Sacrificing LGBTQ+ Well-Being and More on the Altar of an Inerrant Bible

Perspective is undoubtedly a blessing. It comes with time and experience, and no small amount of grace. But gaining it also means coming to terms with hard truths—truths about ourselves, about the world at large, and about the traditions and institutions that have shaped us (for better or for worse; though usually it’s a bit of both).

Ten years ago, I graduated from Cairn University—a small, evangelical Christian university in Langhorne, PA. Cairn isn’t widely known, and it certainly isn’t a place that regularly makes the news. But you might have seen it in a recent AP report: “Christian college ends program citing gender, sex guidelines.”

That title doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of the decision. In a May email from Cairn University President Todd Williams, alumni were notified that, based on a decision made at the spring meeting of the board of trustees (and following the administration’s recommendation), the university “will be eliminating the School of Social Work and all programs offered through it, effective Fall 2021.”

The School of Social Work at Cairn represents a legacy over fifty years old. Their bachelor’s program has been highly regarded, and they launched a graduate (MSW) program just last year. So the recent announcement came as a big surprise, and one that was deeply disappointing to many students and alumni (not only to those associated with the School of Social Work, but to them especially).

The rationale given for the closure was multifaceted, and not every facet was entirely clear. Nor, surely, was every facet equally determinative. Smaller-than-expected enrollment numbers were cited, as were expectations by the accrediting body—the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)—that the university would maintain certain student-faculty ratios. It’s been speculated that updates to the CSWE’s curricular requirements pertaining to race, implicit bias, and white supremacy might have something to do with the decision (critical race theory being the new bogeyman for conservatives of both the ill-informed and the deliberately malicious varieties); but that remains a speculation (and one that President Williams denied in speaking with the AP).

In the correspondence from President Williams, one clear and central reason for the closure stands out: The university leadership believes—based, allegedly, on the most recent draft of the CSWE’s criteria for accreditation—that the CSWE will, going forward, require adherence to “a social and cultural agenda that . . . includes the acceptance of a view of human sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression that is inconsistent with the university’s biblical position on human sexuality.”

In other words, university leaders believe that if they wanted to continue their accredited programs in social work, they would need to affirm, in some fashion, the self-understandings and relationships of LGBTQ+ individuals—and that’s something they are unwilling to do.

This decision comes at an interesting time, as religious institutions—and especially those in the evangelical tradition—seem to be under renewed pressure to declare their allegiances in the resurgent culture wars. But many Christian colleges and universities have for decades resisted calls to affirm or support anything that falls outside of what President Williams terms a “biblical position on human sexuality.” Unsurprisingly, the experiences of LGBTQ+ students at these schools often differ drastically from the experiences of their straight and cisgender classmates. (Consider the pending class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of thirty-three plaintiffs against the US Department of Education alleging the department’s “complicity in the abuses and unsafe conditions thousands of LGBTQ+ students endure at hundreds of taxpayer-funded, religious colleges and universities.”) And as we’re seeing now at Cairn, even educational programs that exist to train students to provide practical and professional assistance to those most in need can be deemed less important than maintaining a “biblical position” that prohibits the embrace and affirmation of LGBTQ+ existence.

With the perspective I have now (ten years after graduating from Cairn, with a seminary education under my belt, some professional ministry experience, and exposure to a variety of Christian traditions), I have come to see the refusal to embrace and affirm LGBTQ+ existence by Cairn University and other, similar evangelical institutions as a harmful symptom of a deeper, more foundational issue—namely, inerrantist idolatry of the Bible.

This idolatry is regularly enshrined in official documents. For example, the second point in Cairn’s statement of faith reads, “We believe that the Old and New Testament Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit without error in the words of the original documents and providentially preserved as the supreme authority for faith and life.” To identify the Bible directly with the revelation, or Word, of God and deduce from that direct identification that the Bible must be “without error”—as this statement and many others seem to do—is to raise the Bible to the level of divinity (for only God can reveal God). It is to put something created in the place of the Creator. Not content with a creaturely witness to the Ultimate, this approach sets up the witness (the Bible) as itself ultimate. Whatever a text of scripture might say, or imply, on any given topic is then treated as simply God’s view—as the divine, the ultimate perspective—on that topic. Having made this kind of inerrantist commitment, one cannot see the unfortunate human prejudices and less-evolved opinions that sometimes appear in scripture as simply that; one must either explain them away or else embrace and defend them as, like it or not, the very Word of God for all people in all times and places.

Convinced that it doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in discussions of LGBTQ+ experiences in Christian spaces, it is this inerrantist idolatry of the Bible that I would like to focus on here.

***

In his May email to alumni, President Williams cited Cairn University’s commitment to a “biblical position on human sexuality” as though personal and institutional commitments to the Bible might differ only in degree but not in kind, and as though being “biblical” could mean only one thing—namely, to follow the inerrantist approach that Cairn follows.

However, commitments to the Bible do in fact differ in kind. Consequently, there are different ways of understanding what it means to be “biblical.” Acknowledging this, we can see that it is not commitment to the Bible per se that keeps Cairn and other evangelical institutions from affirming LGBTQ+ existence; it is, instead, commitment to a certain kind of commitment, to a particular way of regarding and living with the Bible—one that I firmly believe is, harsh as it may sound, a form of idolatry.

It isn’t easy to wait for Moses at the base of Mt. Sinai, to abide the God who is beyond our comprehension and control, who calls to us from the cloud on top of the mountain and would go ahead of us, leading us into previously unknown territory. This God doesn’t supply us with a rule book, or even a map of the road ahead. This God calls us to follow in faith, relying on grace. And that can be unsettling. We can never be quite certain that we’re “doing it right,” much less all-the-way right. Faith comes, at times, with its own kind of assurance; but the assurance of faith is not certainty.

And so, rather than abide the uncertainly and insecurity of life with this God who calls to us from the cloud, we often succumb to the temptation to craft a god for ourselves from that which is not God. This is a perennial temptation, and it takes different forms. We can be tempted to bow down and worship the church as god (its rites and its leadership), as often occurs in clerical traditions. But we can also be tempted to bow down and worship the Bible as god—and this is the idolatry that the evangelical tradition is especially prone to. In fact, this idolatry has often (as at Cairn) been made a foundational tenet of evangelical faith.

In this idolatry, rather than waiting for Moses at the base of Mt. Sinai, we take the signs and effects of God’s past revelations (the scriptures) and shape them (through doctrinal confessions and statements of faith) into an instrument that might serve our comfort and security: the supposedly inerrant, Word-direct-from-the-divine-and-now-at-our-disposal Bible.

The hard truth is that, with its decision to close the School of Social Work rather than affirm unequivocally the self-understandings of LBGTQ+ individuals, Cairn University is again bowing down to this god made by human hands. Rather than learning from the Bible to love and follow the God of the Bible, the university leaders have chosen instead to stay the well-worn evangelical course and worship the Bible itself as their god. This has serious consequences.

When we cast what is in truth a creaturely artifact as the Ultimate, we come to expect ultimacy from it. And when that artifact is the Bible, we come to regard the perspectives and prescriptions on human sexuality and gender that appear in it not as the best attempts of finite human beings to judge what is true and life-giving in light of their encounters with the divine and utilizing the best resources at their disposal, but as immutable declarations that admit of only acceptance or rejection.

The Bible then becomes for us a means of denying responsibility for life’s hard decisions. We are left with no real decisions to make—no need to consider the facts on the ground; to weigh the findings of anthropologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists; or to regard the life experiences of concrete individuals. We already have the answers, the god’s-eye-view of things, because we already have our Bible; and our Bible is our god.

This golden calf of a Bible may give us a sense of security. It wards off the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the unexpected. But in doing so, it stunts genuine growth and maturation. (We won’t reach the promised land following this god!)

This god also demands costly sacrifices. Christian colleges and universities have for generations sacrificed on its altar the psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being of LGBTQ+ students—calling “evil good and good evil” (Isa. 5:20). And the weight of responsibility they bear is compounded, for those they teach go on to teach others. The small boxes they mistake for divine ordinance and demand their students conform themselves to are passed on to their students’ own students, congregants, clients, and counselees—confining the people of God against the will of the One who came “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

All the while, by their very existence LGBTQ+ individuals have been our prophets, the ones who call out our myriad sacred cows—the binaries and essentialisms that we love to prescribe, to cast as law so that we can maintain the comforting illusion of a fixed and predictable universe as we turn our backs on the God who forever cries, “I am about to do something new; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19). Rarely have we recognized and heeded our prophets.

As I see it, my own alma mater, Cairn University, is sacrificing on the altar of its supposedly inerrant idol-Bible the School of Social Work “and all programs offered through it.” The Cairn social work programs have for decades trained students young and old to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world—to go wherever God’s people are suffering, isolated, and outcast (and by “God’s people,” I mean all the daughters and sons and nonbinary children of this earth, regardless of belief); to lift them up and provide concrete, tangible assistance however possible; to embody what Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and all the stars above” (Paradiso 33.167–68, trans. Clive James).

This means that, in a real sense, the social work students, faculty, and alumni have been the very presence of Christ in the Cairn community. But wherever Christ appears, he always pushes the envelope, upsets the establishment, and challenges the accepted orthodoxies. He calls out and tears down the limits we place on love. And for this, he is always crucified by the powers that be.

At best, I’ve only ever been able to look back at my years at Cairn with mixed appreciation and disappointment. On the one hand, I’ve long felt that the university harbors doctrinal commitments and de facto orthodoxies that are unhelpful and even harmful. On the other hand, I met my wife at Cairn, forged life-long friendships, and grew and learned a great deal thanks, in large part, to my professors—professors who were, almost without exception, knowledgeable, dedicated, kind, and patient educators without whom I would not be the person I am today.

It is because of the many positive experiences that I and my wife and our friends had at Cairn that I feel so personally disappointed at the recent decision and the rationale given for it. In the past, in those moments when I’ve felt most saddened by the university’s intransigence (which, of course, masquerades as faithfulness), my wife, an alumna of the social work program, has always reminded me, “At least the School of Social Work is making a difference for the better!”

But now even that is being sacrificed to the idol-Bible that lies at the foundation of the university’s theological approach—an approach that they remain mired in, sadly, along with innumerable others.

***

There are better kinds of commitments, however, that we can make to the Bible—ways that we can hold it in respect and revere it as an indispensable human testimony to the revelation of God in the history of the Jewish and early Christian peoples and, centrally, in the person of Jesus without identifying it directly with that revelation.

As we’ve seen, when we identify the Bible directly with the revelation to which it testifies, we confuse it with the Revealed, with God; we bow down and worship it while at the same time (and perhaps ironically) forcing it into the confines of our a priori notions of divinity—chiefly, into the confine of immutability. The Bible then becomes for us the “unchanging Word of God” that must (despite all evidence to the contrary) be wholly correct and internally consistent from Genesis to Revelation and that must (including where it speaks on matters of human sexuality and gender) be expressing eternal and immutable principles and standards to which every human being in every time and place is obligated to conform.

But the Bible is not God. It is a vital record of the encounters that our spiritual forefathers and foremothers had with God—processed, expressed, and handed down to us in terms of the conceptual worlds and categories available to them. As such, it is not always perfect or consistent or right. Like the disciples, as we see them in the Gospels, the scriptures often misunderstand God; they struggle to keep up. At times, like Peter, they can obstruct or even deny the salvation of God. But like the disciples, the scriptures have been called and empowered by God. Despite their imperfections, they continue to proclaim to us the salvation of God—the presence of “the love that moves the sun and all the stars above” in the depth of our existence. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). Through the scriptures, we continue to encounter this God for ourselves and we too are called to follow.

As we seek to live in and to follow the way of love in our own times and places, we are aided by the (inevitably imperfect) examples of our spiritual forefathers and foremothers recorded in the Bible. In its pages we can start to see the direction that God has been nudging—sometimes shoving, and sometimes dragging—our stubborn species through the millennia. In the Bible we can start to see the trajectory, the movement, that God is leading us on: a movement toward radical, barrier-breaking inclusivity and boundless love. And we are biblical not by arresting this movement, insisting that one go no further than the Bible goes, but by carrying the movement forward, following in faith the incomprehensible and uncontrollable God who calls to us from the cloud on the mountain top and who leads us to new and unexpected places.

Embracing this kind of approach would, I realize, amount to a radical shift of foundations for Cairn University and others in the evangelical tradition. But time and experience—and, I believe, no small amount of grace—have given me and others the perspective to see that this shift is necessary for the sake of the gospel. Such a shift would allow Cairn to continue educating students to serve those in need as licensed social workers; it would allow them and evangelicals in general to love the LGBTQ+ members of their communities, and of the wider world, more fully and unequivocally; and it would be—though perhaps differently than many are accustomed to—biblical. So I pray that someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, Cairn University and all those still beholden to the supposedly inerrant idol-Bible will be given ears to hear the voice of the God who calls from the cloud, who is always ahead of us, leading us on the way of the Love that knows no bounds.


==================================
Follow @Alex_J_DeMarco

Subscribe to Die Evangelischen Theologen

Popular Posts

So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Types of Theology

Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium