What’s Happening to InterVarsity?

For the better part of 30 years I have been a "company man." My life has been devoted to student ministry through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a campus staff worker. All four of my books are published by IVP. The eleven Urbana missions conferences I attended shaped my life as a student and as a staff worker. When IV asked my wife and I to direct a short term mission program to Africa we counted it a privilege to pack up our babies and live our summers in glad service among missionaries and students. I now serve in a sister movement of IV in a Muslim nation. I love IV, and I long for its success. I have no desire to hurt anyone in InterVarsity. But I have deep concerns that IV is consistently and increasingly quickly moving away from the principles and practices which made InterVarsity an influential evangelical force on college campuses.

Let me back up for perspective.

I attended a respected Liberal Arts College in Memphis, Tennessee in the mid 70’s. By that time, the college had long cast off its roots in orthodox Christianity and had capitulated to liberal, anti-biblical theology. I remember a religion professor announcing in his New Testament class, "Christianity is one of my favorite religions." It didn’t take long to figure out that any resemblance between biblical Christianity and what was being taught in class was a leftover vestige of an earlier era.

So I waded though liberal wastelands during my years in religion classes. As a new believer I knew that I had met Jesus: my faith in Christ had transformed my life and no marginal gloss could ever explain that away. Yet I still struggled with the challenge posed by so-called "higher criticism," and I could have easily given in to the assault on my faith.

How could any new Christian deal alone with the avalanche of higher critical thought imported from German theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, or the silly, incomprehensible theology of Paul Tillich, or the philosophy of Albert Schweitzer, whose heretical book The Quest for the Historical Jesus was a revered textbook? It’s clear to me now that the religion professors disdained evangelical beliefs, including substitutionary atonement, the necessity of the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and the authority of the Bible.

They saw the atonement as barbaric and belief in miracles a hindrance to the true call of Christians: social action. They glorified the spiritual "search," but they made the idea of actually finding something seem pedestrian. The religion department believed in a universal compulsory heaven for everyone – except, of course, for people who espoused a belief that Jesus made exclusive claims. People like those of us in InterVarsity. They ridiculed InterVarsity.

But for me, IV was an oasis in this desert. My IV staff worker put me on a firm biblical footing. He gave me rock solid IVP books such as Knowing God by J.I. Packer and F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? That book by F.F. Bruce did more for me than answer my questions about marginal glosses: it helped me see that there were biblically honest answers to intellectual questions – answers my religion professors simply refused to consider. My IV staff worker understood the need to define, articulate and hold to clear evangelical doctrine. He himself held to orthodox evangelical doctrine and was able to teach it to others. He, along with thousands of other staff, are the heroes of college campus ministry around the country. I count many of them as friends and colleagues and brothers and sisters to this day.


But lately InterVarsity seems adrift.

A recent Christianity Today article chronicles the pressure a group of InterVarsity students felt to include practicing Roman Catholics on their leadership team. When the students discovered that IV’s new doctrinal statement allowed for Roman Catholics in good standing to sign on, they decided to separate from IV. The national president of IV wrote a response, but seemed defensive and never answered the question, "How many Catholics are on staff with IV?" Sadly, this was a double personal blow as one of the students on the leadership team was my son, who had looked forward for much of his life to being a part of IV on campus, but was disillusioned by the shape of doctrine in IV.

What’s happening to InterVarsity? Has the fellowship become so thoughtless about its theology that it now rejects the solas of the Reformation? I understand that Catholics can be born again. I am happy to partner with Catholics on moral issues in the political arena such as religious liberty. But to partner with Roman Catholics in gospel outreach is a confusion of the gospel. Thoughtful Catholics agree. So, why is IV confused? I worry that it is because IV is muddled about the gospel.

What’s at stake is confusion over the Gospel.

In a recent article on the Urbana web page, an author contended that "Creation care counts as missions."[1] He called students to "move beyond evangelism," a call heard in and around IV. I am grateful for Christians who are called to care for the environment as a reflection of our God-given responsibility to tend God’s creation. But I must disagree when anyone says that creation care is equal to preaching the Gospel, or that any believer can move beyond the gospel of grace. As Tim Keller has said, the gospel is not the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life. Has IV become so confused over the mandate to preach the gospel that we are now called to go into all the world and reduce our carbon footprint?

In the mid 70’s, some in the evangelical world called evangelism and social action equal partners in the missions mandate. This unbiblical principle has so worked its way into modern evangelicalism that we are threatened to go the way mainline liberal churches went in the 40’s and 50’s, and subvert the call to proclaim the Gospel in all the nations.

What’s at stake is a capitulation to a social gospel, rather than seeing social action as an outworking and implication of the gospel. (I deal with this more fully in my upcoming book Marks of the Messenger published by, who else, IVP.)

A new call is coming from some segments of IV: "Deeds, not Creeds!" What an awful statement (which is a creed, by the way). And from the movement that championed great theologians and great theology! This statement stems from the idea, in part, that the words of Jesus have greater weight than the words of Paul. Have some in IV really gotten to the point where they look on the Apostle Paul as a man who was merely giving his opinion when he said, "Watch your life and doctrine closely?"

When some move to make the words of Jesus in the gospels greater than the words of Paul, the very authority of the Bible is at stake.

Recently, a national director of an IV department told me of his distaste for "God killing his Son." I responded, in shock, that the Father and the Son had agreed to this rescue mission to ransom sinners, but he seemed unfazed. Are there really those in IV leadership who have so bought into the heresy peddled by Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Steve Chalke and their ilk that they now see substitutionary atonement as cosmic child abuse?

What’s at stake is orthodox Biblical theology.

The list goes on: issues of Biblical reconciliation, righteousness and justice are confused with neo-Marxist ideology. An egalitarian stand on women in ministry is so sacrosanct that complementarians are unwelcome in IV. And all the while IVP cranks out books that promote the same theology loved by my old religion department and chip away at the very foundation on which IV’s mission stands. These books and ideas may sound new, but only to modern evangelicals who don’t know the history of doctrine. The religion department at my old college in the 70’s would have loved some of today’s IVP books on open theism and postmodern contextualization.

Funding is up, conversion rates are up, but something is wrong. What’s happening to InterVarsity?

Notice that I’m not writing about what has happened to InterVarsity, merely what is happening. I have great hope for the fellowship as brave staff workers proclaim Christ in the face of fierce opposition. I rejoice that so many in the Fellowship are still careful about how they handle the Word of God; manuscript Bible study, for instance, is a gift from IV to the world, many are passionately sharing their faith, some Christians still proclaim the gospel mandate at Urbana, issues of righteousness and justice are championed with theological underpinnings, and IVP still publishes thoughtful biblical books. Yet, four crucial things need to be done for IV to remain in the evangelical orbit.


First, IV staff and directors need to remind themselves of the mission of IV – why it exists in the first place. Historically, IV has existed because churches understood two things about the university world: (1) students are a strategic mission field, and will have strategic future influence for good or ill in the world, and (2) serious obstacles challenge our ability to reach the students with the gospel during their university days. Churches understood that Christian students are the best missionaries to other students, and that students could be mobilized on campuses to form groups that would witness to the Lordship of Christ. Staff were hired, through church support, to coordinate and coach these students on campus. These staff were men and women who were university graduates, committed believers, and who were filled with evangelistic zeal for students and faculty.

Those churches that agreed on the gospel and the need to reach college students believed it was worth pooling precious church resources to support IV staff for gospel outreach. They saw the mission as important enough to put aside differences regarding secondary theological positions in order to partner with other churches in this mission to reach the university world.

Yet IV seems to have forgotten why it exists. Bad theology of the gospel and weak ecclesiology are undermining IV’s mission. Increasingly, IV’s tendency is to take on issues which should be neutral in IV and left for gospel-centered churches to decide. Such secondary doctrinal issues (such as paedo- vs. craedobaptism, Arminianism vs. Calvinism, charismatic vs. cessationist) should ultimately be decided within churches; that’s the place to agree or agree to disagree, not IV. Not only that, but InterVarsity seems more and more willing to partner with churches that do not hold to the gospel, from liberal protestant churches to the Roman Catholic church. At the same time, IV is breaking fellowship with people who are solidly evangelical: John Piper, for example, is a persona non grata because of his view of women in ministry. Yet N.T. Wright, who’s book Justification opens the door for a quasi-Catholic view of justification, speaks regularly at IV conferences.

If IV forgets the primacy of its gospel mission and its relationship to the church, it has lost its original, and best, mission.

This is an article about IV, but it needs to be said that if churches had been more attentive to their partnership with IV it could very well be that IV would not be facing these issues.


Second, you don’t need much more than a cursory scan of history to see that solid Christian organizations can easily lose the gospel if they are not attentive. Losing the gospel doesn’t happen all at once; it’s more like a four-generation process.[2]

The gospel is accepted –>

The gospel is assumed –>

The gospel is confused –>

The gospel is lost

It is tragic for any generation to lose the gospel. But, as Philip Jensen says, the generation that assumes the gospel is the generation most responsible for the loss of the gospel.

When the gospel is assumed, a gospel commitment no longer determines who is or is not put in a leadership positions: from an IV student leadership team on a college campus to senior management at IV headquarters. When the gospel is assumed, Christian leadership begins to depend on skills, personality, or sheer longevity, not gospel focus.

When Intervarsity’s leadership is no longer gospel-focused the organization as a whole eventually loses its gospel focus and begins to confuse the gospel. I’m worried that IV is well down that worn path: the gospel has been assumed, and it is now being confused.

Here’s one way the gospel becomes confused. The gospel message is the crystallized key components of the way of salvation, compressed into one statement as one might compress carbon into a diamond. It is only when we are able to clearly and concisely define the gospel that we can protect and faithfully proclaim the gospel. It follows the outline of God, Man, Christ, Response (for more on this, see Will Metzger’s great IVP book Tell the Truth).[3]

Is there more that can be said about the gospel? Of course: volumes, and even entire libraries have been written concerning the gospel or the implications of the gospel. But too often people confuse the implications of living out the gospel with the gospel itself. This is happening today in much the same way that the word "Christian" has come to mean any number of things.

In IV circles, for instance, it is common to say that the "gospel is the whole Bible." Though this may be a powerful way to preach about any number of themes from the Scripture, it’s an unfortunate confusion used to justify particular (admittedly biblical) concerns by claiming that they are "the gospel." So is it any wonder, then, there is so much confusion?

Specifically, the gospel is not moral behavior; the gospel is not social action, or any of a number of important things. It is a summary message that offers and secures salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.

Understand that I have given much of my life for social action: from the slums of Nairobi to the war ravaged hills of Guatemala. The implication of the gospel for social action was worth putting my life, my family’s lives, and the lives of faithful IV staff and students on the line. But as important as social action is, we still must not confuse the gospel with an implication of gospel living. If we do, the gospel message is lost in a sea of confusion.

It’s unfortunate that during the discussions with the leadership of InterVarsity the students in the Christianity Today article thought that IV’s leadership was confused on the gospel and social action.

All to say that I fear that IV has moved from assuming the gospel to confusing the gospel.


Third, IV needs to confront its organizational fear of man.

For years as an IV staff worker, I felt unable to concisely explain to people just what it was that I did. I was a religious worker, but I wasn’t a pastor. I was friendly, but I didn’t seem to have friends my own age. I hung out on campus, but I wasn’t employed by the university – in fact, since I had to raise funds it seemed I wasn’t employed by anyone. After a time I grew weary of this countercultural calling. I longed to be like the others around me, just as the nation of Israel longed to have a king. To use biblical language, I was tempted to fear man and covet his approval instead of fearing God (Proverbs 29:25).

The pull of academic respectability is similar, but more consistent, much like the pull of gravity. Christian universities long to be taken seriously academically, but the academic world doesn’t always respect the exclusive claims of Jesus. In fact, almost every university in America that started out Christian has succumbed to this desire and ceased to teach biblical Christianity, starting with Harvard and continuing to the present day.

IV has always had a bit of chip on its organizational shoulder. It parallels the double desire of someone weary of countercultural living and longing for approval from the academic world. It wants to be respected and respectable. I understand this pull.

But the academy will never love IV without domesticating it. That’s because the academy hates the message of the gospel and the exclusive claims of Jesus. The academic world hates the message that a sinful world is under the judgment of God for their wicked ways and that their only hope is to repent of their evil and rebellion and come to the cross by faith in order to receive a forgiveness which cannot be bought, earned, or inherited. And so by faith alone, we can be spared on the coming day of judgment, by God’s grace and mercy alone.

The world outside the academy, too, wants IV to forget its commitment to proclaiming the barbaric cross, this bloody and unseemly cross, and just do good deeds, preferably the currently popular good deeds celebrities endorse. It’s disturbing, for example, that Bono had a live video feed into the last Urbana Missions Conference, drumming up support for work with AIDS victims. I don’t have anything against Bono or those who work with people stricken by AIDS, but I could come up with a hundred people, rather than Bono, who should speak about why we should work with AIDS victims as an implication of gospel.

Why do we need the hype of a rock star? Doesn’t it smack of pandering to the world? Would Bono challenge us to preach the gospel to people dying of AIDS?. . Doesn’t getting a rock star to speak on this seem like a capitulation to human thinking? The kind of human thinking Jesus rebuked Peter for when Peter tried to steer Jesus away from the way of the cross?

Could it be that some of IV’s recent desire to redefine the gospel doesn’t have anything to do with a new theological discovery missed by hundreds of generations before us, but actually stems from a desire to avoid the scorn of the world?

IV should not forget that people have died for this exclusive message. Some of my colleagues have gone to jail for this message.

IV must resist its desire to be accepted by the academy and the world or it will lose its calling. This is a deadly danger, and it’s heartbreaking to see IV’s "Schleiermachian" desire to be loved by the very ones who hate the cross. IV must beware of this organizational fear of man.


Finally, a child of the fear of man syndrome is the pull of pragmatism, which IV must resist in order to be faithful to the Gospel. If IV confuses its calling and the gospel while the fear of man runs unchecked, IV will move to a corporate pragmatism to survive.

A Christian leader recently cornered me and asked, "Has InterVarsity forgotten that it is a confessional, missional organization?" He continued, "It seems that more and more, IV only asks the questions: What is popular?, What works?, and What sells?" He sensed, in other words, that IV was on the pragmatic bandwagon. It makes sense: if the organization is not driven by a calling, it will be driven by pragmatism. Success drives . pragmatism. Pragmatism never asks the question, "How do we die for Christ?" It only asks the question, "What works?" and "How many?"

So pragmatism elevates success, technique and method over anything else.. Pragmatism turns ministry into a business. It’s rarely concerned about the integrity of the message, since ministry is more about style and method than substance and authenticity. And sadly, because success sells, pragmatism often goes unquestioned in the Christian community.

Since liberal theology starts with culture and critiques the Bible (unlike the evangelical who starts with the Bible and critiques the culture), pragmatism works best in a liberal setting. That way, there’s no need to worry about creeds trumping deeds, especially when the deeds are successful and popular. So it makes sense that liberal theology would tighten its grip on IV. That’s why, as Mark Dever says, "The challenge of pragmatism is more deadly than the challenge of open theism."

If IV does not see pragmatism for what it is, it will certainly cease to be a confessional, missional organization and will go the way of the Student Christian Movement (see Oliver Barclay’s book Whatever Happened to the Jesus Lane Lot? for more on this) or the YMCA or the Salvation Army.


There is still time for IV to turn things around. I’m hopeful. It’s been done before. Just look at what the leadership of Al Mohler did for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. But if IV continues to be forgetful of its mission, confused about the gospel, fearful of the world, and pragmatic about ministry, there is little hope for IV to ever become again what it once was: a force for truly evangelical gospel ministry.

J. Mack Stiles is a former InterVaristy staff worker. Mack and his family currently reside in Dubai where he serves as an elder in the Redeemer Church of Dubai. He and his wife Leeann are the parents of three boys. Mack and Leeann are authors of a number of books, and Mack’s book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel, will be out in April 2010.

1 This author is by no means the only person advocating "creation care" as missions and similar ideas; Christopher J.H. Wright’s book The Mission of God, published by IVP, presents an extensive biblical-theological case for this very position.

2 Guarding the Gospel is a four step process in II Tim 2:2.

3 God is a holy and loving creator God who made Man in his image. There was a time immediately after creation when the first humans lived in perfect relationship with God. But we rebelled against God’s rule and choose evil and sin. Even then, in the midst of our sin, God enacted a rescue mission: Jesus, the son of God, fully God and fully man, entered our world and lived a perfect life. Sinful men crucified him, but this was the plan of God, for it was through his death on the cross that he became the perfect sacrifice for fallen humanity. As Jesus hung on the cross God placed upon him the sins of all who would believe in him. Three days later Christ rose from the dead and was seen by many who testified to the risen Christ. He lives today, and offers us forgiveness and a restored relationship with the living God. Our response to his offer of mercy is to turn from sin and put our entire lives in God’s hands. When we put our complete faith in Christ’s work on the cross and trust him as our Savior, we become the forgiven children of God and heirs of eternal salvation. We see this change in our lives by a desire to follow God as the leader of our lives in all that we do.


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