Without a doubt, Gordon College is one of the most important institutions on the North Shore of Massachusetts. New England is amongst the most secularized places in all of the United States and as the largest Christian liberal arts institution in the area, Gordon has a profound opportunity to make a substantial impact. Its commitment to the liberal arts goes beyond the secular pursuit of knowledge. Gordon seeks to foster an environment of faith seeking understanding. Its commitment to a reputedly Christian framework of learning leads it to affirm higher forms of inquiry. Inquiry that is not merely concerned with simple intellectual questions, but the deepest moral and ontological issues of our day. Christian “liberal arts” concerns the whole of human life.
Why do I open with this exposition on Gordon and the liberal arts? Well, as I am about to explain, I believe there are significant threats to this distinctly Christian pursuit of learning. Gordon has been keenly aware of these issues, but in the past has chosen to not handle them in ways consistent with its commitments. If you have been privy to the drama surrounding Gordon over the past several years, you probably know that I am referring to how the college has handled issues of human sexuality.
Over the past several years the college has been unwilling to lead dialogue, address the concerns of students, and act consistently with its values. Much of the drama began in 2014, when then President Michael Lindsay signed a letter with multiple other CCCU institutions requesting an exemption from the Obama administration’s nondiscrimination policies. The uproar among Gordon alum, faculty, and the student body was enormous. A petition to reverse the college’s stance garnered over 4,000 signatures (Francis and Longhurst). Though the college stood by its theological commitments, it did not address the brewing situation on-campus life. LGBTQ+ groups vigorously (but unsuccessfully) vied for recognition, students protested, some faculty members dissented, and many students transferred to other schools. However, little was done to address this tension amongst the student-body, which left many individuals (both conservative and progressive) cynical about the increasingly disordered state of affairs.
The college’s response to the situation was mixed at best. Though they refused to allow the recognition of LGBTQ+ groups on-campus, stating they were inconsistent with the school’s Student Life and Conduct statement, not much was done to expound on the value-judgements informing their decision making process. In a 2017 chapel address, President Lindsay discussed his journey after signing the 2014 letter. When the topic of homosexuality arose, Lindsay is quoted as saying, “I don’t even want to engage on this particular issue” (Hansen). Even in a GCSA hosted event that same year, the college only rearticulated its policies. Not the substance behind them.
This is a posture characterizing much of the college’s stance and has opened the door to an increasingly tense campus environment on this issue. Pro-LGBTQ speakers have been allowed on-campus, such as David Gushee in 2015 (Leighton). Gushee spoke on human sexuality and urged the audience to accept LGBTQ affirming theological views—to a standing ovation. In 2019, Gordon’s communications department hosted the play, As I Am, which explored questions of sexuality with a message that urged the audience to accept affirming sexual identities. In student life, there is evidence the student-body has moved away from the school’s official view on sexuality. Data from a poll conducted by the Tartan in 2021 found that 56% of students say yes to the question, “is it acceptable for Christians to be in same-sex relationships?” (Hall) Evidently, the college as a whole is not unified on this issue.
Issues of human sexuality are something that Gordon cannot afford to ignore. For evidence, look no further than the recent chapel controversy. During this past Deep Faith Week, a speaker made comments that were poorly worded and hurtful for many. The college questionably canceled the speaker for the rest of the week, but that was hardly the end of the controversy. Student groups across campus posted statements in solidarity with LGBTQ+ identifying students hurt by the speaker’s comments, and many urged the administration to stand with them in affirming this community of students across campus. Later that night, a group was allowed to use the chapel to voice their frustrations. Many students used the stage to affirm and celebrate queer identities. Though I believe the college did not anticipate or intend to sanction the use of the chapel in this way, it nonetheless appeared as an indication they were moving away from their theological convictions.
In response to much of the frustration about this event, the administration sent out an email to parents and alumni affirming their commitment to its Statement on Sexual Ethics. While the contents of this document solidly expounds on the school’s stance on human sexuality, the college once again failed to articulate a response to the core issues impacting student life. Recently, President Hammond announced the creation of “All-Campus Forums” for important dialogue to take place, but it is yet to be seen whether issues of sexuality will be addressed.
Gordon cannot claim to be a leading Christian institution if it does not seek to lead the conversation on some of the most important cultural issues of our day.
As mentioned before, an integral element to the Christian liberal arts is its dedication to pursuing truth on questions surrounding the whole of human life. Grappling with conceptions of the self is one of the most important issues of our time, not only because it instrumentally affects how we approach culture, but more significantly: it changes how we view the human person.
Modern conceptions of the self and the Christian conception of the self are simply not the same. Expressive individualism seeks to affirm the idea that identity is primarily a psychological category, unmooring it from transcendent moral and external values. Most conversations on sexual identity today tend to operate under this very assumption: sexual desire is not simply a matter of activity, but a matter of identity. As Carl Truman analyzes, today we view “sex [as] something you are, not merely something you do.” (Truman)
Psychological conceptions of the self square with traditional Christian interpretations of the human person, which views human identity primarily through the lens of the Imago Dei. Humanity was created with immutable value that roots itself in the goodness of God’s design. Though humanity bears the marks of the Fall, each and every person is nonetheless bound to the moral order God created. While the psychological does matter to some extent in identity formation, it does not create reality or serve as a substitute for constructing truth. Humanity is called to seek after the good, including in the area of sexuality that God designed. For Christians, this task is part of bearing the cross of Christ. Living a Christian sexual ethic is not easy, but there is grace along the way.
Gordon College has a responsibility to articulate a Christian understanding of human sexuality that is consistent with its broader commitments to a genuine liberal arts education. It cannot ignore the important role our understanding of sex has on our conception of the human being. The two are interconnected.
But there are more issues at stake as well. Refusing to articulate its position has important ramifications for the school’s witness. This is not simply an issue of intellectual diversity. As affirmed by the administration’s own Statement of Sexual Ethics, marriage is ultimately reflective of the Gospel. The sexual act “serves to ratify the covenant of marriage. It is the renewal of that ongoing commitment to love the covenant partner as oneself,” which makes sense only “ in light of the male and female paradigm from Genesis 1.” This covenant oneness comes in “sharper focus with the New Covenant,” where “Jesus, Immanuel, is the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride [is] in union with Christ.” All throughout the statement, its authors affirm the centrality of the Gospel in God’s design for sex, marriage, and relationships.
The college must continue to affirm this today.
Refusing to address these problems hurts its witness to the college’s own community. LGBTQ+ identifying students are expressly frustrated and hurt with Gordon’s apparent unwillingness to expound on its convictions. In many of their eyes, it reflects a refusal of the school to take them seriously as human beings. Though one can see the interplay between theology and identity in this very reality, it is nonetheless important to realize that LGBTQ+ identifying students are on campus and need to be acknowledged in Christian love.
By acknowledge, I do not mean an affirmation of a theological perspective contrary to the one Gordon holds. By acknowledge, I mean the school engages in a genuine dialogue with students about human sexuality, participating with students who struggle with these issues. It means leading the way, compassionately, on how to respond to questions of sexual identity. It means stimulating a robust environment where questions like, “how do I reconcile feeling same-sex attraction and being a Christian?” are asked in love, responded to with grace, and ultimately in pursuit of what scripture has to say about sexuality, the Fall, and the Gospel.
However, right now the college has failed to engage in these important conversations. The college has allowed a tense environment to form where its convictions are not respected, where its statements are viewed hypocritically, and where its Christian witness is routinely being questioned. The damage is evident already. More damage is soon to come if the school doesn’t change course.
This matters, because practically, if Gordon does not choose to adhere rigorously to its Christian identity as a liberal arts institution, it will not survive. I have had conversations with parents and alumni who are not pleased with the school’s actions/lack thereof, and some who are deciding not to send their children to Gordon. I know of faculty who are hesitant as to the direction of the school. For better or for worse, Gordon cannot ignore the concerns of those of the evangelical world who support it. Obviously, conflict over matters of human sexuality is not the only issue on the table, but it is a significant one that has defined the college’s struggles for the past several years. It must be addressed.
The Gordon administration must intentionally have open and honest dialogues on how we as Christians should respond to issues of human sexuality. It must provide resources for students struggling with issues of sexuality, whether that struggle is the result of theological questions or personal hurt from the church. It must equip students on how to respond to their LGBTQ+ identifying peers with integrity, love, and compassion.
With sexual identity being such a prominent topic on our campus, Gordon cannot afford to abdicate their leadership. They must lead the way.
Francis, Phillip, and Mark Longhurst. “How LGBT Students Are Changing Christian Colleges.” The Atlantic, 23 July 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/07/gordon-college-the-new-frontier-of-gay-rights/374861/. Accessed 22 April 2022.
“Gordon College Board of Trustees Statement of Sexual Ethics.” Covenant Love, Sexuality, and Community: Sexual Ethics in Biblical and Theological Perspective.
Hall, Collin. “Majority of Gordon Students Find Same-Sex Relationships, Marijuana, Morally Acceptable.” The Tartan, 2 January 2020, https://gordontartan.substack.com/p/majority-of-gordon-students-find?s=r. Accessed 21 April 2022.
Hansen, Alec. “End the Queer Silencing.” The Tartan, 2020, https://gordontartan.substack.com/p/end-the-queer-silencing-at-gordon?s=r. Accessed 21 April 2022.
Leighton, Paul, and Lillian Shapiro. “Gordon College hosts pro-LGBT speaker | Local News | salemnews.com.” Salem News, 23 March 2015, https://www.salemnews.com/news/local_news/gordon-college-hosts-pro-lgbt-speaker/article_a1e2671a-6fa7-5c96-9ddc-11d116b1da36.html. Accessed 22 April 2022.
Trueman, Carl R. “The Rise of “Psychological Man.”” Public Discourse, 9 November 2020, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/11/72156/. Accessed 22 April 2022.
Categories: Student Life