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ACU rebuffs the left and the right in reaffirming its sexual stewardship policy

One group petitioned the West Texas university to loosen its stance on same-sex relationships. Another pushed for tougher language.

ABILENE, Texas — For students at Abilene Christian University, the debate over traditional vs. affirming views on same-sex relationships is not purely theological.

It’s personal.

Whether they support the university’s sexual stewardship policy, which calls for chastity outside of marriage between a man and a woman, or question it, students on the West Texas campus all know someone who identifies with the LGBTQ+ community.

Emma Jaax is a senior at Abilene Christian University.

Emma Jaax is a senior at Abilene Christian University.

“When you’re on campus talking about these issues, they’re deeply personal because you’re talking about people that you know,” said Emma Jaax, 23, a senior accounting and finance major from San Antonio. “It’s not, ‘Oh, those people.’ It’s my roommate or my classmate.”

Despite an alumni-led petition drive urging a more progressive stance on LGBTQ+ issues, ACU this week reaffirmed its existing policy — developed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

The 31-member board spent roughly three hours reviewing the policy in a closed-door meeting over the weekend, ACU President Phil Schubert told The Christian Chronicle. 

“We’ve had a host of folks who would like to see the university take a more affirming position,” Schubert said. “And, of course, we have a whole host of folks who would like the university to take a maybe even more conservative position. 

“So we’ve tried to be open and listen to perspectives and engage in thoughtful conversation,” he added.

In a statement to faculty and staff, April Anthony, chair of ACU’s board, said trustees unanimously backed the present policy.

That policy, she noted, “states that God intends for sexual relations to be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman and affirms the full humanity and dignity of all human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

God intends for sexual relations to be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman.

Anthony said trustees reiterated their “desire for the ACU community to continue engaging in thoughtful conversation about relationships and sexuality, equipping students with an understanding of God’s design.

“Recognizing that Christians inside and outside the ACU community have different interpretations of scripture on same-sex relationships and gender identity,” she said, “the board reinforced ACU’s commitment to engage this issue with Christian care and compassion, condemning language and behaviors that communicate disrespect toward any member of the ACU community.”

Chris Seidman, an Abilene Christian University alumnus and lead minister for The Branch Church of Christ in Farmers Branch, Texas, speaks during Holy Sexuality Week at ACU.

Chris Seidman, an Abilene Christian University alumnus and lead minister for The Branch Church of Christ in Farmers Branch, Texas, speaks during Holy Sexuality Week at ACU.

A national issue

ACU is just the latest university associated with Churches of Christ to grapple with such questions.

Harding University in Searcy, Ark., recently clarified and expanded its policy language in a document titled “Expectations for Sexual Morality,” said Jean-Noel Thompson, the university’s executive vice president.

The Harding policy defines marriage “as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman.” According to the policy, the Arkansas university “holds firmly to God’s creation of male and female” and rejects “any attempts to change one’s birth sex.”

“This document was carefully created and fully supported by the Harding University board of trustees,” Thompson said in a written statement. “The spirit of our intent here is to provide clarity, support, protection and accountability for our behaviors — all through biblical truths, grace and genuine respect for one another.”

“The spirit of our intent here is to provide clarity, support, protection and accountability for our behaviors — all through biblical truths, grace and genuine respect for one another.”

On a national level, an Oregon federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit last year that challenged some Christian universities’ religious exemptions under Title IX. A group of 44 current and former students — including one from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., and one from York University in Nebraska — argued that the exemptions expose LGBTQ+ students to “unsafe conditions.” The plaintiffs have filed an appeal in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. 

Even though ACU has not sought a Title IX exemption, it has every right to enforce a sexual stewardship policy in keeping with its religious beliefs, said Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, based in Washington, D.C. That association represents 150 faith-based colleges in the U.S. and Canada, including ACU and seven others associated with Churches of Christ.

“That’s what the Constitution is all about — it’s freedom of religion,” said Hoogstra, who spent a decade practicing law. “They are firmly, firmly within their rights to create theological positions that align with their beliefs.”

Sexuality and Scriptures

Debate over ACU’s sexual stewardship policy has raged since November when the 6,219-student university hosted what it dubbed Holy Sexuality Week. 

ACU, which has 919 full-time faculty and staff members, touted the weeklong series of chapel messages as “an intentional focus on what the Bible teaches about human sexuality, marriage and relationships.”

In one presentation in Moody Coliseum, guest speaker Christopher Yuan, author of the book “Holy Sexuality and the Gospel,” reflected on his past life as a sexually active gay man.

“The opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality,” Yuan told the audience. “That is not the right goal. But the opposite of homosexuality is holiness. As a matter of fact, the opposite of every sin struggle is holiness.”

Micaiah Scott, 22, a senior liberal studies major from Denton, Texas, voiced disappointment in the message.

“We’re living in a world where more things are being accepted. God loves all.”

“We’re living in a world where more things are being accepted,” said Scott, who identifies as bisexual. “God loves all. Why should it be limited to just those who are straight, those who are Christians? 

“It’s not a curse,” she said of her sexual orientation. “I’m not a curse.”

In his presentation, Yuan said, “Before I knew Christ, I could not hate my sin without hating myself. Now that I know Christ, I can hate my sin without hating myself. That’s the distinction.”

Holy Sexuality Week drew mixed reactions from other students.

“When I first came to ACU, I was very aware of their policies and where they stood, and I appreciated their stances,” said Jaax, a nondenominational Christian who serves as president of ACU’s College Republicans. “We’ve had a bit of a pushback on it (the sexual stewardship policy) the last two years.”

Moody Coliseum, where chapel assemblies are conducted at Abilene Christian University.

Moody Coliseum, where chapel assemblies are conducted at Abilene Christian University.

The Student Government Association passed a resolution, 19-17, in October 2022 recommending the removal of the phrase “between a man and a woman” from the policy. The administration rejected the resolution, the student newspaper The Optimist reported. That same fall, ACU crowned an “openly queer” homecoming queen, according to the paper.

Given the questions on campus, Jaax said she appreciated Holy Sexuality Week’s emphasis on sexual purity.

“I regret the fallout of some of it,” she said, “because I do feel like there wasn’t cross-conversation happening. I think people went and listened to things and then retreated to their bubbles — their echo chambers — to talk about it there, so no one was actually changing any minds.”

Tessa Holderman, 21, a junior pre-physical therapy major from Albuquerque, N.M., said she felt sad for LGBTQ+ friends while listening to the presentations.

“I just imagined being in someone else’s shoes and looking at it from their point of view — just feeling judgment and not, like, a very positive or loving atmosphere,” Holderman said.

Collin McClellan, 18, a freshman biology and Spanish major from McKinney, Texas, said: “I believe that God called us to love first and to never judge. And the most important thing we can do as Christians is to speak out for the marginalized and the voiceless.”

A petition for inclusion

On a YouTube video of Yuan’s talk, cheers and applause can be heard at the end of his 45-minute message.

“This is how I summarize it,” he said before offering a closing prayer. “I once was blind, and now I see. I was lost, and now I’m found. I once did not believe, and now I believe in the Son of God, and his name is Jesus. That is my testimony.”

But Holy Sexuality Week — and Yuan’s message in particular — upset alumni who formed a group called Wildcats for Inclusion. 

Paul Anthony is an ACU alumnus and organizer of Wildcats for Inclusion.

Paul Anthony is an ACU alumnus and organizer of Wildcats for Inclusion.

That group voiced concerns “about the safety and welfare of LGBTQ+ students and the academic freedoms of faculty and staff regarding sexuality and identity.”

Wildcats for Inclusion collected nearly 2,700 signatures from alumni, parents, students and current and former faculty members, said Paul A. Anthony, an ACU graduate and a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.

“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,” Anthony wrote in an op-ed in the Chronicle.

Anthony’s piece came in response to Kenneth Pybus, an ACU journalism professor who defended the university’s position in an earlier column.

“Abilene Christian University has always held faculty, staff and students to a particular code of conduct,” Pybus wrote in the Chronicle. “And it has done so because we are a Christian community — one that strives to create an environment where we honor God with our lives — our minds, our bodies and our spirits. We often fail. But when we do, we do not redefine God’s will and reinterpret his Word to suit our own desires.”

“Abilene Christian University has always held faculty, staff and students to a particular code of conduct.”

‘A two-front war’

On the opposite side of Wildcats for Inclusion, ACU Open Forum — a Facebook group not affiliated with the university — has pushed for Schubert and the board to take a stronger stand in characterizing same-sex behavior as a sin. 

An administrator of the group — followed by about 1,100 alumni and parents — spoke to the Chronicle but asked not to be identified, citing recent threats and harassment against his family.

“We’re trying to push for what we believe is a more strict adherence to biblical principles and values on campus,” said the administrator, an ACU graduate who knew Schubert during their student days.

ACU Open Forum believes its advocacy led to Holy Sexuality Week, which Wildcats for Inclusion has criticized as “a one-sided affair” but that the forum administrator praises as “Bible-sided.”

While highly critical of leaving the sexual stewardship policy in place, Wildcats for Inclusion said the board “made the right decision and affirmed the importance of academic freedom.”

But ACU Open Forum maintains that the university has hedged its message by indicating that “reasonable Christian minds can differ” — as the forum puts it — on the Bible’s teachings on same-sex behavior and gender identity. Also, the group opposes providing “academic freedom” to allow professors to teach both sides as valid.

The Jacob's Dream sculpture at Abilene Christian University. The Williams Performing Arts Center can be seen in the distance.

The Jacob’s Dream sculpture at Abilene Christian University. The Williams Performing Arts Center can be seen in the distance.

“They’re trying to please God and the world, and Scripture says that is impossible,” the administrator said. “As a result, they are fighting a two-front war.”

The administrator said he feels called — as a Christian and a father whose children will consider ACU one day — to seek a better path for his alma mater.

“Phil is my friend,” he added, referring to the ACU president. “That won’t change. We just see things differently.”

A history of dialogue

ACU’s discussion of LGBTQ+ issues goes back at least two decades.

Sally Gary, then a communications professor, shared her personal story of experiencing same-sex attraction in a 2003 chapel presentation. At the time, Gary did not challenge traditional Christian beliefs on marriage. She expressed her commitment to celibacy.

Sally Gary is the founder of CenterPeace.

Sally Gary is the founder of CenterPeace.

In 2006, ACU students, faculty and staff members engaged in peaceful conversations with the Soulforce Equality Riders, a group of about 35 gay-rights demonstrators who visited the campus on a national tour. That same year, Gary started a ministry called CenterPeace to provide support and resources for gay and lesbian students.

Gary, who taught at ACU from 2001 to 2011, later wrote a memoir titled “Loves God, Likes Girls.” In 2020, she revealed that her understanding of the Bible had changed. She married her girlfriend, Karen Keen, in 2021.

Langley Smith is a junior at Abilene Christian University.

Langley Smith is a junior at Abilene Christian University.

“There really has been openness and dialogue at my alma mater,” Gary said this week. “I was so proud of what we were able to do while I was there — and the safe spaces we were creating for students who truly wanted to live out their Christian faith and be free to be themselves at the same time.”

In interviews with the Chronicle, current students expressed a willingness — even a desire — to go beyond talking points and hear  diverse perspectives.

“I guess my No. 1 thing would be that you don’t necessarily have to agree or approve of either side,” said Langley Smith, 20, a junior political science and history major from Murrieta, Calif. “But at least listen. If you don’t listen, then you are choosing to be ignorant of the hurt that is around you on both sides.”

Brandon Reynolds, 22, a graduate Bible student from Ruidoso, N.M., said he welcomes respectful dialogue.

“People disagreeing with you is not creating an unsafe environment,” said Reynolds, a preaching ministry intern with the Hillcrest Church of Christ in Abilene.

Phil Schubert is president of Abilene Christian University.

Phil Schubert is president of Abilene Christian University.

Messy middle

If ACU has failed to satisfy critics on the left or the right, Schubert indicated he’s fine with the university’s place “in the middle of the mess.”

“We know that every human being is created in God’s image, and that’s a part of what we are committed to each and every day,” Schubert said.  “And so that means, even when we have these hard conversations, we do so in a way that starts out by looking at the other person as a child of God.

“I’m firmly convinced that God’s greatest work in us is done in the middle of the mess.”

“And what an amazing honor and joy and responsibility it is to be on a journey to help each of our students see themselves that way and live into the calling he has for their lives,” he added. 

“Is that messy sometimes? Yeah. Hard? You bet. But I’m firmly convinced that God’s greatest work in us is done in the middle of the mess.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. He traveled to Abilene to report this story. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Abilene Abilene Christian University Christian universities gay Gay affirming Harding University LGBTQ LGBTQ+ and Christianity LGBTQ+ and Churches of Christ National Partners same-sex marriage Same-sex relationships Texas Top Stories

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