Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

If you dig into the history of Duke University — formerly Trinity College — it’s hard to avoid its deep roots in the evangelical Methodist movement.

The key, today, is that Duke is a private university, one defined by research, basketball and modern doctrines linked to its powerful nonsectarian identity. You can still see a few Methodist ties that do not bind in the way the school’s trustees operate (click here for more on that).

However, it is educational — when considering Duke history — to follow the money.

The University has historic ties to the United Methodist Church. The institution was begun in 1838-39 when Methodist and Quaker families in northwest Randolph County united to transform Brown's Schoolhouse into Union Institute, thus providing permanent education for their children. A formal agreement with the Methodist Church was entered into in 1859 when the name of the school was changed to Trinity College. The motto, Eruditio et Religio, which is based on a Charles Wesley hymn, and the official seal, both of which are still in use today, were adopted in 1859. The name of Trinity College continues as the undergraduate college of the University.

The most significant development in the history of the school came with the adoption of Trinity College as the primary beneficiary of the philanthropy of the Duke family in 1889. This occurred in part because the college was an institution of the Methodist Church and Washington Duke practiced stewardship as taught by his church. 

So here is an interesting question linked to a current doctrinal dispute on the Duke campus.

Right up front, note this: Duke is a private university and, thus, its leaders have every right to define the doctrines and covenants that govern their campus. That’s true for liberal once-Christian schools as well as many traditional colleges and universities. The question for journalists and lawyers is whether Duke leaders are being consistent in the proclamation and application of their new doctrines.

This leads us to a recent Religion News Service article that ran with this headline: “Duke University’s student government rejects Young Life over LGBTQ policies.” The problem is that Young Life doesn’t have “policies” that are independent of 2,000 years of traditional Christian “doctrines” on marriage and sexuality.

Once again, Duke leaders (as previously seen in this Vanderbilt University case) have every right to enforce a new orthodoxy that bans ancient orthodoxies. The question is whether the evangelical Protestants in Young Life have been singled out for attention in a way that is unfair or even discriminatory.

Questions of this kind receive zero attention in the RNS report, which reads like a Duke PR release. Every wording in the story appears to have been carefully chosen — starting with the drumbeat use of the word “policy” — to favor the modern moral theology advocated by Duke and the critics of Young Life.

Here is a key passage that deserves attention:

Young Life, like many evangelical groups, regards same-sex relations as sinful. Its policy forbids LGBTQ staff and volunteers from holding positions in the organization.

The student newspaper the Duke Chronicle reported Thursday that the student government senate unanimously turned down official recognition for the Young Life chapter, because it appeared to violate a guideline that every Duke student group include a nondiscrimination statement in its constitution.

Actually, Young Life’s “policies” forbid people — gay or straight — to hold leadership roles in the organization if they publicly reject centuries of small-o orthodox Christian teachings on marriage and sex. Would celibate gays and lesbians, those striving to defend Young Life’s teachings, be banned? That’s a story worth investigating, by the way.

The following did make it into the RNS report:

The Young Life policy states: “We do not in any way wish to exclude persons who engage in sexual misconduct or who practice a homosexual lifestyle from being recipients of ministry of God’s grace and mercy as expressed in Jesus Christ. We do, however, believe that such persons are not to serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life.”

The Twitter question (above) raised by conservative United Methodist Mark Tooley is an interesting one.

What is the status, at Duke, of other campus ministries (we are not just talking about “many evangelical groups,” as stated by RNS) linked to religious traditions that teach that sex outside of marriage is sin? There are quite a few such groups on campus (alas, the Duke “Religious Life Groups” website appears to be broken at the moment).

Also, here is a question worthy of follow-up coverage: Are there now two United Methodist ministries on (or off) the Duke campus, one in line with current Duke doctrines and one defending (or declining to attack) the teachings of the United Methodist Book of Discipline?

This would be news. After all, the global conflict inside United Methodism has received quite a bit of ink and oceans more will be poured out in the coming years.

Meanwhile, it is striking the degree to which Young Life’s covenant language runs parallel to teachings in the Book of Discipline. The most famous statement of relevant United Methodist doctrine is:

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals … are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

So, would a campus ministry operated by pro-Book of Discipline United Methodists be allowed to operate on the Duke campus? And here’s a related question: Is it “nonsectarian” to embrace and/or endorse religious groups that back current Duke doctrines, while rejecting the ministries of those who cling to ancient doctrines (even the United Methodist versions)?

Stay tuned.

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