As president of Gardner-Webb University, I am writing to address concerns expressed about a speaker at the University on February 26 as part of the “Life of the Scholar” (LOTS) program. Part of the concern has been that having this speaker suggests an endorsement by the University. That is not the case. In so far as I am authorized to speak for the University, I can say that Gardner-Webb University affirms that the only proper and appropriate place for intimate sexual relations is within the marriage of one man and one woman.
Furthermore, because a university by its nature as an educational institution is a place for free and open discussion, it should not be automatically assumed that any particular viewpoints expressed by any speaker are necessarily those of the university itself or its community. In fact, the introduction of the speaker that evening distinctly made this point.
While we had not read the specific presentation that the speaker shared, we had no concern that he would use the occasion to promote the lifestyle with which he is associated. His express invitation was to share the results of his scholarly reflection. While I am a strong advocate for academic freedom, I will be the first to affirm that there are appropriate guidelines and boundaries.
From time to time the University has invited representatives of alternative viewpoints on many subjects to speak on our campus. This is in keeping with the idea of a university, whether Christian or secular, as a place where ideas can be analyzed and understood in great depth. At Gardner-Webb this always happens in the context of the Christian faith that undergirds our mission. We have had countless speakers (and faculty/staff) who represent an orthodox vision of Christian sexuality to our students. But these, of course, are not newsworthy events.
For the most part, students and the wider community have understood the value of hearing from the “sources” themselves of alternative viewpoints, even on controversial topics. Homosexuality is, of course, an explosive topic, and consequently it is not too surprising that many feel in this case the option of hearing an alternative viewpoint should be closed, so to speak.
In reality, the LOTS speaker was invited to share his research on how, in part, the Christian community might guard against contributing to the staggering statistics that he shared, statistics which show the remarkable increase of incidence of homelessness and suicides among non-heterosexual youth as opposed to the general population.
At Gardner-Webb, we recognize that we should give careful thought to the ways we shine an investigatory spotlight on the most challenging social issues of the day, lest we give rise to misunderstandings. One of the lessons that we are taking away from this event is the need for further conversation about this important issue facing students and churches today.
In fact, a pastor of one of our strong Baptist State Convention churches has offered the helpful suggestion that the University implement a series of presentations and lectures on what it means to see our homosexual neighbors through the eyes of Christian compassion. As the same pastor has shared, “There is much in the recent press about why Millennials are leaving the church, and one of the reasons given is because they feel they are forced to choose between compassion and holiness. At Gardner-Webb, dialogue is available to model for students and churches the possibility of an environment where compassion and holiness are able to meet face to face.”
Our University is a place where all are welcomed, supported and encouraged under the Lordship of Christ. Consequently, we stand against every form of hatred, bigotry, and harassment. In attempting to appreciate our differences, we may find that there can be a richer understanding of ourselves and the world in which God has placed us. Our community is one where students, alumni and the greater Gardner-Webb family can indeed grow intellectually and in the knowledge of Christ. We have been that, and that will not change.
In closing, I want to affirm that Gardner-Webb University remains deeply committed to its essential purpose to advance the Kingdom of God through Christian higher education as well as the mission represented in our motto, “For God and humanity.” Within our Statement of Values we continue to affirm our Baptist Heritage and historic Baptist principles such as the authority of Scripture in matters of faith and practice, the freedom of the individual conscience and the right of people to worship God as they choose, the priesthood of every believer, the autonomy of the local church, and the separation of church and state.
Thank you for receiving our perspective on this matter. Gardner-Webb University covets your prayers, and we in turn commit to pray for the ministries of our fellow Baptists throughout North Carolina and our region.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Frank Bonner is president of Gardner-Webb University.)