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Quo Vadis Fuller Seminary?

July 18, 2013

By Drew GriffinAnnibale_Carracci_-_Domine_quo_vadis?_-_WGA04444 It is undeniable that in recent months public opinion has shifted greatly concerning the issue of gay marriage and LGBT issues.  We have seen a statistical landslide of sorts in favor of legalizing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.  High Schools have so-called Gay Days, or Days of Silence, where students are encouraged to identify with and support their LGBT peers.  Colleges have courses on LGBT issues, and countless student groups demonstrate, protest and celebrate based on the LGBT news of the day.  This cultural change has even begun to creep into evangelical institutions of Higher Education.  These institutions, once seen as havens for tradition with the institutional commitment to back up their convictions, are now finding their metal being tested by the shifting morals of their students.  Increasingly, conviction is giving way to convenience and we are only just now beginning to assess the cost.

Evangelical Seminaries represent a special class of higher education, one whose aim is almost always explicitly stated, and whose very existence is predicated on a commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy in a pluralistic world.  The most notable exception has proved to be Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA.  Last fall the multidenominational seminary sanctioned the creation of its first ever student group for LGBT students.  The group, OneTable, is the first of its kind at Fuller, and for that matter the first of its kind at any major evangelical seminary.  The group’s creation and reception at the seminary was recently profiled in an article in Phoenix’s East Valley Tribune, and was distributed by NBC News.

The article, LGBT Group Finds Acceptance at Evangelical School  conveys the story of Nick Palacios, a 29-year-old man from a Pentecostal background who, in addition to being a student at Fuller, happens to be gay.  Palacios describes his struggle as one between his faith and his sexuality,

“”It quickly became apparent to me that I was going to be OK and that I wasn’t going to have to forsake my faith for my sexuality,” Palacios continues,

“I really hope that people will see Fuller and OneTable as a model of what the body of the church is supposed to do in this situation.”

OneTable and its presence on Fuller’s Pasadena campus has been met with mixed reactions from activists on both sides of the gender rights divide. It is being hailed by gay rights advocates as a step in the right direction,

“Richard Flory, a researcher at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, said Fuller’s acceptance of the group, while unique, is more about symbolism than about a move toward true tolerance.

“It sounds like they want to have it both ways: Jesus loves you as you are, however there are limitations to what you can be,” Flory said. “It’s like sticking your toe in the deep end of the water to see what happens.”

While conservatives are lamenting this development as harmful to both the institution and its students;

“Fuller is not acting in the students’ best interests by sanctioning the group and should instead be teaching reorientation as the students’ best option, said the Rev. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization.  “It’s possible to change any or all of these attractions,” said Sprigg, a former Baptist pastor.”

For his part, Palacios admits that he and other that are a members of OneTable are not “out to be political,” but rather they are trying to create an environment to “figure out the blend between faith and orientation.”

This episode may be the exception at Evangelical seminaries for the time being but the issues it raises are by-no-means unique to Fuller.  So how are we, as evangelicals and complementarians to proceed?  To answer this question let us look at two perspectives and offer two questions to consider.

The LGBT Perspective: One Giant Leap…

gaycoupleIt is clear that the moniker of “gay Christian” is not going away.  Increasingly many Christians are struggling with their gender identification in relation to the precepts of their stated faith.  The only difference in this post-modern age is that the changing public mores are affording them the opportunity to engage in their struggle openly rather than in private.  The aforementioned article confirms that this is welcome news to those in the LGBT community,

“Fuller’s decision not to push back against OneTable is a critical step toward acceptance for gay evangelical students, said Justin Lee, the executive director of the Gay Christian Network, which tracks the burgeoning movement. An increasing number of young people have been coming out on Christian campuses nationwide, whether they are accepted or not, and Fuller’s move acknowledges that and provides a touchstone for students who would otherwise keep their sexuality a secret, he said.”

In previous CBMW posts  we have argued that Christians are faced with three options in how we can react to this increased discussion: We can live in denial and say that this doesn’t really matter, that its only one seminary; we can rise up in righteous indignation and rail against the crumbling conviction of this evangelical institution; or we can proceed with gospel faithfulness and lean into the controversy confident that the gospel of grace is strong enough to withstand any attack against it.  Make no mistake, this development at Fuller represents a giant leap forward for “gay Christians” clamoring for acceptance.

This should be troubling for evangelicals who care about the direction of theological education.  That being said, we should not abandon members of the body of Christ who are in need of love and direction.

We might ask ourselves the question, if Fuller has gone too far, then what can an evangelical institution do to address its students as brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling with same-sex attraction?

The Fuller Perspective: A sin of omission by any other name…

As evangelicals look on from a distance, it is easy to critique and demagogue the issue surrounding Fuller’s apparent acquiescence to the LGBT community.  One might point out that if you examine closely Fuller has not completely given up the ghost in terms of Christian conviction.  As the article alludes the school’s fine print still maintains that,

Students can “come out” but they can’t have sex, be politically active or challenge a school policy that states homosexual sex is “inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture.”

While Fuller may not be endorsing the homosexual lifestyle in its written statements per se, it is definitely admonishing it with silence, which is no admonishment at all.  The Institution’s stated mission is recorded and the goal of its educators is clear, read here from their Official Statement of Purpose :

As faculty, administrators, and trustees of Fuller Theological Seminary, we are disciples of Christ before we are Christian educators. This means that we see our educational ministry as part of a larger mission—common to all Christians—of serving Christ as obedient disciples in the church and in the world. Christian education, then, has for us a nearer and a further purpose:

Our nearer purpose is the nurture and training of students for the ministries of Christ.

Our further purpose is to work for the obedient understanding of God’s will, the extension of Christ’s Kingdom, the strengthening of the church, and the good of human society at home and around the globe.

If they truly believe that they are called to be “disciples of Christ before educators”, and if they are committed to working for the “obedient understanding of God’s will,” then how can they allow their students to openly embrace a lifestyle that repudiates the design of the very God they seek to serve?  Does this open the doors for groups that support adultery, or gambling, or any other unbiblical covetous desire?

So our question(s) for Fuller is this; Given what you claim to cherish, and who you claim to serve, where are you going in relation to your mission?  After this, where do you have left to go?

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