Tracing Steps to APU’s LGBTQ Crisis
Azusa Pacific University (APU), a major evangelical school in Southern California, was assaulted this month with headlines like these:
- “Queering Azusa Pacific University,”
- “Azusa Pacific Okays Gay Romance (But Not Sex and Marriage)”
- “Professor: Azusa Pacific Is Losing ‘God First.’”
And, with coverage in Christianity Today, the 700 Club, The American Conservative, and local news outlets, APU would have been hard-pressed to have engineered a worse PR disaster. Great timing. How many home-schooled seniors are at this very moment striking APU off their list.
APU’s LGBTQ crisis provides important lessons for all Christian colleges. The first of those lessons is that we must recognize that there are LGBTQ students on our campus. There are outside activists who are interested because they want your school to make changes. And, too many Christian higher education institutions have not started grappling with LGBTQ issues.
We need to be proactive and we need to learn to navigate this challenge by discussing our experiences with each other.
What Caused APU’s LGBTQ Crisis?
APU deleted the parts of their Statement on Human Sexuality that state that the Bible expressly forbids homosexual acts and names them a sin.
On September 18th, APU’s student newspaper, The ZU, launched this missile with its article, “Azusa Pacific Removes Ban on LGBTQ+ Relationships, Creates Program for Students.”
The article explains that the school’s agreement on standards of conduct no longer prohibits public LGBTQ+ relationships (e.g., public displays) on campus. Haven, an underground support group for APU’s LGBTQ+ students, had been quietly meeting off campus in apartments. While not recognized as an official student club, the changes did enable the group to procure meeting spaces on campus.
Christians were appalled, or certainly should have been if we heard, that LGBTQ slurs were used against a faculty member. We can question whether hiring gay faculty fits APU’s mission, but should stand against abuse of gays. This incident motivated Haven members, along with help from an outside activist group, to lobby for public acceptance. The Associate Dean of Students, Dr. Bill Fiala, is concerned for LGBTQ+ students on campus and offers a weekly support meeting for them. He has also played a major role in the policy change.
Who authorized these controversial changes?
Fiala’s name emerges prominently. The student newspaper, The ZU, noted that “Associate Dean of Students Bill Fiala, Ph.D., said that as the board evaluated their code of conduct, they wanted to be attentive to equity.” This sounds like board approval.
One would expect such a drastic change to have been broadly discussed. But, the board and faculty tell a different story. As if there were not enough controversy already, it turns out that the board and most of the faculty claim to have had no knowledge of, or input into, the decision. They learned about the decision through the student newspaper.
The next shoe to drop, and explode, was a red-hot letter to the board from a faculty member.
When a student told me about Professor Harrington’s letter, I asked to see it. Not surprisingly, the link to the letter was no longer active. However, much of the content became public when Rod Dreher’s blog, The American Conservative published about two and a half pages from the letter in their “Professor: Azusa Pacific Is Losing ‘God First’” article.
With as much concern for stepping on toes as prophets in the Old Testament, the professor’s letter notes the failure of the president to uphold the school’s mission and vision. It calls for him to step down. Professor Harrington describes how Christian families send their teens to APU only to become radicalized through certain courses. Some turn into unteachable leftists, embittered against the Christian faith and its values. She names departments of Theology, Biblical Studies, Global Studies, and Social Justice.
This is not the first time I have heard of the liberal nature of those departments or the fact that there are many APU faculty concerned about the mission drift that has robbed so many Christian universities of their purpose. It is my hope that the Spiritually Accountable Colleges Assessment Project will be a tool for helping to address such problems.
On September 28th, ten days after the student newspaper came out of the closet, the alumni office sent out a letter from the chairman of the board. It included a statement seeming to contradict what had been implied through Fiala’s contention that “the board evaluated their code of conduct, [and] wanted to be attentive to equity.”
“Last week, reports circulated about a change in the undergraduate student standards of conduct. That action concerning romanticized relationships was never approved by the board and the original wording has been reinstated.”
Compassionately Skipping through the LGBTQ Mine Field
How do we balance conservative evangelical theology with compassion for students who have same-sex attractions, often unwanted, but persistant? To make this goal even more tricky, there are people who will misunderstand noble intentions or even misuse them for their own agenda. When I was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, a gay student was claiming he had a dean’s permission to promote a gay agenda on campus. When I mentioned this to that dean, he took little notice. But, when he saw his name used in print, he issued a statement saying that comments he meant to be pastoral were being misused for an agenda he did not endorse.
In addition to the differences in priorities (e.g., compassion, upholding traditional understandings of Scripture), there are also the differences in theology. The ZU reported Associate Dean Fiala saying:
“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.”
In Queering Azusa Pacific University, Rod Dreher responded,
“They can tell themselves whatever they like about their “spirit,” but it’s self-deception. This is how conservative institutions surrender: by giving up, then telling themselves (and their donors) that they haven’t surrendered. Saving face is not the same thing as saving the institution’s core values.”
I doubt that there is anything near a majority of APU faculty and administrators that want APU to compromise their traditional evangelicalism and drift toward becoming a liberal or secular university. With bold professors like Dr. Harrington forcing the community to address the elephant in the room, I am hopeful that steps will be taken to strengthen adherence to the school’s founding purposes.
APU has an excellent student-retention strategy of placing new students in small groups to build relationships and adjust to college life. I spoke to a mother of an APU freshman. This freshman is in a group with two bisexuals who ask questions like, “Aren’t you a little bit curious.” The mother’s perspective is that she did not choose to send her son to a Christian school to have gay students attempt to recruit him. Gay students are at your school, too. The administrators may not know. The faculty may not know. Students know. So do gay activist groups.
Gay activist groups are interested in partnering with gay students on your campus. These groups have a “wonderful plan for your school.” (My apology to the Four Spiritual Laws tract).
The activist group that partnered with APU’s gay students is Brave Commons, an “ intersectional, queer and POC-led, Christian organization” seeking to “elevate the voices of LGBTQ+ students working within and beyond Christian universities.”
The online form inviting fellow travelers “to partner with [them] in provoking a biblically rooted movement of faith and justice to the world” includes their belief that “the message of Jesus is one of hope, love, mercy, inclusion, and radical restorative justice” (emphasis mine).
Taking the lead for the involvement from Brave Commons was Co-Executive Director Erin Green, an APU alumnus. The ZU quotes her as saying, “Queer students are just as able to have romanticized relationships that abide by APU’s rules. The code used falsely assumed that same-sex romances always involved sexual behavior. This stigmatization causes harm to our community, especially those serious about their Christian faith.” Of course, the APU rules by which gay students are claimed to be able to abide had to be revised or at least clarified to allow on-campus, romanticized LGBTQ+ relationships while only prohibiting the actual sex acts.
Those associated with Brave Commons are not the only outsiders that have pressed APU to change its policies. In 2014, APU became a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Athletic Director Gary Pine reports that a gay activist told him that it was his goal to see APU kicked out of the NCAA because of its policies on homosexuality.
Director Pine seems to have been more successful than most in finding common ground with gay activists while not compromising traditional Christian values. When APU was looking to join the NCAA, he came across an inclusion initiative that had been adopted about 10 years before. It said that in the areas of leadership, coaching, and participation we want to make sure we include these five groups: women, people of color, internationals, people with disabilities and people within the LGBTQ community.
The director attended an NCAA Rules meeting where he noticed a session on inclusion. He thought he could sit in the back, unnoticed, quiet. But afterward, he went up to the director of inclusion and asked whether the NCAA had ever considered meeting together with the faith-based schools for dialog. Six months later, at the NCAA convention, there was a session based on Gary’s question: “LGBTQ and Religion: Finding Common Ground.”
Since then, Director Pine has had a continuing relationship with LGBTQ leaders. He was later asked to sit on a panel where he was the only non-LGBTQ person on the panel. He was also asked to join a leadership team consisting of Christians and LGBTQ persons to discuss possible common ground without yielding convictions, and he has participated in other meetings. At one meeting, the person introducing herself after Director Pine stated she was a “bi-racial, lesbian Christian who hates white men.”
Nice welcome, right?
One of the things he says he has learned in this journey is the importance of listening. The LGBTQ community feels shunned by the church. They have been talked about, talked at and ignored, but not engaged on a more personal level. Pine feels the ability to listen affirms their personhood and generates their willingness to be sensitive to our needs. It does not necessarily mean agreement.
Crisis Management (or mis-management?)
I have long known APU. My wife is an alumnus and has taught there. I sent my children there. I even did a little adjunct teaching there myself. So, my observation is that there are many conservative, evangelical faculty members – probably most of them. I have seen their personal ministries and been impressed. But, the school grew so fast in the 1990s that hiring may have outpaced the ability to carefully vet candidates for mission fit and compatible theology.
There is a lesson for us. Gay activists are looking to partner with the gay students who are at your school. Recognize that this challenge will come. Prepare.
We can observe the results of APU’s encounter with gay students, outside activists, inside promoters and insiders opposed to changing LGBTQ policies. Unlike us, APU did not have the benefit of seeing the results from many other Christian schools encountering these communities. Without a map, they stumbled along through the LGBTQ minefield. Perhaps the reason that APU had already done away with married student housing was to avoid the possibility of a married, same-sex couple demanding to be included there.
A local newspaper reported a student telling the reporter that once the policy changes were made and “the group was allowed to become official on campus … [it] went from drawing seven or eight students a week to 50” (San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Sunday, Sept 30, 2018, p. 17).
APU received a great deal of negative publicity from conservative media. APU’s LGBTQ crisis exposed additional evidence of mission drift.
Part of the problem is that so many Christian higher education institutions have not started grappling with LGBTQ issues. Start grappling. Some attempts will fall flat. Some attempts will prove fruitful. As we start discussing this with sister institutions, we will find our way.
Editor’s Note: At the February 2019 ABHE Annual Meeting, Dr. Agron will lead a workshop expanding upon this article and on the article, “Christian Colleges MUST Teach About Homosexuality: Where to Start.” The workshop will be entitled, “Handling Sexual Identity Issues with Compassion & Understanding.”