The conversation in the Christian Reformed Church has implications for many other Christian institutions, including Christian schools. This letter, written by a member of the board of directors of a Christian day school and submitted to the board, traces the author’s journey to an affirming stance and explores the harm that is being done at schools in the name of Christ. The author and the former student would prefer to use their names, but their identity is being withheld, along with other identifying details, to prevent harm to persons and the school. From the author: “It is sad that we still live in an environment where forthrightness about this issue could cause painful damage.”
Dear fellow board members,
In any group like a board, it’s good to have differing opinions so that the group can seriously consider alternatives. It’s obvious that on LGBTQ+ issues, I have been the differing view! This issue will be with us for a long time, so it’s important that we carefully consider the path we have traversed, where we are now, and what path Gracious Christian School should take in the future. Because I will not be with you in the future, and because I have not been able to share a lot about much of this in the past, I want to offer a cursory examination of just some of the considerations.
No doubt it is surprising to many that a septuagenarian as conservative as I am in so many ways has come to depart from the conservative position on LGBTQ+ issues. At the same time, it will surprise no one to hear that I did previously hold the conservative position. In fact, not many years ago I wrote a letter to rebut a pro LGBTQ+ article written by a fellow Christian and have contended for the conservative position of my church in various venues and discussions. So, how did this change in my convictions occur? Was it that I surrendered to secularism and abandoned commitment to Scripture? No.
Rather, it was a long process that started while I still argued for the conservative position. It became painfully difficult to suppress the evidence that this conservative tree was bearing very bitter fruit.
It started with a couple of friends in university. A few years later they had married, he had gone through seminary, and they were teaching in the local Christian school system. He was widely considered to be one of the best teachers. Their family became best friends with ours.
A few years later, they moved to teach in a Christian school in another part of the country. To my stunned surprise, I later heard that he came out as a person with a different sexual orientation, lost his job, left his family, became actively involved in the LGBTQ+ rights community, and worked to move the educational curriculum in that direction.
Tragic. At the time I had no better framework to deal with this than the conservative one I had long held: “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” I had a long conversation with him, but my “love the sinner” was not strong enough to maintain the friendship. But it’s not just the loss of friendship that I mourn. The Christian community lost perhaps forty years of service from this highly talented leader. And the best I could come up with was a weak dismissal of this as merely and simply a matter of his sinful choices. I thought the Bible was clear about that.
Bitter fruit. I wish he were the only, or one of a few, similar cases. But over the years I have encountered, personally or indirectly, many of God’s LGBTQ+ children who have been deeply wounded by the way God’s people cruelly mangled and rejected them. Sadly, some of those were at Gracious Christian and other Christian schools. Many turned their backs on Christian education, on their churches, and, worst of all, on God. Some were even driven to suicide. A few, like Paul, our graduate who testified before the board, somehow retained, or recovered love for God, despite rejection and cruelty from His people. What a loss for the Christian community.
The effect of all of this on me was also disturbing. It slowly dawned on me that I had descended into a chilly indifference toward my sisters and brothers who were created with different orientations from mine. I continued to justify that with the interpretation of Scripture that seemed to tell me that God regards homosexuality as a particularly odious sin. But the dissonance between my chilly indifference to the suffering of LGBTQ+ people and the love God says I should have for the outcast became increasingly difficult to suppress.
So I could no longer evade the ominous, but obvious question: if the fruit is so bitter, is the conservative interpretation tree that bears that fruit really a good tree?
That question forced me to open my ears and my mind and start to seriously listen to my LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers and their allies. That drove me to the deeper need to listen anew, with slowly opening eyes, to what the Bible really says and doesn’t say. As I listened and read, the troubling truth became inescapable: my conservative hermeneutics on this issue were at least dubious, and, more likely, wrong.
So what should Gracious Christian and its board do? We should become an affirming school in policy and in practice. Inevitably, that will happen. I know that confidence sounds arrogant. But a fast-rising number of our supporters and graduates are already going in that direction. The church is going there. The denomination I belong to is going there. Many Christian pastors, theologians and other scholars are voicing their support. The Spirit is leading in that direction. Right now, these changes may be far from their conclusion. But we are in a time of change on this issue, as we changed just during my lifetime on issues like worldly amusements, divorce, and the roles of women, issues on which we also thought the Bible was clear. Are we changing because the Bible is changing or because we are abandoning Scripture? No. Rather, it is because a careful reading of Scripture is leading the church to a better position. Such change is a slow and painful process.
So what should the board do NOW? Our unity in the cause of Christian education is too important to squander over issues like this. We have had too much bitter division in the Christian institutions many of us support even just during our short lives. For the sake of our children and the Kingdom of God, we must learn from that bitter past and not repeat it. I know that the board will not quickly and soon announce the replacement of our present policy in favour of affirmation. But even though most of us don’t believe the school should go in an affirming direction at all, I would plead that we be at least open enough to the possibility that it will happen that we do not plant land mines that will keep destroying people on all sides of this issue for decades. Even if we are not ready to make the change right now, we need to prepare for it in ways that do as little damage as possible to LGBTQ+ students, to the school, and to the name of Christ. As a minimal beginning, we have to stop threatening and intimidating staff and others who may be supportive of God’s LGBTQ+ children. Doubling down on a failing policy is not a good path forward.
As trustees of the school, we also have to consider carefully the liabilities (ethical, legal, financial, and reputational) that our actions and inaction now may have in the future. Planting landmines around us, thinking that we can safely survive, encircled and protected by our mines, will make it very difficult to change direction later or for our successors to even try to defend our actions. And, although the worst of possible outcomes are unlikely, we need to at least consider them. For example, should there be lawsuits or an inquiry some decades from now into the abuse suffered by LGBTQ+ students in Christian schools, will Gracious be seen as one of the worst homophobic schools? Residential school operators, mostly Christian, also should have, but didn’t foresee what their behavior would look like fifty years later. Can we do better?
A lot of this is about policy. But at the same time, it’s really about people. The meetings we had with two different groups of supporters can be seen as a microcosm of this. The most powerful moment in those meetings was our principal’s tearful apology to Paul for the way we have treated him. Powerful as it was, it stopped a long way short of what should have been said. The principal should have been able to go on to say that, while this happened thirty years ago, it doesn’t happen now. But, of course, (s)he couldn’t say that. We are still treating God’s children who are differently oriented than I am in ways that drive them out of Gracious, threaten to drive them away from the Christian community, and, too often, away from Christ. (S)he also should have been able to say that the board has specific LGBTQ+ policies now that prohibit what happened to Paul. But (s)he couldn’t say that either, because we don’t. (S)he also should have been able to say that the board is at least working on such policies. (S)he couldn’t even say that. As an aside, it should be obvious that this is not the principal’s fault. The board should at least start to edge toward genuinely inclusive Gracious policies to reduce harm in this process of change and support staff in implementing such policies.
How many more Pauls will have to suffer before we change?
For further reading. Stories from four students in another Christian High School form the heart of this research report (2007). Based on their experience, the report highlights impacts for young people, such as rejection, loneliness, fear, lack of role models, and a continuing desire to belong to a Christian community. Read the report.