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Union University, in Tennessee, has quit the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, saying it cannot remain in a Christian group in which some member institutions will hire people in same-sex marriages.

Union may not be the last college to leave the council, and its action is creating division in a group that has been proud of representing Christian colleges from many denominations and viewpoints. But while there is a diversity of views about many issues among CCCU institutions, the issue of same-sex marriage has been elevated by some institutions to one on which no compromise is possible.

The action by Union follows the announcements last month by Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College that they were willing to hire faculty members in same-sex marriages. The two universities, until then, had said they would hire faculty members who were celibate (gay or straight) or married in heterosexual relationships. The new policy means that gay and straight applicants for faculty positions will be judged in the same way. The two colleges are the first CCCU members to be willing to hire gay and lesbian faculty members who are married to other gay or lesbian people.

Union President Samuel W. Oliver released a letter he sent to the CCCU in which he explained that while Union is a member of higher education groups with a range of views, it could not be a member of a Christian higher education group that deviated from the university's views on marriage. Eastern Mennonite and Goshen “abandoned fidelity to God’s word when they endorsed same-sex marriage,” Oliver wrote.

“The reason we are passionate about this is because what we are talking about is not a secondary or tertiary theological issue -- marriage is at the heart of the Gospel. To deny the Bible’s concept of marriage is to deny the authority of Scripture," Oliver wrote.

After Eastern Mennonite and Goshen announced their actions, the CCCU announced that it would start a process of consulting with member institutions about the situation. At the time, the presidents of both Eastern Mennonite and Goshen indicated that they wanted their institutions to remain in CCCU. Some CCCU institutions have indicated that there is some discussion of downgrading Eastern Mennonite and Goshen to "affiliate status" to both keep them in the organization and assure that full voting members share a common view against same-sex marriage.

The CCCU's membership requirements do not ban members from recognizing gay marriages. But the organization says that members must be "Christ-centered and rooted in the historic Christian faith." Critics like Union University believe that Eastern Mennonite and Goshen are violating the reference to historic Christian faith, but supporters of those two institutions say their new policies are consistent with their faith.

While some CCCU colleges have indicated that they are willing to let the council proceed with its discussions before taking action, some are also indicating that they too could feel forced to act.

Thomas White, president and professor of theology at Cedarville University, said via email, "The CCCU is at a crossroads and is doing the right thing by having private conversations with presidents of various institutions to determine the best way forward. At Cedarville University, we will wait until they make their official decision on membership and then we will make our decision on whether we continue to associate with the CCCU. One thing is certain, Cedarville University will not compromise on the biblical view of marriage."

Shirley V. Hoogstra, president of the CCCU, issued this statement about Union's withdrawal: "We are of course saddened by Union’s decision to withdraw from membership, but wish nothing but the best for this fine university’s future. The board’s process of calling all member presidents has yielded great insight and wisdom and has revealed that almost all appreciate the opportunity to give input and support the board’s desire to follow a good and respectful process. The CCCU continues as it has for the last 40 years advocating for the religious freedom of its institutions, providing off-campus study programs that integrate faith with experiential learning, and providing professional development opportunities for faculty and staff. Following a good and respectful process does not mean that we do not recognize the importance of this issue in our current cultural climate. We do and as such CCCU is advocating vigorously on behalf of schools that hold the orthodox view of marriage, and we will continue to do so both for our members and for others who hold that view but are no longer members."

Loren Swartzendruber, president of Eastern Mennonite, said via email that "we are engaged with the process outlined by CCCU leadership and continue to value our relationships with other Christian colleges. We are open to considering recommendations from CCCU leadership in terms of our membership."

Haven Herrin, executive director of Soulforce, a group that has worked to push Christian denominations and colleges to be accepting and respectful of people with a range of sexual orientations and gender identities, was critical of Union's decision. "In working with CCCU institutions, we have found this bright-line mentality -- and either you are in or out." Herrin said that this view is inconsistent with biblical teachings of the "tradition of embracing pluralism" and not looking down on those who may be different or hold different views. "When you say, 'I refuse to sit at the table with you,' that's casting other people out."

Herrin said that people should be concerned about nonstraight people at Union and other colleges that enforce discriminatory rules about sexual orientation and gender identity. "They have to be feeling very scared" by the news that their university can't even be a member of a group with other colleges that are more supportive of gay and lesbian couples. "That is so dismissive," Herrin said. "We have seen so many cases where students have been expelled."

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