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Young Life pressured to change its sexual conduct policy

Maintaining biblical convictions and showing compassion

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August 12, 2020

This week RNS reported that the organization Young Life is facing pressure to overturn its policies on sexual conduct. For those unfamiliar with Young Life’s ministry, the organization exists to reach students in middle school, high school, and college. It also does specific outreach to teen moms, those with special needs, and young adults in military families And according to their website, Young Life is presently doing ministry in all 50 states and in more than 90 countries. 

Christians and sexuality

As a Christian ministry, Young Life has always embraced the tradition of biblical sexual ethics to which the church has held for nearly two millennia. But recently, the organization’s views and policies related to sexuality have come under scrutiny for excluding individuals identifying as LGBT. Though the policy is not publicly available, a copy obtained by RNS confirms that Young Life’s sexual conduct policy, which applies to staff members, “explicitly prohibits any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.”

At the center of this controversy is the question of whether those who reject Young Life’s positions on sexuality should be eligible for employment with the organization. The RNS story opens by highlighting two individuals who recently worked for Young Life but had their employment terminated for conduct that violates the organization’s sexual conduct policy. In this case, both individuals are homosexual. After sharing their stories on social media about the way their service with Young Life ended, one of them used the hashtag #DoBetterYoungLife.

Since then, the #DoBetterYoungLife hashtag has gained considerable traction online. In addition to spawning multiple social media accounts and prompting hundreds of individuals to share stories of exclusion and pain related to their sexual identity or orientation, perhaps the most significant result of this movement has been a petition launched on Change.org that has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures calling for Young Life to repeal its sexual conduct policy and make other changes.

A complicated reality

Anyone taking the time to investigate can recognize that this is a complicated and multifaceted situation. The men and women speaking out on social media—many of whom are very young—are sharing stories of deep pain and hurt they’ve experienced as a result of being excluded or marginalized in various ways. These stories are moving and emotional and sad. Not only that, but many are marked by obvious sincerity.

At the same time, there is no real question about what Young Life should do, at least in terms of the substance of its policy. Young Life’s views on sexuality are, after all, not really Young Life’s views on sexuality. For Christians, the Scriptures set forth a clear and intelligible pattern, not only of what it means to be male and female, but of the nature of sexual intimacy and relationships as well. And these things are not ancillary to the Christian life, but central to what it means to faithfully follow Christ. For Young Life, and for any Christian organization, obedience to Scripture and fidelity to the Christian tradition requires that they maintain their prohibition on any kind of sexual activity beyond the bounds of heterosexual marriage.

For Christians, the Scriptures set forth a clear and intelligible pattern, not only of what it means to be male and female, but of the nature of sexual intimacy and relationships as well.

It has barely been five years since the Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But in intervening years, society’s attitudes toward homosexuality and LGBT rights have continued to shift rapidly. So much so, that it seems we’ve reached the tipping point where, in many cases, failing to affirm same-sex marriage and expanded protections for LGBT individuals is now likely to bring forth rejection and scorn and potentially even more significant consequences. And this is the reality Young Life is facing.

The RNS article cited a statement from Young Life’s president, Newt Crenshaw, responding to the situation which indicated the organization would be taking steps to review the stories of current and former Young Life members who had “experienced pain in our family based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other factors.” Speaking as an outsider, I think this is obviously a commendable step for Young Life. Even when policies are substantially correct (as Young Life’s policy on sexual conduct assuredly is), there is still ample opportunity to address any means by which the policy may have been poorly implemented and to plan to better address such matters going forward.

Compassion and conviction

Though I’ve never personally been involved in Young Life, I know a number of people whose lives and faith were shaped in a profound and lasting way through the organization’s ministry. Moreover, it is clear that those who have spoken out about the hurt and pain they’ve experienced are often doing so as former insiders—those who’ve experienced the rich, loving community that Young Life creates for the thousands of students they minister to each year. That kind of love and community motivated by the gospel is the focal point of Young Life’s ministry; it is critical that they find a way to continue to model that for future generations without surrendering their core beliefs.

Young Life is not alone among Christian organizations thinking through ways they might better respond and minister to those whose sexual identity or orientation run contrary to the sexual ethics of Scripture. As Christian leaders seek to navigate these challenges, they should consider how they might imitate Jesus who was known for the tremendous compassion he showed toward those who were hurting or on the margins. Jesus was never guilty of compromise, nor was he ever bereft of compassion.

The church should be known as a community that loves and welcomes people, regardless of what kind of past, or baggage, or identity they might have. And loving and welcoming people includes what happens in our church buildings as well as the various kinds of ministries we create. Christians don’t have to back away from what the Bible says in order to love people as people and to point them to the hope, healing, and restoration that is available to them in Jesus. 

All of us should pray for Young Life’s leadership as they seek to address these matters in the days ahead and make whatever corrections are appropriate. And each of us can strive to care for those who are hurting even as we hold fast the things the church has always believed.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author