Student demonstrations aren’t big news. But recently evangelical Christian students at evangelical flagship Wheaton College came out to agitate for, well, for coming out.
Wheaton College had invited Rosaria Champagne Butterfield to give a chapel talk. Students protested that Butterfield’s message, her “train-wreck conversion” story, promoted damaging messages about homosexuality and Christian faith.
Butterfield attracted attention last year with her conversion story in the pages of Christianity Today. As she told the story, she was a happy, moral, engaged citizen who happened to be a lesbian. In her earlier career as a feminist academic, she pitied and pilloried evangelical Christianity for its anti-woman, anti-homosexual attitudes. But after engaging with a local evangelical pastor and his family, Butterfield felt herself drawn to the faith. She felt herself drawn to Biblical truths, to promising obedience before asking for understanding. She fought against this conversion. As she put it,
But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church.
As we’ve seen in these pages, the tangled mess of morality, sexuality, and Christianity has caused heartache and abuse, and college campuses often become the stage on which these questions find themselves played out. Last month, Butterfield’s chapel talk at Wheaton College became the focus of a silent student demonstration. Christian students at the evangelical school wanted the world to know that Christianity did not require “healing” from homosexuality. Student Justin Massey told the student newspaper,
We feared that if no conversation was added to the single message of the speaker that students who are not very well informed were going to walk into chapel, hear the message, and have misconceptions confirmed or that students who are LGBT would be told that this story is the absolute way that things happen.
After the chapel talk, Butterfield met with student demonstrators. The student newspaper published a short interview. Butterfield explained that she was a feminist on issues such as equal pay for equal work, but that feminism as a “worldview” did not work. She insisted that she viewed sexuality through a Biblical lens, one that condemned both homosexuality and homophobia as sins.
Students disagreed. They thought Butterfield misinterpreted the Bible, and that her attitude gave a pass to the sorts of patriarchal sexual abuse cases that we’ve discussed in these pages.
For those of us outside the world of evangelical Christianity, the discussion was illuminating. First of all, we see how both sides of the issue use the Bible to buttress their arguments. Students at Wheaton did not lambaste Butterfield for making arguments based on an ancient book. Rather, they insisted that Butterfield relied on bad interpretations of that text. Also, we see, as the student protesters insisted, that there is “more than a single story” about sexuality in evangelical higher education. Some of us were surprised recently to find that Christian professors do not universally condemn homosexual students. Many of us, like Dr. Butterfield in her earlier life, assume that homosexuality is something on which evangelical Christians agree. This story shows us the true complexity of sexuality in evangelical thinking.