Quick Thoughts on Union University Withdrawing from the CCCU

When I asked Devin Manzullo-Thomas to write a post providing some historical context for two Mennonite schools becoming the first members of the largely evangelical Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) to allow for the hiring of employees in same-sex marriages, I pointed him towards a World magazine story featuring this ominous paragraph:

Dub Oliver
Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver – Union University

Dub Oliver, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., estimated at least 40 institutions would withdraw from the CCCU if it delays its decision until next year. He said his institution is not in doubt about keeping its biblical position on marriage, but he’s unsure if it will end up being with the CCCU or in a new organization: “I just need to know who we’ll be standing with.”

It won’t be with the CCCU: just hours after we published Devin’s post, Union announced that it was withdrawing from that organization.

Oliver declared that the Mennonite schools, Goshen and Eastern Mennonite, had “abandoned fidelity to God’s Word,” and criticized the CCCU for failing to respond quickly to a situation that, he said, had been brewing for years.

There have been several gatherings where the Council could have been clear about our expectations of membership… The Council could have even deliberated and voted on such matters. We did not. As a result, we appear unprepared to state our commitments, much less take action.

So what does all this mean? A few quick thoughts on a suspiciously quick announcement — one that surely is not the final shoe to drop here.

The Southern Baptists and the CCCU

Part of Union’s decision, said Oliver, reflected the Southern Baptist school’s desire to “maintain a consistency and unanimity with their faith family’s commitment on issues like same-sex marriage.” Indeed, Southern Baptist Seminary president Al Mohler was quick to trumpet Union’s decision:

Writing two days before the Supreme Court affirmed a right to same-sex marriage, Mohler had warned of the need for Christian colleges to stand their ground:

The new moral revolution is seriously threatening the religious liberty of these schools and their right to be Christian. Religious schools are in the conflict whether they like it or not. If they are going to survive, they are going to have to stand. They are going to have to stand on the same authority that faithful, orthodox Christians have been standing on for the last 2,000 years. They are going to have to stand with conviction, courage and compassion as they speak truth in a world that wants them silenced.

Technically, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) doesn’t sponsor colleges and universities, but in their 2013 study of denominational identity in the CCCU (published in the journal Christian Higher Education), Perry Glanzer, Jesse Rine, and Phil Davignon noted that 75% of trustees at SBC-related institutions were usually appointed by the denomination or state Baptist convention.

So I wouldn’t be surprised to see most of the other Southern Baptist members of the CCCU follow Union out the door. As far as I can tell, none has been in the CCCU for more than twenty-five years. (Union joined in 1993.) Campbellsville was, I think, a founding member, but last year it dropped its funding from the Kentucky Baptist Convention in order to allow for greater academic freedom and denominational diversity on its board.

Defining “Witness” and “Gospel”

While many of the Southern Baptist schools may imitate Union, I hope that Oliver speaks for no more than a small minority of CCCU presidents, given the way he uses the terms “witness” and “gospel”:

The fact that this [view of marriage] is not unanimous damages our witness… 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.

As I’ve written several times on this set of issues, I continue to believe that the first and best witness that any Christian individual or organization can offer is the unity prayed for by Jesus himself: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).

And this unity is not unanimity. Or as Oliver’s predecessor David Dockery said two years ago, while he was in the final months of his long tenure at Union:

It is possible to hold hands with brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary matters and work together toward a common good to extend the work of the Gospel around the world and advance the kingdom of God.

CCCU members disagree on a host of issues without equating the disputed concept with a denial of “the authority of Scripture.” Colleges and universities whose denominations do not fully affirm women in ministry belong to a council headed by a woman. Goshen, Eastern Mennonite, and other Anabaptist schools have maintained fellowship with those of us whose willingness to endorse Christian participation in warfare does, in the peace churches’ reading of Scripture, enormous damage to the witness of the Church.

Miller Tower, Union University
Miller Tower at Union University – Creative Commons (Sweetmoose6)

No doubt this is why the criteria for membership in the CCCU include no doctrinal tests more stringent than the following: that members “must have a public, board approved institutional mission or purpose statement that is Christ-centered and rooted in the historic Christian faith,” that they commit “to integrating Biblical faith with educational programs,” and that they “hire as full-time faculty members and administrators (non-hourly staff) only persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ.”

(And that hiring standard has produced a theologically diverse faculty for the consortium. The Glanzer/Rine/Davignon study found that the single biggest group of CCCU faculty is Southern Baptist, and they account for only 13.5% of the sample. No other denomination claimed more than 8%, with the 4% who are Roman Catholics making up the sixth biggest group.)

For that matter, Union University — like Goshen, Eastern Mennonite, and several other CCCU members — belongs to the National Network of the Lilly Fellows Program, sharing its even broader mission with more progressive Catholic and mainline Protestant schools. Feminist theologian Caryn Riswold, a former Lilly fellow, reflected on the diversity of that network earlier this summer. While she praised EMU and Goshen for their policy changes, she noted that Lilly’s network includes CCCU schools like Gordon, Messiah, Azusa Pacific, and Westmont that have pointedly refused to make such changes:

Church-related higher education, like Christianity itself, brings together people who don’t agree on all things.

Yet all of these schools seek ways to continue living their mission in relationship to a religious identity in the contemporary context.

Yet Union was unwilling to wait more than a few weeks of the CCCU’s “deliberative and consultative process” to run its course, let alone for a serious conversation to take place that would allow evangelicals to discern whether beliefs on marriage and sexuality are essential or adiaphora.

(On this subject, let me again recommend Harold Heie’s Respectful Conversations project, which currently features an irenic, thoughtful debate between my Bethel colleague Mark Strauss and James Brownson, author of Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.)

No doubt, a point comes at which disagreement requires disunity, but do we agree with Oliver that “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel”?


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