(RNS) — One of the oldest nonprofit organizations dedicated to distributing Bibles around the world will soon require all employees to adhere to orthodox Christian beliefs and heed a conservative code of sexual ethics.
Employees are resigning in protest of the new policy, which will effectively prohibit sexually active LGBT people and couples in cohabitating relationships from working for the American Bible Society. But the organization stands by it as a measure intended to bring “unity and clarity.”
In a statement issued in response to RNS questions, President and CEO Roy Peterson wrote: “We did this because we believe a staff made up of people with a deep and personal connection to the Bible will bring unity and clarity as we continue our third century of ministry.”
He added: “We understand there are differing views on these matters.” He also said: “This decision does not signal intent to advocate or champion any cause other than increased engagement with the Bible.”
The American Bible Society, founded 202 years ago to publish, distribute and translate the Bible, presented its “Affirmation of Biblical Community” to employees in December. It requires employees to “refrain from sexual contact outside the marriage covenant,” which it defined as man and wife.
The document also requires employees to be “involved in a local Christian church” and to “resist temptations of deception, malicious speech, stealing, cheating others, and dishonoring my body through substance abuse.” It opens with an “I believe” section similar to the Nicene Creed.
Beginning in January 2019, all employees will be required to sign the document. Those who don’t will be asked to tender their resignation.
Already, at least nine of the organization’s 200 or so employees have quit. More told RNS they are looking for jobs elsewhere and will likely take another job on or before January.
Some suspect a man hired as a help desk manager last year was the impetus for the change. He had introduced his husband to employees shortly after being hired at the society’s Philadelphia headquarters.
The affirmation is just the latest sign that the organization has shifted away from its ecumenical roots toward a more narrow evangelical identity. That shift began in the 1990s when the American Bible Society changed its constitution to make it a ministry that undertakes “Scripture engagement.” Previously it published Bibles “without note or comment.”
“This is a clear manifestation, or a logical conclusion, of the evangelical takeover in the 1990s,” said John Fea, a historian at Messiah College and author of the book “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.”
“In many ways they are creating boundaries here for the organization that are new, that have limited their scope beyond what has happened in the past,” Fea added.
Jeremy Gimbel, a 34-year-old gay man who had worked for the organization for 10 years as a web services manager, said he felt no choice but to quit a few months ago.
“I was very happy where I was,” said Gimbel, who now works for a web agency in New York. “I loved the team I worked with. I loved what I was doing. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I was being forced out after nearly 10 years of my life.”
In a letter he sent to the board of directors before he left, he wrote: “I am hurt because this Affirmation specifically excludes me from the community it is supposed to foster. … The Affirmation will, like much (of) the political climate we live in today, build walls along the lines of difference, pushing away diversity and leaving no room for unity. I truly believe the organization will suffer. … ”
This is not the first time the American Bible Society has faced criticism for adopting a religious policy. Earlier this year, a group of academics protested the organization’s recently acquired .bible domain name for excluding any group with a scholarly or secular orientation from using the internet network address.
The American Bible Society relented to allow Jewish groups to use the .bible domain name, but its internet dispute panel still requires members who “believe that the Bible is the Word of God which brings salvation through Christ,” a statement Jews could not adhere to.
The new affirmation has led several employees to quit on principle.
They said they didn’t want to work for an organization that so tightly circumscribes its workforce and its message to evangelicals only.
“Everything that was on that affirmation was stuff I could pretty much sign in good faith and say ‘yes,’ I can comply with these things,” said Doug Black, a web developer who quit in February.
But Black, who is also an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, said he couldn’t abide the change in direction.
“The American Bible Society wasn’t an organization that was primarily white evangelical up until that affirmation,” Black said.
Some employees pointed to the apparent contradiction between the new policy and the marketing materials the society was pushing, such as a video called “The Apology,” in which a group of people apologize for the ways the Bible has been used to hurt others.
“Some of us have used this book of love for hateful things,” among them “oppressing women, defending slavery, treating others with disgust and revulsion,” the people on the video proclaim.
“This book is all about doing just the opposite.”