The Salt Lake Tribune Date: 06/26/1999, Page C1

Christian Gays Start Seminary

Bible College Founded For Gay Christians
Bible college is conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical



CEDAR GROVE, Fla.—Grace Institute Bible College & Seminary is conservative, fundamental and evangelical. It even uses some of the same texts as the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

But there is a key difference. Most of Grace Institute's students and faculty are homosexuals. Its founder, the Rev. Jerry Stephenson, insists that being a gay or lesbian fundamentalist is not a contradiction in terms.

"If I sat down, and Jerry Falwell didn't know who I was, and we started talking theology, he'd be taking me out to dinner and we'd have a wonderful time," Stephenson said.

Like many other Christian conservatives, Stephenson believes in a literal heaven and hell and being saved and born again. But on another point, he breaks with many fundamentalists: It is belief that "we can be gay and lesbian and still be Christians."

Stephenson, 42, received a conservative Christian education at Trinity International University in Miami and North Florida Baptist Theological Seminary in Jacksonville where he earned a doctorate in theology.

He was a Southern Baptist minister for 15 years, all the time struggling with his sexual orientation.

Stephenson spent two years in a group called Worthy Creations at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. It attempts to convert gays to heterosexuality. He proclaimed himself "cured" and worked with another conversion group in Key West before realizing he had not changed.

"At the time I was engaged to be married," Stephenson said. "She knew and I knew that all the counseling in the world wasn't going to change my inside feelings."

He left the Southern Baptists in 1990 and then taught at Trinity International until his homosexuality was discovered.

Moving to the Florida Panhandle about a year ago, he took a teaching job in a public school and opened Grace Institute so homosexuals could openly earn degrees in Biblical studies, Christian counseling, church administration and music.

"There were no conservative, evangelical, fundamental schools out there that would take us unless we hid in the closet," Stephenson said.

Classes for about 10 students are held two nights a week at the Family of God Worship Center in Cedar Grove, a small town adjacent to Panama City. Stephenson said the center is affiliated with the conservative, predominantly homosexual Alliance of Christian Churches.

Some 25 other students take courses by correspondence or at satellite locations. These have been, or soon will be, operating in Phoenix; Denver; Ontario, Calif.; Dayton, Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; Wichita, Kan.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; and the Florida cities of Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, Stephenson said.

Traditional Christian conservatives condemn homosexual relations as a sin and maintain gays and lesbians cannot gain salvation without repenting. The Rev. D. James Kennedy, senior minister at Coral Ridge Presbyterian, said someone can no more be a Christian homosexual than a Christian adulterer.

"If the Bible does not teach that homosexuality is a sin, it doesn't teach that anything is a sin," Kennedy said from Fort Lauderdale. "It teaches it over and over and over again."

Stephenson contends such teachings are the result of misinterpreting the Bible or taking passages out of context. In some cases, he said, the Bible has been mistranslated.

"You cannot build the Bible and totally understand the Bible just from the pages of the Bible," he said. "We have to look at history."

Grace Institute teaches creationism, but Stephenson concedes Charles Darwin "was not totally a lunatic." Things do evolve, he said.

"Something had to happen for there to be black people, white people, Chinese people, Indian people," Stephenson said. "They all didn't just stem from Adam and Eve."

The same goes for sexual orientation, he said.

"We believe in the Adam and Eve story. We also believe in the Adam and Steve story."

There is room for disagreement, said the Rev. Tom Gashlin, Family of God's pastor and a Grace Institute teacher. He said his Bible doctrine class uses three texts by accepted conservative biblical scholars that differ on the second coming.

"For Jerry Falwell to say that what he says is the only right interpretation, or any of these guys, is arrogant," Gashlin said. Falwell declined comment for this story.

The key issue is salvation, Stephenson said.

"It bothers me with my fundamentalist friends when they would say, `You're going to hell for being gay.' That's not what the Bible says. When we accept Jesus Christ, he is ours."