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Julie Rodgers
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Julie Rodgers

Wheaton’s ‘gay celibate Christian’

Sexuality | The evangelical college’s counselor believes she cannot change her sexual orientation, but others say that denies God’s ability to heal

Three months ago Wheaton College, one of America’s leading evangelical undergraduate institutions, hired Julie Rodgers to provide spiritual care for students. Not surprising in some ways: She has a master’s degree in English, has mentored inner-city youth, and speaks at Christian churches and conferences. One surprise: She openly identifies as homosexual.

“The best way I can describe my experience of ‘being gay,’” Rodgers, 28, wrote on her blog, “is that with certain women I feel the ‘it’ factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them. … Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men … while I usually feel like ‘bros’ with men.”

Wheaton, located just west of Chicago, sees homosexual behavior as sin. Rodgers, though, is a “gay celibate Christian”—someone who identifies as homosexual but does not act on her same-sex desires because she also believes such behavior is sinful.

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In her role as ministry associate for spiritual care in Wheaton’s Chaplain’s Office, Rodgers has the special task of counseling students in Refuge, a community group at the college for students with same-sex attraction.

Rodgers said she uses the term “gay” to mean she is attracted to women but does not consider this attraction to be central to her identity. In an interview this summer with Slate, Rodgers said, “My convictions about how I am expected to honor God … are as integral to who I am as being gay is.” In an email, Rodgers told me she used that wording because almost all Slate readers “would see sexual identity as the absolutely fundamental building block of identity. I sought to explain that my commitment to honoring God is at that fundamental level of importance.” She said she owes her “ultimate allegiance … only to Christ.”

Rodgers also wrote on her blog that a same-sex orientation is not sinful. She said it can actually be “an expression of diversity, a unique way of experiencing art and beauty and community.” Rodgers added that her “gay parts … overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—[God has] used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.”

Evangelicals, believing that God can deliver a believer from even the most entrenched sin tendency, have often pushed for change in sexual orientation, but Rodgers is skeptical. She said she spent 10 years trying in vain to change her orientation as part of the now-defunct ex-gay ministry Exodus International, but now believes her prospect of ever being in a heterosexual marriage is “about as likely as becoming Santa’s chief elf.”

Rodgers is popular among members of Refuge: Jordan-Ashley Barney, a student who calls herself an ally of gay classmates, said Rodgers is “amazing and all the Refuge kids love her!” Wheaton College President Philip Ryken told me in an email, “The clear effect of Julie’s ministry has been to draw students in the direction of biblical faithfulness, including areas of sexuality.”

Ita Fischer, who worked for Wheaton for 10 years and served on a task force advising Ryken on issues of homosexuality and gender, once identified as a lesbian but is now married to a man and has children. After counseling those with same-sex attraction for two decades as part of Pastoral Care Ministries, a teaching and healing ministry, Fischer said Wheaton’s hiring of Rodgers “is an institution saying, ‘We don’t believe God can transform you. … We believe that God created not just male and female but other. I don’t think that’s biblically justifiable.”

Ryken affirmed that Wheaton holds an orthodox Christian view of male and female, but said, “The college does not have a position regarding the language that same-sex attracted Christians should use to describe their experience.” He said Christians who use the gay label should “be clear that they do not advocate homosexual practice or find their identity in their sexuality.” Ryken added, “Same-sex orientation is not good in and of itself, but is part of the brokenness of a fallen world.”

Wheaton’s chief academic officer, Provost and Professor of Psychology Stanton Jones, offered a more optimistic view of sexual transformation than Rodgers does. “We believe in a God who can heal,” said Jones, who is the co-author of a study showing that changing sexual orientation is possible. He added that healing is “not always fully realized in this life,” but same-sex attracted people should remain “open to a remarkable work of grace … that could take them to deeper levels of healing.”

Kevin Miller, an associate rector at Church of the Resurrection, a large Anglican parish about a mile from campus, estimates that 50 to 100 people in his congregation have overcome or are overcoming same-sex attraction. “To enshrine gayness as part of your Christian identity, to me, forecloses the possibility of change,” he said, adding that “gay Christian” language makes helping churchgoers more difficult, because it diminishes “their hope and their expectation in the Lord that some measure of transformation is possible.”

The next to last paragraph of this article has been edited to clarify the remarks made by Stanton Jones and to correct the fact that the person who committed suicide was not a Wheaton College student at the time of his death.

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