Homosexual marriage is an ongoing debate in the evangelical church. I experienced this issue at my alma mater, Trinity Western University (TWU), whose position on homosexuality, as stated in their “community covenant,” has garnered condemnation from certain institutions — such as the Canadian government, the BC teachers’ union, and most recently Law societies across Canada — which have all accused TWU of discriminating against homosexuals. By and large, opposition from these institutions outside the evangelical community has come in the form of unjust and discriminatory attacks. TWU’s defence against these attacks are heroic attempts to shore up religious freedom in the country.
TWU’s community covenant, a written agreement which all members of the community are required to sign, attempts in more or less broad strokes to outline the hopes and expectations of the educational community, defining rules and guidelines informed by an evangelical heritage, which encourage and support a safe learning environment. The covenant, however, stipulates marriage is only between a man and woman. Such a definition requires that married homosexuals refrain from being homosexuals while on campus. Is this discrimination? Certainly.
A defined identity, like the one in TWU’s covenant, is necessary and exclusive. Definitive identities are necessary because without them there would be no way to distinguish between one or the other. Difference depends on definitive identities and, as a result, identities must be exclusive. Their exclusivity is what constitutes the identity itself. For example, to maintain hygiene, I discriminate against anyone who walks into my home with dirty boots — my home is exclusive and without that exclusivity I could have no home. Further, we all sacrifice freedom to participate in particular communities. Traffic laws are a relevant example; they limit our freedom to drive in any way we please, and thereby support cooperation in a space shared with others. Exclusive identities can therefore lead to occasions of justice.
Evangelical’s create and obey the rules outlined in the covenant because they afford a safe community. And like all communities exclusivity is a necessary ingredient. TWU’s covenant’s excludes for the purpose of creating a safe and flourishing Christian community.
Exclusive identities can be occasions of justice and love, however they may also be unjust and inspire hatred. Hatred and injustice occurs when identities or rules fail to respond or acknowledge the difference that exists among us. As mentioned at the beginning, in the evangelical community the debate around homosexual marriage has been happening for over a decade. Evangelicals who are LGBTQ+ and their sympathizers argue that excluding them from the evangelical community, on the grounds that they defile an “authentic” identity, runs counter to the Christian principles of love, hospitality, fidelity, etc, principles which inspire the evangelical definition of marriage in the first place. It is not the case that an “outside” force is imposing their will on the evangelical community. Rather, these are voices emerging from within the community itself. The current covenant’s stance on heterosexual marriage willfully ignores LGBTQ+ evangelicals, excluding those it purports to protect. Further, it cripples an important conversation happening in the evangelical church, the very type of conversation that should be safe to have at an evangelical institute for higher learning and inquiry.
As a student at TWU, I experienced the covenant working against its own purpose as it created hostile barriers between members of dorms and it degraded the cohesiveness of the group as a whole. This happens in numerous dorms across campus each year. Unless the standards address this issue or at the very least are open to the existence of married evangelical LGBTQ+ individuals, the University will inevitably deny an aspect of who it is and participate in a form of self hatred. For all these reasons, the current covenant’s stance on marriage has become an occasion of injustice, working against the health and safety of the community, the very thing it was designed to promote.
It is the community’s responsibility to continually reevaluate these exclusive identities in light of those they serve and the culture they aim to cultivate. It’s time TWU responds to its ethical and religious imperative.
As this criticism is aimed at TWU’s community covenant, it needs to be acknowledge that faculty and the student life department work diligently to create a safe environment for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation. Yet, this important and diligent work is hampered by the very tool that should support it, a community covenant.
One final point before I end this rant. LGBTQ+ sympathizers hesitant to changing the covenant often express a concern regarding the question of hospitality: “How does a community open its identity without losing it or letting in something that destroys it?” Although there are many ways of addressing this question, I’ve always been a fan of open, honest conversation that respects others and the context we all share. When boundaries are held opened with wisdom and understanding, a negotiation and discernment process can begin. How many more years does a conversation around sexuality need to occur in the evangelical community before its premier institute of higher education will at least take a neutral stance on the issue, encouraging a healthier dialogue? Wouldn’t it be great if the students most affected by this aspect of the covenant be recognized as valuable and provided a seat at the table?