Editor’s Note: This article now includes a postscript which was posted after we received news that Azusa Pacific University had reversed course on their new policy on LGBT relationships. The article title has also been changed to reflect this update. Eric Teetsel is an alumnus of Azusa Pacific University, where he earned his Master’s Degree in Education with an emphasis in College Student Affairs.
America’s Christian colleges and universities are increasingly finding themselves at the forefront of America’s culture wars over sex and sexual identity. With the threat of lawsuits, access to federal and state funding, and accreditation at stake, some have chosen to sacrifice their distinct, Christian identity and acquiesce to the demands of the culture. The latest to capitulate on this front is Azusa Pacific University.
On September 18, ZU News, the student newspaper of Azusa Pacific University, reported that the university had made the decision to remove from its student standards of conduct language that “prohibited public LGBTQ+ relationships for students on campus.” This change in policy is accompanied by a “pilot program to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ students on campus,” which is in response to a resolution passed by the APU Student Government Association that requested such a program.
Previously, APU’s Student Standards of Conduct included a provision stating, “Students may not engage in a romanticized same-sex relationship.” It has been removed. The standards now read simply, “Students may not engage in sexual intimacy outside the context of marriage.”
ZU News reports the changes are the result of a discussion dating back to last year between members of an unsanctioned LGBT student group, Haven, and university officials that was coordinated by Erin Green, an APU alum. In November 2017, APU was sued by an employee who claimed he was harassed for being gay. At a rally for the employee, students delivered a letter to the administration that demanded, among other things, a change in university policy regarding LGBTQ+ students.
Speaking on behalf of the university, Associate Dean of Students Bill Fiala addressed the recent changes:
“The changes that occurred to the handbooks around sexual behavior creates one standard for all undergraduate students, as opposed to differential standards for different groups. The change that happened with the code of conduct is still in alignment with our identity as a Christian institution. The language changed, but the spirit didn’t. Our spirit is still a conservative, evangelical perspective on human sexuality.”
It is true that the Student Standards of Conduct include a link to the university’s Identity Statement on Human Sexuality. That statement reads, in part:
“We hold that the full behavioral expression of sexuality is to take place within the context of a marriage covenant between a man and a woman and that individuals remain celibate outside of the bond of marriage. Therefore, we seek to cultivate a community in which sexuality is embraced as God-given and good and where biblical standards of sexual behavior are upheld.”
In essence, APU has established a policy that allows for same-sex romantic relationships, while at the same time reaffirming the university’s commitment to the standard that the “full behavioral expression of sexuality is to take place within the context of a marriage covenant between a man and a woman.” What are we to make of the apparent contradiction?
Associate Dean Fiala doesn’t see a problem: “I’m not a big fan of who’s right and who’s wrong in this conversation, I’m a big fan of caring for people. So, my hope would be that we treat each other that way.”
Indeed, caring for others is the high calling of every follower of Christ, which is why APU’s capitulation is such a heartbreaking failure. Jesus rejected cultural norms and humanly-devised power structures, unashamedly proclaiming the Good News in a mission of love and light that culminated in crucifixion and the conquering of death. Rather than loving students by walking with and discipling them in a transformation towards Christlikeness, APU has shrouded the truth under a veil of doublethink and has exposed its students to grave error.
Erin Green sold the university on the faulty premise that opposite-sex and same-sex romantic relationships are biblically equitable. “We thought it was unfair to single out queer folks in same-sex romantic relationships,” Green said. “Queer students are just as able to have romanticized relationships that abide by APU’s rules. The code falsely assumed that same-sex romances always involved sexual behavior. This stigmatization causes harm to our community, especially those serious about their Christian faith.”
But opposite-sex and same-sex romantic relationships are not the same. The purpose of dating is to find the person with whom you will enter God’s covenantal “one flesh” union. Opposite-sex dating relationships can be chaste and lead to a marriage covenant. Same-sex dating relationships can never lead to that holy outcome and are by definition sinful. Scripture simply does not treat homosexual and heterosexual relationships as morally equivalent, and neither should we.
What is the purpose of a same-sex romantic relationship? And what might holiness look like in the context of a same-sex romantic relationship?
Since APU correctly affirms that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, a same-sex romantic relationship is a dead-end. It exists solely for the purpose of formalizing and indulging same-sex desire – a desire which is, in itself, sinful.
What physical intimacy can be experienced in a same-sex romantic relationship consistent with biblical standards of righteousness? Whereas hand-holding and brief kisses on the lips might reasonably be understood as appropriate levels of physical intimacy in a dating relationship growing towards marriage (although we must acknowledge that Christians disagree about precise limits here), there is no biblical category for the expression of same-sex romantic intimacy. Same-sex romance is completely outside of God’s design for human sexuality.
In 2016, the California legislature nearly passed SB 1146, which would have required private Christian colleges and universities like APU to abide by so-called “anti-discrimination” provisions in order to accept students who access state financial aid. The bill sponsor, Senator Ricardo Lara, rescinded the relevant provisions of his bill following backlash, but the threat of future legislation remains. “The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” Lara said.
That threat undoubtedly hung over Azusa Pacific University, and perhaps that explains why APU has revised its standard of conduct for students. In an age of moral confusion, when Satan sows doubt about such fundamental truths as God’s design for human sexual identity, proclaiming the truth is an act of love. Rather than render unto Caesar what belongs to God, university administrators should be emboldened by the example of Peter and the apostles who, when they were beaten and charged not to speak in the name of Jesus, rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name,” (Acts 5:41). They should honor the example of John the Baptist, who was martyred for speaking truth about sexual holiness to Herod. They should learn from Daniel, who sought to live at peace as an exile in a pagan land, but never compromised his witness.
UPDATE 10/1/18: On Friday night, I received some very good news. The Board of Trustees of Azusa Pacific issued a statement about the change in their student standards of conduct regarding same-sex romantic relationships. The policy has been reversed. Full statement here: “University Statement from Board of Trustees.” Among other things, the trustees write:
“Last week, reports circulated about a change to the undergraduate student standards of conduct. That action concerning romanticized relationships was never approved by the board and the original wording has been reinstated… We pledge to boldly uphold biblical values and not waiver in our Christ-centered mission. We will examine how we live up to these high ideals and enact measures that prevent us from swaying from that sure footing.”
Critiquing a person or institution is never easy, especially when it’s one with which there is a personal connection, like an alma mater. I take no pleasure in it. Christianity is a family, a faith practiced in community.
We live, work, and worship together so that we can worship, encourage, sharpen, celebrate, and grieve together. It was at Azusa that I first read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.
Another benefit of shared faith is rebuke and correction. The Bible repeatedly addresses the necessity and goodness of rebuke, the wisdom and blessing of accepting it, and the folly of rejecting it. See here: “Embrace the Blessing of Rebuke.”
I was overcome with gratitude and joy when I was informed of the Azusa trustees decision. This is how the Church is supposed to work. Now, we celebrate!
Eric Teetsel is President and Executive Director of Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, and an Associate Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He holds a Master’s Degree in Education with an emphasis in College Student Affairs from Azusa Pacific University.
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