Why I Hope Goshen and Eastern Mennonite Stay in the CCCU

As one Baptist member abruptly withdraws from Christian higher ed’s leading organization and a Wesleyan school threatens to do so if Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are not expelled from the CCCU by August 31st, I hope many in the Christian college world will join Spring Arbor professor John Hawthorne in supporting the people of those two Anabaptist institutions:

Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative JusticeI don’t think I know faculty members personally at Goshen and Eastern Mennonite, although I’ve had colleagues who’ve been in both and Howard Zehr at EMU is the world’s expert on restorative justice. And yet those faculty members are my colleagues. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. The faculty at Goshen and EMU are my fellow-laborers, working alongside Christian young people striving to be what God designed them to be. For that matter, faculty members at Union are my colleagues and fellow-laborers as well.

To suggest that they aren’t “real Christians” because their school has made a policy decision is the kind of exclusion Ray DeVries was describing all those years ago. We haven’t excluded people for their school’s stance on the ordination of women, on the inerrancy of scripture (we all affirm authority), or on the nature of creation.

Some may suggest that we aren’t making such determinations but that schools like Union are simply holding the line on Christian Orthodoxy. But they are clearly stating that they do not believe that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are “Christian” institutions. In truth, they are Christian schools as long as they’ve put Christ first in their classroom interactions and have “kept the main thing the main thing”.

As a Pietist, I’m especially committed to the importance of keeping “the main thing the main thing”: i.e., living faith centered on our experience of and relationship to Jesus Christ. And like John, I believe that the CCCU is all the stronger for its members committing to work together despite a diversity of views on secondary matters of doctrine and practice.

Even if I bracket off questions of human sexuality and marriage, I would still find points of disagreement with most of my sisters and brothers at Goshen and Eastern Mennonite. I don’t like the word “adiaphora” because it means “things indifferent,” and I’m far from indifferent about the significance of my children’s baptisms or about my conviction that Christians sometimes, reluctantly do need to participate in the sin of warfare. By the same token, surely most Mennonites and other Anabaptists are not indifferent in their convictions that baptism is reserved for professing disciples of Jesus and that following that Lord requires one to practice nonviolent nonresistance.

But I do not think these are essential matters (or “at the heart of the Gospel“) on which Christians must agree if they are to engage in the mission of God together. (As we Covenanters like to say, with the psalmist: “I am a companion of all who fear thee….”) And clearly Goshen, Eastern Mennonite, and other Anabaptist schools in the CCCU must agree, since they are longstanding members of a consortium that includes plenty of pedobaptists and just warriors.

Eastern Mennonite University campus
Panoramic view of the Eastern Mennonite campus – Creative Commons (Michael Sheeler)

(EMU was one of the first members of what’s now the CCCU, as was Brethren in Christ-affiliated Messiah College. Goshen joined in the mid-1980s; fellow Mennonite college Bluffton in the early Nineties. The CCCU also has two Mennonite Brethren schools: Fresno Pacific and Tabor. And then there are those from Brethren traditions that don’t have as strong an attachment to the Anabaptist tradition today: Bethel of Indiana, Grace, and Huntington. Even my own institution, Bethel of Minnesota, has had historians and professors who trace its theological roots deeper than Swedish, German, and English Baptist movements, all the way back to the Radical Reformation.)

But beyond reiterating the danger of breaking Christian unity too hastily, today I want to make the positive case that Goshen and Eastern Mennonite are important members of the CCCU precisely because they are Christian (not merely “church-related”) schools whose distinctive values and practices enrich our fellowship and challenge the rest of us to present a more faithful Christian witness to the world.

Goshen College gate
Creative Commons (Brianys)

One of my first experiences as a Christian college professor was taking part in the faculty workshop for Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture class, the summer before I started my employment in 2003. Almost everything about teaching and Christian higher ed was new to me at that point, so I should have kept quiet more often than I did. But I remember questioning why we were dedicating an entire lecture in a one-semester, multi-disciplinary survey of Western civilization and church history to the Anabaptists of the 16th century. To my ill-informed way of thinking, people like Conrad Grebel, Michael Sattler, and Menno Simons were little more than curiosities: interesting, but certainly not worthy of the same level of attention as other Christian traditions that counted more adherents and wielded (as I measured it) more influence.

Twelve years later, not only has that lecture become one of my signature teaching moments each semester, but my research has often taken me to the intersections of Anabaptism with Pietism and evangelicalism. (In fact, I’m currently reading histories of Goshen College as part of a side project for the fall, on Anabaptist views of competitive sports.) I’m not an Anabaptist, but I’m grateful for that tradition and the faithful witness it has presented for nearly five centuries.

What do Anabaptist institutions contribute to Christian higher education? The late Mennonite historian and former Messiah president Rodney Sawatsky identified several distinctives in his contribution to Richard Hughes and William Adrian’s Models for Christian Higher Education. I’ll focus on three that I’ve found especially convicting:

Christian discipleship centered on “the ethic of Jesus”

Obedience to the Lord who preached the Sermon on the Mount “requires nonresistant love even of the enemy, rather than retribution.” In practice, this has meant that Mennonite colleges have often engaged in robust “critique of the state and of all coercive systems” — long before others of us in the CCCU began rethinking our relationship to the political and economic powers-that-be in this “Christian nation.”

But this Jesus-centered ethic has also led Anabaptist educators to emphasize how their colleges prepare students for service and peace-making: “Preparation for a life of intelligent and compassionate discipleship is of great importance to these schools” (pp. 196-97). John’s post alluded to the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice at EMU, an example of how the Anabaptist ethic entails an active commitment to building peace, not simply a passive avoidance of conflict. One of Goshen’s core values states that community’s commitment to

to build the “peaceable kingdom” by practicing loving kindness, restoring justice, practicing anti-racism, loving our enemies and advocating for the dispossessed. We renounce the oppressive, violent destructive powers of this world – and are willing to live our lives as examples of God’s peace.

(If you haven’t already done so, read Devin Manzullo-Thomas’ guest post from last week, in which he reviewed how Anabaptists have debated the relationship of an ethic of nonresistance with the pursuit of social justice.)


For Sawatsky, the Anabaptist understanding of the “church as the incarnate body of Christ” makes it necessarily a global community. Consequently, Mennonite colleges not only tend to view American nationalism with suspicion but have long viewed “World citizenship and compassion for all people” as central goals of higher education (p. 197).

For decades now, Goshen’s innovative “study-service term” has made it a leader in global education.

Goshen students in Morocco
Goshen students spending their Study-Service Term in Morocco – Creative Commons (Brianys)

Likewise, EMU places its own cross-cultural service program — required of students — at the core of its institutional mission and values:

When you’ve traveled to Central America, visited the coffee bean fields, and stayed with the struggling farmers, you begin to grasp the big picture. Or when your cross-cultural studies take you to the South African township of Soweto to learn about the history and lingering impact of apartheid first-hand, your sense of empathy is deepened, along with your understanding of our inter-connected world.

(To be fair, in the chapter that follows Sawatsky’s, Goshen historian Theron Schlabach is more than a little ambivalent about the success of the SST: “Goshen’s identity and national reputation have become so tied to its international program that a few faculty members have asked whether, in the college’s communal self-identity and values, international education has not moved above the Mennonite church connection. It is a fair question” — p. 212.)


Also rooted in the Anabaptist understanding of the church, the conviction that “Christian faithfulness belongs equally to everyone in the community” has led Mennonite colleges to “tend not to emphasize individual achievement very strongly but rather to speak of responsibility and service.” (“We humbly set aside self-interest for the interests of others,” affirms another of Goshen’s core values, “leading in the strength of love given by God, because love for others builds up God’s community.”) Moreover, “Relationships are of central importance to Mennonite colleges because Christian faith is considered to be relational” (p. 198).

Which just makes the possibility of severing decades-old relationships between Goshen, EMU, and its sister schools in the CCCU all the harder to countenance. In announcing its change of hiring policy in July, Goshen affirmed

the equal value and worth of each unique member of our community as a beloved child of God, and we seek to be a hospitable community for all—including those who disagree with this decision—as Christ modeled to us…. we want to particularly express our deep respect for fellow Mennonite and Christian institutions which make choices different from our own.

CCCU LogoNow, EMU and Goshen don’t need to be in the CCCU to continue to prosper as Christian institutions of higher learning. Whether they retain membership, are moved to affiliate status, or are expelled, I have little doubt that the people working there will continue to follow the path of Jesus Christ and to prepare their students for lives of service, peacemaking, and global citizenship within communities marked, at their best, by love and humility.

But for the sake of the rest of us, I hope they can continue to do all those things as members or affiliates of the CCCU. I hope that my students will encounter Goshen and EMU students and professors through CCCU programs, and that those schools’ faculty, staff, and administrators will continue to have opportunities to engage in professional development, research, and planning with their peers at other CCCU institutions.

9 thoughts on “Why I Hope Goshen and Eastern Mennonite Stay in the CCCU

  1. The CCCU has as a requirement for membership this statement, “Member campuses must have a public, board approved institutional mission or purpose statement that is Christ-centered and rooted in the historic Christian faith.” How can one in good faith be a member of such an organization while holding to a view of marriage and sexuality which is completely contrary to the beliefs of the “historic Christian faith” in all its myriad of expressions? Attempts to compare this to paedobaptism or Just War Theory seem to be a textbook case of false equivalence. Both of these have well established historical precedents in the “historic Christian faith”. Contrary to these issues the issue of homosexuality has been historically unanimous in the negative. It is for this reason that this is and should be a wedge issue for the CCCU. To hold a contrary belief is to place oneself outside the “historic Christian faith.” It seems to me that the ones creating division in this matter are not those who choose to leave in faithfulness to the historic view of the church on marriage and sexuality, but rather those who have chosen to depart from the historic view and expect others to at the very least acquiesce.

    1. Michael – Let me start by saying that I don’t think we disagree on the actual question of marriage. But we do part company, apparently, on whether it’s an essential or non-essential belief. I’ve said a lot about this elsewhere and don’t want to rehash it again. But let me point out one thing: dismissing baptism and war as false equivalents reveals a fundamentally ahistorical understanding of how Christians have viewed these issues — or rather, have *come to view* these issues, since there’s observable change over time.

      If you had asked most any Christian in the 2nd or maybe even 3rd century, they would have said that willfully taking human life in warfare was a violation of the “historic Christian faith” as they knew it. If you had asked most any Christian in the 16th century whether it was appropriate to wait to baptize a child until they had reached the maturity to profess their faith of their own volition, they would have been utterly appalled: you were suggesting something contrary to a question that had been settled for centuries and centuries. Anabaptists were executed for this reason, and because their ethic of nonviolent nonresistance in the face of imminent danger from Turkish invasion would have seemed a rejection of what was, in the mind of most any Christian at the time, “the historic Christian faith.” (For that matter, early Anabaptists urged separation from all other Christian bodies, regarding them as counterfeit churches because of their complicity in violent coercion and their desecration of baptism.) Bethel came into existence precisely because a certain group of Swedish Pietists broke with the “historic Christian faith” as the state church defined it, endured some significant degree of persecution as a result, and fled to America. And that was only about 150 years ago.

      The fact that we now comfortably regard baptism and war as non-essential matters on which honest, Bible-believing Christians can disagree and yet live in peace is the product of centuries of discernment. (And there are those Christians on both issues that *do not* see them as things indifferent and will not be in communion with others holding the opposite belief.) While I can understand why you view questions of sexuality and marriage as being settled matters of “historic Christian faith,” taking the long view makes me suspect that we’re just in the very earliest stages of a discerning process. Even if I think they’re in the right theologically, I believe that those who want to simply foreclose all discussion and cast out those with whom they disagree on sexuality and marriage might just be enacting a familiar historical pattern, one that has contributed to the fracturing of the Body of Christ for centuries now.

  2. Chris,

    I thank you for your response. I really enjoyed taking your Revolution and Political Development class at Bethel a good decade ago now when you were still a new professor there. I’m not sure the relevance of whether or not the views of Christians have changed over time on various issues, to the question of whether or not Christians throughout history have universally viewed homosexuality in the negative. The fact that we might all the sudden change our minds doesn’t change the fact that at the moment a negative view of homosexuality is the view of the “historical Christian faith.” Although we could quibble about the various points raised and probably not get very far a better response might be to simply ask a few questions.

    1. What does “historical Christian faith” mean to you?
    2. Do you see a difference between essentials for salvation (i.e. “Gospel Issues” as some individuals call them) and essentials for fellowship/association? (it seems to me the CCCU issue is primarily about the latter rather than the former, although it is certainly about the former for many as well)
    3. Does something have to appear in a creed to be an essential for fellowship/association?
    4. To you what are the criteria for separating from fellow believers who have gone wayward ala 1 Corinthians 5?

    1. Michael – Your chief argument seems to be that the Christian consensus on these issues has not been challenged until this point. (By the way, I’m sure you know there is at least a minority view that says the story is more complicated; some historians argue that the Church has sanctified same-sex relationships in earlier times, though the evidence doesn’t seem terribly strong to me.) That’s exactly how Christians felt (my turn to overgeneralize) about pacifism in the 3rd century — they would have reacted to the notion of taking up arms in behalf of the state with the same horror to which you’re reacting to the idea of same-sex marriage, as a violation of the historic Christian faith.

      Does it make a difference that their historic faith was only 200 years deep as opposed to 2000? The gut-level response was the same: An alternative belief is unthinkable because we’ve always held this conviction. Yet now, with the benefit of centuries of hindsight, we look back and, even when we hold strong personal convictions, tend to assume Christian participation or non-participation in war is a “thing indifferent.” Isn’t it possible to imagine, projecting ourselves centuries more out, that Christians will look back on a similar kind of phenomenon with regard to marriage?

      But we’re stuck in the middle of that very long view, unable to look back with hindsight. So here I think we need to think about what it means that, for the most part, we in the CCCU are Protestants having this discussion. Who or what has the authority to answer this question for Christians who do not have a magisterium to settle disputed matters? Can a Protestant legitimately view tradition (even 2000 years deep) as holding that kind of authority? To me, there are only two options: (1) we do what Protestants too often do and simply splinter, each believing our position to the “biblical” one (then very possibly our descendants will look back in 100 or 1000 years and wonder why we couldn’t learn to live together — see baptism and war again); or (2) we acknowledge that whatever has been the case for years before (whether 20, 200, or 2000), right now there is a clear lack of consensus among Christians who otherwise agree on what we’d all regard as essentials and we collectively discern what we believe and whether common belief is essential to common fellowship/mission, holding to the principle of prima Scriptura (Scripture first, but also considering sources like traditional teachings — I do think your argument has merit, just not the kind of defeater status you want to claim for it — plus new insights from science and personal experience).

    2. And to the four questions… Yikes. I hope you don’t actually expect lengthy responses to these. God knows that I’ve spent enough time already on this unpaid hobby of blogging when I should have been preparing for the start of the semester, doing research, etc. But a few quick responses:

      1. These are good questions. I appreciate you asking them, since this whole conversation (not just this past week, but all summer) has forced me to think about much more than just my views on sexuality and marriage. As I said sometime earlier in the summer, the emerging debate over those issues will have the benefit of forcing us all to do theology, to think more clearly about lots of things.

      2. But as I’ve tried to say in this thread, that kind of thinking is not a quick process. So forgive me if I don’t feel like I’ve got especially settled answers for most of what you ask. I suspect there are different types of essentials (#2), though I’m not sure which I’d put on which list; I’m a member of a church that respects creeds but doesn’t view them as having all that much authority, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask #3; and I have a hard time answering #4 in the abstract: my only experience of separation from fellow Christians has been when I’ve been attending churches that experienced schism, either over worship wars or personality conflicts — neither of which strikes me as acceptable reasons for breaking fellowship.

      I grant that Paul seems very clear in 1 Cor. 5 that sexual immorality is exceptional among other forms of sin as necessitating separation, but that requires us to define “sexual immorality” — assuming it’s not limited to the particular case he states in v 1 (which has nothing to do with homosexual behavior). And while you and I might arrive at a similar definition, I think we need to acknowledge that among Christians who otherwise are of like mind of essential issues and have worked together for years and years, there is significant disagreement right now on how it’s defined. And this just circles us back into the previous comment, so I won’t go further, save to reiterate…

      3. There’s a reason I keep using phrases like “collectively discern” in this conversation. What I think is not unimportant, but what’s far more important is answering them in community. (Another thing we could learn from the Anabaptist tradition.)

      4. So, to return to your #1, the question isn’t really what “historic Christian faith” means to me; it’s what it means within the context of the CCCU. Historically, that language has served as an intentionally vague affirmation of broad orthodoxy in response to the larger secularization of the academy. It’s wide enough to allow any (Protestant) school with a Christ-centered mission, liberal arts curriculum, and sound finances into membership; narrow enough to exclude, say, a church-related college for whom Christian faith was once an animating concern but is no longer central to the mission of the school (or a Bible college that might hold to “historic Christian faith” but has no interest in the liberal arts). And the chief guarantee of that broad orthodoxy is not a set of doctrinal tests (the CCCU could have adopted a multi-article statement of faith — that it never has is highly suggestive to me), but that all faculty and administrators, as judged by their employers (who have different ways of doing this), profess faith in Jesus Christ.

      (Say hi to your wife — one of my favorite CWC students!)

  3. Chris,

    I will certainly say hi to Alicia for you. As to the issues.

    1. I’m not so sure the Early Church was quite as monolothic as Mr. Yoder or yourself seem to indicate on the issue of pacifism. Certainly a large majority held this view. Additionally, simply because we have departed from this view doesn’t mean we are right and they are wrong, but more on this below.

    2. I am aware that there are minority views which argue that certain events such as Eastern Orthodox brotherhood ceremonies were akin to same-sex marriages. I am equally aware that these views have been strongly lambasted by scholars across the spectrum, including by the Eastern Orthodox themselves. That being said I think raising this in some ways gets to an important point. “Christians” have and will make up arguments for almost any position (there are Episcopal bishops who don’t believe Jesus was divine in any way). The fact that people can come up with arguments which are “possible” should not cause us to be swayed where those arguments are not also “probable.” While we can always discuss issues and should always be open to discussion of any issue with individuals who have differing views, but this doesn’t mean maintaining Christian Fellowship with those unrepentantly taking the opposing viewpoint.

    3. I don’t really think there is a lack of consensus, at least within Evangelicalism. I am unaware of any Evangelical denomination which takes a view other than the view that homosexuality is a sin and according to the latest Pew poll 76% of self-identified Evangelicals do not support same-sex marriage (it would seem reasonable to assume that the number which think homosexuality is sin is higher than this).

    4. Let me make a suggestion. As a Protestant I believe, as I am sure you do, in the primacy of Scripture. Scripture is the final authority in matters of faith and practice. I also believe, as did the Reformers, in the importance of Tradition in guiding our steps. To completely cut ourselves off from the cloud of witnesses which has gone before us is to fall into extreme arrogance. This almost always leads to a bad case of chronological snobbery as Mr. Lewis called it where we simply reject older ideas because they are old. Hence, I would suggest that essentials must be defined at least in part with reference to “quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.” I would further suggest that if we are to depart from a belief which has been held everywhere, always and by all, that (to borrow a legal phrase – sorry, attorney) we must be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that the proposed view is Scripturally correct AND that the view which the church has previously held was contrary to Scripture.

    As applicable to the present case most “Evangelical” advocates for GLBT inclusion in the academia seem to indicate that this is a matter of genuine dispute on which good people can disagree. They argue that Scripture is unclear and there are interpretations of Scripture (no matter how fantastically far fetched in my opinion) which support GLBT inclusion. To them they see this as a winning argument. Since we are unsure (or more appropriately there is a small shred of uncertainty) the principles of love and charity should cause us to include and affirm GLBT individuals. I, on the other hand, given the framework above see this as fatal to their argument.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.