Tests of Faith

Wheaton of Illinois faces scrutiny for firing professor who became Catholic; Oklahoma Christian U. may fire those who divorce.
January 12, 2006

How Christian should someone be to teach at a Christian college? That's the question raised by policies at two colleges that are receiving public scrutiny this week, although the rules themselves are not new.

Wheaton College in Illinois last year dismissed a philosophy professor who was in otherwise great standing at the institution after he converted to become a Roman Catholic. While Wheaton is non-denominational, its beliefs are codified in a statement of faith that reflects Protestant evangelical theology. The fired professor believed he could continue to sign and abide by the statement, but college officials thought otherwise. Since the professor's dismissal was included in an article Saturday in The Wall Street Journal, many professors and Catholics have been debating the college's stance.

At Oklahoma Christian University this week, meanwhile, the topic of discussion is a draft policy that would formally state that professors could be fired for getting a divorce. Officials say that the policy is only a written version of what has been the university's approach for years, but it has nonetheless upset some on the campus.

The scrutiny for the two institutions comes at a time that applications and enrollments are booming at Christian colleges.

Firing a Catholic at Wheaton

In the Wheaton case, there is no dispute about the right of the college to limit employment to faculty members who share certain religious beliefs. Federal anti-bias laws generally give religious institutions broad leeway to enforce doctrinal requirements, provided that the rules are clear and are enforced consistently. And Joshua Hochschild, the professor who lost his job at Wheaton, is adamant that he does not want his story to be used to question religious colleges' rights in this area.

"I want to affirm the right of religious institutions to set boundaries to exclude people for their faith affiliation," he said. "I don't take issue with the legal or moral right of an institution like Wheaton to exclude."

But Hochschild and many others do object to Wheaton's choice to exclude him. Like all faculty members at the college, he agreed to abide by Wheaton's statement of faith when he started there five years ago. The statement doesn't bar membership in certain religious groups, but rather states certain beliefs it requires employees to hold: that the Old and New Testaments are "fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority," the virgin birth of Jesus, the existence of Satan, etc.

Hochschild said that he was (and is) willing to abide by the statement of faith, but Wheaton officials argued that his conversion to Catholicism (he had been Episcopalian) violated the college's belief that Scripture alone -- not Scripture as interpreted by the pope and the Vatican -- defines God's goals for humanity.

Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton, said that the college's decision to enforce its statement of faith stems from the kind of religious institution it is. Many religious institutions think of themselves as "umbrella institutions" where the sponsoring faith may play a particularly visible role, but where all faiths (and people without faith) are welcome in many positions. In contrast, Litfin said, Wheaton believes in the "systemic model where the sponsoring religious tradition is systemic through the whole institution."

"This is a matter of preserving our heritage," he said.

In 13 years as president, Litfin said, Hochschild was the first professor to lose his job because the college determined he couldn't sign the statement of faith. Litfin said that he realizes that most academics couldn't sign the statement, but that a process of "self selection" means that most people would learn about Wheaton's religious requirements before deciding to apply to work there, and only those comfortable with the faith would seek out employment at the college.

"This is voluntary. You can't straitjacket the people who make up this community," he said. "These are their convictions. They came to Wheaton because this is what they believe."

Litfin acknowledged that there are "strengths and weaknesses" to both the umbrella and systemic approaches to religious education. But he said that every measure -- applications, enrollments, measures of student success -- suggests that Wheaton's model is working well. "Why change the DNA of the institution?" he asked.

Hochschild said he understands why Litfin would want to be certain that the statement of faith had real meaning. This history of American higher education is one of religious institutions "moving toward secularization," he said. "You have to be vigilant."

But he added that having someone who is a committed Catholic stay on at Wheaton would not have pushed the college toward secular life. Wheaton's statement of faith "excludes certain watered down versions of the Christian faith," he said, but shouldn't exclude Catholics.

Hochschild is now teaching at Mount St. Mary's University, a Catholic institution in Maryland. While he has landed professionally, Wheaton's position has taken something of a theological beating on Catholic Web sites, where many people have said that the college is too exclusionary -- although others have defended it. All the controversy has prompted the college to repost on its Web site some past statements about why Catholic people cannot be hired there.

Investigating Divorce at Oklahoma Christian

Oklahoma Christian University, which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, also has a statement of faith. Oklahoma Christian's statement covers both belief and conduct, including references to dressing modestly and restricting sex to marriage.

Faculty members at the university were recently notified that the university planned to formally state a policy with regard to marriage. A draft of the policy states that divorce or separation without plans for reconciliation would be "grounds for a review of and possible termination of employment." People who were already divorced when hired are exempt provided that they disclosed the divorce.

When a marriage ends, the decision on continuing employment would be based on whether there were "scriptural grounds" for the divorce. If the administration decides to fire someone for a divorce, the employee would be allowed to appeal to the university's Board of Trustees, which would designate three trustees to hear the appeal and issue a final decision.

In explaining the rationale for the policy, the draft says that the Bible defines marriage as "a relationship created by God and not to be broken except in extremely rare circumstances." A "very important" role for faculty members, the draft says, is to "model strong Christian marriages."

Ron Frost, a spokesman for Oklahoma Christian, stressed that the policy was not new, and said that "one or two people" had been fired "in the recent past" for getting divorces. But he said that the policy was being formalized.

While there has not been formal opposition to the draft policy, an anonymous married faculty member told The Oklahoman that the new rules would create additional difficulties for anyone going through a divorce. "It's not related to job performance," the professor said.

Ronald P. Mahurin, vice president for professional development and research at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, said it was important to remember that Christian colleges have a range of policies, and that there is no one single approach to handling the kinds of issues in the news at Wheaton and Oklahoma Christian.

But he said it was common for Christian colleges to have policies that deal with issues that many other institutions might not address in their faculty handbooks.

"It really goes to broader questions of the nature of the kind of academic community and a fidelity with that community," he said. "For some faculty members teaching at state institutions, these would be seen as strictures or giving up a particular freedom to be bounded by a particular set of religious or theological beliefs, but for those people coming into a community, our campuses generally speaking are up front about both the faith commitment that is expected as well as what many would frame as community life expectations."

These rules are important to colleges, he said, "not simply because we are trying to proscribe behavior," but to promote "a deeper understanding of what it means to be a person of faith, living within a particular community of faith."


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