Tough Grace: Clear and Consistent on Sexual Standards
In December, Congress and President Obama ended the era of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) in the United States military. Today, American political culture is far more open to gay members of the armed forces than it was in 1993, when President Clinton created his famous compromise.
In civilian life, Don't Ask, Don't Tell attitudes are also fading. Once, this quiet accommodation to the presence of gays in our midst afforded the luxury of ambiguity, allowing heterosexuals to be friendly and supportive of gay coworkers, friends, and family without having to deal head-on with their sexuality. In order to be good neighbors, evangelical Christians have often chosen not to deal with the subject, making mental distinctions between their personal beliefs and their family and community relationships.
But Christian institutions—colleges, campus ministries, publishers, and aid organizations among them—can no longer enjoy the ambiguity that DADT attitudes traditionally afforded. This was highlighted this past December, when Nashville's Belmont University became embroiled in a controversy over the resignation (or dismissal, as some claimed) of a lesbian soccer coach with a winning record after students learned that her partner was expecting a baby.
Until 2007, Belmont was affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Publicly, the school trumpets its identity as a Christian university and its commitment to "learning in a context of Christian community and service." But it has chosen a broad interpretation of its Christian mission, which has been accompanied by strong numerical growth.
Former soccer coach Lisa Howe and the university are saying that her departure was not linked with her homosexual relationship, but many are unconvinced. Whatever the situation at Belmont University, the incident should prompt Christian institutions to reflect on how to respond to homosexual behavior they discover in their midst.
First, Christian institutions should be clear about the behavioral standards they expect from employees, students, and members, and then enforce them—consistently, but judiciously. There are legal reasons for this. If Christian institutions expect society to let them make religious belief and practice a factor in their employment practices, they need to provide clear and consistent accounts of their standards. But there are also pastoral reasons. Churches and other Christian organizations have been inconsistent in dealing with departures from God's ideal for human sexuality, such as divorce, adultery, and sexual harassment. When pastors are caught in adultery or sexual harassment, churches too often punish the whistleblower and find ways to quietly transfer clergy to new parishes.
Consistency and clarity are essential. Consistency means not singling out those with same-sex orientation. The same standard should apply to all. Wheaton College's Community Covenant is a good model. It says, "[F]ollowers of Jesus Christ will … uphold chastity among the unmarried (1 Cor. 6:18) and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman (Heb. 13:4) … Scripture condemns … all … sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman." Those standards do not make a special case of homosexuality. To deviate from God's ideal is to deviate from God's ideal.
But among Christians, consistent enforcement constantly butts heads with grace. How do we apply grace to pastors, teachers, and others whose calling involves modeling the Christian life for those younger and still very much in formation? Often when institutions exercise discipline, someone cries, "I thought Christianity was all about grace!" Grace does not always, everywhere, and immediately mean wiping the slate clean. Communities need to take into account the impact that leaders' misbehavior has on others. To express the comprehensiveness of God's grace, institutional forgiveness of an offender must also focus pastoral support on the wounded and betrayed.