Last Friday, I spoke to a ballroom filled with fervent young Evangelical students at Family Research Council's Values Voters Summit. I was asked to address the question: Is the Church immune to conflicts over sexuality and gender? Obviously, no. I sensed that a good number of the students had encountered Christians enthusiastically affirming LGBTQ relationships within their Christian communities. But what many of the young Evangelicals in the room did not know is that this leftward drift on sexuality in the Church did not start within Evangelicalism.
Here at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, we often encounter Evangelicals unaware of unorthodox trends among Mainline Protestant denominations and their affiliates. Liberal Evangelicals especially tend to think they're the first to, well, compromise on Christian sexual ethics, and then they pat themselves on the back for their perceived innovations. Somehow they overlook the Mainline denominations who took this route years, sometimes decades, before—and have suffered for it in influence and witness.
If you haven't heard the news, Azusa Pacific University, a nondenominational affiliate of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), will no longer ban same-sex relationships for students on campus. Oddly, the college claims to still believe that all sexual behavior is "intended by God to take place only within the marriage covenant between a man and a woman."
Azusa Pacific's Evangelical administrators probably think their policy revision on sexuality is ground-breaking too. They are mistaken in that regard—not to mention misleading in their claim to still uphold traditional Christian teachings.
"The change that happened with the code of conduct is still in alignment with our identity as a Christian institution," said Azusa's Associate Dean of Students Bill Fiala. "The language changed, but the spirit didn't. Our spirit is still a conservative, evangelical perspective on human sexuality."
The decision was seemingly prompted after an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, Brave Commons, aided LTBTQ students on campus to pursue policy changes. However, it is hard to believe LGBTQ activists will be satisfied with this half-way policy change. Likely doctrinal revisions will soon follow.
In 1994, the Episcopal Church's oldest seminary, General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York, revised its policy to permit same-sex couples to live together in married student housing. Eventually, the seminary's policy turned into doctrine. The seminary's current Dean, Kurt H. Dunkle, wrote that he supports the LGBTQ community "without condition," and GTS prepares openly practicing LGBTQ seminarians for ordained ministry within the Episcopal Church.
As the unorthodox trend goes, GTS has struggled to avoid possible closure due to declining attendance. In 2015, the IRD's Jeff Walton reported GTS sold or redeveloped property in order to pay down its $40 million in debt. According to data garnered by the Association of Theological Schools, GTS reported only 34 full-time enrolled students during the 2017-2018 academic year. During 1994-1995, GTS educated 141 full-time students.
Azusa should take heed. Their decision to compromise on sexuality amidst social pressure is not new, but such decisions are likely to have the same decline results as the capitulating schools before it.