Christian colleges face a clear choice
Barton J. Gingerich | There is no “third way” on sexuality
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Calvin University finds itself facing an awkward news headline. A lesbian staff member at the university, Nicole Sweda, married her live-in partner. That’s not all. An assistant professor of sociology at the college, Joseph Kuilema, presided over their ceremony. The problem? Calvin University claims an evangelical identity and is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America, which holds confessionally to Biblical definitions of sexual morality. This entails defining marriage as between a man and a woman, as well as prohibiting all sexual activity outside the bonds of matrimony.
Instead of firing Sweda from her job at the school’s Center for Social Research for violating school policy, Calvin spun off the center as an independent entity, effectively allowing Sweda to stay. The center is scheduled to become independent in April, and school administrators asked Sweda to keep news of her marriage quiet until then. Unwilling to accept such terms, Sweda quit her job this month. Calvin’s student newspaper broke the story and later interviewed Sweda. “I want Calvin to be honest,” she told the paper. “I think the picture that’s painted of the way LGBTQ+ students are treated on campus is not accurate, and I’d rather they’d just say that. I would not have come to Calvin if I knew the kinds of things that were going to happen to me and what was going on. And I don’t think other people would, either.”
She’s right, at least in one sense. There is a fundamental dishonesty in the mixed signals that many evangelical institutions broadcast for the sake of social acceptance and popular opinion. As Religion News Service reporter Bob Smietana noted, “The school sponsors a support group for gay students, gave an alumni award to an LGBTQ graduate and last year saw a gay undergrad elected as student body president.” It’s obvious that Calvin desires a “third way” approach to issues of sexual morality as it applies to students and staff. But there are several problems with indulging this holding pattern in our cultural moment.
For one, it can foster duplicity in a school’s administration. Faithful donors and board members are assured that the school is true to its religious principles in terms of doctrine and practice even while students and faculty are told that such principles don’t really matter, especially when violations of those principles are given a blind eye or are even covered up. Codes of conduct matter, doctrinal statements matter, and accountability to such rules matters.
A private Christian university is not a state school or secular institution. Christian schools must remain true to their founding principles. School leaders have no right to bide their time in the hopes of betraying those principles. There’s more integrity in simply joining the sexual revolution and doing so honestly. Institutional commitments and convictions on these crucial matters shouldn’t be in the fine print.
Institutions of Christian higher learning must understand that the sexual libertine ideology will not accept compromise. Calvin and other evangelical institutions are learning the hard way that sexual identity language is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to philosophical and theological commitments. Ideologically freighted phrasing of “welcome and affirmation” tends toward accepting and even celebrating immorality and rebellion against God’s created order. Simply put, Christian colleges should not welcome and affirm sin on their campuses. Obviously, evangelical colleges need to help students deal with sin and temptation. But presenting the latest ideological terminology isn’t the way to accomplish that, especially since it is language weaponized for the sake of normalizing and accepting the sin we are called to avoid as Christians.
At this juncture, one must remember Neuhaus’s Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” Putting orthodoxy at an arm’s length not only attracts the unfaithful or poorly anchored, but it also drives away faithful parents, students, faculty members, and donors. Soon, the school (or other institution) is dominated by forces opposed to Biblical orthodoxy who eventually suppress, drive out, and otherwise attack the faithful. Sadly, those that hold to the principles of the school’s very founders become pariahs, exiled from a place that should have welcomed, affirmed, and nourished them.
The future will likely reveal Christian college capitulation. Christian colleges need to worry more about what God thinks than what the world thinks. No matter what may or may not be popular with the young people of a particular generation, God has revealed His moral will about sex in Scripture and in nature. That kind of moral orthodoxy should be celebrated and embraced. A Christian institution that is scandalized by faithful Christianity isn’t going to be Christian for very long. It is offended because of Christ. Let us pray that Calvin University embraces its Biblical Christian faith in all integrity, and that other Christian schools do so as well.
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