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:
I 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.
(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.
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.
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.
Now, 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.