Azusa Pacific University made a small but significant change to its student handbook this year that could have a big ripple effect throughout Christian higher education: Students at the Southern California college are no longer prohibited from having romantic same-sex relationships—as long as they remain abstinent.
University chaplain Kevin Mannoia said the change is intended to free students from the need to hide their behavior and beliefs about sexuality so that staff and student leaders can openly address those issues from a Biblical perspective.
“We know that with a changing culture, there are students who come to us and who do self-identify as LGBTQ,” he said. “We want to make sure that our people are as best prepared and able to come alongside those students—and all students—equally in discipling them toward a Biblical position on marriage. And we do that in highly relational ways.”
Mannoia insisted the university has not abandoned its Biblical foundation or belief in God’s design for marriage between one man and one woman. It also hasn’t changed its understanding and teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin.
“The best way I can describe the paradigm that we’re working with is that we are anchored to that authority and lordship of Christ, and at the same time as we are being anchored in our historic Christian orthodox faith, we are also committed to the mission of God in the fallen world,” he said. “As culture changes around us, how we go about fulfilling that mission also has to change.”
Azusa Pacific sits just 26 miles northeast of Los Angeles, and like other Christian institutions in California, it has faced pressure from LGBT lobby groups to abandon its Biblical position on human sexuality. California lawmakers in 2016 considered blocking state scholarship funds to Christian universities that refused to abandon faith-based community covenants addressing issues of sexuality. And this year, lawmakers considered a bill that would have limited the way mental health professionals could counsel anyone struggling with same-sex attraction.
But Mannoia said the university’s decision to change its approach to same-sex relationships had nothing to do with political, legal, or social pressure. He described the university as being caught in the “messy middle,” between being anchored in God’s Word and engaging the culture. Students at Azusa Pacific are not required to be Christian, and Mannoia said trying to enforce rules for behavior only makes sharing the gospel more difficult: “The minute you impose a punitive restriction, it closes the door to the possibilities of discipleship.”
From a practical standpoint, students in same-sex relationships will be allowed to hold hands and display other signs of affection publicly without fear of reproach. But Mannoia said administrators now have the opportunity to talk openly to those students about where that relationship is headed and why it can never match up to God’s design for marriage and sexuality. The school has also established a program within its Student Life department where LGBTQ students meet regularly with administrators who can “guide them in safe conversations that will allow them to explore their sexuality within the context of a Christian framework,” Mannoia said. According to the student newspaper, nearly 50 students attended the group’s second meeting.
Mannoia repeatedly stressed what hasn’t changed at Azusa Pacific: it’s interpretation of the Bible and God’s design for sexuality and marriage. But others see the new acceptance of same-sex relationships as the first step in a movement away from Christian orthodoxy.
“When it comes to relationships, God’s design is for men and women to be in heterosexual relationships,” said John Jackson, president of William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif. “It is wrong and hurtful to say to people that a same-sex romantic relationship is equal to a heterosexual relationship.”
Jackson praised Azusa Pacific leaders for maintaining an orthodox view of sexuality and said he knew they genuinely wanted to honor God in a challenging world. But he insisted that accepting same-sex romantic relationships contradicted God’s plan for human flourishing. And he warned that different approaches to same-sex relationships could threaten unity among the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Several years ago, disagreements over faith-based requirements for faculty nearly split the organization. While Azusa Pacific is the first Christian college to articulate a same-sex relationship acceptance policy, Jackson suspects others have already taken the same approach in practice, if not in writing.
Jackson lamented the growing division over sexuality among Christian universities and said he and his fellow college presidents would much rather deal with other things: “It’s our culture bringing these issues to our door. Not one of us wants this to be the big issue. But it’s coming to our doorstep. Christian schools are going to have to address it.”