Another Mennonite School Leaves the CCCU Over Sexuality

Inside Higher Ed reports that Bluffton University has become the latest Christian college to allow for the hiring of gay and lesbian employees, after it added sexual orientation to its anti-bias policy. At the same time, Bluffton announced that it was leaving the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), which currently has a task force reviewing its membership categories after Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University — whose own policy changes sparked a heated debate within the CCCU — withdrew in late September.

Aerial view of Bluffton University
Bluffton University – Council of Independent Colleges

A small university in Ohio (about a thousand students), Bluffton is, like Goshen and EMU, affiliated with the educational wing of the Mennonite Church USA. When the other schools simultaneously announced their policy changes in July, Mennonite World Review asked a Bluffton official for a comment:

Bluffton director of public relations Robin Bowlus said there is nothing in Bluffton’s hiring policies that prevents Bluffton from hiring based on sexual orientation.

“As we have always done, and rooted in our Community of Respect, Bluffton strives to hire the most qualified candidate who embraces the mission of the university,” she said. “Bluffton’s board of trustees will meet again in October, and I can imagine they will thoughtfully consider actions and outcomes from the MC USA convention.”

Bowlus was alluding to the denomination’s meeting earlier this summer, at which delegates approved two resolutions: one affirmed traditional Mennonite teachings on marriage and barred pastors from performing same-sex marriages; the other called for “grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

MC USA logoWhile the “forbearance” resolution was intended to preserve denominational unity, intra-Mennonite divisions persist. In early November the Western District Conference voted to allow pastors, with their congregations’ consent, to officiate at same-sex marriages. (The WDC met at Bethel College in Kansas, which had added sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy last April. Bethel was not a member of the CCCU.) But on the other side of the debate, at least three other conferences — North Central, Franklin, and Lancaster — are at various stages of considering withdrawal from the MC USA.

(For more on the theological context of these debates, I strongly recommend Jared Burkholder’s guest post from early October.)

“In a sense, it’s surprising that Bluffton is the fourth Mennonite college to make this decision,” said Devin Manzullo-Thomas, director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies, “because Bluffton has always had a reputation as being the more ‘progressive’ of the Mennonite schools.” He noted that Bluffton didn’t join the CCCU until 1991 — EMU was a founding member; Goshen joined in the Eighties — in part because of deep-seated ambivalence on a faculty that had resisted then-president Ben Sprunger’s attempt to “evangelicalize” Bluffton in the face of declining enrollment in the 1970s.

Having gone on record in August as very much hoping that Goshen and EMU would remain in the CCCU, I’m dismayed to see that consortium lose yet another Anabaptist institution. Here’s the CCCU response, quoted by Inside Higher Ed:

The CCCU and Bluffton have been in collegial conversations during the fall. The CCCU is a voluntary association. Bluffton knew that clarifications in their nondiscrimination statement would result in a change of membership status while the CCCU task force on membership finished their work. Bluffton preferred not to accept a change of membership status in the interim and so withdrew. We wish Bluffton the best as they offer their excellent educational opportunities to the world.

Tabor College administration building
The Lohrenz Building, Tabor College – Wikimedia

The CCCU retains in membership Fresno Pacific University and Tabor College, both affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren (MB) Churches, whose Confession of Faith states that “Disciples maintain sexual purity and marital faithfulness and reject immoral premarital and extramarital relationships and all homosexual practices.” Tabor was in the news last month when an openly gay student decided to transfer to nearby Bethel, after losing his MB church membership and being removed from an athletic broadcasting position at Tabor.

When faculty at the college received their annual contracts this past April, the cover letter stressed that “by signing this notice, you are also affirming the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith.” Tabor president Jules Glanzer told Mennonite World Review that the change came on advice of the CCCU. But biblical studies professor Del Gray (the faculty representatives on Tabor’s board) warned that “some of our faculty are nervous. . . . There are members of our community who have very significant variance on some of these issues.” In reply to a letter of protest from alumni and faculty, the Tabor board stated that it “affirms the administration’s implementation of these policies in a fair and compassionate manner. At the same time, the Board recognizes that continued conversation on these issues is essential…”

Stay tuned. The CCCU task force is due to make a progress report in January, and I continue to suspect that we’re just seeing the first of several CCCU members to change policy with regard to human sexuality and same-sex marriage.

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