On Tuesday, September 25, at an event organized by Swarthmore Progressive Christians, Matthew Vines, a prominent evangelical advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in Christianity, gave a talk to roughly 100 students and adults. The talk concerned the position of LGBTQ+ individuals in Christianity and the theological arguments for an LGBTQ+-affirming interpretation of the Bible and Christian teaching.
The event’s sponsors included the Interfaith Center, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Religion Department, the president’s office, the Sager Fund, and Partners in Ministry.
The event, called “God and the Gay Christian,” came at the beginning of a new academic year – after a time of significant change in Christian communities on campus.
Last year, the college’s funding for Swarthmore Christian Fellowship, a campus student group with ties to the national evangelical association InterVarsity, was withdrawn just days after a piece published in Voices by Eduard Saakashvili ’17 brought its discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ+ members to light. A couple months later, Swarthmore Progressive Christians, a group which is LGBTQ+-affirming and has at least one LGBTQ+-identifying student on its leadership team, was reborn.
“Really what we’re trying to do is to be an open space for anyone no matter where they are in their spiritual journey to come read the Bible with us, have discussion [and] dinners with us, and to come explore the messages that are in the Bible with us,” T.J. Thomas, a leader of SPC, said of the group.
Soon after SPC was reborn, some of its members began trying to arrange for a visit from Matthew Vines.
“I had just recently read [“God and the Gay Christian”, Vines’ book,] for Professor Atshan’s Gender, Sexuality, and Social Change class … Another student in the club had read it … and we decided that we should bring Matthew Vines here, so I was really looking forward to this discussion,” Nora Shao, a member of SPC, said.
Matthew Vines, who spent two years at Harvard College before leaving to examine LGBTQ+ issues in Christianity, is originally from a conservative Christian family and church in Wichita, Kansas.
“My second memory in my life was me asking Jesus to come into my heart,” Vines said at the event. “I was three years old.”
Vines said that, where he grew up, LGBTQ+ people were universally considered wrong. “[LGBTQ+] identities were associated with shame, disrepute, and people who were ‘not like us,’” he said.
But in college, Vines encountered a social environment in which LGBTQ+ people were regarded as perfectly normal people, and he soon discovered something about himself.
“I had gotten to the point where I really felt like [LGBTQ+ issues] [were] an issue of justice and human dignity, and something that Christians absolutely should be advocating for … Only at that point could I then ask myself whether or not I might be gay. And I was not pleased with the answer — which was obvious as soon as I was willing to ask the question freely — because suddenly all the most important relationships in my life were in jeopardy. I didn’t know how my parents would respond — how all of our friends from back home would respond. And I also didn’t know whether I’d ever really be able to find a church that I could feel truly safe in, and where I could feel accepted for who I was.”
Vines dedicated the majority of his presentation to addressing six biblical passages that are often used to support a religious moratorium on homosexuality: Genesis 19 (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah), Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Making frequent use of the context of these passages in biblical stories as well as the precise meanings of the original Hebrew and Greek words, Vines argued that the common conception that these passages prohibit homosexuality and same-sex relationships is misguided.
Vines also repeatedly referenced conversations he had with his father about the meaning and interpretation of those passages, sharing his father’s journey through the tensions in Christianity regarding homosexuality from intolerance to skepticism to acceptance.
The Swarthmore Experience
The Christian community at Swarthmore College has been no stranger to these ongoing tensions in the faith. As alluded to earlier, on November 19, 2017, Voices published an exposé of Swarthmore Christian Fellowship’s policies toward LGBTQ+ members. The piece, by Eduard Saakashvili and entitled “Swarthmore Christian Fellowship Has a Sexuality Problem,” publicized the SCF policy that bars LGBTQ+ students from holding leadership positions in the organization. It also brought to light the stories and pain of some LGBTQ+ people who had been involved with SCF.
The article’s publication prompted an outpouring on campus of frustration with SCF and of support for LGBTQ+ students. Only a few days after the exposé’s publication, the college withdrew its funding from SCF for not meeting the standards of its non-discrimination policy.
As for Swarthmore Christian Fellowship itself, which remains an active student group on campus, the withdrawal of funding has not deterred its policy that openly LGBTQ+ individuals cannot serve as leaders in the organization.
“Because part of our identity as an organization is to be a place that teaches a … traditional Christian morality that’s based in scripture, I think it’s important for us to preserve that and have that in our leadership. And I think that by having people in positions of leadership who disagree with those teachings and are not leading by example … that would be counterproductive to our purpose as a group: to be a space that’s helping people in living out traditional Biblical morality,” said Tim Greco, a leader of SCF.
Nor, for that matter, can straight individuals who affirm LGBTQ+ individuals (by, for example, supporting same-sex marriage) become leaders of SCF.
“We require leaders in SCF to affirm that the Bible teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage, which is between one man and one woman, is against God’s will and that they will live a lifestyle consistent with this belief,” Naomi Bronkema, another leader of SCF, said.
Indeed, it seems unlikely that SCF’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies will ever change. In order to become a leader of SCF, one must sign a statement of faith that includes support for SCF’s positions and policies regarding LGBTQ+ issues. Then, only these leaders, can consider whether to change the policy.
In the view of Swarthmore Christian Fellowship, there is an important distinction between “identity” and “practice.” In their view, being gay, lesbian, or bi is acceptable as long as one doesn’t have any homosexual relationships.
“I also think it’s important to clarify that we don’t restrict anyone’s ability to be a leader based on their sexual orientation — it’s the personal choices that they make about how they’re going to live their lives and what sort of sexual ethics they’re following,” Greco said.
“Our policies are that leaders cannot be in a romantic relationship that is not between a man and a woman,” Bronkema later clarified.
It is unclear what SCF proposes gay or lesbian individuals do if same-sex relationships are off limits. The only clear possibilities would be refraining from romantic and/or sexual relationships for their entire lives or engaging in heterosexual relationships that do not align with their sexual and/or romantic orientation. Similarly, it would seem that bi people, under SCF’s teachings, could only engage in heterosexual relationships.
Another region of ambiguity in SCF’s policies is its stance toward others included in the LGBTQ+ community.
Speaking about SCF’s policies toward trans and non-binary individuals, Greco said, “I don’t think that’s ever come up.”
“The issues highlighted in our leadership policies were included because they have historically caused issues and harmful divisions within SCF and the Christian Church as a whole. However, this issue is absent from our leadership policies because historically it has not come up during leadership selection,” Bronkema added in a later e-mail.
Despite their opposing policies, relations between SCF and SPC seem, for the most part, to be cordial.
Several of SCF’s leaders attended the Vines event. While they declined to say much about their views on Vines’ argument for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals in Christianity, they expressed appreciation for the talk.
“I thought it was very interesting — clearly well thought out,” Tim said.
“I think it was good because it allows us to have a better view of what SPC’s views are — because I think those were a little ambiguous to us,” Matt Lucker, a third leader of SCF, added. “I personally just wanted to have a productive conversation with people from SPC just to solely learn, but that wasn’t able to occur until the Matthew Vines Event. I have his book on my desk, and I’m going to read it, because I never got to read it beforehand.”
For his part, Thomas, the SPC leader, defended SCF’s right to remain a student organization.
“I mean as long as they’re not funded, I believe that [SCF] can be on campus. I mean, they have the freedom to worship as they wish, and it is not my right to tell them that they can’t,” he said.
Yet tensions remain, and members of SPC were direct in their opinions about SCF’s policies toward LGBTQ+ individuals.
“My first real experience with SCF would be the [Voices] article. That was a shock, and I was very surprised to find out that a requirement to be a leader in the organization was you had to sign a statement of faith from InterVarsity – I was just very shocked, and I was angered,” Thomas said. “I believe that any group or organization that refuses to sign the school’s non-discrimination policy should be defunded.”
Nora Shao, a trans lesbian who is also a member of SPC, was more forceful.
“If there were a way for me to make sure that they couldn’t meet on our campus, I would make that happen,” she said.
A New Chapter
While change will doubtlessly continue to occur, the Matthew Vines event is symbolic of a new period in the history of Christian student groups and the discussion of Christian theology at Swarthmore College.
This chapter may well produce greater cooperation and understanding, at least between the SCF and SPC. Two early signs of this possibility are evident from Matthew Vines’ visit. Firstly, although the event was organized by SPC, at least five members of SCF attended Vines’ talk. Secondly, SCF leaders, along with leaders from many other campus faith groups and Swarthmore Queer Union, were present at a leadership workshop run by Vines before his public presentation.
Additionally, Vines’ visit coincides with a course offering from the religion department called “Queering the Bible.” The announcement last winter that this course would be offered in the fall 2018 semester triggered a protest from a conservative Catholic organization called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, who came to campus bearing signs that read “Swarthmore College: STOP Attacking God.”
Once they were publicized, the reaction against SCF’s policies toward LGBTQ+ individuals was swift. Notwithstanding Newman Catholic Ministry, the defunding of Swarthmore Christian Fellowship and rebirth of Swarthmore Progressive Christians now leaves two main Christian groups at Swarthmore College — one funded by the college, one not; one LGBTQ+-affirming, one not; both operating as student groups on campus.
Matthew Vines, AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle/Travis Heying