Why, More Than Ever, Christian Colleges Need to Inhabit the “Messy Middle”

Earlier this month the Christian Reformed Church concluded a six-year debate on human sexuality by voting not only to uphold its traditional view that sex is reserved to man-woman marriage, but to confirm that belief’s “confessional status” — as pertaining to the Heidelberg Catechism’s statement against “unchastity.” I’m no expert on Reformed polity or theology, but I do have some sense of how significant a step this is for that denomination — and for its highly respected university, where there’s ongoing concern about the implications of this decision.

For example, one-third of the faculty at Calvin University earlier signed a letter opposing the CRC sexuality report, warning that it “would cause harm to our Reformed community by severely impairing staff and faculty’s ability to care for our LGBTQ students in the way that our conscience dictates and the scholarship supports.” Moreover, they warned that elevating the CRC position on sexuality to the level of confession “could place many of us in noncompliance with the Covenant for Faculty Members,” since the CRC holds that any Calvin professor signing that document “affirms without reservation all the doctrines contained in the standards of the church as being doctrines that are taught in the Word of God.”

The chapel building at Calvin University – Creative Commons (MjZ Photography)

It’s not yet clear exactly what the CRC vote will mean for Calvin faculty, staff, and students moving forward. The student newspaper, the Chimes, reported that outgoing president Michael Le Roy, who had raised faculty concerns at the CRC synod, new president Wiebe Boer, and trustee board chair Bruce Los emailed faculty and staff to reaffirm Calvin’s desire “to be a place of belonging where the love of Christ is central to the ways we live, work, study, and commune together… a community where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons are treated with respect, justice, grace and understanding.” Nonetheless, Calvin history professor Kristin Du Mez told RNS reporter Yonat Shimron that “many people are polishing their CVs, starting to look at what else is out there and preparing themselves to leave.”

(To get a fuller sense of how this debate has been playing out at Calvin, where the treatment of one LGBT-affirming social work professor had already become a flashpoint for debate, check out this HuffPost piece by Jonathan Cohn and earlier reporting by the former editor-in-chief of the Chimes.)

After Kristin shared some further reflections on the CRC vote at her Substack newsletter, conservative writer Rod Dreher snidely reported that “one of the brightest lights of post-Christian Christianity has taken her stand…

Christians who chuck sexual teaching are going to end by chucking Christianity. It is a bright, clear line — whether the Du Mezes of the world realize it or not (and they don’t).

What’s going to happen to Calvin? It’s going to lose its rock star faculty. But it’s probably going to remain Christian. These liberal faculty are going to go on to greater things, professionally, and be able to dine out on how they were badly treated by the homo-hating fundagelicals at Calvin. But the CRC has taken a brave and unpopular stand for the Gospel. God sees.

If you care at all about Christian colleges like Calvin (and Bethel) and recognize the special place they occupy in Christianity, in higher ed, and in American society, you’ll want to read Kristin’s response to Dreher.

Like her at Calvin, I know no one at Bethel who is either a “homo-hating fundagelical” or a “post-Christian Christian.” Like her, I have colleagues who hold traditional views yet “care deeply for our students” (including those who identify as LGBTQ) and “have deep respect for their colleagues whose study of the Scriptures, disciplinary scholarship, and personal experiences have led them to a different conclusion.”

Above all, she and I both

know many colleagues who hold their position with deep humility, knowing that they might be wrong, knowing that they have only a partial understanding of the mysteries of God, that each of us is limited in our understanding of the law of God and the book of nature, and that to be a part of a tradition is to be committed to listening to voices that challenge us and, sometimes, disturb us. I know many who hold to “traditional” views who do not believe that one’s position on this issue defines the boundaries of orthodoxy.

That’s me, for what it’s worth. Five years ago, when I responded to an earlier version of Dreher’s sexuality-related invective against Christian higher ed (at the blog Kristin and I used to share), I described my Christian learning community in this way:

However imperfectly, we already work together to seek (and sometimes find) beauty, meaning, and the interconnectedness of knowledge. I had excellent (and very much non-religious) undergraduate and graduate educations, but I didn’t understand the complexity, nuance, and purpose of truth-seeking until I got to Bethel. Often, non-Christians are important influences and conversation partners in this work, but we do it not out of a desire for secular affirmation but because Jesus Christ is our Truth, as well as our Way and our Life.

And if other members of such Christ-centered learning communities disagree with me on sexuality, I don’t assume that it’s because they’re craven cowards, Trojan horses for secular humanism, or sitcom fans. [You’d have to read the original post to get the sitcom reference.] Rather, I assume that we interpret Scripture differently and try to learn what I can from their insights.

As Kristin continued, she shared her hard-earned insights (as the author of Jesus and John Wayne) into why it’s “in the interest of people like Rod Dreher to erase the existence of any reasoned, nuanced, and principled middle ground,” as evident not only on LGBT issues but, “especially this week, around the issue of abortion.”

Now, I think it’s also possible to find those on the left who cannot accept the possibility that there are Christians trying to hold onto “reasoned, nuanced, and principled” views on both sexuality and abortion. But it’s hard to blame them, given how long the hypocrisy, fear, and anger of some Christian conservatives has obscured the faith, hope, and love of others.

In any event, I’d rather the church pay more attention to the beam in its own eye and join Kristin in calling out those who, in the name of Jesus Christ, wield power that “depends on a stark binary, on a simplistic division of us vs. them.”

Meanwhile, it’s in the “messy middle” spanning “us” and “them” where Christian college faculty and staff do work that is as far beyond the view and understanding of the likes of Dreher as it seen and appreciated by students, parents, and alumni.

I know that our administrators and trustees see and appreciate us, too, even as they feel pressured to satisfy the insatiable fears of constituents who have been spiritually formed by the rhetoric of culture war. Debates over sexuality, like those over race, gender, and any number of other controversial issues, aren’t easy for Christian colleges. But they give us a golden opportunity to bear a different kind of Christian witness. Here once more, I can’t do better than to quote Kristin Du Mez and urge us to

remind fellow Christians that the Bible tells us not to fear. Those who seek to live obediently with humility—humility that, in discerning how to live as faithful Christians, we will inevitably get things wrong, but that we can nevertheless remain secure in the knowledge that God’s truth is not dependent on our perception of that truth.

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