Intervarsity's Slippery Slope

Oh come on.
They are clearly part of the solution, not the problem.  But they have had quite a moment in the electronic media recently, so I thought I would try and digest some of the discussion.  (Let the reader beware: I was on staff with Intervarsity for 8 years!)

  • First off, Christianity Today published an article questioning Intervarsity's commitment to justification by faith alone (...see what I did there).  Apparently some students at GWU were concerned they were being made Catholic after attending a mass as a part of a mission.  Next their campus staff workers, “pushed back when the student-led executive team unanimously declined to select a student for a leadership position because she was a Catholic.”  Well, we all know Catholics don’t follow Jesus.  My goodness.
 –Look, I’m not saying the differences aren’t profound; they are, but I like the fact that there is such diversity under the one cross,let alone in scripture, but  it seems disingenious to run bylines of "Protestant debate on justification is reigniting questions about Rome," about college students learning to value all sorts of Christian faiths. Besides displaying a kind of historical amnesia, it ignores the fact IV isn't a church.   And concerns about their liberal press?  N.T. Wright hardly warrants a book burning.
  • So the president of Intervarsity, Alec Hill, responded affirming justification is by grace alone soon after.  I served for 2-3 years under Hill, and he seemed like a nice enough guy, but beyond that, it was hard for us outside of the upper management to know him, but His response to the article was gracious enough when he could have lampooned the concern.The best line:
Which brings me back to N.T. Wright. The article seems to imply that his views are leading some away from a proper view of justification. Having read both his book and that by John Piper, I find each to be solidly grounded in Scripture. At times, I am more comfortable with Wright; at times more with Piper. Such is the nature of robust theological debate.”
Makes me wonder if his audience thinks Piper blaming tornadoes on gays is robust theological debate?  Probably just being polite.   But wait!  There’s more.

  • So J. Mack Stiles blogged about what is wrong with IV. It was at the scary 9 marks website which defends against the creeping liberalism in churches.  It's funny because they mention the historic creeds in their articles, but that is neither what is at stake in Stile's Intervarsity discussion, nor do they come across as a group particularly connected to the creeds.  Most of the historic creeds are Catholic, afterall.  It’s interesting because it is a poignant snapshot of evangelical values particularly in the assumption of a disembodied, ahistorical “correctness” about its position.  His concern is that “what’s at stake is orthodox Biblical theology,” and, “the very authority of the Bible,” but his commitment to scripture is undefined and doesn't stem from any church or credal source- it just is. As if the creeds and the Bible wrote themselves.   Best quote: 
“Not only that, but Intervarsity seems more and more willing to partner with churches that do not hold to the gospel, from liberal protestant churches to the Roman Catholic church. At the same time, IV is breaking fellowship with people who are solidly evangelical: John Piper, for example, is a persona non grata because of his view of women in ministry. Yet N.T. Wright, who's book Justification opens the door for a quasi-Catholic view of justification, speaks regularly at IV conferences.”
That’s right; Catholics do not hold the Gospel.  Heaven only knows what he thinks about Eastern Orthodoxy.  Or the number of the beast.  But when he explains things like, "When some move to make the words of Jesus in the gospels greater than the words of Paul, the very authority of the Bible is at stake, " it gets confusing about whether he's committed first to the Gospel or the NIV, if you catch my drift.  I'm no papist, but let's at least remember evangelical history didn't descend from the sky in a vision by the river.  We've been at this a while.
  • Well, wouldn’t you know it,  more responses appeared on the Internet?  In particular, Michael F. Bird at Euangelion posted an interesting response to Stiles, in 9 points, definitely worth a read.  Bird does a number of things I appreciate, distinguishing between the printing and the campus work, noting that while complementarians don’t feel welcomed in IV, egalitarians aren’t welcomed most other places and that perhaps Schweitzer wasn’t all lunacy, etc.  Best quote:
"The mention of the word "Catholic" activates feelings of Romophobia and its usage against N.T. Wright can only be rhetorical rather than factual."
My thoughts?

Intervarsity isn’t a church.  ‘Never was.  I agree with Bird that if a student can agree with the IV Statement of faith, what’s the problem?  Stiles seems concerned that IV is not evangelical enough, as if evangelicalism were a denomination or creed to adhere to.  Shouldn’t that be left to students and their churches to decide?  Formally, it is something that Inter Varsity has never decided beyond their statements of faith.  They are non-denominational, etc.  The assumptions that Stiles has about how the organization should believe says more about his view of evangelical authority, as if evangelicalism were the historical church, and I think his understanding of orthodoxy is not as thorough as it should be here.  When he hearkens to the protestant reformation and solas in his appeal, one wonders if he would include Zwingli or us Anabaptist types in his evangelical gospel truth.  Still, I appreciate his concerns that IV “confront the organizational fear of man,” and “resist the pull of pragmatism.”  I agree, though not in the ways he is thinking. 

More troubling to me than Milbank being read or students visiting Catholic masses is that the president, Alec Hill, appeals to numbers to prove authenticity,
“Intervarsity is in the midst of the greatest evangelistic harvest in our history. Four years ago, the number of students and faculty who became Christians jumped by 22 percent. And that figure has continued to rise. Thanks be to God. One hundred new chapters are being planted to reach entire new campus groups. Nearly 3,000 students serve on short-term mission trips each year. And, we continue our deep commitment to biblical multiethnicity—40 percent of our students are people of color.”
I wish it were just a rhetorical stroke of genius, an appeal to evangelical values to soften his detractors, but alas, my experience is it is deeply held value in IV now, one of the reasons I chose to move on.  The emphasis on “growth” and production too closely mirror those of our culture.  Evangelism numbers sell, and I suppose it’s inevitable for a non-profit organization, but resisting and returning to Intervarsity’s rich history of discipleship would be a step to confront a fear of man (or woman) and resist a pragmatic pull.

Similarly, it's difficult to really engage campus beliefs.  We did not try to challenge worldviews so much as fill Bible studies, and it was the practical emphasis on service projects that did the challenging, not academic debate.  Students are met as friends but the exchange of ideas is awfully romanticized.  Evangelism campaigns, rallies, etc., are relied upon to get the real work done and the way students “engage the campus,” looks more like a retreat to evangelical practices, platitudes and slogans.  (This is true of most campus Christian groups, btw.)  Increasingly, I think IVCF has begun to understand that how they devote themselves to issues of justice and truth is a better witness to a secular campus than pamphlets and preaching, which is good, but a value for numerical, growth and production remain.  I think it’s the commitment to engaging minority students and their academic press that have kept them honest as an organization, promoting growth.

Still, I don’t want to dismiss Stiles out of hand as he has put his money where his mouth is and lived a life of great service to the poor. Nor do I wish to do the same to Hill.  Friends working in IV report he has brought organizational stability and opened lines of communication, and I rejoice with them at the new found diversity.  In fact, I daresay I’m proud to have been part of building it.  I just hope they will continue to be a place where Christians who are not beholden to evangelicalism can follow Jesus and ask questions, too.


  1. interesting. i'm involved w/ the IV grad fellowship @ GWU, and we happen to be studying James. ;) all kinds of faith &/or works conversations ahead this semester...

  2. Hi PDR. That is awesome: I hope it's a fruitful time. As an undergrad CSM, we didn't have much traffic with the grad fellowship. How about you? I'm interested to hear what really went down, relationally as well. God bless you - let me know if I can be of any aid.


Post a Comment

I cherish your comments, but not vileness or wickedness. By vileness I mean Spam, and wickedness I mean hateful speech. Unless it's about spam.

Popular Posts