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.
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.”
For the past several years some evangelicals have moved away from promoting a ministry model of change and transformation. The demise last year of Exodus International, which encouraged changes in sexual orientation, has led some to elevate the celibate gay Christian model. Wheaton alumnus Wesley Hill, a professor at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., and author four years ago of Washed and Waiting, considers himself a gay celibate Christian and has popularized this alternate model.
Wheaton’s Jones noted that Hill does not embrace his orientation as good but as a thorn in the flesh. Jones said celibacy can be a holy choice for people with same-sex attraction, but added, “Part of my concern with some elements of this celibate gay movement is the marginalization of the possibility of change.” He said many are responding to hurt they’ve experienced when they did not succeed in changing.
Rodgers said ministries like Exodus International provided “a nourishing community for some Christians with same-sex attraction, [but] a large number claimed it was detrimental to their faith because they were led to believe that faithfulness to Christ would result in an overall change in their sexual orientation. Those who did not encounter significant change often left the church altogether, feeling shame, disillusionment, and despair.”
This past February, the American Association of Christian Counselors eliminated the promotion of “reparative therapy” from its code of ethics and instead encouraged celibacy. Recently, Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., came under fire for his school’s ban of homosexual practice. “We believe celibacy is the right approach for students who identify as gay,” he said, adding that the school’s counseling center is not “actively involved in encouraging orientation change.”
Anglican rector Miller conceded that some ex-gay ministries “over-promised” change and created false expectations, but he doesn’t think Christians should “retreat to a faithless non-expectation that God can work that deeply in the human soul.” He said change for some means moving from promiscuity to celibacy, but for others it involves a change in their longings from exclusive same-sex attraction to interest in both sexes or even exclusive other-sex attraction.
For someone who navigated a change in orientation, Fischer also said the journey to healing can be excruciating and many will be tempted to quit: “When you are stripped of all you think you are and all you think that matters and you are naked before the Savior, then He can remake you. It’s the stripping part that’s really, really hard,” because it’s “a surrender … a remaking of a person.”
What’s next at Wheaton? Pro-gay Christians have charged the college with creating an oppressive environment by not condoning same-sex relationships, and they offer as evidence a report that a gay Wheaton alumnus, “Stephen,” committed suicide in 2007. Provost Jones said forces surrounding the homosexuality issue have created a “total pressure cooker” at the college, but it is remaining faithful to biblical standards.
In a January 2013 WORLD interview, author and speaker Rosaria Butterfield eloquently described her conversion from a lesbian professor to a Christian pastor’s wife. In January 2014, Butterfield spoke at Wheaton’s chapel service, and about 100 Wheaton students silently demonstrated outside. For more insight, see Marvin Olasky’s interview with Wheaton grad Christopher Yuan.