California evangelical seminary ponders changes that would make it more welcoming to LGBTQ students

Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Pasadena, California, is deliberating whether to become more open to LGBTQ+ students who previously faced possible expulsion if found to be in a same-sex union. That’s according to a draft of proposed revisions to the seminary’s sexual standards that was obtained by The Associated Press.

If the board votes to approve these revisions, Fuller could become the first evangelical seminary in the country to adopt standards acknowledging the diversity of thought among Christians pertaining to human sexuality, according to retired professor John Hawthorne, an expert on Christian colleges.

Such a decision would carry Fuller into uncharted territory, Hawthorne said. “It’s a bold step for a school that fought off lawsuits on this very issue a few years ago.”

At the same time, several current and former students and faculty believe this move would preserve Fuller’s existing status as a “third space” where Christians with diverse views on sexuality are welcome — a space that has been shrinking nationally amid increasing political polarization on the issue.

Fuller issued a statement Thursday saying the deliberations on this topic are ongoing and drafts of possible revisions have been created solely for discussion and reflection. It says no proposals have been submitted to trustees for a vote and it is unclear when the board might even consider the matter.

Hawthorne, whose upcoming book argues that Christian colleges should put students front and center instead of worrying about critics, anticipates “significant blowback” from conservative Christians should Fuller move forward with the revisions.

“I hope they have a plan on how to manage the aftermath, the storm, when it comes,” he said.

Fuller’s president, David Goatley, who came to the nondenominational seminary in 2022 from Duke Divinity School, appointed a task force of administrators and faculty to look into the school’s sexual standards. That move came about a month after Ruth Schmidt was fired from her position as a senior administrator in January for refusing to sign the seminary’s sexual standards.

In 2019 and 2020, two former students sued Fuller, alleging they were being expelled for being in same-sex marriages. In October 2020, courts upheld Fuller’s right to enforce its sexual standards policy. Its standards prohibit “homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct” and hold that sexual intimacy is reserved for a marriage between a man and a woman.

The draft containing the revisions, dated April 3, states “that there are thoughtful Christians and churches that have different interpretations. Therefore, we expect all members of this global, evangelical, and ecumenical seminary student and learner community to live with integrity consistent to the Christian communities to which they belong.”

The document is less clear, however, when it comes to standards for trustees, administrators, faculty and staff, requiring them “to abide by the sexual standard regarding sexual intimacy within the boundaries of the traditional understanding of marriage.” It also states that those from Christian communities that differ from Fuller’s stance supporting traditional marriage would still be expected to support the seminary’s position. It does not specify whether faculty, staff and administrators would be penalized for being in a same-sex marriage.

Schmidt, who identifies as queer and started out as a student at the college in 2016, said she would have still been fired under the proposed new standards.

“But if this passes, that means queer students can set foot on campus without fear of being expelled,” she said, adding that she lived with that “visceral fear” as a queer student. “It’s going to be life changing for them.”

Schmidt, who now serves as a pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church and is on track to be ordained in the United Church of Christ, said she would like to see Fuller’s faculty and staff get the same protections as students.

“We’ll probably see staff members and faculty quit over this,” she said. “It’s going to be a long journey of education and empathy before staff have that same protection.”

The proposed standards would also protect conservative Christian students “who will not be targeted or viewed as bigots,” Schmidt said.

“A place where a wide variety of theology is safe is so rare these days,” she said. “It feels like holy ground.”

Past and current students say Fuller has historically been a rare “third space” where a multitude of views are welcome. But for LGBTQ+ students, it has also been stress-inducing.

Joshua Beckett, who earned his doctorate from Fuller and taught a class in sexuality and ethics in which Schmidt was a student, said the students and professors on campus are not monolithic on this topic.

“They tend to be more open-minded and more willing to sit with nuance and uncertainty while being tolerant of different views,” he said. “The administration and board are very conservative and inflexible.”

Beckett, who is gay, said he did not date while attending Fuller for fear of being expelled, which affected his mental health and “added a lot of stress during an already difficult time.”

Dylan Parker, a doctoral student at Fuller based in Arkansas, supports the proposed changes.

“Students would be able to live faithfully within the standards of their own denominations and professors would be able to exercise academic freedom as long as they support the institution’s stance,” he said. He suggests the revisions would allow professors to be affirming or non-affirming of LGBTQ+ people.

The seminary has done a good job of remaining committed to multi-denominational dialogue, which in itself can be challenging, Parker said, but needs to do more to cultivate a culture where multiple perspectives feel invited to the table.

“I’ve not personally felt that Fuller is antagonistic toward any perspective,” he said. “But there is a general lack of clarity on what perspectives are welcome.”

The acknowledgement of theological diversity is certainly lacking in evangelical seminaries, Hawthorne said.

“They’ve had an inability to acknowledge the legitimate diversity of opinion among committed Christians who have studied Scripture, who are believers, and aren’t trying to go along with what is culturally easy.”

Jeff Chan, who graduated from Fuller in 2016 with a masters degree in Christian leadership and a Ph.D in psychology, now specializes in working with LGBTQ+ individuals and couples, particularly those conflicted between their sexual and religious identities. Chan, who grew up in the Deep South, said Fuller, at the time, seemed like a breath of fresh air.

“I was known as a gay man on campus and fellow students and professors appreciated hearing my position as a gay Christian,” he said.

But after he graduated, the lawsuits changed the atmosphere, spreading fear and uncertainty among students, Chan said. He says his positive experience at Fuller played a crucial role in reconciling his sexuality with his Christian faith.

Chan is excited to see how Fuller’s trustees vote on the proposed changes. He says he would teach at a campus where he is asked to formally acknowledge the college’s traditional view of marriage, yet is allowed to be himself.

“If I have a seat at the table, they can hold whatever position they want,” Chan said. “That still feels sad, but if it allows for that third space where people can come together, I think it’s still valuable.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


Discover more from LockedIN Magazine

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.