral pragmatism or doctrinal principle, it is arguably difficult to find a Christian congregation that chooses to live together in disagreement. Church families tend to self-select and separate, a trend becoming even more prevalent as worldwide political polarization increases.
Thus far, the search for a transcendent alternative—a “third way” that could dismantle the binary animus within congregations and denominations—has not been deeply encouraging, although many blog posts, articles (Hill), and books (Gushee, Heie, Smith) have been written on the topic, and programs such as the Colossian Forum and Oriented to Love are working hard to positively impact personal dialogs and relationships in Christian organizations. A prominent “third way” experiment in the Southern Baptist denomination illustrates the apparent intractability of the problem. In 2014, after deep scriptural study led the Reverend Danny Cortez to decide that he no longer subscribed to traditional biblical teachings on homosexuality (a decision which led Cortez’s own son to come out to his father as gay), his Southern Baptist congregation of New Heart Community Church in suburban Los Angeles opted to become a “Third Way” church which would “agree to disagree . . . and not cast judgment on one another.” But shortly after this decision, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, declared in a blog post that “the issue is binary,” and “there is no third way. A church will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them. Eventually, every congregation in America will make a public declaration of its position on this issue.” As evidence of the impossibility of a third way, he pointed to Reverend Cortez’s admission that many members of New Heart Community left the congregation in the wake of the decision; he also references a blog post from the Christian progressive Tony Jones, who agrees there can be no “Third Way” on gay marriage because dialog about the issue must always end in a decision about material practices:
a church or an organization can study the issue in theory, and they can even do so for years. But this isn’t really a “third way” or a “middle ground.” Instead, it is a process. And at some point, that process has to end and practices have to be implemented. At that point, there’s no third way. You either affirm marriage equality in your practices, or you do not.
To a large degree, this binary mindset continues to characterize congregational and denominational debates over LGBTQIA+ issues within the church.
LGBTQ+ Divisions in Christian Higher Education
Inevitably, the turmoil in the church over LGBTQ questions has a correlative in Christian colleges and universities, especially those tied to church denominations or other Christian institutions. As with the church, the most common approaches schools take to resolve or avoid inter-institutional conflict have involved separation rather than transcendent cohesion. Belmont University’s move in 2010 to include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy was motivated by student protests but made possible largely because Belmont had cut ties with the Tennessee Baptist convention in 2007 (Coley 95). In 2015, the forbearance resolution of the Mennonite Church enabled Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College to permit the hiring of faculty members in same-sex marriages, but this in turn imperiled their membership in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. To avoid dissension and in accordance with their commitment to peacemaking, these Mennonite schools voluntarily left the CCCU; nevertheless, this resolution did not come soon enough for Oklahoma Wesleyan University and Union University, who quit the CCCU in protest over the Council’s deliberative approach regarding the Mennonite schools’ membership status. In 2019, the National Association of Schools and Colleges of The United Methodist Church made a concerted appeal to the UMC general conference by having its 93 member presidents sign a statement “affirm[ing] access and inclusion of all students, faculty and staff . . . regardless of their . . . gender identity/expression, or sexual orientation”; when the UMC decided to maintain its stance on LGBTQ issues, Baldwin Wallace University severed its affiliation with the church. In 2022, Calvin University severed its ties with its own Center for Social Research in an attempt to avoid having to fire a CSR employee in a same-sex marriage.
In tandem with institutional separations, Christian campuses have been internally rocked by protests and petitions from students, alumni, and faculty concerned about how the institutions have handled disagreements about human sexuality issues and conduct policies. For a sampling see: Anderson University (SC) (2022), Azusa Pacific University (2018), Baylor University (2020), Calvin University (2021, 2022), George Fox University (2014, 2019), Gordon College (2015), Houghton College (2020), Lee University (2021), Malone University (2021), Westmont College (2011, 2016), Wheaton College (2011, 2014).
Undoubtedly, the attitudes of college students toward LGBTQIA+ issues and identities are a major factor in the eruption of conflicts on Christian campuses. According to a 2020 Gallup Poll, nearly 16% of Americans in Generation Z (those aged 18 to 23 in 2020) identified as LGBT, and a recent study conducted by College Pulse on behalf of the Religious Exemptions Accountability Project (REAP) found that 11% of students at American Christian colleges identify as non-heterosexual. In 2017, “a majority (53%) of young white evangelical Protestants favor[ed] legalizing same-sex marriage, compared to just one-quarter (25%) of white evangelical seniors; likewise, “while only 37% of black Protestant seniors favor[ed] same-sex marriage, nearly two-thirds (65%) of young black Protestants support[ed] it” (PRRI 2017). A generational gap in attitudes toward same-sex marriage continues to persist nationally, most notably among Hispanics (in 2017, 75% of all young Hispanics supported it, compared to only 38% of Hispanic seniors), although the gap is closing enough that in 2021 “majorities of every age group now express support for same-sex marriage” (PRRI 2021).
The Christian campus debates have also been spurred on by increased scholarly attention to the mental health threats experienced by LGBTQ+ college students on both secular and Christian campuses. A 2018 Rutgers study revealed “a campus climate [in the US] that is failing to provide an equitable learning environment for queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum students, along with troubling disparities across academic engagement and student health” (Greathouse et al. 3). Queer- and trans-spectrum students are significantly more likely to experience loneliness, depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation than their cis/heterosexual counterparts (23, 26). In terms of problems specific to religious campuses, a 2015 study concluded that “sexual minority youth attending religiously affiliated schools reported more alcohol-related problems and were less likely to be ‘out’ to students and teachers at their schools when compared to their nonreligious-school-attending counterparts” (Stewart et al. 2). A major challenge for Christian campuses with conservative policies regarding LGBTQ+ students and employees has been how to uphold prohibitions without stigmatizing and alienating those individuals.
The Christian University as a “Sacred Liminal Space”
A fundamental question underlying the LGBTQ debate within Christian higher ed is how a Christian university’s purposes and practices should or should not differ from those of a church. At the very outset of its labors, the LGBTQIA+ Work Group recognized that its work must be grounded in a clear sense of how scholars in general and SPU in particular (both past and present) have understood the answer to this question.
Most churches are by definition dogmatic, establishing doctrine through an authoritative process that approves certain beliefs as orthodox and excludes certain beliefs as heretical. Much of the scholarship on the “idea of a Christian university” suggests that to be “Christian,” a university must identify a set of distinctly religious beliefs or principles of faith that define their mission and infuse their curriculum; at the same time, however, as an exploratory and educational institution, the Christian university must be dedicated to critical inquiry, revisionism, and giving students the intellectual and spiritual space needed for them to come to their own conclusions. A paradoxical balance or (better yet) an integration of rigorous discipline and radical openness, theological conviction and academic freedom, faith and learning is required.
Swinging too far toward one principle or the other imperils the Christian liberal arts project to develop the whole person (heart, soul, and mind), to prepare them to live in “multiple contexts” in a complex secular world, and to motivate them to ameliorate human suffering (Ream and Glanzer 4, Daniels). If our academic openness causes us to lose sight of “the redemptive impact of faith on culture,” or to “compartmentalize religion” such that we become a “multiversity . . . without a unifying worldview,” then we risk losing our “religious distinctive” and transformative purpose (Holmes 11, 9). The Christian university must be guided by a specific understanding of God’s will for humanity, and it must not be apologetic or sheepish about proclaiming that understanding to a secular world.
At the same time, there are numerous dangers of excess on the “faith” end of the pendulum’s arc. This is not surprising, given the many strains of Christianity that have defined the faith through antithesis rather than synthesis: revelation vs. reason, mind vs. body, sacred vs. secular, Christianity vs. world. If we are to develop an antidote to such dualism, the faith commitments of a Christian university cannot primarily be understood as protecting students from immorality and heresy, or helping them escape from culture, or teaching them to reject all secular ideas. Attempting to shelter students merely postpones their education so that, according to John Henry Newman, “You have succeeded but in this—in making the world [their] University” (qtd. in Larsen 114). Furthermore, Arthur Holmes argues that Christians should recognize better than anyone that “the source of evil is ultimately within the heart, not without” (45), that we are inherently “cultural beings” (20), and that “all truth is God’s truth” (47). As Newman puts it, the theologically grounded college “fears no knowledge but she purifies all; she represses no element of our nature, but cultivates the whole” (qtd in Larsen 115).
According to Holmes, the Christian university also errs if the integration of faith and learning “has been repressed in favor of indoctrination, as if prepackaged answers can satisfy inquiring minds. Students need rather to gain a realistic look at life and to discover for themselves the questions that confront us. They need to work their way painfully through the maze of alternative ideas and arguments while finding out how the Christian faith speaks to such matters” (46). They need to cultivate a humble curiosity, a willingness to consider and question received truths and traditions (whether sacred or secular), in recognition that, as John Wesley observed, “to be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity” (“A Catholic Spirit,” I.4). What is more, the Christian university has “a larger and more constructive job than” simply teaching students Christian apologetics: “[faith and learning] integration is concerned not so much with attack and defense as with the positive contributions of human learning to an understanding of the faith and to the development of a Christian worldview” (Holmes 46). Ultimately, “faith is neither a way of knowing nor a source of knowledge. Faith is rather an openness and wholehearted response to God’s self-revelation” (Holmes 18). In other words, faith is a posture, not a position.
The tension-filled conception of Christian education (a kind of “third way” of knowing) is artfully described by Jessica Daniels, who locates the Christian university in a “liminal space between academic freedom and denominational and/or theological commitments and between secularism and sectarianism.” She argues that Christ himself, a central rock on which we ground our faith, nevertheless embodies liminality: “Jesus was fully Jewish in his upbringing, his culture, and theological formation. He cherished Jewish religious tradition and the Hebrew Scripture was clearly central to his teaching and his ministry, and yet he critiqued, extended, and changed the faith forever,” which “resulted in direct confrontation with Jewish leaders of the day. Jesus taught ‘the praxis of the kingdom’ that required continual practice and performance, founded ‘in the twin commandments to love.’” In contrast to the church, which presents “foregone conclusions,” the Christian university (to quote Holmes) fosters “open-ended exploration . . . . an endless undertaking that is still but the vision of a possibility.” For Daniels, “faith-based higher education is a sacred space for the rigorous pursuit of truth and iterative process of ‘becoming whole and holy persons’ [as Stan Anderson formulates it]. With freedom in Christ (John 3:36; II Corinthians 3:17) and without fear (I John 4:18), students are transformed as they encounter God, themselves, and their neighbor through learning in community.” Daniels compares the liminal space of Christian education to Aristotle’s “Golden Mean,” which moderates between the vices of excess and deficiency: “At the interstice of education, faith, and society, Christian colleges and universities retain relevancy and remain potent by refusing to conflate the excesses with the essence, and perpetually navigate the tension of aspiring to a ‘Golden Mean.’ In this liminal space, intellectual curiosity and Christian conviction are reframed as complementary values that when combined foster the most faithful pursuit of truth and potential for responding to [what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls] the ‘wounds of humanity.’”
This idea of a sacred liminal space or Golden Mean can be found in the metaphors of many Christian university presidents, who perhaps know better than anyone how difficult it is to present the demands of faith and learning as complementary rather than competing. President Bill Robinson of Whitworth University (1993-2010) referred to the liminal space as a “narrow ridge” we must walk between “curiosity and conviction,” or (put another way, focused on excesses to avoid) between a secular rejection of religious-oriented scholarship and a doctrinal suppression of individual conscience and inquiry. President Phil Eaton of Seattle Pacific University (1996-2012) conceived of it as a “radical middle” between the “extreme ends of both Christian and secular worlds”; according to Eaton, this middle is not a happy medium but “a posture [where] you’re going to get shot at from both sides”: a posture that can be painful but protects the institution from becoming “irrelevant” (qtd. in Seven).
SPU as a Sacred Liminal Space
The LGBTQIA+ Work Group embraced the definition of a Christian university as occupying a sacred liminal space, deeply engaging the entire world through a commitment to God’s truth that refuses to simply regurgitate dogma, whether that dogma is denominational or secular (Canada et al. “Intro” 2). The definition is especially fitting given SPU’s institutional history. As SPU emeritus professor of history William Woodward and former VP of student life Steven Moore noted in “Clarity through Ambiguity: Transforming Tensions at Seattle Pacific University,”
From its founding, Seattle Pacific has not enjoyed the luxury—or the temptation—of a settled sense of what it is and what it should be. Rather its unfolding story has been a continuing conversation, indeed a contest, among various centers of interest and vision: trustees, presidents, church leaders, key faculty, alumni, even staff and students. Yet remarkably, the ambiguity and dynamic tension has forged an energetic, identifiable learning community with a powerful commitment to an educational experience that is both academically vigorous and solidly Christian. (285)
This “ambiguity” and “dynamic tension” is the positive fruit of the non-sectarian hospitality of B.T. Roberts and other founders of Free Methodist schools who understood “that the work of the kingdom of God would be strengthened through collaboration and respect rather than division and isolation,” whether from the secular world or from other church traditions (Canada et al., “Intro” 8). As long ago as 1870 (21 years before the founding of SPU), a committee on education at the Free Methodist General Conference recognized the value of committing to a pedagogical golden mean, stating:
our usefulness [as human beings] must depend largely upon our knowledge of science, as well as upon our knowledge of salvation. No amount of piety can atone for a want of mental culture; God never does for man what He has given him power to do for himself. To make a man, the head and heart must be properly trained. Educate the intellect alone and you are liable to make a tiger; cultivate the moral faculties only and you make a fanatic. (qtd. in Marston 514).
Ultimately, SPU’s LWG concluded that “Neither utilitarian secularism nor reactive fundamentalism resemble the history, mission, and trajectory of SPU. Nor do we believe [that either extreme faithfully listens] to the voice of the holy spirit as an enlivening person in the life of the university” (Canada et al. “Intro” 3). In its endorsement of the Third Way recommendation, at least 80% of SPU’s faculty recognized the importance of creating an educational space that is both faithful and inquisitive, disciplined and loving—one that teaches students the multidisciplinary skills, knowledge, and Christ-like postures (rather than ecclesial positions) necessary to thoughtfully and prayerfully seek truth together in the midst of disagreement. The indoctrination of students into a particular, contested interpretation of “the truth” will not leave sufficient room for the Holy Spirit to do its transformative work in the heart, soul and mind of each student.
Denominational Affiliation: Advantages, Challenges, Opportunities
The struggles with LGBTQ issues on Christian campuses frequently involve tensions between what a denomination expects of its affiliated educational institutions and what students, faculty and staff feel is needed for the welfare of students and the institution as a whole.
The advantages to denominational affiliation are many. Denominations provide a coherent framework or worldview from which a school can develop a mission with a distinctive philosophical and theological ethos. Denominations frequently develop out of particular ethnic and cultural traditions; these “embodiments” of the church, while they can develop exclusionary blind spots, also lend their schools a depth of human liturgical character as well as a network of strong community ties (see James K. A. Smith on the trickiness of “sifting” “theological gifts and accents” out of a denomination’s ethnic heritage). Denominations typically provide financial support and help recruit students and faculty to their schools, and both the church and its schools typically develop mutually enriching programming.
Denominational ties are also frequently regarded as a primary safeguard against the excesses of secularism, crucial to maintaining the “Golden Mean” or “narrow ridge” of Christian education. Many Christian educators, administrators, trustees, and donors cite George Marsden’s book The Soul of the American University (1994) as evidence that schools that loosen their denominational moorings—by expanding the academic canon, eliminating mandatory chapel, separating from their parent denominations, etc.—are destined to slide down a slippery slope into nonbelief (VanZanten).
This argument is so pervasive, and its purveyors so adamant, it is worth noting here several complications and rebuttals:
- Marsden’s work focuses mainly on the history of a small number of very elite (and very white) schools, so its conclusions are not universally applicable across Christian higher ed.
- Marsden’s work clearly points out not just the “high ideals” of these schools’ religious heritage but also their “discriminatory—at times even exploitative—practices” (389), arguing that the pervasiveness of Protestantism in American universities by no means ensured a “Golden Age” of morally superior education.
- Marsden himself rejects the slippery slope conclusion of many readers, asserting that “I was in fact arguing that secularization was formidable but not inevitable in a pluralistic society” (“Response,” emphasis added).
- Marsden’s reassessment of his own thesis in The Soul of the American University Revisited (2021) argues that secularization was not, in fact, as formidable a force as he previously assumed, given the “renaissance of Christian academia” in the current century.
We can add to these rebuttals examples of Christian universities that have continued to flourish with Christian commitments despite having no denominational ties (Biola, founded in 1908; Wheaton, founded in 1860; Gordon, founded in 1889) or having cut those ties (Taylor sometime in the 1940s, Messiah in 1972, Wake Forest in 1986). Certainly there is much evidence for disaffiliation being a prominent factor in the secularization of formerly religious institutions (see also Burtchaell and Gleason, for example), but it does not constitute an inevitable (nor singular) cause and effect relationship.
Another pervasive argument (at least within the context of SPU’s controversy) is that denominational ties are necessary in order to uphold the “ministerial exception,” which protects the right of religious organizations to hire employees according to their religious beliefs without government interference. But here we may point to the case of Conlon v. Intervarsity Christian Fellowship USA, decided in 2015 by the Sixth Circuit US Court of Appeals, which argued that
the ministerial exception’s applicability does not turn on its being tied to a specific denominational faith; it applies to multidenominational and nondenominational religious organizations as well. As we held in Hollins [vs. Methodist Healthcare], ‘in order to invoke the exception, an employer need not be a traditional religious organization such as a church, diocese, or synagogue, or an entity operated by a traditional religious organization.’
While it may be helpful to have denominational ties in cases where SPU must appeal to the “ministerial exception,” it does not appear to be an essential requirement.
Alongside these two rebuttals regarding supposed denominational advantages, we may place a potential disadvantage: Christian colleges with strong denominational ties risk unbalancing the “Golden Mean” of sacred liminal space by indulging the excesses of academic indoctrination and institutional petrification. Churches can be tempted to dictate the school community’s beliefs, behavior, and curriculum in ways that hinder the development of independent thinkers and that prevent the institution from engaging in adaptive change. At Seattle Pacific University’s founding as Seattle Seminary in 1891, B.T. Roberts (a founder and Bishop of the Free Methodist Church) suggested that the school’s ties to the church should be held loosely, writing that it should be “not too strictly denominational . . . rather it should be competitive with public education.” (qtd. in McNichols 11). In the face of the numerous cultural and financial challenges facing Christian higher education today, many experts suggest that to remain vital and relevant, church-related schools will need to consider transcending their sectarian nature. George Marsden speculates that in an era when Christian colleges are still regarded with deep suspicion, an important “avenue for creatively moving into the future” is to “emphasize the ecumenical dimensions of Christian higher education” (“Response”). In “Is There a Future for Mission-Defined Education,” Janel Curry and Jennifer Jukanovich also concur that “collaborating with those outside one’s faith tradition” may be a necessary strategy for faith-based colleges to survive the impending “demographic cliff” of declining numbers of high school graduates:
Christian higher education must use its assets of a religious belief in service and a commitment to serving the common good to step outside bubbles and build bridges, to quote Marian Larson and Sarah Shady. Higher education institutions must cross sector and institutional boundaries to explore ways of using complementary resources to serve students that make us all more than the sum of our individual parts.
In the final analysis, denominational affiliation is not an absolute requirement for the survival of a Christian university, and it can in fact become a liability if that affiliation is defined too narrowly or held too tightly. Here the words of Isaiah 54:2 (referenced by SPU’s President Phil Eaton when SPU’s mission statement debuted in 2002) provide a fitting image for the charge of a Christian university: “enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.”
In the case of SPU’s founding denomination, the Free Methodist Church, the historical connection has provided the university with a robust and time-tested mission grounded in Wesleyan theological and educational thought, as discussed in “SPU as a Sacred Liminal Space” and “SPU’s Mission & Statement of Faith.” But it must be acknowledged that for the last several decades, neither institution has generated much support for the other. Indeed, since the FMC dissolved its Board of Education in the late 1990s, it has been unclear exactly who holds authority over the church’s affiliated educational institutions and to what extent, although the FMC Board of Administration is the entity that “endorses” them (FMC BOD ¶4820). As noted earlier, the financial gifts to the university from the church have totaled only $324,000 over the last 40 years, potentially due to the relatively small membership of the church in the U.S. (77,000 in 2015, with 1.2 million worldwide). The number of Free Methodist faculty, staff, and students at SPU has steadily declined and constitutes a miniscule proportion of the university community (SPU’s Free Methodist faculty currently do not meet the 10% minimum required by the church [Canada et al. “Intro” 9]). The FMC and SPU currently enjoy no mutually generative programming. One can justly wonder what SPU receives in return for the denomination’s right, by virtue of affiliation, to require that certain university policies align with principles in the BOD.
Despite SPU and the FMC being legally independent entities (SPU Articles of Incorporation, Art. II Sec. 2), the denomination’s administrative control over SPU is significant. The denominational affiliation level requires that the president be a member of the FMC “who actively seeks to create a Free Methodist presence in the life and leadership of the institution”; the chief academic officer must also be a Free Methodist member “or one who is in both conviction and spirit committed to Wesleyan theology and perspectives” (BOD ¶4810). The university must have a “Wesleyan statement of faith consistent with Free Methodist Church – USA doctrine which boards of trustees and executive leaders agree shall guide the policies of the institution,” a “mission statement which includes an institutional priority to serve as an educational resource for the advancement of Christianity through the Church,” and “a statement of lifestyle expectations for the campus community, which is consistent with the principles and practices of the Book of Discipline” (BOD ¶4810). At least 25% of the board of a denominational institution must consist of members of the FMC, and SPU’s own bylaws in fact require at least 33% of its board of 12 to 18 members to be FMC members (Art. III. Sec. 1. C.). SPU’s bylaws grant FMC the sole authority to determine which Trustees shall count as FMC Trustees—only the FMC puts forward pre-approved FMC Trustee candidates, and the FMC can choose to remove the FMC Trustee designation from any current member of the Board whom the FMC determines to be no longer qualifying for the designation (Article III, Sec. 1.C-D). It could be argued that this incentivizes FMC Trustees to vote as a bloc rather than according to their individual conscience, lest they lose the denomination’s approval. Furthermore, for SPU to voluntarily disaffiliate from the FMC’s control, it must reach a 75% vote threshold, according to its Articles of Incorporation (Art. VI Sec. 2.A.3); this is difficult to achieve with 33% of the Board consisting of FMC Trustees. From the church’s perspective, a disincentive for disaffiliation is that if SPU were to voluntarily separate from the denomination, it would keep its land and assets; however, according to Article VII of the Articles of Incorporation, if SPU were forced to close its doors due to financial failure while still affiliated, its land and assets would revert to the FMC.
Of course, as with any extended church family, Free Methodism is not a monolith; within the denomination, there are widely different views held on various issues. As noted in the LWG Report, “SPU’s Free Methodist staff and faculty do not hold uniform perspectives regarding SPU’s decision regarding Human Sexuality” (Canada et al., “Intro” 3). But it is unknown how the SPU Board as a whole regards and protects the freedom of individual conscience among its own FMC members, as there are no publicly available guidelines to that effect.
Currently, the SPU Board has rules governing conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, but it could certainly be argued that its bylaws governing board structure, voting privileges, and term limits have not sufficiently dealt with the potential for problematic dual loyalties or undue influence involving the FMC. Prior to 2019, the SPU bylaws allowed the Superintendent of the Northwest Conference of the FMC to serve as an ex-officio voting member with no term limits (there is currently no provision for the Superintendent to serve on the SPU BOT). Also prior to 2019, a bishop of the FMC could serve on the board only in a non-voting, “honorary trustee” capacity. However, when Matthew Whitehead transitioned from NW Superintendent (a position he had held for 20 years) to FMC Bishop in 2019, the SPU bylaws were altered to allow him to serve as a designated “FMC Trustee,” thereby granting him continued voting privileges. Thus, despite the nine-year term limits for all other Trustees, a single individual with substantial authority in the church has continuously served for 23 years as a vocal and voting member of the SPU Board (21 of those years on the Academic Affairs subcommittee, which he also chaired for 7 years). Bishop Whitehead can continue to serve for 6 more years as part of his nine-year allowance as a voting “FMC Trustee,” while continuing to hold the most powerful office of the Free Methodist Church—USA. That will constitute almost three decades of direct influence on the SPU Board from a church official. In addition, the Bylaws have no explicit regulations regarding SPU Trustees who also serve on the Free Methodist Board of Administration; we currently have two trustees serving in these dual roles, one being Matthew Whitehead by virtue of his role as Bishop.
Despite all these challenges regarding the relationship between SPU and the denomination, opportunity remains. As noted in the “Introduction” to this article, the members of the LGBTQIA+ Work Group earnestly desired SPU to stay in affiliation with the Free Methodist Church and sought the means to do so. Although the BOA’s ruling appears to have quashed that potential solution, it has not yet been ratified by the General Conference, and the faculty’s endorsement of the Third Way urges the FMC to talk directly with the constituents of SPU. There is an opportunity to save this troubled marriage yet, if both the Board and the church have the will to engage in difficult conversations about how each institution can adapt in order to find a mutually acceptable path forward.
Market Realities as a Moral Consideration in Christian Mission
The primary guide in the Work Group’s search for a shared path forward was SPU’s Christian mission and Statement of Faith, rather than utilitarian market concerns (Canada et al., “Intro” 3). But while a ledger sheet will not provide a clear spiritual or moral answer to what direction SPU should take, neither should it be regarded as morally or biblically irrelevant. The fiduciary duty of the Trustees and the administration to protect SPU’s assets and foster its wealth is both a legal and biblical responsibility. We cannot simply take a prosperity-gospel approach and say, “If we do the right thing, God will provide”; the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) may provide a more appropriate model here. Our calculus for determining the right thing for SPU must account for not only our mission but also the particular demographic identities and needs of a campus situated within particular local and national market realities. As SPU President Phil Eaton noted in 2002 when the mission statement was first adopted, “we must always remember that a calling has a context. We seek to understand this place and this time very well, so that we may shine the light of the gospel more effectively.”
Thus the LGBTQIA+ Work Group provided extensive analysis (not provided here) of the probable financial and institutional impacts, positive and negative, of each potential path forward. Of particular concern were how the dominant social and legal norms of Seattle and Washington State are at odds with SPU’s policy, as are the moral and professional norms of several disciplinary guilds (including those in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and health sciences). The increasing support for same-sex marriage among Christian religious groups, especially younger generations, and how that might impact enrollment trends, were also a major focus. Given the complexities of the current higher ed landscape, the overall impact analysis necessarily included some speculation and guesswork. The Work Group’s report stressed that to meet the needs of the current moment will require more than technical expertise:
[W]hile there are quantitative data regarding giving trends, faculty surveys etc., as well as qualitative data from multiple conversations and reviewing history, that data is diffusive and representative of the past and present more so than the future. Ultimately this work regarding human sexuality at SPU is an adaptive challenge that requires judgment calls, an understanding of culture, and an assessment of organizational values. (Canada et al. “Intro” 2, emphasis added)
According to Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change, to ensure the survival of an institution sometimes requires an “adaptive leap,” one that organizations naturally resist because it asks everyone (from top to bottom) to reassess and redefine their habits, beliefs, values, loyalties, and even their identities.
The LGBTQIA+ Work Group Report
Before the work group was populated, the consultants facilitating the process required assurances from both Faculty Council and the Board of Trustees that everyone in both governance groups (and especially those in the Work Group) would be committed to SPU as a whole and not just to this single issue. Council and the Board were told that whether or not people get the result they desire from the process, they must be willing to continue working toward positive change. The university deserves to exist and continue delivering its positive impacts on students and the world, and no one—on any side of the LGBTQ+ issues facing the campus—should be willing to diminish or destroy the institution for the sake of a particular principle.
Criteria for membership in the work group included being committed to thoroughly reading and engaging the documents, to having difficult dialog over major differences, and to consistently focusing on what is best for SPU as a whole in the current moment. Most importantly, Work Group participants needed to be willing to listen, to express their views authentically while also staying open, to maintain respect toward others, and to resist a binary mindset. If anyone were focused on driving the group toward a specific, predetermined outcome, the process would not be successful.
While the task set before the Work Group was extremely challenging, the experience of the group members was uniformly positive. As the introduction to the group’s final report notes:
The time the workgroup has spent as a faculty, staff, administrator, and trustee community has been rich and the relational approach to this process greatly differs from the transactional actions inherent in the 2021 board decision and faculty decision to vote no confidence. . . . this approach has garnered much goodwill and was a reminder that generative relationships between different areas of responsibility and governance are vital. (Canada et al. “Intro” 2)
The fact that the group could come to a consensus about a recommended path forward, even though not everyone was completely satisfied with that path, is a testament to the possibility of working through major conflict by means of sustained personal interaction.
According to the consultants’ charge (and the natural inclination of every member of the Work Group), every potential option for a “shared direction” had to be clearly aligned with both SPU’s mission statement and Statement of Faith (SoF). Significantly, there was no requirement that the options align with SPU’s Statement on Human Sexuality (SoHS); this document has never been officially ratified by any governing body, whether Board or faculty, and it has had only haphazard visibility in hiring processes and campus consciousness. As such, it cannot be said to be a document central to SPU’s identity and mission.
The Work Group discussion and subsequent report also refrained from elaborating extensive biblical and theological arguments; as these were at the root of the community’s fundamental disagreement over the conduct policy and SoHS (not to mention at the root of denominational schisms), and as the charge was to find a shared direction forward for the institution, there seemed little reason to go deeply into the scriptural case for each side. The Work Group granted at the outset that there was sufficient evidence and logic (both exegetical and hermeneutical) for the two major interpretive approaches to claim theological legitimacy.
SPU’s Mission & Statement of Faith: Strengths & Challenges
As noted by SPU President Phil Eaton in 2004, both SPU’s mission and Statement of Faith were intentionally worded so as to embrace the broadest possible definition of Christian identity and mission: “how we specifically define the meaning of Christian [in the mission statement] is left open,” and the faith statement is “less interested in defining the boundaries [of faith] than in being clear about the center.” This expansive approach—sometimes referred to as a “generous orthodoxy” or “catholic spirit” (Nienhuis & Strong) that attempts to “secure both our commitment to Christ and our freedom in Christ” (Steele 1)—has been both a strength and a liability for SPU. It has enabled Christian students, employees, and trustees with very diverse views to see SPU as a theological and academic home, greatly enriching our spiritual and scholarly community. But the current crisis has revealed that we have not engaged our diverse views regularly enough and forthrightly enough to discover how they might (and must) be held in productive tension. We had enjoyed a superficial harmony because we had not, for the most part, acknowledged to one another how differently we may be interpreting SPU’s mission and Statement of Faith, and how varied our Christian perspectives may be. We are now faced with some crucial questions: How much ambiguity and tension can we live with? How wide a gap between dissenting views can we productively straddle? How can we harness the tension for constructive, rather than destructive, ends?
Seeming contradictions are already built into SPU’s Statement of Faith itself, whose four “pillars” assert that our community is not only rigorously orthodox but also inclusively ecumenical; not only broadly evangelical but also specifically Wesleyan. And each of these pillar terms designate complex identities whose definitions are strongly contested. But as SPU Professor Richard Steele (one of the original drafters of the document) urges us to keep in mind, these pillars are best regarded as “partners in a square dance” (2). They help us maintain a sacred liminal space that is “orderly, while allowing plenty of room for individuals to allemande, and promenade, and sashay as conscience dictates” (Steele 3). Nevertheless, there are many challenges to keeping common time on this dance floor.
Currently, the definition of orthodox is perhaps the most vigorously debated within the SPU community. The Statement of Faith gives the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as “summary” examples of the faith principles that SPU affirms, and it defines God as a triune Creator, Redeemer of humanity, and enlivening Spirit. The “mere Christianity” described by this pillar does not identify specific moral values that Christians must hold to be considered “orthodox.” However, this pillar also states that “we affirm the historic Christian faith, as attested in the divinely inspired and authoritative Scriptures.” To many, especially those defending SPU’s prohibition against employing individuals in same-sex marriage, this means that we affirm not just the trinitarian faith outlined in the Bible and early Ecumenical Councils but also other Scriptural interpretations that have a long historical track record. And here different approaches to the act of biblical interpretation become salient. As C. Christopher Smith notes in How the Body of Christ Talks,
Perhaps the most intense of the forces that threaten to tear our congregations apart is scriptural interpretation. Various members will read and interpret the same biblical passage in widely different ways, often in ways that dovetail with that member’s political or socioeconomic convictions. Was the universe created in seven literal days? Or are the biblical references to seven days of creation metaphorical devices that have a nonliteral meaning? Do biblical passages prohibiting homosexual practice apply in all ages and cultural contexts? Or were they—like passages about women being silent in church—intended only for particular people in particular situations? Conflict arising from scriptural interpretation is so intense . . . because it revolves around the story at the heart of our life together, our common identity, and our embodiment of the gospel in our particular places. (148)
Although we might all agree on the authority of Scripture and on the importance of historical tradition, individuals in both ecclesial and academic communities can arrive at significantly different interpretations of scriptural passages depending on how much weight they accord to sociohistorical context for determining meaning, and on whether they understand the Bible as 1) a static, timeless expression of God’s truth or 2) as a living, ever-evolving text that we may come to understand differently as new truths about God’s world come to light in other academic realms. As Professor Debra Sequeira puts it in her qualitative analysis of the 2021 survey of faculty and staff, “There is a clear sense that the ‘faithful’ . . . who reject same-sex marriage and adhere to a binary view of gender believe that God has spoken on the matter, whereas the ‘faithful’ who affirm same-sex marriage and a wide view of gender identities believe that God is still speaking” (33-34). While SPU students may be getting substantial tutelage in the tensions that arise from different interpretive approaches, the SPU community as a whole has not properly grappled with this reality and its repercussions.
The ecumenical pillar is most frequently invoked by those in favor of eliminating SPU’s prohibition against employing individuals in same-sex marriage. As of 2021, SPU students and faculty represented over 50 different Christian denominations, which undoubtedly encompasses a very wide range of opinions on spiritual matters and practices. SPU’s broadly invitational ecumenism is frequently defined by the maxim “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This quote—another “third way” formula—is often erroneously attributed to John Wesley (as well as St. Augustine), although it most likely originated in the 17th century. However, it certainly embodies the “catholic spirit” of Wesley’s work, which transcends all major church schisms. Within his sermons (not to mention his fifty-volume “A Christian Library,” a collection of “the Choicest Pieces of Practical Divinity” assembled for the edification of his pupils), one can find “sources from the early church, the eastern divines, the Catholic mystics, and the Protestant Reformers” (Danker). Wesley’s ecumenism can be summed up in his own epigram, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think” (“The Character of a Methodist” 1).
Although ecumenism is typically regarded as orthodoxy’s polar opposite, the maxims indicate these pillars should be understood as complementary rather than competitive. In Steele’s words, “A community that cherishes commitment to Christ without granting a measure of spiritual freedom to its members risks becoming cramped and oppressive. Conversely, a community which, in granting its members a large member of personal freedom, fails to call them to obedient discipleship, may lose its spiritual cohesion and moral clarity” (1-2). Ecumenism does not mean that anything goes; it is not “an indifference to all opinions” (Wesley, “Catholic Spirit” III.1). Rather, ecumenism is predicated on the presence of an essential core, root, or “marrow” of belief (Wesley, “Scripture” 2) that makes communion and cohesion within diversity possible.
The challenge comes with how the community defines the essential marrow, which brings us back to tensions regarding the orthodox pillar. For some, the relatively few Scriptural verses that treat the topic of same-sex sexual activity, the diversity of opinion on how to interpret those verses, the absence of those verses from historic doctrinal creeds, and the primacy of Christ’s command to “love thy neighbor,” indicate that one’s position on same-sex marriage is not essential to defining Christianity or what it means to be a Christian university. For others, verses declaring that sexual conduct can imperil salvation (I Cor. 6:9-10), combined with what Wesley Hill calls “a broad scriptural tissue” stretching from the creation of “male and female” at the beginning of Genesis to the wedding imagery at the end of Revelation, indicate that we cannot view “marriage and sexuality merely as secondary matters about which believers are free to disagree” (Hill 8).
There is another challenge here, one that arises from SPU declaring itself to be both a Free Methodist institution as well as an ecumenical one. To some degree this can be theoretically resolved by the Wesleyan pillar (see below), but as we have seen, SPU’s denominational affiliation raises practical tensions regarding how and to what extent SPU’s policies should be aligned with the church’s. SPU professors Dave Nienhuis and Doug Strong argue that, given that many church denominations and congregations have developed theologically compelling arguments in defense of same-sex marriage, holding to the Free Methodist prohibition against it excessively constrains the meaning of the orthodox, ecumenical, and even Wesleyan pillars.
Using the term evangelical to identify one of SPU’s faith commitments has been controversial within the institution for at least two decades, if not more. It is defined in the SoF as pertaining to “the broad evangelical tradition of Christianity” in which “we joyfully accept the task of proclaiming the evangel—God’s good news—to the world.” Thus, we are “evangelical” in the missional sense of being called to spread the good news of God’s forgiveness, grace, and liberation. This definition of “evangelical” does not aim to signal the conservative American political associations and commitments of the term. Yet these connotations persist, both within and without the institution, to both positive and negative effect, depending on one’s perspective. According to some responses in the 2021 human sexuality survey of faculty and staff, for SPU to change its sexual conduct standards means it will tragically lose its “evangelical,” and thus its Christian, identity; the conduct policy becomes a primary way that SPU must hold the line against cultural encroachment on biblical truth. According to other responses, the evangelical moniker is a millstone that compromises the winsomeness of SPU’s Christian educational mission and, in its preoccupation with sexual discipline, distracts from the importance of other Christian values such as justice and service (Sequeira 34).
SPU’s identity as a Wesleyan institution can be understood as a synthesis of the other three pillars, in which “we blend creedal orthodoxy, evangelical missiology, and ecumenical hospitality” (Steele 2). The Free Methodist denomination is referred to only once in the Statement of Faith, which focuses instead on “the theological legacy of John and Charles Wesley,” the progenitors of a much broader family of churches. The SoF states that “Above all, we embrace the Wesleys’ hope that God’s transforming love is offered to all persons, addresses all areas of life, and will not rest content until it has redeemed the whole creation.” This core Wesleyan theology is elaborated in John Wesley’s sermon “Of the Church” in which he wrestles with the relationship between the specific doctrines and practices of his own church (the Church of England) and the different doctrines and practices found throughout other branches of the Church universal. Wesley concluded that he could not exclude anyone who has the “one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one God and Father of all” even if they appear to hold “unscriptural doctrines” or “wrong opinions.” Likewise, in “The Ministerial Office” (1789), Wesley declared the “glory of the Methodists” to be that “they are themselves no particular sect or party; but they receive those of all parties who ‘endeavour to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God’” (21). The Wesleyan legacy of heterogeneous hospitality means that faculty and staff do not have to personally subscribe to Free Methodism or even Wesleyanism in their faith beliefs and practices in order to make SPU their vocational home; if properly exercised, this hospitality also challenges each member to think more deeply and carefully about their own beliefs and practices when set alongside others’. This makes SPU a very appealing place for a broad variety of Christians to work. It also has the potential to put significant strain on the Free Methodist character of the institution. It is plausible to conclude that Free Methodist quotas in the Book of Discipline and SPU’s bylaws were instituted as counterbalances to the denominational dilution invited by Wesleyanism itself.
Another aspect of Wesleyanism frequently cited at SPU is the so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral” of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. The term does not appear in the current Statement of Faith and is regarded somewhat skeptically by SPU’s theologians, since it is not a concept explicitly formulated by Wesley himself (see Outler). However, it has figured prominently in past descriptions of SPU’s mission, and it persists in the SPU Faculty Handbook (7.1); furthermore, its components emerged as major themes within the 2021 faculty and staff survey on human sexuality, suggesting its pervasiveness within SPU’s culture (Sequeira 32). The quadrilateral’s own four “pillars,” held in tension, demarcates a sacred liminal space well-suited to the purposes and practices of a Christian university, which seeks God’s truth in all corners of life. As the United Methodist Church expresses it in “Our Doctrinal History,” the “living core . . . [of Christian truth] stands revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal and corporate experience, and confirmed by reason.” (The Free Methodist Church also embraces this “Wesleyan methodology,” as evidenced by this paper on women in ministry, solicited by the board of bishops and published on the FMC—USA website.) The pillars are not equivalent sources of truth—rather they provide three different lenses that can aid in the task of interpreting Scripture (the quadrilateral’s gravitational core) for present-day concerns. And here again we find cause for significant dissension depending on whether tradition, reason, or experience (itself highly variable) is given more weight in the interpretation of that core.
One other aspect of the Wesleyan tradition that engenders conflicting interpretations is its focus on piety, which takes on both personal and social dimensions. We are to individually “cultivat[e] a vital Christian piety” through “prayer, meditation, worship, and Scripture study,” but our “spiritual disciplines and practices” must also include outward-facing works such as “charitable giving, public witness to Christ’s saving love, and service to those in need” so that the Holy Spirit may work not only in us but also through us. Although both sides of SPU’s current dispute invoke elements of both kinds of piety, those who favor maintaining the policy tend to emphasize the personal dimension while those who favor revising the policy tend to emphasize the social dimension.
As this survey of the four pillars demonstrates, orthodox, ecumenical, evangelical, and Wesleyan are all complex identities, and there is no singular, obvious way to hold them in a balanced tension. Thus, while all of the three main ways forward for SPU identified by the LGBTQIA+ Work Group can be said to conform to SPU’s mission and Statement of Faith, each applies a different interpretive lens to those documents and, as a result, projects a different vision of Christian education to the world. For example, the “maintaining option” focuses on modeling personal virtue as a dimension of Christian character formation, the “affirming option” focuses on modeling the virtues of justice and equality, and the ”third way” option focuses on modeling the virtues of scholarly inquiry, invitation, and hospitality. The competing lenses are defined not by competing values so much as by divergent emphases and preferences regarding a given value: individual fallenness vs. systemic fallenness, personal responsibility vs. corporate responsibility, principle-oriented expressions of faith vs. pragmatic-oriented expressions. Indeed, these emphases correspond so neatly to conservative and progressive ideological differences that it should spur us all to soberly consider whether our political commitments are grounded in our theological commitments, or vice versa.
The Maintaining Option
One option that SPU could take would be to advocate a traditional stance on sexuality and gender identity by retaining the current employee conduct policy and Statement on Human Sexuality (SoHS). The traditional stance condones sexual relations only between one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage, and it asserts that God created humans as inherently gender differentiated. This stance has been held historically by SPU (at least at the administrative level), by the Free Methodist denomination, and by the majority of the global church.
As outlined in the “Option 1” section of the LWGR (Canada et al. “Options” 1-2), there are several ways the traditionalist approach is arguably consistent with SPU’s mission and Statement of Faith (SoF).
Orthodox. The conduct policy and SoHS “are derived from defensible biblical exegesis [and] are anchored in an authoritative interpretation of Scripture and a long-standing tradition of the Christian Church” (1). While sexual conduct is not specifically named in the Statement of Faith, ‘The absence of language regarding specific conduct does not mean that such matters are not vitally important to Christian life, nor does it give SPU automatic license to revise or reject [or ignore] historical interpretations of scripture pertaining to conduct” (1).
Wesleyan. The conduct policy and the SoHS’s conformity with the doctrine of the Free Methodist Church “is not merely a case of honoring our parent; the Wesleyan holiness branch of Christianity places special emphasis on spiritual disciplines and practices, including what we do with our bodies” (1-2). Furthermore, given SPU’s longstanding missional concern with character formation, “maintaining an institutional stance regarding personal conduct could be said to be genetically essential to SPU” (2). Furthermore, “Being intentional about our stance [on sexual conduct] can also provide motivation for developing robust educational programs designed to increase student wisdom in the area of human sexuality” (2).
Evangelical. “The SoF states that ‘cultivating vital Christian piety’ and ‘practicing what we preach’ are crucial to proclaiming the gospel—another reason to make personal conduct a central institutional concern” (2). Taking an institutional stance on sexual conduct, especially one that promotes a marital ethic, can provide a counterweight to a cultural libertinism that concerns “traditional” and “affirming” Christians alike—it provides a public witness that attempts to “change the world” by showing that “our loving commitments to one another [need] to be bolstered by “legal, moral, communal, and ecclesial structures” (Gushee 102).
Ecumenical. “Our ecumenism must always be negotiated within the context of the other three pillars of our SoF. The traditional view is a widely held historical Christian stance (well within the bounds of what could be called orthodoxy) and given the variety of both domestic and global churches that subscribe to this stance, an institutional statement on sexual conduct does not necessitate a lack of theological diversity at SPU” (2). While holding this traditional stance, SPU still strives to “model grace-filled community” by affirming the dignity and worth of every human being and employing any LGBTQ Christians who agree to abide by the conduct policy.
Salient arguments against SPU taking a “maintaining” approach include the following, addressed in the “Implications” for Option 1 section of the LWGR (5-10):
Orthodox Excess & Ecumenical Deficiency. This option could be said to give disproportionate weight to the SoF’s “orthodox” pillar, which is in turn too narrowly defined by Free Methodist tradition (see Nienhuis and Strong); this orthodox excess leads to an ecumenical deficiency and “contracts the theological boundaries of SPU to a smaller radius” than it previously encompassed (5).
Inhibition of Academic Freedom & Disproportionate Emphasis on a Single Issue. Having an institutional position creates significant confusion about the community’s identity and the university’s commitment to Christian academic freedom. In the case of the “maintaining” option, the employee conduct policy creates dissonance with the campus diversity efforts and the attempt to build a welcoming and nondiscriminatory atmosphere; it also “foments a negative atmosphere of fear, surveillance and suspicion for employees who identify as LGBTQ+” (8). Having an institutional position on this issue also “unduly emphasizes and elevates one aspect of Christian life over many equally important ones” (5), implying that certain beliefs about human sexuality have been a cornerstone of the institution’s faith commitments, even though they have been obscure if not altogether invisible at various times in SPU’s history.
Questionable Definition of a “Shared Direction.” Given the substantial majority objection of both faculty and staff to the employee conduct policy as registered in the 2021 sexuality survey, it would be difficult to argue that maintaining the policy is a “shared” way forward, as required by the Work Group’s charge; indeed, the LWGR noted that a “maintaining” position “will frustrate, disillusion, and anger the majority” of faculty, staff and students and will “guarantee a very loud, very public, and very organized protest from [those] who oppose the policy” (5-6, 9). It is true that the belief of a democratic majority does not guarantee the establishment of what is biblically right and just. By the same token, neither does a persistence of a belief over time (a chronological majority) guarantee the establishment of what is biblically right and just, as we have seen with long-standing racist interpretations of scripture. While we should be careful not to succumb to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”—the assumption that recent ideas are inherently superior to older ones—we must also be certain that we hold our traditional views by virtue of a constantly interrogated conviction, rather than historical nostalgia, unexamined habit, or fear.
Policy Intent vs. Policy Impact. While those in favor of maintaining the policy insist they are motivated by loving intent, it is difficult if not impossible for gay or bi-sexual individuals to hear arguments prohibiting same-sex sexual activity as anything other than a condemnation of their very existence. This misalignment of intent and impact is rooted in thorny and long-debated philosophical questions about the relation between identity and conduct, nature and will. Legal arguments in the US concerning discrimination towards LGBTQ persons have typically “declined to distinguish between status and conduct,” assuming that each functions as a proxy for the other (Ginsburg, qtd. in Millhiser). Religious arguments, on the other hand, have tended to treat identity and behavior as separate categories. In a stance akin to the Christian maxim “love the sinner, hate the sin,” SPU’s Statement on Human Sexuality attempts to distinguish between orientation and action, asserting that everyone, “homosexual or heterosexual,” is made in God’s image and deserving of love while implying that same-sex sexual activity remains outside of God’s designs. But as C. Christopher Smith argues, “Our sexuality is an integral part of our bodies and personhood. . . . sexuality has to do with how we relate to the world, with our longing for intimacy and being known, and with our need for human companionship” (198). The SoHS itself echoes this holistic language: “Our sexuality is intended by God to reflect the whole of our sensual and relational createdness.” It is not difficult to see, then, that denying people the right to experience intimacy in ways that are fundamental to their created physical being (and denying that right even within the context of a loving, monogamous and committed relationship) could be construed as a condemnation of their identity and an insult to their very humanity. Amidst the LGBTQ debates, there are not yet satisfactory answers for many Christians as to 1) why God would oppose loving and committed same-sex relationships (what is the moral logic?) and 2) how the prohibition against such relationships helps humans (particularly those with same-sex orientation) to flourish. Furthermore, science has demonstrated that the existence of such institutional prohibitions, regardless of the intent behind them, increases social stigma and psychological harm for LGBTQ+ persons.
The “Maintaining” Option as a New Direction: It should be added here (since this was not made clear in the original report) that the term maintaining option could give readers the mistaken impression that this is merely a “stay the course” approach in which nothing has changed. It is true the policy and the Statement on Human Sexuality have existed for several decades. But since 2021, when the controversy erupted, the policy has had a high level of visible association with SPU that it never had before (see the histories of the policy and of the SoHS). Keeping the policy in the face of internal objections and public pressure dramatically alters SPU’s relationships with both religious and secular communities and arguably casts SPU’s mission in a significantly different light than the one promoted for the last decade in our diversity-centered marketing materials.
The Affirming Option
Another option SPU could take would be to advocate an affirming stance on sexuality and gender identity by revising the employee conduct policy to allow for same-sex sexual activity within the context of marriage and revising the SoHS to affirm that same-sex marriages are blessed by God and that the full variety of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression should be embraced as part of God’s desire for creation. The Work Group expected this stance to be unacceptable to the FMC, so the report suggested “working with the FMC to find mutually supportive ways to stay in relationship,” even if formal affiliation could no longer be possible.
Orthodox. “The affirmation of same-sex marriage and the full spectrum of gender identity and expression are theologically defensible positions” currently held by many Protestants and even some Evangelicals. “Furthermore, because the . . . SoF stay[s] focused on doctrinal essentials . . . , an affirming position is in alignment with SPU’s Statement of Faith.” While an affirming stance departs from long standing scriptural interpretations, “other biblical interpretations held as orthodoxy for centuries (such as scriptural support for slavery and antisemitism) have nevertheless been, in the course of time, definitively and universally overturned.” The affirming stance “does not compromise the core truth of the Gospel” of redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection, and even if one finds the Scriptural defense of this stance unconvincing, “the person and actions of Jesus Christ provide strong pastoral incentive to embrace an affirming position.” Furthermore, the affirming option still “uphold[s] the covenantal marital ethic that has been a defining value for historical and contemporary Christianity.”
Wesleyan. In applying the Wesleyan quadrilateral, we can see that the church’s “tradition” regarding sexual matters consists of scriptural translations and interpretations that have varied significantly over time. “We can see also that general revelation—through the expert wisdom of biological and social scientists (Christian or otherwise)—has granted us a much more complex understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality than earlier generations of the church had. And experience has shown us that despite generations of marginalization and oppression, members of the LGBTQ community can and do contribute to human flourishing, both inside and outside the church. Perhaps even more compelling is the Wesleyan assertion that ‘God’s transforming love is offered to all persons’—that the law of love transcends legalistic and disputed definitions of personal piety. Founded in this love is a kind of Christian character that emphasizes justice and equality, two major touchstones that have defined the history of the Free Methodist Church in its support for the abolition of slavery and the free use of church pews.”
Evangelical. “The affirming approach also fulfills . . . our mission to proclaim the good news of God’s saving love and to be a model for the world, confirming our historic and long-publicized commitment to ‘grace-filled community,’ reconciliation, and belonging amidst diversity. . . . The affirming approach invites us into close association with one another, so that we may be transformed in our understanding about both God and humanity. This approach will be an especially effective witness to young people who have left or are considering leaving the church [over this issue] . . . . The affirming approach would unambiguously assert the worth and dignity of every human being as they are created, with no stigmatizing asterisk . . . . Furthermore, given that the Christian church has largely relegated to the ‘world’ any teaching about healthy sexuality for LGBTQ+ persons, this approach offers the opportunity to have meaningful conversations [about sexuality] with all our students. The affirming approach . . . seeks to maximize the university’s ability to train students to engage lovingly, constructively, and competently with the full diversity of humanity, the better to change the world. Moreover, Evangelicals themselves are not monolithic in this area and there is an increasing number of Evangelicals who support same-sex marriage.”
Ecumenical. The Statement of Faith “makes no allusion to gender identity or sexual behavior as part of the doctrinal orthodoxy that centers SPU. Furthermore, many denominations have determined that Scripture does not definitively condemn same-sex sexual expression within the bounds of marriage, and many churches give their express blessing to such unions. SPU already welcomes differences of Christian opinion amongst SPU employees regarding such profound topics as the Eucharist, human experience after death, and the justification of war; . . . [we] have enriched, deepened and honed our personal faith as a result of discussing these different views. To be ‘genuinely ecumenical’ in the spirit of our non-sectarian Wesleyan heritage, we need to make space for all Christians at the table, regardless of sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression.”
Salient arguments against SPU taking an “affirming” approach include the following, addressed in the “Implications” for Option 5 section of the LWGR (54-57):
Ecumenical Deficiency. As with the “maintaining” option, “staking out [an institutional “affirming”] position . . . makes it difficult to maintain an invitational stance toward all varieties of orthodox Christian faith. It contracts the theological boundaries of SPU to a smaller radius than it has historically encompassed” by virtue of the expansive Statement of Faith.
Inhibition of Academic Freedom & Disproportionate Emphasis on a Single Issue. As with the “maintaining” option, having an institutional position creates significant confusion about the community’s identity and the university’s commitment to Christian academic freedom. In the case of the “affirming” option, an official SPU position “inhibits the expression and threatens the security of faculty and staff who support traditional views” and may “cause conservative-leaning students to fear expressing or exploring traditional views (or questioning progressive ones) on human sexuality” (54-55). Having an institutional position on this issue also “unduly emphasizes and elevates one aspect of Christian life over many equally important ones” (5).
Questionable Definition of a “Shared Direction.” Although substantial majorities of faculty and staff favored getting rid of the employee conduct policy regarding same-sex sexual relations, portions of those majorities still personally identified with a conservative stance on sexuality. Defining SPU with one particular position on the spectrum of views makes it difficult to bring everyone along in a shared way forward.
The Third Way Option
As the introduction to the LGBTQIA+ Work Group Report notes, the “maintaining” and “affirming” options “would make SPU’s stance clear and resolve many of the ambiguities of our current situation. Both options, however, would commit SPU to a side in an ongoing, unresolved Church debate—pleasing one side and alienating the other. Endorsing a side in this dispute would be based on an understanding of the Christian university . . . as the provider of ‘the’ answer to this contentious issue for our students” (Canada et al. “Intro” 7). This would run contrary to the ideal of a Christian university as a sacred liminal space, and against the grain of SPU’s non-sectarian Wesleyan heritage (7). Wesley himself promoted liminality as a habit of mind: “I trust, whereinsoever I have mistaken, my mind is open to conviction. I sincerely desire to be better informed. I say to God and man, ‘What I know not, teach thou me!’” (“Preface”). He also promoted liminality as a habit of the heart:
But while [the Christian] is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus, while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight, . . . his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not. He embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is a catholic spirit. (“A Catholic Spirit” III.4)
This “catholic spirit” and “openness to conviction” translates directly to the nonsectarian educational vision of Hiram Pease, a Free Methodist founder of SPU, who declared the institution should be “first a Christian, secondly a Free Methodist” school (“Intro” 8). These values in turn have been instilled in SPU’s Statement of Faith, which seeks “to cultivate a space committed to the Christian faith and tradition while seeking not to fall subject to tribalism that has divided the Christian community” (“Intro” 7). As noted in the LWGR, “Wesleyan ecumenism sees the variety of Christian traditions as mutually enriching rather than competitive” (“Intro” 8). SPU faculty in particular have experienced this mutual enrichment by regularly writing and reading one another’s personal “statements of faith” at various stages in our careers. These statements (which are also reviewed by the Board) record how each of us personally wrestles with the tensions of the four pillars in SPU’s statement of faith, as well as how these pillars relate to our own faith commitments and practices. Our exposure to the great variety of ways the Spirit works within the body of Christ inevitably broadens and deepens our own spiritual understanding.
Increasing the diversity of human perspectives at SPU appeared to the Work Group to not only make theological, educational, and historical sense but also social and financial sense. According to business research, “institutions comprised of individuals with more diverse identities and perspectives show increased innovation and creativity, more potential to problem-solve and adapt to change, and increased employee retention and engagement” (“Options” 5). By building “a community where passionate differences can be articulated and defended while Christ-centered communion can be encouraged and flourish,” SPU could be “a draw for Christian students who want to honestly wrestle with crucial topics of our day, as well as a model for the church and society on how Christians who disagree can choose to live and work together, all seeking to live our faith genuinely” (Canada et al. “Intro” 9).
For all these reasons, the Work Group sought a path forward for SPU that would genuinely widen the circle of invitation, rather than simply slide a narrow-gauge circle of acceptability toward one end of the theological spectrum or the other. In the context of current LGBTQ+ debates, it was felt that the highest ideal for such a space required allowing the employment of Christian LGBTQ+ faculty and staff in same-sex marriages; this would enable SPU’s educational community to benefit from the widest range of Christian wisdom, experience, and mentorship possible regarding human sexuality issues. At the same time, it would be imperative to create a campus culture that acknowledges the theological legitimacy of both traditional and affirming Christian views and encourages charitable engagement with all perspectives. In the “Third Way” option, SPU would choose to position itself as a grace-filled learning community that recognizes, respects, and invites inquiry into the diversity of Christian opinion on same-sex relations and gender identity by
- Holding to the “Articles of Religion” outlined in the FM Book of Discipline (¶ 101-131) and seeking “Affiliated” status for Free Methodist educational institutions (¶ 4820)
- Revising the employee conduct policy to allow for same-sex sexual activity within the context of marriage, thus making Christian individuals in same-sex marriages eligible for employment. The prohibition against extra-marital sexual activity would be retained.
- Either reframing, substantially revising, or eliminating SPU’s Statement on Human Sexuality (SoHS).
- In the “reframing” option, the SoHS would be retained to acknowledge SPU’s ecclesial tie to the FMC, but it would be framed to “authorize disagreement with the SoHS within the university while inviting everyone to stay engaged with each other in Christian community” (“Options” 13).
- In the “revising” option, the SoHS would “clarify that SPU holds no official position on human sexuality other than its remaining conduct expectations” and would “recognize that multiple interpretations of Biblical teaching on sexuality and gender identity are theologically defensible” (“Options” 24).
- In the “eliminating” option, SPU would have no institutional statement regarding sexual matters, in order to “encourage freer discussion of these complex issues in the context of disagreement within the body of Christ and help broaden the circle of invitation to everyone, no matter their convictions” (“Options” 39) .
As outlined in the “Option 4” section of the LWGR (37-48), there are several ways this Third Way approach is arguably consistent with SPU’s mission and Statement of Faith. (The following discussion focuses on the core arguments common to all 3 variations of the Third Way; i.e., it refrains from going into detail regarding the various SoHS options.)
Orthodox. “Opening the institution to employing Christian individuals regardless of their sexuality or gender identity is a theologically defensible practice that aligns with positions (both theological and pastoral) held by many mainline Protestant denominations as well as held by some Evangelical theologians, scholars, and churches. Furthermore, because the examples of orthodox belief expressed in SPU’s SoF stay focused on doctrinal essentials . . . , an open employment practice is in alignment with SPU’s Statement of Faith. It is true that an open approach toward same-sex relations diverges from centuries-old interpretations of scripture. Yet . . . other biblical interpretations held as orthodoxy for centuries (such as scriptural support for slavery and antisemitism) have nevertheless been, in the course of time, definitively and universally overturned. Furthermore, giving ourselves permission to reappraise one area of Christian sexual ethics does not compromise the core truth of the Gospel—that God reconciles the world to himself through the death and resurrection of Christ. The authority of scripture remains central to an open policy position: exegesis on questions of sexuality yields a diverse array of compelling conclusions, and there is hermeneutical support for affirming interpretations. Even if one finds the exegetical and hermeneutical interpretations unconvincing, the person and actions of Jesus Christ provide strong pastoral incentive to embrace an open position. Moreover, SPU’s policy would continue to uphold the covenantal marital ethic that has been a defining value for historical and contemporary Christianity.”
Wesleyan. In applying the Wesleyan quadrilateral, we can see that the church’s “tradition” regarding sexual matters consists of scriptural translations and interpretations that have varied significantly over time. “We can see also that general revelation—through the expert wisdom of biological and social scientists (Christian or otherwise)—has granted us a much more complex understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality than earlier generations of the church had. And experience has shown us that despite generations of marginalization and oppression, members of the LGBTQ community can and do contribute to human flourishing, both inside and outside the church. Perhaps even more compelling is the Wesleyan assertion that ‘God’s transforming love is offered to all persons’—that the law of love transcends legalistic and disputed definitions of personal piety. Founded in this love is a kind of Christian character that emphasizes invitation, hospitality, and the important role human relationships play in the Holy Spirit’s transforming power. This posture of welcoming is a major touchstone for the Free Methodist church, whose educational institutions have historically been non-sectarian [and whose churches have rejected exclusion and discrimination according to class and race]. This [invitational] posture is all the more necessary as we see that even within the Wesleyan ecclesial families, discussions over human sexuality have been persistent and divisive. Furthermore, an open employment policy does not signify a dilution of the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness or a weakening of Christian morality; rather, it invites all Christians together, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, into the rigors of spiritual and moral discipline.”
Evangelical. The Third Way approach “fulfills . . . our mission to proclaim the good news of God’s saving love and to be a model for the world, confirming our historic and long-publicized commitment to ‘grace-filled community,’ reconciliation, and belonging amid diversity. Proclaiming the Gospel is a relational act, and scripture demonstrates that God’s transformative spirit is frequently found in human encounters. But the characteristic response of the Christian church throughout history has been to divide, exclude, and even exterminate in the face of major (and minor) theological disagreement. Instead, SPU chooses to invite each person into close association with one another, reading the scriptures deeply and complexly within each other’s presence so that all may be transformed in their understanding of God and humanity. Being tethered to the Gospel and Jesus Christ in this way can help us gracefully and humbly listen to different perspectives while communicating our own with both civility and passion. This invitational approach will also be an effective witness to young people who have left or are considering leaving the church, either because they have been convinced their sexual identity is incompatible with being Christian or because they feel that the church is hypocritical in its profession of Christ-like love. The open employment policy clearly implies the worth and dignity of every human being as they are created, with no stigmatizing asterisk . . . . Furthermore, given that the Christian church has largely relegated to the ‘world’ any teaching about healthy sexuality for LGBTQ+ persons, this approach offers the opportunity to have meaningful conversations [about sexuality] with all our students. The open, invitational approach is not a capitulation to culture but an engagement with culture; it seeks to maximize the university’s ability to train students to engage lovingly, constructively, and competently with the full diversity of humanity, the better to change the world. Moreover, Evangelicals themselves are not monolithic on this issue and an increasing number of Evangelicals support same-sex marriage.”
Ecumenical. “The Statement of Faith was conceived as a document that strove to find a common center for faith, rather than to define or police its boundaries. It makes no allusion to gender identity or sexual behavior as part of the doctrinal orthodoxy that centers SPU. Furthermore, many denominations have determined that Scripture does not definitively condemn same-sex sexual expression within the bounds of marriage, and many churches give their express blessing to such unions. SPU already welcomes differences of Christian opinion amongst SPU employees regarding such profound topics as the Eucharist, human experience after death, and the justification of war; . . . [we] have enriched, deepened, and honed our personal faith as a result of discussing these different views and prayerfully seeking God’s truth amidst our divisions. Making space for Christians at the SPU table, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, helps us become even more “genuinely ecumenical” in the spirit of our non-sectarian Wesleyan heritage. Indeed, the educational institutions of the Free Methodist Church have historically been set on educating the head, heart, and hands of every student, regardless of background, so that they are equipped to engage their own communities (ecclesial or otherwise) in ways that further Christ’s kingdom on earth.”
Other arguments for adopting the “Third Way” option include the following, as outlined in Option 4 (“Options” 39-40):
The University’s Role in Guiding Inquiry. “This approach shows that we are committed to grace-filled conversations amidst disagreement. In our classrooms we would present historical Christian views of human sexuality as respectable and defensible interpretations of Scripture that are held in tension with respectable and defensible interpretations that do not consider same-sex intimacy in marriage to be sinful. We would come together in humility acknowledging that humans are fallible in their reading of Scripture, and that faithful Christians disagree on this topic, as well as many others. SPU can be a place where students can learn and discuss the full breadth of Christian perspectives of controversial, pressing topics, in a manner that is faithful, respectful, collegial, and substantive. Students are not indoctrinated but rather taught to question, study, and think for themselves” (“Options” 39-40).
Leaning into Our Statement of Faith as Our Defining Document. “SPU’s Statement of Faith has drawn and continues to draw high-quality faculty, staff, and administrators to SPU, and it has been the primary face of the institution for decades, unlike the Statement on Human Sexuality, which has been only intermittently visible and never prominent until very recently. The Statement of Faith has built the institution we have today, and for many if not most employees, that institution is defined as” a community that holds to uncontroversial “core convictions while making space for difference, disagreement and divergence” on disputable issues (“Options” 40; “Intro” 7).
Enriching the Markers of What It Means to be “Christian.” “By opening SPU to the employment of Christians regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, this generous orthodoxy that ‘leaves behind legalism’ (as the Free Methodist Way puts it) errs on the side of love, invitation, and transformative interaction. It focuses on what draws us together rather than what would make us distinctive through exclusion (a ‘centered set’ theology). Rather than defining ‘Christian’ narrowly as ‘moral virtue’ or as ‘justice,’ it brings together people holding these different definitions so each may complicate and refine their understanding” (“Options” 40)
Role Models for Students Struggling with Sexuality or Identity Issues. “By hiring Christian faculty and staff who are in committed and loving same-sex relationships, or who have themselves struggled with issues of gender identity and have thereby deepened their faith, students are presented with role models who have integrated Christianity and their sexual identity in healthy ways. This gives them a safe space in which to talk and receive guidance about sex, gender, and faith” (“Options” 40).
The Third Way as the Hard Way
The Third Way as conceived by the Work Group is “not a shallow compromise or a mushy middle.It calls SPU to strive towards a goal [of radical inclusivity] that is not seen at other faith-based institutions and is conspicuously absent in much of Christendom’s history. It requires forging a new path where few have dared to tread. This option . . . [is] much more difficult to achieve than any of the others” (“Options” 23). Just a few challenges to accomplishing this vision are outlined below.
The Third Way Will Not Eradicate Disagreement
The Third Way is not a magical cure for division or disagreement. Indeed, none of the possible paths forward for SPU can escape disagreement, which is “an integral part of human existence” (Vainio xxi). This is not entirely lamentable, since disagreement and debate provide a valuable means of testing truth and honing understanding. A diversity of opinion is the sign of healthy and abundant organization: it illuminates the blind spots of monoculture and stimulates creative and synergetic thinking. When God looked at the teeming diversity of this created world, He declared it good.
However, the disagreements we are struggling with are moral ones (Hill), deeply tied to how we define ourselves, our institution, and Christianity as a whole. This makes them highly susceptible to mutating into “conflict,” which Smith defines as “disagreement that has become insidious and is ripping a community apart. . . . Impatience, jealousy, bitterness, judgment, and demonization are just a few of the seeds that turn disagreement into conflict” (148-49). As we converse about these weighty matters, it is an incredibly difficult task to invite all perspectives and still keep ourselves in loving relationship. It requires an adaptive transformation of SPU’s community on a much bigger scale than simply tinkering with the wording of a policy. We have seen that ignoring or even consciously tolerating our polarization has not helped us prevent or transcend the formation of deep spiritual rifts. We will need to engage our conflicting views directly and learn to deal constructively with continuous friction. Such skills are crucial to model for our students if we want to prepare them to sow love and light in the world.
As we work on this engagement, achieving agreement will probably not be a practical goal. In Disagreeing Virtuously,Olli-Pekka Vainio explains that, in a dialogue that is conducted well, a change in being is more likely than a change of mind :
it must be recognized that resolving the conflict does not necessarily mean (and it rarely does) that group a simply decides to agree with group b. Often the result is that opposing propositions retain their original force. However . . . the hold that people have on their convictions may change. They become more self-reflective; they understand better the reasons they hold their beliefs and why these beliefs appear strange to others; they see the problems inhering in their own belief systems and the ways they might be improved with the help of others; and so on. Often this is enough. (156-57)
Those most suited to bringing about such a resolution are those who have (in the words of Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski) the skill and wisdom “‘to see the world and themselves through the eyes of another without threat to their identity’” (qtd. in Vainio 156).
The Third Way Requires Spiritual Discipline
How then shall we accomplish this? In Disagreeing Virtuously,Olli-Pekka Vainio identifies three virtues that can help keep communities in conversation in the midst of disagreement: open-mindedness, humility, and courage.
- Open-Mindedness first “entails engaging a serious thought exam: Even if I hold these beliefs, I will try to inhabit a different mode of thinking that is not common to me. Second, an open-minded person engages in dialectical deliberation by reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of both his or her own and opposing position(s). Third, open-mindedness entails that we must sometimes remain in a state of uncertainty and avoid drawing hasty conclusions” (Vainio 158). We might add that love and curiosity can assist the cultivation of this virtue. As John Wesley urges in “A Catholic Spirit,” “Love me with the love that is not provoked, either at my follies or infirmities, or even at my acting (if it should sometimes so appear to you) not according to the will of God” (II.4). Such equanimity is easier to maintain by approaching the discussion not with a negative spirit of sufferance but a positive one of genuine interest; assume that you have something to learn from the conversation (Headlee), and expect to be surprised. Open-mindedness does not mean having no convictions; it means acknowledging that we see through a glass darkly and might be subject to what Emerson called a “foolish consistency.”
- Humility consists of an ability to accurately assess the strengths and weaknesses of one’s abilities and beliefs, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of others’ beliefs. It also includes an ability to constructively relate one’s perspective with others’—an ability predicated on an openness to new ideas and “‘an appreciation of the value of all things’” (Vainio 163). The challenge with this virtue is how devalued it has been in both ancient and contemporary societies.
- Courage helps provide a “Golden Mean” counterweight to the other two virtues: “If open-mindedness and humility help us avoid attributing too high a certainty to our beliefs, intellectual courage should enable us to hold our ground when we are challenged. By courage we usually mean a voluntary state of mind that involves conscious judgment to act in proper ways in the face of danger” (Vainio 165). The courageous truth-teller always risks something and cannot expect to feel comfortable, even when they are in a psychologically safe space. This is especially true if authentic understanding—and growth—is to take place, since that requires making oneself open and vulnerable to another person’s views. Freedom to speak does not mean freedom from risk (Vainio 169). Furthermore, as argued by Thomas Aquinas, to be truly virtuous, “acts of courage need to be motivated by the love of neighbor and the love of God, not love of one’s self or honor” (Vainio 166); the virtue is in fact closely related to “communal thinking”—“those who endanger themselves typically have a sense of belonging to a greater humanity” (Vainio 167). Conversely, if the community itself “supports . . . and expects courageous actions, it is easier to behave courageously” (Vainio 167). This should provide strong incentive for communities (especially those that already have strong common ground in Christ) to cultivate what Loretta J. Ross describes as a “calling-in culture”: one that leans toward “calling people in” instead of “calling them out.”
The conflict at SPU has unquestionably led to a diminishment of collegiality amongst faculty and staff (“Options” 22), as well as between the board and the campus. As the community works on practicing the virtues of open-mindedness, humility, and courage, it may help, as Susan Felch suggests, to ground them in the concept of the imago dei:
Christian education . . . begins with an assertion of common ground and common good that is both imminent and transcendent, that every human being is made in the image of God. That we cannot precisely define imago dei may frustrate theologians, but that is because it is less a doctrinal position and more a posture we assume, a posture of awe, gratitude, humility, and responsibility, a posture convinced that every human already possesses dignity and worth.
The posture of the imago dei means always and utterly setting aside the “lens of disdain” (Peterson). At SPU this might mean, for example, that those in favor of maintaining the policy recognize that those who oppose it do so out of their allegiance to Christ, not out of a mindless capitulation to culture (“Options” 22). And conversely, those opposed to the policy could recognize that those in favor are not motivated by “hate” but by a sincere desire to spiritually guide our students and do God’s will. Members in both camps could better “demonstrate they are capable of not merely allowing expressions of [different] views on campus but also inviting and engaging them with love” (“Options” 22). At the same time, “there need to be clear ground rules . . . about where and in what circumstances it is proper to express these differences of opinion, especially since our LGBTQIA+ students are very vulnerable to dehumanization through such discussions if they are not conducted properly. There are times and places where it is acceptable to conduct academic debate, and there are times and places where the Christian norms of respect, hospitality and civility have precedence over voicing disagreement or exercising academic freedom.” (“Options” 23).
The Third Way Requires Top-to-Bottom Institutional Engagement
Another major challenge of the Third Way path is that to be successful “it requires hiring, training, modeling, and developing this community during a time where resources are limited, human capital is past capacity, and trust is beyond fragile” (“Options” 23). Furthermore, it requires engagement at every level and in every corner of the institution. It would be especially useful for administrators and trustees to emulate the practice of faculty by regularly writing a vocational statement that interacts with SPU’s Statement of Faith and outlines a philosophy of leadership within Christian higher education. Another way the institution could promote a “calling-in culture” would be to revise all of its conduct policies to be phrased as encouraging and invitational rather than prohibitive and exclusionary—in other words, emphasizing more strongly the life-giving behaviors and values we would like to cultivate, rather than the behaviors we wish to condemn.
Could the Third Way Work without Changing the Policy?
It could be suggested that to make the employee conduct policy inclusive is in fact to take a position in the church debate. As both conservatives and progressives in the church have argued, a person (or institution) can have an open or non-committal attitude regarding sexuality, but when it comes to defining concrete sexual conduct policies, a switch must be thrown—either you allow something or you don’t. If SPU condones the hiring of Christians in same-sex marriages, how is the institution declining to take a position in the debate?
This is a fair question. The answer is both principled and pragmatic. In principle, the policy’s existence and enforcement necessarily casts a judgment—it says that “we have determined that your behavior is immoral and therefore disqualifies you from membership in this Christian community.” The theological justification for the policy (the Statement on Human Sexuality) implies the same certain verdict, though it avoids the language of sin and judgment by not explicitly referring to same-sex sexual activity (referring only to what is allowed). By contrast, eliminating the prohibition against same-sex sexual activity does not necessarily cast an approving judgment; it merely recognizes that there is much disagreement in the matter and errs on the side of invitational love while the jury is out. By inviting married LGBTQ+ individuals into the community, “we adopt a posture of reverent agnosticism regarding God’s final purposes in our divisions” (Hill 13, emphasis added). Furthermore, as a practical matter, the current policy excludes from the academic conversation those who have the most experience and the most at stake regarding what is being discussed. This seems imprudent and illogical at best, and perversely unjust at worst.
It is certainly true, however, that by allowing the employment of individuals in same-sex marriage, the institution may be seen to have functionally ratified the affirming perspective and to endorse the condemnation of those who hold conservative views. Although the conservative perspective is currently endorsed at an institutional level, the support for the affirming perspective on campus, in Seattle, and in social media is so broad and impassioned that most conservative-leaning individuals at SPU are already deeply inhibited from engaging conversation on sexuality; changing the policy will likely only increase such inhibition. This will, understandably, not evoke much sympathy from LGBTQ persons, who, despite a supportive majority, encounter daily discrimination and prejudice whether they want to “engage” conversation about their sexuality or not. And yet, Christ calls all of us to a stringent standard of charity all round. Progressive-leaning folks will have to actively invite participation from conservative quarters. Conservative-leaning folks will have to gather their courage to speak. All members will need to establish and nurture a culture of extreme humility, abundant curiosity, and extravagant respect. The fear we feel entering the conversational fray is the price of being in full community with those we disagree with—it makes conversation exceedingly risky, but also infinitely fruitful.
At this point, some may ask: Even if we grant that making the policy inclusive is not tantamount to taking a position, why does changing the policy need to be part of the Third Way? Could we not establish a sacred liminal Third-Way space—a space of humble, curious, respectful academic inquiry—in a context where the prohibitive sexual conduct policy is maintained? Couldn’t students learn about different Christian perspectives on the issue without SPU employing LGBTQIA+ persons in same-sex relationships?
In many ways, yes and yes. The “best practices” necessary for productive academic discussion are important to promote on any campus, Christian or otherwise, especially in an era of vicious polarization. And it is frequently impractical if not impossible to hear directly from representatives of every possible view in every possible area of debate. Part of what professors must teach (and model) to students is how to uncover and represent (fairly and charitably) all possible views through rigorous research and imaginatively empathetic writing.
But the literature on how to conduct difficult conversations is very clear: human presence is required if we are to achieve the most productive exploration and deepest understanding of highly contentious issues, particularly social ones. Furthermore, it will be impossible to achieve any level of healing, reconciliation, or functional unity without interacting in the flesh with people we disagree with. As Wesley Hill argues in “When Christians Disagree,” “we ought to seek to maintain the highest level of visible communion with our fellow baptized Christians as is possible given our present state of moral disagreement. . . . [T]he solution to the church’s division is not for any of us to withdraw from Christ’s broken body” (11). In language that resonates deeply with SPU’s mission, George Marsden declares in “Being an Intentional Christian Scholar” that “for Christians to successfully engage culture, they must do so by personally getting to know and take seriously people from other outlooks” (qtd. in Heie 268). C. Christopher Smith elaborates on the value of this embodied communion in How the Body of Christ Talks:
One way God begins the work of healing in us is through our human presence with one another. As we are present with one another, and particularly with those who differ substantially from us, we come to see them not as members of some opposing group . . . but rather as fellow human beings and fellow sisters and brothers in Christ, with whom we share abundant common ground. (90)
We may not agree with the other person or group of people, but by learning to abide with them, to devote ourselves to their care, and to attentively listen to their stories, we begin to trust them. And in learning to trust other humans in these prayerful sorts of relationships, we also cultivate trust in God, particularly trust that God is at work in the relationship, healing and reconciling, and trust that God will continue to guide us together in the just, loving, and peaceable way of Jesus. When we begin to take baby steps in the direction of prayerful, conversational relationships of this sort, we discover that our trust in other people and our trust in God multiplies exponentially and that we desire to expand these relationships to more people and deeper trust. This change of perspective unfolds slowly as we come to know the other, learning to patiently abide in the tension of being both united and fragmented. (91)
The LGBTQIA+ Work Group’s report recommends a change in our university’s policies that would permit the hiring of qualified Christian job candidates, regardless of sexual orientation or sex/gender identity, while still remaining aligned with our mission, our Statement of Faith, and our traditional understanding of our calling as a Christian (and Wesleyan) university. The recommendation expresses the belief that we must create a space in which followers of Jesus from all walks of life can participate in a conversation on issues of sexuality and wrestle with God’s truth together. Despite the pressures to affirm one side or the other in this Church debate, the Work Group and the majority of SPU’s faculty have chosen to endorse a “Third Way” that strives to be faithful and loving, that models how to seek truth rather than declare a priori what is true, and that invites all Christians, widely diverse in their beliefs and experiences, into a space where we can learn, with God’s help, from one another. “SPU is uniquely positioned to do this, [given] the cornerstones of our faith statement and our socio-geographical location” (“Options” 23).
With the resolution from the Free Methodist Board of Administrators regarding affiliation, along with two SPU Board votes against changing the employee conduct policy, one may ask whether the Third Way is indeed still a “viable” way forward, as claimed in the Introduction. But there remains potential for moving SPU toward the Third Way as conceived by the Work Group and embraced by 80% of the faculty. Although the Free Methodist Church does not at the moment see the Third Way as compatible with its requirements for affiliation, faculty have invited the church into more conversation on the subject, and the BOA’s resolution is not yet ratified by the General Conference. The composition of SPU’s board is in flux due to a number of resignations and term expirations. This essay seeks to address some of the concerns and objections of those who worry that to change SPU’s conduct policy, or to lose our affiliation with the Free Methodist Church, would be to lose SPU’s Christian character—and perhaps it will be persuasive to some.
In the meantime, we have much work to do to prepare ourselves for productive conversation with one another—whether that is through curriculum, campus forums and lectures, in the board room or in the hallways. We must improve our ability to listen well to those with whom we disagree and speak thoughtfully in ways that don’t push them away. We must improve in our ability to love one another—especially those with whom we disagree. If we can learn how to do this, we will become a university that better prepares our students to faithfully and lovingly “engage the culture and change the world,” that models a way of seeking truth in the midst of difference that is sorely needed by a divided church and a divided world.
Written by April Middeljans, with contributions by Kevin Neuhouser
Members of the SPU LGBTQIA+ Work Group
- Joshua Canada— Work Group Co-Chair, SPU Trustee (FMC-designated)
- Kevin Neuhouser—Work Group Co-Chair, Professor of Sociology
- Cedric Davis—SPU Board Chair (ex officio)
- Dean Kato—SPU Trustee
- Sara Koenig—Professor of Biblical Studies
- Brian Lugioyo—Dean of the School of Theology, FMC Elder
- Denise Martinez—SPU Trustee
- Sandra Mayo—Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence
- Pete Menjares—Interim President of SPU and SPU Trustee (ex officio)
- April Middeljans—Faculty Chair, Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies
- George Parker—SPU Trustee
- Melani Plett—Professor of Electrical Engineering
- Ineliz Soto-Fuller—Assistant Vice President of Undergraduate Admissions
- Chuck Strawn—Dean of Students for Community Life
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Bibliography for Further Reading
Coley, Jonathan. “Reconciling Religion and LGBT Rights.” Social Currents, 2017.
Gilbertson, Jake. “Creating Support for Students Who Identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or Questioning (LGBTQ) at an Evangelical University: An Action Research Study.” Dissertation. Azusa Pacific University. 2019.
Heft, James L. The Future of Catholic Higher Education: The Open Circle. Oxford UP, 2021.
Marsden, George. The Soul of the American University Revisited: From Protestant to Postsecular. Oxford UP, 2021.
Myers, David G., and Letha Dawson Scanzoni. What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage. Harper Collins, 2005.
Ringenberg, William. The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America. Baker Academic, 2006.
Sprinkle, Preston, editor. Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church. Counterpoints series, edited by Stanley N. Gundry, Zondervan, 2016.