RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Documents produced by a former student at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond offer support for his statements that BTSR provides a supportive environment for homosexuality. The student, John Ippolito, has provided copies of “That ‘Gay’ Thing” newsletter distributed through BTSR student mailboxes as evidence that a support and advocacy group for lesbian, homosexual, bisexual and transgender Southern Baptists has been promoted on the BTSR campus.
The Richmond native challenged a defense of BTSR offered by President Thomas Graves in a May 3 open letter in the Religious Herald, the state paper of Baptist General Association of Virginia. BGAV is a major source of funding for the 12-year old seminary established by the Alliance of Baptists, allocating $12,962 in April, for example, in addition to funds BGAV churches send to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship which also support BTSR.
Graves called the Baptist Banner’s publication of Ippolito’s journal “misleading, false and bordering on libel.” Graves, in his open letter, defended BTSR’s policy on homosexuality, stating that promiscuity of any type is not allowed. John Ippolito’s journal, which he kept as a BTSR class assignment, can be viewed on the Internet at www.thebaptistbanner.com.
Ippolito provided Religious Herald Editor Michael Clingenpeel with copies of three pro-homosexual newsletters that were placed in his BTSR mailbox in 1998. Since the locked mailboxes require a master key to be opened, Ippolito concluded that whoever placed the newsletters in the mailboxes had permission from BTSR to do so.
The three editions of the biweekly publication called “That ‘Gay’ Thing” are attributed to two pro-homosexual student support groups. A group called “Whosoever” is identified as an officially sanctioned student group at Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education, one of the local seminaries in a consortium relationship to BTSR.
Another group, “Honesty,” is identified in one newsletter as a student group that was at BTSR with objectives similar to those of Whosoever, providing support to sexual minorities in the student body and educating the seminary concerning issues involving sexual minorities in the church.
An article written by Jeff Sims, who was a third-year BTSR student in 1998 when the newsletter was released, pled with readers to reject the “fear-based” premise that seeks to “punish sexual minorities because of some sin.” He stated, “There are known biological factors that determine whether we are born animal or human, male or female, black or white, gay or straight.” He asks the universal church to “practice an ever more universal love.”
Another article recounted the “love story” of a student at another school in the consortium where BTSR allows cross-registration for elective courses. He told of his relationship with a life partner to whom he was bound in a ceremony “blessed by God,” stating, “Through this relationship I have the opportunity to understand God’s love for me. I am allowed to see glimpses of the intimacy that God would surely have us all experience,” he said, describing the homosexual union.
In his letter to the Religious Herald, Ippolito wrote, “To my knowledge, the members of this group at that time never received counseling regarding abandoning that lifestyle by the faculty or administration of BTSR.” He asks, “How can it be that such an organization exists as a student group meeting on the BTSR campus if homosexual practices are ‘not affirmed’ there as Dr. Graves suggests?”
The Religious Herald’s associate editor, Robert Dilday, said the paper has no plans to publish the Ippolito correspondence, regarding it as informational. Letters to the editor after Graves’ May 3 open letter supported Graves’ response and one questioned Ippolito’s credibility, suspecting that the journal was written after he had attended BTSR with outside assistance.
However, a fellow student of Ippolito’s recalled asking Ippolito to share the journal with him after lengthy discussions about similar disappointments with BTSR. “The personal experiences shared by John, which were published in the recent Baptist Banner, were the exact same experiences I read from his classroom journal some three years ago,” stated John Bohannon of Clarksville, Va.
Graves insisted in his letter, “Homosexual practice is not affirmed.” He described the school’s commitment to a discussion of the issue of the church’s ministry to the homosexual community as a necessary ingredient in its preparation of ministers. “Our students must be prepared to deal with this and other troublesome issues,” he wrote. “One need not condone a homosexual lifestyle to prepare oneself for servant ministry to the homosexual persons of our society.”
The issue of homosexuality continues to be addressed at BTSR, such as an April dialogue and discussion on the subject at which all opinions and perspectives were welcomed. “Our only ‘rule’ for this time will be listening with respect to all who care to share,” the campus newsletter stated.
As far as granting official status to Honesty, that has never happened, according to BTSR student life director Warren Hammonds. Graves commented further, telling Baptist Press that BTSR had disallowed the group from holding meetings on campus. “Folks came and met outside our building, so it wouldn’t be fair to say they’d never met near our building,” Graves said, “but they’ve never been recognized as an official organization. It is an off-campus group.”
While campus mailboxes are locked, Graves said mail addressed to students is not inspected or authorized based on its source. “If they’re placed in campus mail, letters are delivered to students,” he said.
Clingenpeel responded to Ippolito in a May 16 letter, stating, “Another person could arrive at very different conclusions than those you suggest in your letter.” Clingenpeel expressed his “shock” at the implication “that the seminary has the right or responsibility to monitor the contents of private campus mail for students who are adults.” He further noted that most higher educational institutions allow students to occupy available classrooms throughout the day or evening without faculty or administrative sanction, considering them adults who are free to assemble.
“Based on your letter and the accompanying newsletters,” Clingenpeel wrote, “I conclude that your solution to the alleged problems at BTSR is to monitor the private mail of the student body, censor what may be sent to students and prevent them from assembling in small groups without the prior permission of the seminary administration.”
Clingenpeel concluded that such corrections amount to totalitarianism and encouraged Ippolito to visit the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., to learn more about freedom of assembly and liberty of conscience. “I also hope you will grant the Baptist students at BTSR the same access to the Holy Spirit as the Baptist students at Southeastern.”
Ippolito, who enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., after a year of night classes and one fulltime semester at BTSR, verified that the pro-homosexual newsletters were not addressed to him specifically, but apparently delivered in bulk for distribution to all BTSR mailboxes.
While Graves questioned whether Ippolito had dealt with his grievance in a biblical manner by first dealing directly with individuals causing offense, several former BTSR students said their efforts at dealing directly with professors in private ultimately resulted in ridicule and ostracization during class.
Former BTSR student John Bohannon expressed appreciation for “Graves’ biblical view of talking with fellow believers one-on-one before going to a larger Christian body.” However, he recalled, “My experience with one prominent professor at BTSR would not allow such discussion once he discerned I was not in agreement with his theological position. The atmosphere at BTSR was an openness to all theological views and beliefs except those of a conservative traditional view — especially if supported by the SBC.”
Although Clingenpeel regarded Ippolito’s accusations as destructive, Bohannon said he finds it important to “hold each other accountable to the truth and light of God’s Word.” He found Graves’ response in the Religious Herald regarding sexual promiscuity to be missing the point of concern as well as changing the subject and focus of Ippolito’s claims. “He goes on to proclaim that the seminary holds a firm policy against promiscuous activities, yet will he or the faculty not hold equally a firm stand against a lifestyle that is destroying the lives of young men and women?” Bohannon questioned.
“More than one student has confirmed with me the reality of a homosexual movement of acceptance on campus,” Bohannon said. “Gay and lesbian support stories are published for all BTSR students to read. It’s design is not to share the life-changing grace of God that can be received through Jesus Christ. It is rather to encourage and lead acceptance of a chosen way of life which God states is an abomination to his perfect plan and will for our lives.”
Bohannon told of a student’s profession of his acceptance of homosexuality as a natural way of life that was confirmed “through interaction and mentoring from his professor at BTSR.” He added, “That student was once a minister to youth and singles and is now a pastor here in Virginia. For the love of Christ and my fellow brothers in Christ, how can one stay silent when some students are graduating from BTSR with beliefs that will seek to undermine, in the children and churches across our states, the very grace and mercy that Christ poured out for us on the cross?”
Bohannon said he believes the only way to “truly minister” to the homosexual and lesbian community is to share the gospel. “The sweet love of Christ that changes us and gives us a new desire to live out a life of purity and holiness will bring glory to his name. Ministering to the homosexual community by covering or embracing their sinful lifestyle will not lead them to truth but rather expose them to a darker existence outside the sweet love of God,” Bohannon said.
Another former BTSR student, Jason Griffits, who is now enrolled at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., agreed that the issue of homosexuality was a commonly discussed subject when he attended BTSR, but most of the faculty had remained neutral in their viewpoint. “I never heard any remarks made by professors, but there were a lot from students,” Griffits said. He found a sharp division between very liberal students and those who were more conservative.
“I think it’s definitely a sensitive issue for them and several of the faculty would be affirming of homosexuals,” Griffits said. “They know they could lose their funding from CBF if the school itself took a stand” in support of homosexuals.
However, he doubted if a homosexual student would be expelled from BTSR. “They wouldn’t affirm him, just let him be a student.”
Griffits said he has no complaint over the education he received at BTSR, having transferred to Midwestern due to health problems of a family member. He recognized the school to be liberal in its perspective and was uncomfortable with gender-inclusive language. “If you wrote Mother God on a paper it was OK, or Mother-Father God. They say they’re very inclusive, but not if you addressed God as Father.”
In response to the implication that Ippolito’s brief tenure at BTSR would not qualify him to speak with authoritative knowledge of his seminary experience, Bohannon disagreed. “One semester in addition to a year of night classes would allow one to grasp the theological direction of the seminary. Many of John’s documented comments from his semester’s experience resonate with my experience even though I only attended one evening course.”
He added, “Like John, I was taken back from the very first night of class by the harsh spirit toward the SBC. The professor on several occasions made critical remarks against SBC leadership or evangelical conservative leaders and preachers that had no bearing or relation to what he was teaching.”
In his refutation of Ippolito’s journal reflections, Graves wrote of a faculty covenant that regards the authority of Scripture as central to the Christian life. It states, “We pledge to study and teach the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments with diligence and firm commitment, knowing the Bible as sure and certain authority for understanding the nature of God, God’s work in he world, and our role as servants in the Kingdom of God; affirming the Bible as standing over all theories, interpretations, creeds, and confessions; and presenting the Bible’s primary function as witness to the revelation of God in Christ, who is the center of our work and worship.”
While disagreements may occur over particular biblical interpretations and applications, Graves wrote, “It is simply not possible to say the faculty of this school does not believe in the ‘sure and certain’ truth of Scripture.”
The priorities included in the school’s mission statement contrast significantly with the articles of faith that guide Southern Baptist seminaries. Instead of subscribing to the Baptist Faith and Message, the school simply identifies itself as “distinctively Baptist in terms of heritage with an ecumenical commitment, a global perspective, and participation in the world-wide Christian mission.”