What does a Christian Community look like?

I am not a theologian. I’m going to make that clear right off the bat. So I’m not going to try and make an airtight, irrefutable argument about faith right now. But I am going to talk about some pretty polarizing stuff, so that’ll be fun, right?

My alma mater, Trinity Western University has been in the public spotlight for a few years over its Community Covenant, which includes a section asking all faculty and staff to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” While TWU asserts this is based on the Biblical definition of marriage, but the university has come under fire for the restriction it puts on LGBTQ+ students.

And recently, TWU’s Mars’ Hill—a bi-weekly publication where I used to work as News Editor—published a series of short testimonies from TWU alumni detailing the LGBTQ+ experience on campus. These stories, which are absolutely worth the read, detail stories of isolation, verbal bullying, self-harm, depression, suicide attempts, and more. Shortly after, the blog project Mouth of Babel published the long-form story of one alumn’s experience when the university discovered she was in a relationship with a woman. She was placed on behavioural probation, had her scholarship revoked, and was no longer allowed to participate as a varsity athlete.

Thankfully, two professors stood up for the student and protested the university’s decision. However, the damage had already been done and the student felt she had been “disconnected, removed, and othered” by TWU.

Other alumni have posted their stories on social media, detailing stories with very similar elements: feeling isolated, grappling with various mental health issues, and finding acceptance among very few students and/or faculty on campus. Although how the university has treated different LGBTQ+ persons on campus varies, the general narrative from these stories is that TWU is not inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community.

Now, I knew very little of these sorts of experiences when I attended the school, and I am ashamed of my ignorance and not being more supportive of the LGBTQ+ students I did know. So I can’t speak with authority on the effects this type of disconnect can feel like. And like I said, I am not a theologian. I am not going to make an Biblical argument here for what TWU’s official policy should be on marriage and LGBTQ+ individuals on campus, although I have my own beliefs. What I am going to is argue why TWU needs to update its Community Covenant to better reflect the complexity of an non-denominational Christian establishment that accommodates for a number of differences in faiths, Biblical interpretations, theological perspectives, and sociological realties.

As an ecumenical institution, TWU’s Community Covenant is by-and-large an impressive document that makes the case for adhering to Biblical principles in the light of the life and ministry of Christ while leaving room for the myriad of differences in opinion and interpretation that arise whenever you get more than one Christian in a room together. However, while certain sections of the document are carefully worded so as to be clear on its principles while also allowing for flexibility in how those principles are lived out on and off campus, there are sections where very little consideration has been taken.

What do I mean by this? Well, the covenant does a good job of laying out that when a person is trying to follow Biblical principles in their life, they have to have guidelines they follow or ways of acting to better help them avoid temptation or any actions that would cause them to violate the principles they’re trying to follow. But it also does a good job of leaving those guidelines or ways of acting as open to the interpretation to a discerning person. All that is to say, the Community Covenant encourages you to find appropriate ways to follow Christ, but encourages you to be smart about it.

Here, let’s take a look at the Covenant in its most recent form. You can find the full text here and the downloadable pdf here.

One of the biggest examples of flexible ruling is in the Covenant’s section on Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco. Prior to the Covenant’s revision in 2009, students attending TWU were not allowed to consume alcohol on or off campus until they had graduated. Although policing students who had a glass of wine over Christmas break probably wasn’t something the university intended to follow through on, the point was to encourage students to follow what was then believed to be Protestant principles taken from Biblical interpretation.

However, this section was altered to allow students to consume alcohol off campus, and take a look at the language employed to try and accommodate everyone:

“For these reasons, TWU members voluntarily abstain from the use of illegal drugs and the abuse of legal drugs at all times.

“The decision whether or not to consume alcohol . . . is more complex. The Bible allows for the enjoyment of alcohol in moderation, but it also strongly warns against drunkenness and addiction, which overpowers wise and reasonable behaviour and hinders personal development. The Bible commends leaders who abstained from, or were not addicted to, alcohol. Alcohol abuse has many long-lasting negative physical, social and academic consequences . . . With these concerns in mind, TWU members will exercise careful discretion, sensitivity to others’ conscience/principles, moderation, compassion, and mutual responsibility. In addition, TWU strongly discourages participation in events where the primary purpose is the excessive consumption of alcohol.”

This section was clearly with care and consideration for the myriad of beliefs that students, parents, faculty, administration, and donors have on the subject. I come from a denominational background that is very uneasy around alcohol in general, so when I heard they were allowing students to drink off-campus, I thought it was unnecessary. “Why don’t they just not drink?” I remember thinking at the time. However, over the course of my education, I learned that not only do some Christians and denominations have more lax views on drinking, some actually encourage it as a means of merrymaking and fellowship.

I can’t say that this change in the rules was accepted unanimously by every member and supporter of TWU, but I did see the change it made on campus when it was enacted: barely anything. The students who wanted to go to bars and pubs on weekends were pretty much already doing that anyway, and if anything it discouraged them from stashing bottles in their dorms and apartments… at least… less so. I think. But it also gave students like myself extra opportunities to build relationships. Some of my best TWU memories were drinking with classmates and professors while arguing philosophical paradigms, interpretation of the theological eschaton, and also how great the latest episode of Breaking Bad was (So great, right?? It was so great, you guys!) and with locals that lived near campus.

And of course there are still members and supporters of TWU who disagree with how Christians should consume alcohol, and that is completely fair. I think the Covenant does a pretty good job of making an argument for why the university shouldn’t ban drinking entirely but also not make those who believed differently feel like their views weren’t valid. That’s what running a school that welcomes persons from numerous denominations and belief systems is about: understanding rather than rallying against those who beliefs differ from our own.

Paul articulates this in 1 Corinthians 8 when he talks about how the Christians in Corinth should act towards those who believe in practicing their faith differently than them.

There were Corinthians who believed eating food that had been sacrificed to idols was sinful while others thought it was no big thing. Paul made a theological argument for why eating the food didn’t really matter (“We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one’… food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”) but also urged those who understood this to be sympathetic to those who still thought it did (“But not everyone possesses this knowledge.”) He ultimately urged the Corinthians to “[b]e careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak… Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-13)

Paul urged that the Corinthians, and we, should be careful about what actions we partake in, even if we believe (and have proof) that are actions are not sinful. We should treat those who do not know what we know, or rather are at a different stage in their faith, with care, acknowledging their sensitivity and the trials we all have with our faith throughout our lives.

trinitywestern-northwesthall2

So what does this have to do with LGBTQ+ students on campus? Well, the Community Covenant argues that students should avoid:

“sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman,”

And that:

“according to the Bible, sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, and within that marriage bond it is God’s intention that it be enjoyed as a means for marital intimacy and procreation.”

This is literally everything the Covenant has to say on the matter. Whereas I had to edit out parts of the alcohol section to save room, there are only two sentences total that deal with the concept of sex outside of a heterosexual marriage.

Now, to be fair, the Covenant does address this. In the alcohol section I posted above, the Covenant states the Bible’s view on alcohol is complex, as it is encouraged in some verses, while its excess is condemned in others. The argument for why the Covenant is more concise on same-sex partnerships is because the Bible is much more clear on the issue.

The verses that address any sexual act outside of the martial heterosexual context are:

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Leviticus 18:22

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

Leviticus 20:13

“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”

Romans 1:26-27

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

“The sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine…”

1 Timothy 1:10

Now, although these verses are fairly cut-and-dry, there are Christians, LGBTQ+ and cis-straight, who offer alternative interpretations.

Matthew Vines, in his book God and the Gay Christian, makes the case for reinterpreting certain verses:

“Many modern translators have rendered these terms as sweeping statements about gay people, but the concept of sexual orientation didn’t even exist in the ancient world. Yes, Paul did not take a positive view of same-sex relations (nor did he support women speaking in church…), but the context he was writing in is worlds apart from gay people in committed, monogamous relationships. The Bible never addresses the issues of sexual orientation or same-sex marriage, so there’s no reason why faithful Christians can’t support their gay brothers and sisters.”

Other theologians question the uses of the Greek works “Malakoi” and “Arsenokoitai” in the New Testament verses, coming to a similar conclusion that the writers of the scriptures had different concepts of homosexuality and gender than in the modern day.

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Now, are these theological interpretations airtight and irrefutable? No, not by a long shot. For the third time I am going to stress I am not a theologian, but I have heard refutations of the type of arguments Vines and others are making. This is not an argument for anyone working at, studying in, or associated with TWU to change their theology.

But I want to point out these arguments to show that there are Christians who agree with them. And regardless of your own reading of the above verses and quotations, we have to acknowledge that there are Christians out there who hold this view, and believe it an essential part of their faith in the same way others believe the sacredness of marriage is essential to their own.

I want to make it clear I am not advocating for pluralism or the adoption of anything-goes, whatever-you-feel-is-right religion. I firmly believe in the authority of the scriptures. I also believe one of the most dangerous ways of following Jesus is molding him in the image we want rather than us being molded by him.

But Trinity Western University is, as it says in the Covenant, an “academic community rooted in the evangelical Protestant tradition,” and is not tied to any singular denomination and its doctrinal differences. This is why, although there are students and faculty who believe scripture clearly states women are not fit for leadership roles in the church, the university still offers numerous opportunities for young women to be trained as leaders in the church and mission field. It’s also why, although there are students and faculty who believe the partaking of alcohol is contrary to God’s will for our lives, students are still permitted to drink off campus.

So if TWU is devoted to ensuring no one divisive theological interpretation dictates the actions for the rest of campus, it becomes apparent the university needs to reevaluate the sections of the Community Covenant that cause strife for members of its community.

Just like the lengthy paragraphs on alcohol consumption, the varied scriptural interpretations that exist within TWU indicate there are more issues to be addressed in TWU’s view on marriage. This doesn’t mean any TWU students or members of the faculty and administration have to change their own interpretation of the Bible, but it does mean we must all recognize it is possible to exegete alternate readings of the text and live their faith according to those readings. It is possible to reword the section in the Covenant to make it clear the university accepts various views on the definition of marriage just as accepts those on drinking, or women in leadership, or many other faith issues.

And the stories I linked to above indicate there are certainly alumni who interpret the Biblical definition of marriage contrary to the Community Covenant.

It is also worth noting that the hurt that has been done to students, alumni, and others associated with TWU is certainly not in line with the principles of the Covenant. All students and faculty are called upon to

“treat people and ideas with charity and respect, think critically and constructively about complex issues, and willingly respond to the world’s most profound needs and greatest opportunities”

and

“strive to achieve respectful and purposeful unity that aims for the advancement of all, recognizing the diversity of viewpoints, life journeys, stages of maturity, and roles within the TWU community.”

Even in addressing these alumni now that there stories are publicly available, the university has an obligation, according to the Covenant, to

observe and experience truth, compassion, reconciliation, and hope.”

That means treating these stories seriously, accepting the truth of the damage that has been done, extending compassion and love with no caveats, and pursuing respectful reconciliation so that there is hope for future students.

Just as all members of the TWU affirm the principles of the Covenant, so too should we all affirm that we don’t know everything, that there are those who will disagree with us, and that nothing should stop us from loving these people just as nothing stops God from loving us wholly and completely.

Just like God’s love, that of TWU and in our own lives should be an active love, one that seeks out those who are hurting, keeps no records of wrongdoing, and rejoices in the truth of God’s Kingdom.

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