On May 14, the Baylor University board of regents released a statement on human sexuality and identity. In it, the regents affirmed the dignity of all students “regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” committed to providing a supportive educational environment for all students, and tasked President Linda Livingstone with beginning a process to charter a formal organization of LGTBQ students.
It also, simultaneously, reaffirmed Baylor’s Statement on Human Sexuality, which defines biblical sexuality as being between a man and woman within the bounds of holy matrimony, and it announced that any new LGBTQ organization would not be permitted to advocate for behavior outside of this “traditional biblical teaching of Scripture regarding human sexuality.”
This statement about human dignity was immediately decried by some of Baylor’s conservative critics as “surrender” to the culture, while some who are closely affected by it felt it did not go far enough.
Past time for this conversation
The issue certainly needs to be confronted by the Baylor regents and administration; Baylor’s adherence to traditional biblical teaching as its standard for dealing with LGBTQ individuals has harmed our students, as well as our closeted faculty and staff. Material accompanying the regents’ statement notes the high incidence of mental health problems and suicidal ideations among LGBTQ youth, and I have seen the emotional and spiritual cost in my classrooms and in my office across three decades — students afraid to be their true selves.
Students at a Christian university afraid that if they come out publicly as gay, their faith and their identities will be mocked and that they will be shamed.
It is certainly time and past time to enter into real dialogue about this issue, which not only affects LGBTQ people on campus, it impairs Baylor’s Christian witness to the larger world. As David Kinnaman reported almost 15 years ago in his book unChristian, one of the greatest bars to bringing the message of Christ to younger generations (including Baylor students) is the hateful attitude evangelicals often demonstrate toward homosexuals.
I am truly grateful to the regents and the administration for beginning this conversation. And please believe me: It is a step forward. My five years of work in white churches on racial reconciliation have convinced me not to denigrate small steps as “baby steps.”
“I applaud the Baylor board and commit to working with them and with our administrators to begin making Baylor a safer place for LGBTQ students.”
A regent and I agreed that this statement doesn’t offer everything for which queer students and progressive allies had hoped. But it’s not nothing.
So I applaud the Baylor board and commit to working with them and with our administrators to begin making Baylor a safer place for LGBTQ students. I also acknowledge how (as a Baylor alumna and major donor reminded me) this action represents “a small but significant first step for President Livingstone and the regents, and it took courage and conviction, drawing instant attacks from prominent SBC leaders (and doubtless, from conservative alumni).”
Is this surrender? Is this acceptance?
Cue that “surrender” language from Albert Mohler and many others. How can Baylor call itself Christian if it doesn’t remain in lockstep with conservative Christian dogma?
For many conservative Christians, any language from Baylor welcoming or loving LGTBQ students goes too far, while, for the gay students and alumni with whom I’ve spoken, the resolution stops short of total inclusion.
Here is the dilemma and the ongoing conversation: How can Baylor be Christian and truly love each and every one of its students?
“How can Baylor be Christian and truly love each and every one of its students?”
Greg Millikin, author of Being Called, Being Gay, told me this week that it’s simply not enough to announce that you are now a welcoming community. (“Welcoming,” my students suggest, feels like a step below total acceptance.) “You have to be an affirming community,” Greg suggested.
Queer people have to be given opportunities for leadership. They have to see their status as equal to anyone else in the community. And they need their identity to be truly affirmed, not just to be told that they, like all of us, are made in the image of God, but that “God made you this way and it is not a mistake.”
Our students and alumni do not see that full acceptance represented in the pairing of affirming language with traditional teachings about sexuality. A gay alum wrote that the resolution:
definitely gives the impression of “Love the sinner, hate the sin” without saying as much. The LGBTQ community will not feel welcomed or embraced by institutions as long as they are caring for them “despite” or “notwithstanding” their queer status. I do not leave my “gay-ness” at the door when I enter a church — quite the contrary. I do not accept being loved “despite” my LGBTQ status and being loved unconditionally.
Another student also spoke to me at length about the pain of being queer at Baylor, about regretting having come despite an amazing in-classroom education:
Maybe I am just skeptical because I’ve been hurt by Baylor and their anti-LGBTQ views before. I’m not sure how they can provide the care they are promising while following the biblical definition of marriage. It sounds like “love the sinner, hate the sin” mindset, which any LGBTQ member will tell you is not supportive and does more harm than good.
So: Some Christians believe Baylor is going to hell in a handbasket. Again. Other Christians wish this resolution did more — and less. Since nobody is completely happy with the regents’ statement, it suggests to me that this is a good start.
How we read the Bible
But at the start, I want to suggest that perhaps this question is less about human sexuality and is, more broadly, about how we read the Bible and how Baylor views itself as a Christian university. Is Baylor Christian because we hold to a moral position that some Baptists call “biblical”? Or are we Christian because we love radically and across boundaries?
“Perhaps this question is less about human sexuality and is, more broadly, about how we read the Bible and how Baylor views itself as a Christian university.”
What is “biblical,” anyway, when we talk about human sexuality? We could argue about those seven verses on homosexuality from the Old Testament and New, just like we could argue whether Christians should eat shellfish or cheeseburgers, suffer a witch to live, or stone rebellious daughters. I love me some Leviticus.
We could argue (as I did in my last piece concerning Baylor, strangely enough) about how the Bible was simply wrong when used to justify slavery and the diminished role of women, and how it could very well be wrong about this question as well since this reading doesn’t reflect God’s love or justice.
We could argue about the fact that the Jesus of the Gospels doesn’t judge others based on sexuality, sect, status. Instead, we have the example of a Jesus who teaches, feeds, heals and gives himself for people who are often unloved or on the margins, who loves across boundaries that might give some of us pause.
Mohler and other conservative Southern Baptists, Catholics and evangelicals insist that Baylor already has lost its way for refusing to unequivocally condemn LGBTQ people. They do this based on their reading of the Bible. But I was taught as a youngster there is no Baptist pope, and that every believer is capable of interpreting and reinterpreting Scripture with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, reinterpretation. Sometimes we shift our understanding, a little or a lot. Beth Moore recently apologized for leaning so heavily into homophobic readings of the Bible earlier in her career, saying she had exceeded Scripture in singling out same-sex relationships as particularly sinful, removing some past statements on homosexuality in new editions of her work, and noting on Twitter: “I reserve the right to sit with anyone in the high school cafeteria that I please. If you don’t like them, you get to take your tray somewhere else. That’s the beauty of it. You be you.”
“Sometimes we shift our understanding, a little or a lot.”
That’s the beauty of it. Beth Moore has shifted a few steps in a different direction. Other thinkers and writers in Baptist and evangelical life have offered a full-fledged counter-witness to those traditional teachings on sexuality. Mercer University ethicist David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind makes the case for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the life of the Church, as does Baptist News Global editor Mark Wingfield’s Why Churches Need to Talk about Sexuality, drawn from the hard work of walking with the people of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas as they discerned their call toward full inclusion.
We could talk about Jen Hatmaker’s faithful writing and speaking on LGBTQ issues and Jonathan Merritt’s faithful journalism, about author Matthew Paul Turner recently coming out after experiencing 30 years of “fear, shame and self-hatred” in evangelical life.
We could talk about my sister Rachel Held Evans (of blessed memory), an evangelical superstar who in Searching for Sunday told how she left the tradition because she no longer could reconcile her understanding of the Scriptures with the judgment and hatred directed toward her queer siblings by people in the pulpit and in the pews. “The church has an incredible capacity to heal,” Rachel told me, “and an incredible capacity to wound,” and so do Christian institutions like Baylor.
“The church has an incredible capacity to heal and an incredible capacity to wound.”
Millikin, not knowing about Baptist concepts like “soul competency” and “priesthood of the believer” asked me how Baptists read the Bible: Do Baptists submit to some sort of authoritative reading? Or is biblical interpretation a conversation?
The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, from which Baptist “biblical” teachings on sexuality are often drawn, actually suggests that these voices — and Baylor, now entered into conversation — are on the right track and well in the mainstream of traditional Baptist thought:
A living faith must experience a growing understanding of truth and must be continually interpreted and related to the needs of each new generation. Throughout their history Baptist bodies, both large and small, have issued statements of faith which comprise a consensus of their beliefs. Such statements have never been regarded as complete, infallible statements of faith, nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority. Thus this generation of Southern Baptists is in historic succession of intent and purpose as it endeavors to state for its time and theological climate those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us.
Baylor should lead the way
I love Baylor, gratefully serve it and give thanks that the Baylor administration and board of regents have begun so much good, hard work this year around reconciliation, difference and identity. There is much hurt to be repaired.
“When the biblical message has stopped being a message of love and grace poured out for the whole world, when it has become a tool for hatred and exclusion, it has stopped being the good news of Jesus Christ.”
But I want to suggest that Baylor also lead the way in considering and reconsidering the biblical message around sexuality and identity for our own time and theological climate, not as a surrender to the culture, but as surrender to the Jesus who loves completely, to the Savior who gave himself for each and every one of us.
I also believe Baylor should lean into this work because not to do so cedes the territory of faithful interpretation to a Southern Baptist Convention that seems progressively less progressive in its exclusion of those who are not white men from the life of the church, the proclamation of Scripture and, seemingly, from God’s grace.
When the biblical message has stopped being a message of love and grace poured out for the whole world, when it has become a tool for hatred and exclusion, it has stopped being the good news of Jesus Christ.
And whether you’re Baptist or Catholic or one of the “nones” driven away from the Christian message by Christian judgment of others, this broken world needs the real good news more than ever, our shattered society needs a witness to how Christians can love across boundaries, and Baylor needs to be an institution in which the world can see reflected God’s radical acceptance of each and every one of us.
Greg Garrett is an award-winning professor at Baylor University. One of America’s leading voices on religion and culture, he is the author of more than two dozen books, most recently In Conversation: Rowan Williams and Greg Garrett and A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation. He is currently administering a research grant on racism from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation and writing a book on racial mythologies for Oxford University Press. Greg is a seminary-trained lay preacher in the Episcopal Church and Theologian in Residence at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris. He lives in Austin with his wife, Jeanie, and their two daughters.