ACU rebuffs the left and the right in reaffirming its sexual stewardship policy
ABILENE, Texas — For students at Abilene Christian University, the debate…
Jesus was healing in the region of Judea when a group of Pharisees approached him to test him.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” the Pharisees asked.
When Jesus answered, he did not say, “Well, the Law of Moses really isn’t clear.” And he didn’t equivocate about how “different scholars interpret things differently.” He didn’t urge the Pharisees to “sit with their understanding of Scripture” or to apply their own “lived reality” to the Torah.
No. Instead, he replied this way:
“Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no person is to separate.”
In just three sentences, Jesus recounted the creation story for his hearers and described the metaphysical and permanent nature of marriage. At the same time, he shamed the Pharisees for coveting loopholes in the divine design of humanity and for ignoring the clear language of Scripture.
In recent months, some have sought to push the Christian university at which I teach toward a more ambiguous understanding of God’s design for creation and marriage — one that would undermine the authority of Scripture and one that would scatter stumbling blocks onto the paths of those who are struggling in many ways to honor God with their lives.
Abilene Christian University has always held faculty, staff and students to a particular code of conduct. 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.
Along with policies that forbid alcohol and drug abuse and prohibit harassment or discrimination to protect that Christian environment, the university has adopted a sexual stewardship policy, one that recognizes that God designed sexuality to be reserved for marriage and that marriage is a union in which a man and a woman, as Jesus said, become “one flesh.” That is necessary clarity in a world congested by confusion regarding sexuality and gender.
Those who are prodding the university to adopt a worldly definition of love, sex and marriage are, unintentionally or not, blurring the issues involved. But the questions are simply stated:
The answer to the first two questions are rooted in our hermeneutic, the other two in what kind of university we desire to be.
The university policy acknowledges that some in Christendom and even within the ACU community have views that differ from the university’s policy and the board of trustees’ position that sex is intended for marriage and that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. And indeed, some do. But they are clearly wrong.
Throughout Scripture and in every case, from the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis to the great wedding feast for the Lamb in Revelation, marriage is described as the union of a man and a woman and as a primary metaphor for the love between Christ and his bride, the church.
Nowhere does Scripture entertain the possibility of ambiguity with regard to the male or female nature of our creation and the male-female nature of marriage. In fact, as Paul tells the Roman church, the nature of God and his design has been revealed to men and women in creation itself — beyond the testimony of Scripture — so we are all “without excuse” when it comes to such sin.
The fact that culture and law have disoriented the design and goals of marriage over the past few decades does not mean what has been “from the beginning” is no longer the case. (For a comprehensive analysis of the arguments, I’d recommend Rubel Shelly’s new work “Male and Female God Created Them: A Biblical Review of LGBTQ+ Claims” or his shorter “The Ink Is Dry: God’s Distinctive Word on Marriage, Family, and Sexual Responsibility.”)
So yes, sex is designed for marriage, and marriage is the spiritual uniting of a man and a woman.
This is not new. The university has taken this position on the testimony of Scripture throughout its 118-year history. It reflects more than two centuries of interpretation within the Restoration Movement, and it conforms to the thinking and practice throughout the entirety of two millennia of Christianity.
Some now will say they have discovered “the Bible isn’t very clear” on sexuality and marriage. And they, too, are wrong. The Bible is very clear — on many things, especially on something as fundamental as the nature of creation and the design of the sexes and of marriage.
“The Bible is very clear — on many things, especially on something as fundamental as the nature of creation and the design of the sexes and of marriage.”
No, Jesus began his answer to the Pharisees with, “Have you not read?” He expected the Pharisees to be able to read the plain language of Scripture and to comprehend it. We should be able to, as well.
It is true that many in mainline denominations have abandoned a plain-reading interpretation of Scripture with regard to sexuality and marriage. They have exchanged a high view of the Word with a high view of the world, and as a result they are reaping a harvest of division and decline.
Most recently, about 85 percent of the global Anglican Communion have rebelled against the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury over their decision to allow the blessing same-sex unions. About a quarter of United Methodist Church congregations — and an even greater percentage of its membership — are in the process of disaffiliating for the same reason.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost 62 percent of its membership in the four decades since veering into increasing rejection of scriptural teaching on sexuality and marriage, and the Episcopal Church hasn’t fared much better. So anyone advocating for a mainline direction within Churches of Christ and their affiliated organizations is waving a banner of abatement.
Likewise, most of the universities historically tied to those mainline denominations have jettisoned any pretext of a sexual stewardship policy other than a half-hearted nod to the importance of consent in sexual relationships.
They will tell their students to “be themselves” — not to be transformed by the Word. They will tell their students their identity is wrapped up in what appeals to them sexually or in a dozen different things rather than in their creation in God’s image.
They’re telling their students precisely what the world is telling them. (For a broader systematic evaluation of the degree to which historically Christian universities — even outside the mainline — have secularized, see Perry Glanzer’s recent work “Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide.”)
ACU’s position, I recognize, runs counter to the prevailing winds of culture. And the easiest path for the university and its board would be to capitulate to the pressures of society and to adopt an untethered hermeneutic and exegesis that tells us some Scripture means precisely the opposite of what it says.
Or, even worse, it could join many other academic institutions in unhitching behavioral expectations for faculty, staff and students from Scripture entirely.
“God did not call us to the easy path. ACU is different. We are different. And we tell our students they should be different. Jesus didn’t say ‘be yourself.’ … He said, ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.’
But God did not call us to the easy path. ACU is different. We are different. And we tell our students they should be different. Jesus didn’t say “be yourself.” He didn’t say live your truth and live into the identity the world has given you. He didn’t say strive to be “on the right side of history.” He said, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
That is why the university must stake out a position on sexuality and marriage and ensure it reflects what Scripture teaches. ACU’s commitment to its students is and always has been to create a Christian environment in which we prepare them for Christian service, and that promise has never been hidden to students applying to attend at the university and to faculty and staff applying to work here.
We promise to create an atmosphere that encourages holy living, and it would be disingenuous not to do so because we are not, and should never be, a nominally Christian university.
Related: Male and female God created them
To refuse to adopt a position at all would be to adopt the view of the world — that marriage is whatever culture says it is rather than a foundational relationship designed by God in which a man and a woman become “one flesh.” And we cannot fulfill that commitment to our students without faculty and staff support of the board’s policy.
We absolutely need to challenge our students. We need to push them to engage with points of view they haven’t before. We need to help them reexamine their preconceived notions. We need to help them deepen their understanding of the world and culture in which they live. We need to prepare them to be salt and light in a fallen world.
We must do all of that in a context rooted in Scripture and in God’s revealed will. And we are positioned to do it better than anyplace else.
There are those who say requiring support for a particular position means we have given up academic freedom — that there are things we just can’t talk about. They cite the late ACU President John C. Stevens, who said at his inauguration 55 years ago, “There are no subjects on this earth, or in outer space, or in the metaphysical realm, which we cannot study on the campus of a Christian institution of higher learning.”
And that was well said. But they overlook his very next point — that there are no off-limits subjects “so long as in our teaching and practice we operate within the framework of our historic commitment.”
The university’s policy fits squarely within that historic commitment to the truth of Scripture.
So the assertion that the university’s position and its expectation of support prevents faculty and staff from discussing those topics is nonsense — a logical fallacy.
For example, I can talk all day with my students — in the classroom and elsewhere — about sexual assault and abuse, but I would hope I couldn’t seriously advocate for rape or incest.
I can talk all day about race, ethnicity and nationhood, but I think it would conflict with Scripture — and my own contract at the university — to with any seriousness claim God loves people of one race or nation more than he loves others. No, in those areas I must support the applicable university policies.
Our students need to hear from us the full gospel message: God loves you; he died for you in the person of his son; he was physically raised to new life. We are fallen. We are stained by sin.
But we have the same opportunity at resurrection and eternal life if we believe and if we repent. If we die to ourselves, turn to Jesus and be washed in his redeeming blood, we will be saved.
We must love Jesus. And if we love him, we will keep his commandments.
“Christian students coming to ACU are not craving more ambiguity. They are hungry for solid meat. They want to know what Scripture teaches, and they want to know how they can apply it to their lives.”
Christian students coming to ACU are not craving more ambiguity. They are hungry for solid meat. They want to know what Scripture teaches, and they want to know how they can apply it to their lives.
They don’t want to hear dissembling. They don’t want to hear waffling and hedging that obfuscates the plain meaning of Scripture. They don’t want to hear our baggage from churches in the 1970s. They don’t need our deconstruction.
No, students at Christian universities like mine need interpretive tools that can help them understand Scripture and live holy lives. They need the full armor of God, and we have the opportunity — and the responsibility as a Christian university — to give it to them.
KENNETH PYBUS is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Abilene Christian University and a former chair of the university’s Faculty Senate. Contact [email protected].
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.