A same-sex marriage roils Calvin University
Tensions grow after school officials censure a professor
In December, officials at Calvin University, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich., voted to renew a two-year teaching contract for Joe Kuilema, an associate professor of sociology. Eight days later, the provost received photos of Kuilema officiating a same-sex wedding.
One of the women in the Oct. 15, 2021, ceremony, Nicole Sweda, was also a Calvin employee, school officials later learned. She has since resigned.
Now the private university affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) is rescinding its recommendation to reappoint Kuilema. In a seven-page memo sent to Kuilema by Provost Noah Toly, school officials cited the professor’s failure to consult his department dean, the provost, or the president about officiating the same-sex wedding. The memo, obtained by Calvin’s student newspaper Chimes, included a summary from the dean of Kuilema’s department, Benita Wolters-Fredlund, who called his decision “a serious lapse of judgment.” She added that Sweda and Kuilema both were “clearly and unambiguously accountable to Calvin’s staff handbook, which only condones sexual relations within the confines of marriage between one man and one woman.”
Kuilema has taught at Calvin since 2008. The Board of Trustees previously denied his tenure in 2018 due to his “tone and strategy” regarding LGBTQ advocacy. But the board gave him a two-year renewable contract that was up for approval for a second time last fall.
The university’s decision to terminate Kuilema’s contract has sparked complaints and petitions among some students who chalked “Keep Kuilema” on campus sidewalks and handed out LGBTQ flags. An April 19 faculty letter to the Board of Trustees urged members to reappoint Kuilema. It stated his actions mirror those of local CRC congregations, including the one where Kuilema serves as an elder, that have determined the denomination’s policy on Biblical marriage is “unacceptably narrow.” The letter included 88 signatures — 64 from current faculty members and 24 from staffers and professors emeriti.
Calvin’s Board of Trustees sent an email to students and staff on April 23 stating that while LGBTQ people “should be welcomed and included,” the university must abide by CRC positions stating “that sexual orientation is not something that anyone decides for themselves, that sexual acts are a choice, and that those that fall outside of a covenantal union between one man and one woman do not reflect God’s intentions or desires for God’s people.”
The controversy over how the school handled Kuilema’s reappointment has highlighted growing tensions among faculty and students. The university seeks to welcome LGBTQ-identifying students and diverse perspectives while upholding its denominational standard that homosexual activity is sinful but homosexual orientation is not.
Provost Toly said Calvin is not unique as it grapples with a “changing landscape of pressures and new opportunities” in caring for the school’s LGBTQ students. “These include increasing pressures from all sides, pressures to loosen our approach, and pressures to become even more restrictive,” he said.
Other Christian colleges and universities face similar pressures. Faculty and students at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, clashed with the school’s Board of Trustees after it declined to change its policy of requiring faculty members to affirm a statement upholding marriage as between a man and a woman. In April 2021, after the board’s decision, 72 percent of faculty members voted “no confidence” in the trustees.
Two Mennonite schools, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, updated their nondiscrimination policies in 2015 to permit the hiring of faculty in gay marriages.
At Calvin, one problem is that a number of local CRC-affiliated congregations, including the one where Kuilema serves as an elder, Sherman Street Church of Grand Rapids, have veered from abiding by the denomination’s positions on sexuality and Biblical marriage.
Sherman Street Church states that in November 2020, it decided to permit LGBTQ people “to receive the Lord’s Supper, be ordained to all offices of the church, preach, be married, have their children baptized, and fill all leadership roles.” Another Grand Rapids church, Neland Avenue CRC, appointed a deacon in a same-sex marriage in 2020.
Kuilema did not respond to WORLD’s email request for comment.
The CRC’s annual synod meets at Calvin in June. It is expected to approve a report affirming the church’s Biblical beliefs, including about same-sex marriage and gender identity.
Matt Kucinski, assistant director of media relations, said that Calvin University allows faculty members and students to disagree with the CRC position but expects them to abide by it. The school sponsors a support group for LGBT students. Last year, Calvin students elected a student body president who announced she was gay in a Chimes article last fall.
The faculty and staff members who opposed the university’s decision to terminate Kuilema argued his actions “occurred within the bounds of his personal life.”
“Same-sex marriage is legalized in all 50 states. … A legal, personal action has become an employment matter, which sets a troubling precedent,” they wrote. I reached out to several faculty members who signed their names. One religion professor emeritus, Kenneth Pomykala, responded that he agreed with the letter’s content.
According to the memo from Wolters-Fredlund, Kuilema said he received approval to officiate Sweda and her partner’s wedding from his program chair and director along with Sherman Street Church elders, pastors, and the leader of its church council. Kuilema plans to appeal the university’s decision about his reappointment, according to Chimes.
Sweda resigned from Calvin in March. The university reached an agreement with the Center for Social Research, where Sweda was a research associate, for the center to become a separate legal entity, in part over its desire to include employees involved in LGBT relationships.
“I would not have come to Calvin if I knew the kind of things that were going to happen to me and what was going on,” Sweda told Chimes.
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