ACU rebuffs the left and the right in reaffirming its sexual stewardship policy
ABILENE, Texas — For students at Abilene Christian University, the debate…
Matthew 19 is filled with hard teachings.
Certainly, Jesus’ disciples and other would-be followers thought so.
With large crowds around him, Jesus first responded to questions from religious leaders about divorce. His answers prohibiting it in all cases except adultery left his disciples so nonplussed, they were ready to give up marriage altogether. Even Jesus acknowledged, “Not everybody can accept this teaching.”
From there, he rejected his disciples’ efforts to control which people he could embrace, welcoming and blessing the children they would have denied. Finally, a rich man asked how he could attain eternal life. In the end, Jesus told him he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor; the man couldn’t do it.
“It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle,” Jesus then told his followers, “than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
If following the plain words of Jesus was too hard for his own beloved disciples, imagine the difficulty translating them into university policy.
Perhaps that’s why, despite Jesus’ clear admonition against divorce and warning about wealth, many universities associated with Churches of Christ no longer enforce restrictions on students, faculty or staff who have been divorced, nor do they require employees to give away all their money.
Yet in a recent column for The Christian Chronicle, Abilene Christian University journalism professor Kenneth Pybus seemed quite sure that the words of Jesus from Matthew 19 could indeed be applied directly to the complex environment of a 21st century American college campus, notwithstanding the effects on such core values of higher education as academic freedom.
His column responded to the recent controversy over how ACU should respond to the reality of queer students on its campus — a controversy recently stoked by Wildcats for Inclusion, of which I am a member.
Wildcats for Inclusion was formed in response to “Holy Sexuality Week,” a series of speeches organized by ACU in November that included damaging and hurtful rhetoric by “ex-gay” activist Christopher Yuan, a Moody Bible Institute professor who compared same-sex attraction to cancer and mental illness and proclaimed, “The opposite of homosexuality is holiness.”
My friends and I created Wildcats for Inclusion in part to advocate for queer students, to make sure they knew that ACU alumni cared for them and that a large number of us disagreed not only with the sentiments expressed from ACU’s chapel stage but with university leadership’s decision to exclude affirming Christian voices from the program.
“Far from a ‘more ambiguous understanding’ of either God’s design or the Scriptures, we believe our position follows the full implications of Jesus’ demand … that gatekeepers stop trying to decide who is worthy.”
Far from a “more ambiguous understanding” of either God’s design or the Scriptures, we believe our position follows the full implications of Jesus’ demand — also in Matthew 19 — that gatekeepers stop trying to decide who is worthy and who should be left out of his embrace.
Further, our position is not that ACU leadership must agree with us about the compatibility of queerness with holiness — although we obviously think they should — but rather that the university ought to embrace the diversity of opinions on this issue by allowing employees the academic freedom to dissent from its policies.
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Indeed, as Dr. Pybus noted, ACU’s board of trustees has acknowledged since 2018 the disagreement about sexuality among faithful Christians on the ACU campus. His concern, then, seems to be that those who disagree with him might eventually have the same freedom he currently enjoys to write a column in the Chronicle.
In that column, he argues that such Christians are “clearly wrong” on the questions of sexual orientation and gender identity, and he points to what he calls “the plain language of Scripture” against “the prevailing winds of culture.” But such language betrays a cultural assumption of its own.
Dr. Pybus is not himself using the language or norms of Scripture when he cites Matthew 19 but the assumptions of the Enlightenment, when Scottish commonsense rationalism held that anyone with common sense could read the plain text of the Bible and apply it both to their lives and the national interest. Dr. Pybus appears not to recognize that his own hermeneutical views are the product of the “prevailing winds” of 18th and 19th century culture.
As a historian, I have studied how reliance on Scottish commonsense rationalism among Churches of Christ led the movement into intellectual dead ends where thought leaders defended slavery, segregation and creationism — and insisted on the basis of “the plain language of Scripture” that universities affirm these concepts and restrict the academic freedom of those who disagreed.
Thus we should be wary whenever anyone uses tradition developed over the centuries of the Stone-Campbell Movement, or even the millennia of broader Christian tradition, as de facto reasons to maintain a particular doctrine. Certainly, the fact that generations of our forebears overwhelmingly accepted certain doctrines should make us careful about turning away from them. Yet the graveyard of American religion is filled with the corpses of damaging dogmas kept alive by the plain text of Scripture — until they weren’t.
In 1960, Abilene Christian College Bible professor Carl Spain famously condemned segregation from his employer’s lectureship stage despite a board policy mandating that the racist practice continue. Today, Dr. Pybus and others tell us that because of the historical traditions of the church, faculty and staff at a university should not be able to follow in Spain’s footsteps by dissenting from a policy regarding same-sex marriage. This is a remarkable sentiment coming from a journalism professor who teaches communication law.
Although Wildcats for Inclusion does indeed advocate for ACU to revise its sexual stewardship policy to allow the employment of faculty, staff and students in same-sex relationships, we do not advocate any revision to the university’s policy that sex be reserved for marriage, nor do we advocate for the silencing of voices like Dr. Pybus’.
For his part, Dr. Pybus feels the “easiest path” for ACU would be “to capitulate to the pressures of society,” as expressed by groups like Wildcats for Inclusion. Setting aside the question-begging argument that any path that is easy must therefore be wrong, he does not provide evidence that such a path would in fact be easy.
Indeed, one could argue that a university drawing students mainly from conservative households, receiving funds largely from conservative donors, and governed by a right-leaning board of trustees must undertake an act of profound courage not only to embrace the messy diversity that is the hallmark of robust academic debate but also to corporately live out the most radical ramifications of the countercultural love and grace of Jesus.
To do so would not make ACU a “nominally Christian university” but in fact the opposite: a truly Christian one.
Such a university would reject the path of the religious leaders who parse the law to ensure only the correct people can express their views and enter the kingdom. Instead, it would embrace the path of Jesus, who not only welcomed all, but pointed out that the two greatest commandments are to love, and then to love.
PAUL A. ANTHONY is a member of Wildcats for Inclusion and a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Florida State University. He graduated from Abilene Christian University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in history and theology.
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