Christian Student Group Dismissed Gay Leaders in 2015

By ETHAN BRADY and ELLIE REINHARDT

Two student leaders of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national evangelical Christian organization that has a chapter at Middlebury College, were asked to resign their leadership posts by other members in the chapter in January 2015 because of their sexuality. The two students chose not to speak about the incident until now.

The students, Jonathan O’Dell ’18 and Josiah Stork ’15, were approached several times in 2014 by another student board member, who has since graduated. According to Stork, the student told the two that Intervarsity (IVCF) had a national policy against openly gay student leaders, meaning O’Dell and Stork would have to step down. 

The board member who asked the two to step down declined multiple requests for comment, and instead directed The Campus to Chris Nichols, the IVCF’s regional director for New England.

Nichols denied that such a national policy against gay student leaders ever existed.

“There is (and has been) no national policy in place in InterVarsity that bars student leaders from serving if they are openly gay,” said Nichols in an email to The Campus on Oct. 4.

Nichols did say that the IVCF expects its leaders “to affirm our doctrinal basis and to share a common approach to faith with the group.” According to IVCF’s website, the doctrinal basis is “the basic Biblical truths of Christianity.” 

Interpreting Scripture

While IVCF does not explicitly prohibit gay students from serving as leaders, the student who asked them to step down was interpreting the IVCF policy as Biblical tenet, O’Dell and Stork said.

As much of this was going on, the College IVCF chapter organized a speaker series during Winter Term 2015. The series featured regional directors from IVCF leading discussions based on “close scripture reading.” The series explicitly marketed gender and sexuality as its main theme.

Nichols was one of the speakers at the series and spoke about passages from Romans 1:1-32.

The chapter describes “sinful” acts of humanity that provoke God’s wrath.

“Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error,” the passage reads (Romans 1:27).

Later, it continues, “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die — yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them” (Romans 1:32).

According to Stork, Nichols’ speech affirmed a traditional homophobic interpretation of these passages, which have been interpreted in many other ways within the religion.

O’Dell and Stork reported their concerns to the College Chaplain’s Office in January 2015. Throughout that spring, O’Dell and Stork met with the Chaplain of the College Laurie Jordan and the other MIVCF leaders during what O’Dell called “negotiations.” A member of the Chaplain’s Office served as a moderator during these meetings, O’Dell said.

“We intentionally did not involve the Judicial Board or the Dean of Students in the process,” Stork said. “We didn’t want to cast a negative light on the religion as a whole because of the actions of a few bigots.”

By notifying only the Chaplain’s Office about the College chapter’s requests, no administrator was made aware of potential violations of the College’s non-discrimination policy. The Chaplain’s Office is a strictly confidential resource, and so it could not relay any information about the incident to proper disciplinary channels.

“In our roles as Chaplains we welcome students to speak with us in a safe, private and confidential environment, and we hold that trust dearly,” said Chaplain Jordan. “Of course, in any given situation, students may speak for themselves, but we will always honor our commitment to confidentiality.”

Revising Policies

Beginning in April 2015, MIVCF’s leaders began revising their constitution at the request of Stork and O’Dell. All student organizations need to have a constitution in order to be officially recognized by the College, and thus eligible for funding from the SGA, said Ellen McKay, a staff member at the Scott Center for Religious Life who directs the Religious Life Council.

The amendments included a provision that allows the entire membership to call new elections by a majority vote. A description of the proposal said it would make leadership changes a formal matter, rather than dependent on informal conversations among the leaders. On May 12, 2015, a quorum of members voted in favor of adopting the proposed amendments.

The membership clause of the constitution has always included the Middlebury non-discrimination statement. However, the statement only ensures non-discrimination in membership and does not specify a policy on leadership positions. According to Stork, this was a point of contention.

“MIVCF shall not discriminate in its membership or activities on the basis of race, creed, color, place of birth, ancestry, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, or marital status,” it reads.

MIVCF’s funding is granted by the Religious Life Council, which receives a lump sum and then distributes it to all religious student organizations. The SGA Finance Committee oversees the Religious Life Council, but the council has broad leeway in determining exactly how their funding is allocated.

“As stewards of the student activity fee, we make it our priority to fund organizations equitably,” said Kevin Benscheidt ’17, chair of the SGA Finance Committee. “This news raises interesting questions about the role of the SGA in regards to censorship. However, I can assure you we were never made aware of any discriminatory practices.”

Student organizations are required to undergo a review process every three years, in which they submit reports of their activity to the SGA Constitution Committee. The committee last reviewed MIVCF in Jan. 2015 and approved the MIVCF’s status as a registered organization. The committee will conduct its next review of MIVCF in Jan. 2018.

“Potentially discriminatory practices are definitely taken into account when reviewing a student organization,” said Nick Delehanty ’17, chair of the SGA Constitution Committee. “Notice of an organization failing to comply with College policy would definitely call into question a student organization’s status as an officially recognized organization during the review process.”

National Conversation

The conversation surrounding IVCF’s beliefs on human sexuality is happening at the national level as well.

On Oct. 7, TIME reported that Intervarsity Christian Fellowship USA, the national office, told its 1,300 staff members that “they will be fired if they personally support gay marriage or otherwise disagree with its newly detailed positions on sexuality,” effective November 11, 2016, reads the TIME article.

According to the article, the national office called the decision a process of “involuntary termination” for any staff member who comes forward and disagrees with its positions on human sexuality. Staffers are being asked to come forward voluntarily if they disagree with the theological position. TIME called it a “theological purge.”

In a response statement made the same day, IVCF claimed that the TIME report was not true. “No InterVarsity employee will be fired for their views on gay marriage,” it states.

TIME reported that the decision was the outcome of a four-year internal review on what the Bible teaches about human sexuality. 

IVCF confirmed that it had been re-examining its position on human sexuality through a four-year process in which “we reiterated our beliefs on human sexuality and invited our staff to study and to reflect on how our beliefs about Scripture and our hermeneutic approaches to Scripture lead us to those conclusions,” said Greg Jao, InterVarsity vice president and director of campus engagement in the IVCF statement.

It continues, “InterVarsity’s process invited all employees to take 18 months to work through a nine-part curricula, read a variety of resources, and study the relevant biblical texts to conclude whether they were in agreement with InterVarsity’s unchanged position.”

“It’s clear that InterVarsity has their conception of what they believe but that they’re not really being tolerant of a lot of other beliefs that are still within the framework of Christianity,” said Stork. “I think InterVarsity’s by-line has often been, ‘come and see what you believe, figure out who you think Jesus Christ is.’ But, assuming the TIME piece is right, asking people who disagree with their belief patterns to leave is narrowing the score of what they can direct students to, and what they can really claim as far as letting people explore belief.”