To Avoid Split on Gay Marriage, 2 Colleges Quit Christian Group

Eastern Mennonite U and Goshen, which recently ended bans on gay faculty members, leave Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Had they stayed, others would have left the association.

September 22, 2015

In July, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College became the first members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities to amend their policies to permit the hiring of gay and lesbian faculty members who are either married or celibate -- the same requirements that the colleges make of straight professors. But as of today, there are no longer any CCCU colleges that will permit the hiring of married gay faculty members. Eastern Mennonite and Goshen announced Monday that they were resigning from the CCCU to avoid splitting the organization.

Further, if any other CCCU members change hiring policies in ways that conflict with "the historic Christian view of marriage," those institutions would have their membership status changed to "pending," and would be referred to a task force for review, according to the council.

CCCU's announcement stressed that Eastern Mennonite and Goshen "voluntarily" withdrew. And in a press briefing, Shirley V. Hoogstra, president of the council, praised the two colleges as institutions of "high integrity" and said that they had shown that "they cared so much for us as an association."

In an interview, the president of Eastern Mennonite, Loren Swartzendruber, confirmed that the decision was voluntary. But he said that it had become clear that remaining in the CCCU would "almost certainly have resulted in a major split." He said that he did not know how many of the CCCU's 120 members would have left had Eastern Mennonite and Goshen stayed.

"But it would have been substantial enough that clearly it would result in major financial revenue losses" for the council, he said. And while Eastern Mennonite and Goshen officials indicated in July that they hoped to stay in the council, "we did not want to contribute to a split in the organization." Mennonite teachings favor peacemaking over conflict, and Mennonite colleges take those teachings seriously.

Asked if the departures of Eastern Mennonite and Goshen from CCCU might have allowed less tolerant institutions to win a battle over equity, Swartzendruber said, "That's a valid perspective, but I don't worry about that too much. We're attempting to follow our mission as founded by the Mennonite Church and our goal is to be faithful to our own mission. My own perspective is that Christian witness is strengthened by diversity."

Prior to Monday's announcement, two other institutions -- Oklahoma Wesleyan University and Union University, in Tennessee -- quit the CCCU, saying that they would not remain in the group as long as some member colleges were willing to hire as faculty members people in same-sex marriages.

The CCCU statement said that the organization's board leaders had reached out to the presidents of member institutions to discuss various options about how to respond to the moves by Eastern Mennonite and Goshen. The council does not have a specific doctrinal stance on same-sex marriage, but some members have said that any institutions that hire those in same-sex marriages are violating a CCCU commitment to standards of "historic Christianity."

In the last two months, CCCU leaders have reached out to all member presidents to find out what they wanted to do about Eastern Mennonite and Goshen. One idea floated, with support from the CCCU board, was to move those two colleges to "affiliate" status. Some Christian institutions that do not meet all CCCU standards have found that affiliate status -- which does not involve voting membership -- is valuable.

When the CCCU surveyed member presidents, about 75 percent indicated willingness to consider that option for Goshen and Eastern Mennonite. About 20 percent believed Goshen and Eastern Mennonite should retain full membership rights and less than 25 percent did not want the colleges to have membership or affiliate status. (The numbers add to more than 100 percent because some presidents indicated a willingness to consider more than one option.)

By leaving the CCCU, the council's statement said, the two colleges made the idea of their continuing as affiliate members moot.

The CCCU also created a task force that will study different ways that colleges that share some of the CCCU's values but may not be eligible for membership may work with the council. Hoogstra said that the discussions about Eastern Mennonite and Goshen made clear that the council needs a better definition and maybe new categories for affiliate memberships. That task force is the one that would review the actions of any other colleges that move to hire faculty members in same-sex marriages.

Hoogstra said that Oklahoma Wesleyan and Union were welcome to talk about returning.

But the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan said in an interview that his university would not be coming back. He said that he was concerned by how CCCU handled the issue, and that the failure to immediately take action when two member colleges accepted same-sex marriage troubled him. "The propensity to engage in prolonged conversation with the apparent desire to come to a creative consensus or compromise has made me feel uncomfortable, and I think we've made the right decision," he said.

CCCU will also be facing scrutiny among those institutions that remain. Cedarville University had planned to leave the council if Eastern Mennonite and Goshen were permitted to stay. Thomas White, president of the university, said via email: "This decision means that the CCCU and Christian universities will have to clarify their position on biblical marriage. We welcome this opportunity, and we welcome the opportunity to stand with other universities that believe in biblical authority."

Others noted a loss for the CCCU -- which prides itself on serving multiple denominations as well as nondenominational institutions -- of a branch of Christianity. John Fea, professor and chair of history at Messiah College (a CCCU member), wrote on his blog right after the decision was announced that the news was "too bad." Asked via email why, he said: "It is too bad that this whole ordeal had to end this way, but for the sake of the future of the CCCU there was really no other way to move forward. EMU and Goshen offer an educational mission rooted in peacemaking and social justice that is often sorely lacking in the council's colleges. They will be missed."

Swartzendruber, the Eastern Mennonite president, when asked if he had any regrets about changing the university's policies, said without hesitation that he did not. He said he realized some alumni disagreed, and that some donors had indicated they would stop giving. But he noted that others -- who had not been giving -- were stepping up, inspired by the change. He also stressed that the decision was an important one not just for gay academics, but for many straight academics whom Eastern Mennonite wants to hire and who want to work at a place "that isn't perceived as discriminating."

Added Swartzendruber: "I think history will show it was the right decision."


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