By restoring communal transparency amid complex cultural shifts, Calvin offers an example to follow
I initially heard of Calvin University’s Board decision concerning how to respond to longtime faculty members who do not agree with the university’s policy on LGBTQ issues from two entirely different perspectives. I first read the news report from the Religion News Service that alarmed many colleagues in administrative leadership at other institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), supposing that Calvin had abandoned the traditional CCCU position on sexual morality, particularly its view on Christian marriage. Two days later I heard from another CCCU colleague who expressed great relief that Calvin’s Board was honoring the “academic freedom” of the institution’s faculty. I immediately wanted to know more.
While I am from neither Calvin University nor the Christian Reformed Church, I am a member of the CCCU Board of Directors and a recently retired president of a CCCU institution which, like Calvin University, has a closely connected sponsoring denomination. For over forty years as a faculty member and college administrator at two different CCCU institutions, I have watched Boards of Trustees seek to faithfully steward their institution’s traditional Biblical perspective on sexual morality in the context of changing cultural values, while also honoring the commitment to academic freedom and the institution’s responsibility to serve as the educational arm of the church. It has not been easy!
Soon after the initial news of the Board of Trustees’ decision, I had the privilege of attending a webinar with the Provost of Calvin University that set in greater detail the context for the Board’s action as a response to a Synod decision made this past summer by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). At that Synod, the CRC voted to declare its teaching on marriage to be not simply “pastoral guidance” but “confessional.” In other words, abiding by the church’s teaching on marriage is now considered essential to salvation.
Several things became much clearer as a result of that presentation. Not surprisingly, the reality turned out to be much more complex—and frankly, much more interesting—than either of the initial responses of alarm or relief had indicated.
First, the position of the CRC and Calvin University on LGBTQ issues has not changed in any substantial way, which should assure those who worried that Calvin was shifting toward a more open position on sexual morality. Exactly as before, the church has not held LGBTQ persons responsible for their sexual orientation. It is their sexual behavior for which they are to be accountable. The denomination and the university continue to expect all those in leadership positions—which includes all faculty members at the university—to abide by the behavioral standards of the church and to honor as appropriate only sexual relations between one man and one woman in a covenantal marriage relationship. All faculty are expected not only to behave consistently with the college policy but also to uphold it in their teaching and to not, in any way, seek to undermine it with their students or the public. Furthermore, the university is to continue providing pastoral care for all Calvin students, regardless of their sexual orientation. And the faculty are to continue carrying on research that will further enlighten the church on matters relevant to sexual morality, as on all other matters related to the church’s efforts to live faithfully in accord with the teachings of the Scriptures.
Second, what is changing is the expectation of faculty to state explicitly to the university any disagreement they have with the position of the church on its teachings about sexual morality. As long as the church’s position on LGBTQ issues had been “pastoral guidance,” it was acceptable for faculty to privately disagree with this position as long as they agreed to “abide” by the policy and not undermine it in their teaching or actions. Once the church’s position on LGBTQ issues became “confessional,” as it did this summer, then faculty are required to openly state their disagreement and their reasons, just as they are expected to do concerning any other disagreement they have on matters of confessional teaching.
Third, once a faculty member has explicitly expressed conscientious objections to the church’s teaching, then such statements will be reviewed by a series of committees, culminating in a recommendation to the Board of Trustees about the appropriateness of the faculty member’s remaining at Calvin and on what terms. The structures for this process are already in place, recognizing once again that the university’s response to the Synod’s action on issues of sexual morality is in keeping with pre-existing institutional practices and expectations.
Fourth, the Board’s decision not to ask for the immediate resignation of faculty who do not share the denomination’s position on sexual morality was an effort to acknowledge that, while the content of the church’s teaching on these matters has not changed (nor the behavioral expectations of Calvin faculty, staff, and students, nor the university’s historic commitment to academic freedom, nor even the recognition that there would continue to be those who disagreed with the church’s position while also committing to abide by it and not to undermine it), something was different.
What had changed was the status of the church’s teaching from being “pastoral guidance” to being “confessional”—thus understood to be a matter more closely tied to salvation. With this elevated status of the church’s teaching, faculty would now be asked to state their disagreement more explicitly and formally to the university. It was no longer something that could be private or known only to select friends and colleagues within the Calvin community. In short, it was no longer a matter of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” While the new approach would be more proactively implemented with prospective Calvin faculty members from the start, the new requirement that faculty be explicit raised immediate fears that those already on the faculty who took the new requirement most seriously would then be most at risk of being asked to leave. It was in this context that the Board sought to assure faculty members who had joined the university community under its former terms that they would be treated justly in the context of the new situation.
Finally, though the Provost acknowledged that there is still much to be worked out in fully implementing the Board’s response to the Synod decision, the Board’s action is not at all an effort to distance itself from its sponsoring denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. Rather, it is precisely the opposite: The Board is seeking to exercise its duty of faithfulness (i.e. its fiduciary duty properly understood) to align the university with the church and to do this in a way that exhibits integrity in all aspects and that empowers the university to continue its educational function within the larger mission of the church.
In short, Calvin University is seeking to move to a new level of transparency in embracing the challenge of being faithful to church teaching, honoring the intellectual freedom essential to a university, making space for faculty journeys of individual conscience, modelling vibrant community life that accommodates disagreements with grace, and doing all this while carrying on its educational mission to students in the midst of massive cultural change.
I continue to reflect on the implications of Calvin’s action for the rest of the CCCU world. Only time will tell us what those implications actually are. But I have several thoughts at this point.
I commend Calvin University’s Board of Trustees for seeking to restore transparency to the complexity of stated commitments to the denomination, the educational mission of the university, and the values of the academic enterprise that have made Calvin University one of the premier Christian colleges. The past several decades have made it more difficult to take for granted the common cultural and theological understandings of many Christian colleges and the faculty and staff who desire for a range of reasons to join these institutions. It is not only the changing views on LGBTQ issues in the wider culture and even in the church but also changes in the educational marketplace, and changes in the understanding of what it means to say “I agree” to a statement of creedal or confessional commitments. In recent years I have been in several discussions about the profound difference between saying, for example, “I share these commitments of belief” and “I am willing to be at an institution that holds to these beliefs.” Calvin University has stepped out and attempted to do what many institutions are struggling to know how to do: restore a more complete transparency across the institution without raising unnecessary alarm or expectations among their diverse constituencies.
At the same time, I am concerned about how much LGBTQ issues are becoming the touchstone for orthodoxy both within the evangelical world in general and between the evangelical world and the larger culture. Unlike many other issues of historical importance to the church—for example, baptism, election for salvation, women’s ordination, pacifism, and church polity—internal disagreement over sexual morality is, at least in this moment, something with which the evangelical world is not comfortable at all.
Without minimizing the importance of this set of issues in any way, it does seem regrettable that sexual morality is assuming a centrality in the work of the evangelical church—including its educational branch of the CCCU—and a defining importance in establishing what is at stake in the evangelical world’s relationship to the larger culture. Such emphasis overshadows the wide range of equally important issues that are part of the church’s faithful witness to the Good News of the Gospel. I yearn for the evangelical church—and for CCCU institutions and their graduates—to be known in the larger culture for the courageous thoughtfulness, surprising imagination, and winsome graciousness they bring to all of the complicated and often contentious issues of our time.
In this Advent season, when we are reminded once again of the shocking news that the Lord of the Universe came to be among us embodying Truth and Grace—even in the unlikely context of the pluralistic Roman Empire—I want to make sure that we are not representing that expansive Truth and Grace in ways that are smaller and more circumscribed than the Good News that came to our world on that first Christmas.
Shirley A. Mullen (PhD) is President Emerita of Houghton College and longtime history professor.
*A reference to Charles Kingsley’s pamphlet, What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean?: A Reply to a Pamphlet Lately Published by Dr. Newman, occasioned by John Henry Newman’s autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua.