This month marks the deadline for staff members of national InterVarsity to leave the organization if they disagree with its recently reiterated theological stance against same-sex relationships, premarital sex, divorce and masturbation.
The move by the national collegiate evangelical Christian ministry, which has a chapter on Elon University’s campus, created outcry in the LGBTQIA community after it was reported by Time Magazine in October.
While the edict applies only to staff members — not student leaders or members — it has caused many students at Elon to try to distance itself from the national organization’s position and has prompted questions about the role of inclusivity and theological debate within the fellowship organization.
Junior Monique Swirsky, —president of Spectrum, Elon’s queer-straight-alliance — said, faced with such a nuanced situation, dialogue between and among groups is important even if students disagree with InterVarsity’s national stance.
“As one of the largest religious organizations on campus, student members in InterVarsity have very diverse views, so it’s not fair to write off the organization as a whole based on a national policy that applies to staff members,” Swirsky said. “The best way to move forward is not to cut InterVarsity out of the conversation but to engage students more meaningfully.”
A national reiteration
InterVarsity’s reiteration reflects the ministry’s 18-month, nine-part curricula that encouraged employees to study relevant Biblical texts as well as a position paper it published in May 2015, “A Theological Summary of Human Sexuality.” In the 20-page paper, InterVarsity’s corporate leadership concludes “that God’s loving intention ... restricts sexual expression to a committed marriage relationship between a husband and wife.”
In a letter sent in mid-July, InterVarsity leadership encouraged staff who disagree with its position to “alert their supervisors and conclude their work” by Nov. 11.
Katie Arms ’14 and her husband, Doug Arms, Elon InterVarsity chapter staff members who primarily work with the student leaders who make up their Coordinating Team, stressed that the process of coming forward isn’t “forced on staff members.”
“There’s nobody going around and saying, ‘You need to sign yes or no if you agree with this,’” Katie said. “It’s allowing those to voluntarily come forward if they disagree with the statement.”
Neither Katie nor Doug said they plan to come forward in disagreement with the statement by InterVarsity.
Doug added that in this process, InterVarsity national is trying to offer clarity and it in no way “changes their intent to foster inclusive communities on college campuses.”
But Joel Harter, associate chaplain for Protestant Life, said he thinks the national reiteration puts InterVarsity staff in a complicated position when it comes to ministering to students who are forming their identities.
“I don’t think IV’s staff has always had the right training to know how to work with students who are struggling with sexuality,” he said. “In any large group of people, there are queer Christians — many of whom are not out of the closet.”
Harter said he is concerned whether students struggling to come out will hear a message knowing that they’re loved and that they’re valued or a one that asks them to change.
According to both Doug and Katie Arms, the chapter at Elon, a student-led organization with more than 200 members — 60 of whom regularly attend large group meetings — is funded by SGA. But the two staff members are employed and solely funded by InterVarsity national. SGA declined requests from Elon News Network to review the ministry’s $9,000 allocation from student activity fees — funds collected alongside students’ tuition bills and distributed by SGA to support student organizations.
Katie Arms said InterVarsity staff have minimal say in where the funds are allocated on campus and their role is “simply to advise student leadership.”
For Katie Arms, that means coming to campus on a weekly basis and advising, mentoring and supporting student leaders and members to help them define their roles as “leaders at Elon and leaders under God.”
“The reiteration doesn’t change anything in terms of what is expected of students or what they have to support at Elon,” Doug Arms said. “It is a student-led organization, and we have minimal say on how we function.”
But he added that the national reiteration may change the way he teaches.
“We are able to say, ‘Here’s our thinking’ while recognizing that there are other perspectives,” Doug Arms said. “We are still creating room for disagreement and conversation among students.”
Dan Sheehan ’15, who was involved with the chapter, said he fears that by reaffirming its stance, InterVarsity is perpetuating the divide between LGBTQIA and Christian youth.
“We can create a world where LGBTQIA communities and those of Christian faiths are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “College students can be an accelerative force in this regard, but not if the discourse we create discourages them from engaging this dialogue.”
A nuanced history at Elon
In fall 2014, Christine Fortner, ’15, left an unsigned leadership agreement in the hands of Elon InterVarsity staff members and told them, “No, I do not feel comfortable signing this.”
After serving as a small group leader for three years, she had been asked to review the leadership agreement, which specified behavioral expectations from student leaders — including abstaining from premarital sex and avoiding alcohol and drugs. In her third year, she said she was “confronted by an Elon InterVarsity staff member who was concerned” about her “beliefs and practices as a Christian.” She said she was subsequently “dismissed from leadership.”
She approached Joel Harter and Chaplain Jan Fuller and discussed her experiences. Following these discussions, the application for leadership positions was revised for fall 2015.
One of these revisions was the omission of a section that asked students to specify their positions on abortion, homosexuality, alcohol, pornography and premarital sex.
Harter said staff recognized that the original language was problematic.
“To me, it seemed like a sort of fishing — meaning we want to see what you believe and if it does not line up, we’re going to talk to you about it,” he said. “I know of a couple of students where that did become an issue for them.”
In fall 2013, Cameron McIntyre ’15 was also confronted with a similar question. But his situation prompted a “voluntary dismissal” that he said was grounded not only in his theological stance but also in his sexual orientation.
After he came out as gay in summer 2013, he said he had several conversations with Doug that concluded in a “voluntary dismissal” of his position in InterVarsity student leadership.
While he said it could be concluded that he was dismissed from leadership for his sexual orientation, he stressed that the conversations were civil and that they were a product of a gray area between a dismissal and a resignation.
“I was not completely happy about it, but this is the rule,” he said. “I don’t get to change the rules.”
As an organization funded by SGA, InterVarsity at Elon must abide by Section 2 of Elon University’s “Core Principles for Student Organizations and Clubs,” which states, “Student organizations and clubs must comply fully with the university’s non discrimination policy ... which does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, color, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity or veteran’s status in the recruitment and admission of students, the recruitment and employment of faculty and staff or the operation of any of its programs.”
“I believe that the situation I was in probably meant that Elon InterVarsity was violating that particular SGA code in terms of my sexual orientation,” McIntyre said. “It’s a gray area but because, say, other lives are not politicized in this way that forces them to make a theological decision on being themselves — I was probably discriminated against in that sense.”
Harter and University Chaplain Jan Fuller both said they continually work with Doug and Katie Arms to ensure that student leaders in Elon InterVarsity are recruited, selected and treated in accordance to Elon’s non-discrimination policy.
A student-led organization
“There are some deeply faithful Biblical scholars who have thought about this for a very long time who have come to different conclusions and who have read scripture differently,” Harter said.
As a Christian minister who has had to leave a position based on his progressive views on sexuality in the past, Harter stressed the importance of recognizing disagreement and diverse views in Christianity.
“The Christian world is much broader than InterVarsity,” Harter said. “If you’re wrestling with this, I would say Doug and Katie might not be the best people to help you unless you want that particular point of view.”
Harter pointed to other groups on campus that “can offer more resources that provide different Biblical perspectives on sexuality,” including Elon Progressives United Under God.
But he encouraged students in Elon InterVarsity to work toward fostering more room for disagreement.
“I don’t think all Elon students know that InterVarsity is an organization that is not just run by Doug and Katie,” he said. “Their job is to encourage leadership but at the end of the day, it is a student group.”
Fuller added that the Truitt Center and SGA would support students even if they wanted to disassociate with the national chapter.
“At some point, the student group gets to say, ‘This is the kind of group we want to be,’” Fuller said. “The power is with the students and not with the staff.”
Striving for unity
A cursory glance through Elon InterVarsity’s public Facebook group offers an alternate perspective to the heavy theological drama and anti-inclusive rhetoric InterVarsity has been associated with nationally in recent media.
From live stream videos of pet goldfish to photo evidence of birthday surprise parties, the posts are indicative of the close-knit community that many Elon students say they have found in the organization.
So when large group coordinator and senior Chloe Allen read the original Time article on InterVarsity’s stance, she said she was heartbroken. What she said helped, though, was knowing that Doug and Katie Arms would work to help students grapple with conclusions made in the piece.
“I was hurt because I knew there would be a lot of pain and brokenness from this,” she said. “I know they are working as hard as they can to make sure that the stance is followed with love and outstretched arms and not by building walls.”
Doug and Katie organized a town hall the evening the Time article was published to provide students with more information and context.
They added that they hope to work with the organization’s small group leaders to help equip them with resources to navigate more productive discussions on the issue.
Monique Swirsky reached out to Allen shortly after the Time piece gained national attention, and the two have organized an InterVarsity-Spectrum joint service event at Woofstock, the Humane Society of Alamance County’s animal adoption day on Nov. 5.
“I disagree with that kind of reading of the Bible and the Old Testament, and I certainly understand how it can be harmful to LGBT communities knowing that this is the national view of an organization that participates in college campuses,” Swirsky said.
She acknowledged the various efforts InterVarsity at Elon have made to address and support diversity-related movements, including racial reconciliation, Black Lives Matter and advancing opportunities for women in ministry.
“It’s not a horrible, hateful organization,” Swirsky said. “But I think everything it can do for its members, it should, and I think distancing itself from a harmful national position would be one of those things.”
Allen said these conversations will help acknowledge “years of hurt and pain inflicted on the LGBTQIA community by many religious groups.”
“There’s ways that we’ve failed Elon’s campus in the past, and I’ll be the first to admit that,” Allen said. “I would apologize to anybody who feels like they aren’t welcome within our doors — we are trying really hard to love people well.”
Ashley Bohle, News Director, and Jackie Pascale, Lead Assignment Manager, contributed reporting.