Purity at Expense of Unity

If the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities attempts to establish a set of litmus tests for its members, it will accomplish little and imperil its future, writes Mark Putnam.

September 24, 2015

On Monday, two members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) -- Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College -- announced they would leave the organization in order to avoid its potential rupture in the wake of their decision to permit the hiring of gay and lesbian faculty members who are married or celibate. Before that announcement, two other institutions had already quit the CCCU, saying they would not remain if some of its members hired faculty in same-sex marriages.

The situation facing CCCU is a modern-day version of an ancient problem. For millennia, the Christian church has confronted recurring choices between purity and unity. Historical distance has drained the intensity of stressful moments of disagreement, however, and over time we have become dispassionate readers of ancient conflicts. Concerns over eating meat that had been sacrificed to an idol seem odd through a 21st-century lens, as do expectations for circumcision, and for some, honoring the Jewish Sabbath.

But while the conflicts in the Christian church today are different, they follow a familiar pattern. They begin with a controversial issue manifested in human attitudes, beliefs or behaviors, but they are quickly recast as an essential theological question. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to discern where theology ends and social or political ideology begins. Political discourse seems to be driving much of our theological debate today, and our society now interprets the label “evangelical” as a political alliance much more than as a group of churches with a redemptive mission.

Regardless of their origins, theological and ideological disagreements abound in the church today as they always have. What may be changing is the extent to which the debates are spilling over into related or affiliated organizations that claim a faith-based purpose. Higher education is no exception, as institutional members of the CCCU are feeling the strain of theological and ideological difference pulling them apart.

The institution I serve, Central College, is not a member of the CCCU and to my knowledge never has been. The college has always been church affiliated and, for the past century, has had a relationship with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), but it is not directly governed or financed by the church. We have a Covenant of Mutual Responsibilities that encourages the college in its educational mission, ensures freedom of inquiry and calls on us to be of service to the wider church. As the college’s culture has evolved over the long arc of time, we have continued to embrace human difference and diversity as an expression of our mission and in service of our church affiliation. The college’s welcome statement notes:

We seek to create mutually respectful interactions and positive meaning in relationships with persons of every ethnicity, race, national origin, ancestry, color, socioeconomic class, creed, religion, philosophical belief, marital status, disability, physical appearance, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender expression and identity, and organizational affiliation.

Since Central College is not a member of the CCCU, one might ask why I care about this organization. It happens that I come from these roots, as I was raised in an evangelical church, attended a Christian school as a youngster and graduated from a Christian college, where I began my career, that is a member of the CCCU. I have traveled some distance from those roots, both theologically and ideologically, but I have a deep and abiding affection for the many gifts I received from the evangelical community throughout the course of my life. It pains me to see the fracturing that is now spreading to the CCCU.

Over many years, I have listened to shifting debates about the role of women in the church; the implications of divorce; the appropriateness of interracial marriage; the risks of incorporating contemporary music in worship; the consumption of alcohol; the use of playing cards; participation in social dancing, movies, gambling or secret societies; the appropriate hair length for boys and skirt length for girls; and what one is allowed to do on Sunday; along with a range of even more nuanced social and cultural issues related to human difference and diversity that are too numerous to count. What fascinates me is these once deeply divisive and emotional issues in the Christian church are fading into the backdrop of history, and years from now, they will seem as distant as meat sacrificed to idols, circumcision and the Jewish Sabbath.

In America today, we feel the current intensity around topics like human sexuality, abortion, contraception, the death penalty, evolution, military conflict, income inequality, social justice and climate change. We are quick to claim that these are different -- and justifiably so, since several involve questions of life and death, and humanity’s future. Yet, in the years to come, the church and society will continue to evolve. In time, some of these issues may fade from relevance. A few may be resolved. Others may remain in dispute. One thing is certain, however: those of us who are in leadership today with strong opinions will gradually be marginalized by age and eventually absent by death. The current generation of leaders has moved past the disputes I remember as a teenager in the church, and the generation to come will do the same in time. Thus, the question is not about who will win the debate and discredit or assert control over the others. It is, “How can we work together despite our differences?”

I often have felt these disputes have much more to do with an underlying view of the Bible and its perceived or assumed authority. As quoted in Inside Higher Ed, my colleague Thomas White, president of Cedarville University, noted, “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.” The line has now been drawn. At the extremes, some Christians see the Scriptures as a grand narrative and others as the literal word of God recorded by dictation. The former are accused of relativism; the latter are accused of bibliolatry. The expectation for adherence to either extreme will be of little benefit, as there is a vast spectrum of views in between those poles.

I cannot predict what issues the church and its affiliated organizations will face in the generations to come. History teaches us, however, that disagreements will be inevitable. Through such times, we must rely on our capacity to bear the complexities of relationships and resist the urge to either withdraw ourselves or expel others from an affiliation over differing views.

The net result of the current dispute within the CCCU suggests that those who chose to leave the organization in protest over the lack of an immediate response to expel the offending members will not return to the organization. For them, the damage is done. Those who were under scrutiny given a change in institutional posture on same-sex marriage elected to withdraw to avoid further conflict. For them, the damage is done. Those who remain now appear ready to create a more clearly defined set of boundary conditions and stipulations for membership, which will invariably expose even more areas of disagreement. For them, more damage is yet to come.

This is a recipe for a gradual unraveling of an immensely important organization in the higher education landscape, and it should certainly be avoided. These institutions carry rich intellectual traditions that should be explored and honored. They sponsor important conversations related to the relationship of faith and learning. Together they serve a constituency that relies on their continuing and collective strength at a time when societal shifts are buffeting many churches and church-affiliated organizations. Through all this, no individual college or university is being asked to change its theological position, its statement of faith, its worldview or its practice of ministry. What we are being told is that the simple association with those who differ is now untenable.

If the CCCU attempts to establish a set of purity tests for members over a range of longstanding or emerging theological disputes that are further complicated by intervening social and political ideologies, then unity will be lost and this organization will be in peril. Splits within churches, denominations and affiliated organizations over such disputes are not new. Yet, in the end, little is accomplished, and future generations will scratch their heads wondering why we allowed ourselves to dissolve into fragments, far less effective in achieving the overall mission of the church, simply because we could not bear the weight of relationship.

The advice of St. Paul in his letter to the church in Rome remains good advice for today:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. (Romans 14:1-6 [NRSV])


Mark Putnam is president of Central College, in Iowa.


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