The Story: InterVarsity’s Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference came under fire recently for refusing to allow a pro-life student group to be an exhibitor at their event.
The Background: Last week, at LifeSiteNews, Chelsen Vicari wrote an article with the headline, “Evangelical meeting bans Students for Life because it’s not ‘advancing God’s global mission.’” In the article Vicari wrote,
[Students for Life] received an email from Urbana’s Exhibits Manager thanking the pro-life youth organization for applying, but denied their application because, “… Students for Life does not align with Urbana's exhibitor criteria. One of our key criteria for exhibitors is to have advancing God's global mission as the vision and purpose of their organization.”
Here’s what’s interesting. SFL is the nation’s largest pro-life organization dedicated to youth ministry. As Hawkins noted, SFL’s mission is “to reach young Christians with the pro-life message.” The organization trains thousands of future doctors without borders, international lawyers, and pastors and teachers, and sends them to every corner of the globe to defend the most basic human right: the right to life.
I think God would agree, this is part of his global mission.
[InterVarsity's Urbana Student Missions Conference] didn't let the nation's largest youth pro-life organization exhibit to 16,000 students this week because they decided that advancing the pro-life message and trying to change the culture to make abortion unthinkable isn't something our Lord and Creator would like.
I believe that in order to achieve our mission of ending abortion, we need Christians across America united and that includes InterVarsity. It is my hope that InterVarsity reflects on the message they sent to their young, Christian students at Urbana. And I'm praying they read this response and open the doors for communication, allowing Students for Life and the others in the pro-life movement to work with them in the future to right this wrong and work together, advancing the Lord's will, to serve women and save children of all colors and end abortion in our nation.
But InterVarsity vice president Greg Jao says there is more to the story. In an email sent to writer Rod Dreher, Jao says,
Any suggestion that Students for Life was not accepted as an exhibiting agency because of their pro-life goals is incorrect. If a pro-life organization met our exhibitor criteria, we would be happy to talk to them about being an Urbana exhibitor.
Students for Life was not accepted as an exhibiting agency at the Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference because it did not meet four of the seven criteria required for Urbana exhibitors. Students for Life cannot affirm InterVarsity’s Doctrinal Basis. … Students for Life does not belong to an accrediting or oversight body or network. It does not offer short- or long-term cross-cultural missions opportunities. These are basic expectations for exhibitors at a Christian missions conference. Students for Life was aware of this when they applied and acknowledged their non-religious status in their application. We also explained that exhibiting agencies must demonstrate that they advance the Gospel in word and deed. While Students for Life advances Gospel values in their admirable pro-life work, their strategy prevents them from making evangelism an explicit core commitment. We expect that exhibiting agencies at our mission conference do both. Urbana is not a generalized Christian job fair. Urbana is a conference focused on cross-cultural missions. As a result, exhibitors must either be a Christian missions agency or a Christian seminary that provides graduate programs in mission-related topics. Imagine the criticism we would receive (probably from the same parties) if Urbana allowed a non-Christian, non-evangelistic, non-accredited agency to exhibit at the conference even if they had otherwise admirable goals.
I hope, given the above, that you understand why I disagree with your statement: “But it seems that some lives are more sacred than others, and the cause of defending them is no longer part of God’s mission, according to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.” Urbana has a limited aim: to challenge this generation of students to engage in global, cross-cultural mission. The conference cannot reflect every Christian cause or value without losing focus.
Why It Matters: As with many issues Christians face today, this disagreement revolves around matters of truth, mission, and the meaning of the gospel.
First, there is the issue of truth. Far too often we tend to make assumptions about organizations (and their motives) without having all the relevant facts. In our age of the social media it’s too easy to share with our online circles information that may be incorrect, incomplete, or otherwise misleading. We sometimes forget that Christian organizations and insitutions are not abstract entities but groups of fellow Christian brothers and sisters.
We also have an incentive, in order to get our message across, to make hyperbolic comments for rhetorical effect without considering whether our claims are entirely truthful. I believe Hawkins and Whittington—respected leaders of two noble and important pro-life organizations—have done just that when they say InterVarsity “decided that advancing the pro-life message and trying to change the culture to make abortion unthinkable isn't something our Lord and Creator would like.”
That sort of inflammatory and untruthful comment is unbecoming of Christians. Yet such discourse is increasingly common in an age where exageration is considered necessary to focus our short attention spans. (I hope that Hawkins and Whittington will reconsider their words and apologize for the inaccurate parts of their op-ed. While publishing a regrettable claim in the heat of the moment is understandable, allowing a knowingly untruthful claim to stand uncorrected is inexcusable.)
The second issue is the interconnectedness of mission, doctrine, and the gospel.
Whereas previous generations once debated how far evangelicals could go in standing with co-belligerents (such as with Roman Catholics on pro-life issues), many now believe all doctrinal differences should be set aside to focus on issues of joint concern. But that is not a valid option. Doctrine matters, and it especially matters when the mission is aligned with (or conflated with) the gospel.
For example, Vicari writes in her article that, “you might not know that [Students for Life] are gospel-centered by quickly perusing the group’s website.” But is that claim true? Can it be? Students for Life does not identify as a Christian organization, nor do they require becoming a Christian as a requirement for membership. How then can it be claimed that, as an organization, it is “gospel-centered”?
That is a question that has to be considered for organizations like Urbana that are focused on missions. As Jao says,
We also explained that exhibiting agencies must demonstrate that they advance the Gospel in word and deed. While Students for Life advances Gospel values in their admirable pro-life work, their strategy prevents them from making evangelism an explicit core commitment. We expect that exhibiting agencies at our mission conference do both.
Jao’s point about evangelism raises another important question: How can there be agreement about what is “gospel-centered” when there is a disagreement about the gospel and what it requires of us?
It’s one thing to say that being pro-life is a gospel issue; it’s quite another to say that pro-life evangelicals and Roman Catholics are aligned in a “gospel-centered” mission. And it’s something altogether different to claim that people who have not accepted Christ are being “gospel-centered.” The use of the term is such diverse contexts threatens to distort its meaning beyond all recognition.
Fortunately, we can be “gospel-centered” without expecting the same from our co-belligerents. As Francis Schaeffer once said, “A co-belligerent is a person with whom I do not agree on all sorts of vital issues, but who, for whatever reasons of their own, is on the same side in a fight for some specific issue of public justice.” One of those vital issues we can disagree on is the gospel. We can fight for the pro-life cause alongside those who have a different understanding of the gospel. We can even be join forces with those—such as Jews, Muslims, atheists—who reject the gospel. But what we cannot, must not, do is dismiss the importance of doctrinal distinctions related to the gospel, even for as an important a cause as the protection of the unborn.
Note: Urbana has also been criticized for the comments made by one of the conference’s speakers, Michelle Higgins. Jao also addresses that contoversy in his email to Dreher, which you can read here. In my opinion, that issue raises seperate, but troubling concerns. But since many others have addressed it already, I decided to focus on the pro-life/gospel angle, since I believe it has broader and more general ramifications for the evangelical community.