Mission as Friendship: A Call to Deeper Unity for Christian Colleges

So there’s a quotation I’ve been thinking about all summer:

At the end of his life, Jesus declared his disciples his friends, meaning they shared with him a common passion for his mission in the world (John 15:13-15). Covenanters, as Mission Friends, have broadly understood mission to be the befriending of others, and all that God has created, in the name of the one who first befriended us.

It’s from a booklet elaborating on the six affirmations of my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church. Covenant Affirmations was first published in 1976 by a committee chaired by my late friend Jim Hawkinson, then revised ten years ago.

What does it mean that mission can be understood “to be the befriending of others”? I’m instinctively drawn to this idea, but haven’t yet worked out entirely why it feels so right.

But thinking about it in light of the potential split emerging within the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities leads me to one tentative conclusion: If Christian colleges understood mission to involve the befriending of others, couldn’t that lead them to deeper unity?

Let’s start with the history of my denomination.

Covenant pastors in 1889
A group of Swedish Mission Covenant pastors, ca. 1889 – Covenant Archives and Historical Library

For better and worse, my instinctive aversion to breaking Christian communion betrays the depths of my roots in the Covenant Church. (And my still deeper roots in German Pietism, which likewise took a dim view of “needless controversies.”) Looking back over some documents from the Covenant’s founding meeting in 1885, I’m struck that the biblical text discussed more often than any other is the same one I quoted in my first response to Union University’s withdrawal from the CCCU: Jesus’s prayer for unity in John 17. On the basis of that text, one participant at the meeting “wanted union not only in word and tongue, but in deed and truth; we need a better knowledge of each other.” Delegates from Kansas considered it “wrong and harmful if anyone so insists upon his interpretations that conflict follows, with the tearing of the bonds of love between God’s children.”

In that spirit, the Covenant is unlike most other broadly evangelical denominations in that it has never adopted a lengthy doctrinal statement, instead contenting itself with six broad affirmations — the last of which is that, “With a modesty born of confidence in God, Covenanters have offered to one another theological and personal freedom where the biblical and historical record seems to allow for a variety of interpretations of the will and purposes of God,” knowing full well “that freedom is a gift and the last of all gifts to mature.”

Evangelical Covenant Church logoSo the Covenant Church is held together not by a complicated web of doctrinal boundaries, but by simple, shared commitments. To the person of Jesus Christ, known through the experience of conversion; and to the authority of Scripture, “the word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.”

But also to the mission that gave our congregations their reason for being. Indeed, the denomination was originally the “Mission Covenant,” formed by “Mission Friends” who partnered together to send missionaries around the world and to support ministries of compassion and education, as “companions of all them that fear thee” (said the text for the founding sermon in 1885).

(Practical as well as biblical theology explains the Covenant commitment to mission-friendship. The early Mission Friends were relatively poor Swedish immigrants who pooled their resources: not only for mutual aid as strangers in a strange land, but — to their immense credit — for the purposes of spreading the Gospel and extending God’s love far beyond their own communities.)

To this day, Covenanters believe that what we call the “whole mission of the church” (that is, “…evangelism and Christian formation, as well as the benevolent ministries of compassion and justice in the face of suffering and oppression”) can only be done together: as individuals within a congregation, as congregations with conferences and a denomination, and through local, national, and global partnerships with other organizations.

Covenant Kids Congo
One example of the “companion of all them that fear thee” ideal: a partnership between the congregations of the Covenant Church, its sister church in the Congo, and World Vision

Revisiting this history made me think that I ought to argue even more strongly for unity among Christian colleges than I have. Disunity over non-essentials not only threatens the witness of the church (“…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” – Jn 17:23) but the friendship — initiated by Christ and still centered on him — that makes possible the mission of the church.

Alas, “friendship” doesn’t easily to come to mind as a descriptor for Christian college relationships. Even when such institutions don’t view each other as heretics, they do treat each other as competitors: economic threats, if not theological ones.

CCCU LogoSomething like the CCCU could be a hedge against those tendencies. But, as much as I stand with it, I’m not sure the CCCU — even before the recent controversy — was living up to its potential as an organization that could foster conversation and collaboration among Christian educators of diverse beliefs, one that could draw upon pooled resources to provide opportunities for students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administrators that no individual institution could offer. (I suspect the resources being pooled aren’t what they once were.) I’d still want to avoid needless splits, but I’m not energized by the possibility of protecting a unity that brings together competitors for alliances of convenience.

So here’s my challenge… While I would lament any sundering of friendship with the Unions and Oklahoma Wesleyans of the Christian college world, I would also wonder if whatever is left of the CCCU would then have a chance to seek a deeper kind of unity. Perhaps this is a chance to reaffirm that if we share a common commitment to Jesus Christ, then we also share a mission that starts with the befriending of others.

What if Christian colleges put first things first and covenanted together around Christ our Center, who calls us friends and entrusts us jointly — despite our differences — with his mission in this world?


8 thoughts on “Mission as Friendship: A Call to Deeper Unity for Christian Colleges

  1. Chris, but what’s the point of having a separate Christian organization of universities and colleges? If Christians are about befriend all, why have your own group? Isn’t the reason that Christians want to hold on to something distinctly Christian? Some would argue, and I would be one, that gay marriage is not something that fits in Christian categories.

    That doesn’t mean that Union University’s reasons for pulling out are the right ones. But it is to recognize that the CCCU has already distinguished itself and its members as over against those schools that are not Christian. Maybe that’s not antagonistic. But forming your own organization is not exactly friendly.

  2. It’s a good question, and one I’m obviously not prepared to answer adequately at this point. But perhaps start here: in the same way that each of us has different circles of friends and different depths of friendships, the kind of institutional “friendship” I’m suggesting would no doubt would have different circles and depths. Even now, Bethel is part of the CCCU, which requires a faculty faith screen of members, and the Lilly Network, which does not but excludes private colleges and universities that aren’t “church-related.” Then Bethel is also a part of a Minnesota private college group that has secular members, but excludes public ones. And at least at the level of individual faculty and departments, we have friendships with those public schools around a shared mission. The fact that we’re closer “friends” with CCCU institutions doesn’t preclude friendship of another sort with the Catholic or nominally Methodist schools down the street, or the land-grant research university across the river.

    So we’ve been willing to maintain “friendship” with widening circles of institutions; I’d just like to see the nature of that friendship — at least where what we share in common is commitment to the person of Jesus Christ — be quite a bit deeper than it has been to this point.

    1. To the question of whether gay marriage doesn’t fit “Christian categories”… What I feel myself fumbling towards is this: what is “essential belief” in each circle is different, yet that doesn’t preclude some degree of “friendship” because there’s a commonality of mission. To participate as a full member of the community called Bethel University and to pursue its mission requires one to affirm certain beliefs and engage in (or refrain from) certain practices (including homosexual behavior, in or out of marriage) — but those lists of essentials are already much longer than whatever boundaries are set around the relatively narrow circle of the CCCU.

      One version of this: Catholic institutions cannot be full members of the CCCU, and even a relatively moderate CCCU member like Wheaton will dismiss a professor who converts to Catholicism. Yet 4% of CCCU faculty are Catholic. Is Wheaton threatening to quit the CCCU because a school like North Park, Eastern, or Seattle Pacific chooses to hire faculty members who profess faith in Jesus Christ but hold a very different view than Protestants on the authority of Scripture? (I don’t think so, but would that have been the case fifty or sixty years ago? And surely the nature of biblical authority is not a matter less consequential than the nature of marriage.)

      So can’t we entertain the possibility that the CCCU might come to decide that its membership could hold both schools that hire non-celibate gay faculty and those whose own, longer list of essentials makes it impossible to to do so? Not that this is necessarily the right thing to do — I just want CCCU decision makers to act prudently, patiently, and with some degree of openness to the possibility that such a process of discernment might lead them to feel differently than they do right now.

      I don’t know… I’m just a history professor and my head is starting to hurt. Perhaps it’s time to shut up, let others talk, and leave it to our bosses to figure out this mess.

  3. Chris, thanks for your replies.

    My first concern as I’ve stated is that Christianity is not a broad but a narrow basis for affiliation in today’s higher education landscape. It looks like you agree.

    My second concern is the degree to which cultural controversies wind up driving Christian institutions. I think both sides in this one are doing a bit of grandstanding. So I’d like CCCU to restrain such showboating and advocate some kind of humility.

    My third concern though is a serious one that goes to your language of commitment to Christ. Marriage is part of all that Christ has taught through Scripture. So if an institution departs from Christ’s (biblical) teaching — and yes, determining who gets to determine this is the $64k question — then institutions should be able to bring the matter up.

    Taking your marbles and going home doesn’t really help the rest of CCCU. But I fear Union will be branded as homophobic in today’s cultural climate.

    1. Thanks for your replies, Darryl. I really do sympathize with the concerns you’ve raised, even if I’ve been pushing from the other direction. I know that my instinctive reaction is always to value unity — perhaps too highly, at the expense of other goods. It’s good to be pressed to think more clearly about the stakes here.

  4. Chris,

    As a member of Salem Covenant for over 20 years, I cringe when I read this type of attitude within our own Church and our National denomination. It is one of the reasons my frequency at Salem has dwindled. I see the very fabric of our faith being destroyed from within. When I read of Christians who are making concessions and ignoring the Bible in some areas because of text in another it scares me. Love and acceptance are not mutually connected.

    I love my children, but I do not allow them to break the laws of our state, our country or our Lord. Are they sinners…yes, emphatically. Do they make mistakes…yes, all the time. Will they continue to sin in the eyes of God…yes, as do I. Requirements for love and friendship are not necessarily accepting the behavior of our “loved” ones. Friendship doesn’t end because we do not accept their behavior. As a parent, if I condone the very behavior that is contrary to the laws of either God or the land I am allowing it to continue and by extension a party to the behavior. It is an intellectual dishonesty to say I think it is a sin, but I am not going to do anything about it because it is either not my sin or who am I to judge. This isn’t judging it is following the word of God. We would not support a friend to continue in an adulterous affair after we are made aware of it. Would we love them? Yes! Would we pray for them? Yes! Would we be there for them if they seek help and guidance? Yes! But hopefully we would not say congregation here is my friend and their lover. This is not their spouse they are in an openly adulterous relation with each other, please lets welcome them into our church unconditionally and allow them to continue in their behavior as Jesus loved all sinners we need to love them. Love is not acceptance!

    My Mother took in and cared for her brother who was a heroine addict. Her condition for allowing him to live with us was he wanted to end his drug use and stop immediately. She would do anything for him to help break the habit including paying for medical attention if that was needed, but what she would not do is allow his behavior to continue if he was going to live at her house. When my uncle failed she gave him one chance as she knew it was a very tough addition and increased her support and help, but the second time he failed she called the authorities. As he was leaving she told him, I know it will be hard for you to understand right now, but I do love you. I want more than anything to see you get clean and sober, but your behavior here at my house not only put my family at risk it was selfish. I am not going to put your desires and wants and wishes above my family. If you respected me as a sister, you should not have done what you did. If you loved your nephew and your brother in law you would have not used them to facilitate your habit. When you are truly wanting to change I will be there for you. I will continue to pray for you each day you are gone because I love you, my actions are not out of hate or anger or malice, but love. Love for both you and my family. I will not continue to give you chances and watch you take advantage of my love. It took a while but he eventually did get clean and sober and despite my Mom’s action he knew she was right and her love for him was genuine. He is now a drug counselor and a very good one at that.

    Either the word of God (Bible) is his or it is not. As Christians we cannot pick and chose the text we like and ignore the text we do not. Yes Jesus ate with the sinners and saved a prostitute from stoning, but I don’t think (and I am not speaking for Jesus) his intention for his actions was to allow the sins to continue with love from him and his followers.

    1. Steve — the argument I am going to give here is an old one, but nevertheless I feel compelled to make it again. You said, “As Christians we cannot pick and chose the text we like and ignore the text we do not.”

      Your post suggests that we should not condone and accept sin, just for the sake of unity. Fair enough, and I would hope that all Christians agree. Implicit in your argument (though correct me if I am wrong) is that same-sex relationships are wrong according to scripture, and therefore other CCCU schools can not be in fellowship with EMU and Goshen.

      But I believe that EMU and Goshen reached their positions *because* of the way they read scripture (all of it), not in spite of it. This interpretation of scripture is not new. Numerous scholars have reached a similar conclusion in the past couple of decades. (Tony Campolo is not a biblical scholar, but he may be one of the better-known evangelicals to come to such a view. Can we agree he is an evangelical?) I do not expect all Christians to reach a similar conclusion, and I will not try to change their minds, as truthfully, I am not quite sure what to think about this issue myself right now. I am dismayed, however, with those who think EMU and Goshen don’t take their faith, scripture, and Jesus seriously.

      To the “old argument” I mentioned above, here it is. I am a Mennonite. I grew up learning that violence was to be avoided and that Christians should not participate in war. Scripture seemed unequivocal to me on this matter, and I didn’t understand how a Christian could read Jesus’ words and reach any other conclusion. However, I have since humbly come to realize that they do! And they really are Christians! They love Jesus, just like I do. They have not changed my mind on the point, but I now at least acknowledge that there is a consistent hermeneutic that permits a Christian to shoot another Christian in cold blood as long as he is doing it for his country :).

      If I were the President of EMU or Goshen, I would not ask other CCCU institutions to withdraw because they hired faithful Christians who believed it was acceptable to participate in war. Rather, I would welcome them into the big tent, hoping that we could engage in meaningful dialogue that sharpened each other’s faith.

  5. Steve – Since conversations about sexuality started swirling in the Covenant Church, I’ve thought often that we’ve entered another of those historical moments (like women’s ordination debates in the 1970s, debates over inerrancy/authority of Scripture in the late 1950s/early 1960s) when Covenanters need to remember how to reconcile different aspects of their identity, none of which is unimportant: grace and truth, love of God and love of neighbor, unity and conviction, the nature of sin and the potential for conversion and regeneration, the fact that we are Pietists who don’t trust in creeds or doctrinal statements but instead ask “Where is it written?” and seek to be a “companion of all them that fear thee”… I believe that LGBT-affirming Covenanters hold the same affirmations as you and me and pursue the same mission as you and me. To assume otherwise would be supremely arrogant.

    (And here let me just underscore that, since you put this in the context of your membership at a Covenant church, we’re moving away from the real topic of these posts, which is the CCCU — not a denomination, but a partnership of colleges from lots of different denominations.)

    All I’m saying here is that there is a deep, deep commitment in our “Mission Friend” DNA to remain unified, to continue partnering together in mission, even in the face of real, serious disagreement about important theological issues. There may well be circumstances when to break such “friendship” might be the right thing to do. But any Covenanter who values the Covenant’s heritage is going to make such a separation slowly, reluctantly, humbly, and sorrowfully.

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