What is Going on at Union University?

I have friends and acquaintances who teach at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.  These folks are serious Christian thinkers and educators.  I have never visited Union, but I have always respected its work from afar.

This is why I was disappointed to hear that Union has left the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.  Inside Higher Education reports:

Union University, in Tennessee, has quit the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, saying it cannot remain in a Christian group in which some member institutions will hire people in same-sex marriages.

Union may not be the last college to leave the council, and its action is creating division in a group that has been proud of representing Christian colleges from many denominations and viewpoints. But while there is a diversity of views about many issues among CCCU institutions, the issue of same-sex marriage has been elevated by some institutions to one on which no compromise is possible.

The action by Union follows the announcements last month by Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College that they were willing to hire faculty members in same-sex marriages. The two universities, until then, had said they would hire faculty members who were celibate (gay or straight) or married in heterosexual relationships. The new policy means that gay and straight applicants for faculty positions will be judged in the same way. The two colleges are the first CCCU members to be willing to hire gay and lesbian faculty members who are married to other gay or lesbian people.

Union President Samuel W. Oliver released a letter he sent to the CCCU in which he explained that while Union is a member of higher education groups with a range of views, it could not be a member of a Christian higher education group that deviated from the university’s views on marriage. Eastern Mennonite and Goshen “abandoned fidelity to God’s word when they endorsed same-sex marriage,” Oliver wrote.

“The reason we are passionate about this is because what we are talking about is not a secondary or tertiary theological issue — marriage is at the heart of the Gospel. To deny the Bible’s concept of marriage is to deny the authority of Scripture,” Oliver wrote.

Want to learn more? I strongly suggest reading the following commentators:

1.  Chris Gehrz, aka “The Pietist Schoolman.”  Chris is the chair of the history department evangelical Bethel University in St. Paul, MN and the author of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education.  Read his posts on this issue here.

2.  Scot McKnight, New Testament scholar and author of the Jesus Creed blog.  Scot is
supporter of traditional marriage, but he challenges Union’s belief that marriage is
somehow “at the heart of the Gospel.” Read his post here.  A taste:

Let me register this: I disagree with Eastern Mennonite and Goshen, and often do on theie progressive courage fronts, and Union and others can do what they want, but this is culture war stuff being used theologically to create division…

I do have a couple of observations/thoughts:

First, Union’s decision to separate from the CCCU seems a bit hasty.  The CCCU has not made any decision about the status of Eastern Mennonite’s or Goshen’s membership yet.

Second, when it comes to marriage being the “heart of the gospel,” I am convinced by McKnight.

Perhaps I am biased–McKnight taught me Greek and New Testament at Trinity
Evangelical School, the divinity school where former Union president David Dockery now serves as president.

Third, I am very curious to hear from members of the Union University faculty.  What
does the faculty think about Oliver’s decision to pull the university out of the CCCU? (I
am guessing that faculty who disagree with Oliver’s decision might be hesitant to speak
up out of fear of consequences from Oliver and his inner circle).  I would be very
surprised if Oliver has universal support for this move among the faculty.

Only time will tell how the issue of gay marriage will divide the CCCU.  At the moment
see three groups.  First, some institutions are willing to leave the CCCU over this issue
before any official decision about Eastern Mennonite’s and Goshen’s membership has
been made.  They are practicing what might be called “second-degree separation.” They will not associate with Eastern Mennonite or Goshen (and any other CCCU school that might affirm gay marriage) and they will not associate with Christian colleges who believe in traditional marriage but are unwilling to kick these Mennonite schools out of the CCCU.  Union and Oklahoma Wesleyan (so far) fall into this category.

The second group is made up of institutions that privilege traditional marriage and are willing to be part of a CCCU that permits schools that affirm gay marriage

The third group is made up of institutions that will wait to see how the CCCU responds to Goshen and Eastern Mennonite and decide to leave the CCCU if it allows these Mennonite schools to maintain membership in the organization.

The CCCU makes its decision about Goshen and Eastern Mennonite on August 31.

And what about the Lilly Fellows National Network of colleges and universities? Union
University is a member of this organization.  Will they leave this fellowship of church
related schools because many of the schools in the network hire homosexuals

ADDENDUM:  I also encourage you to check out John Hawthorne’s post: Dis-Union in the CCCU

18 thoughts on “What is Going on at Union University?

  1. I heard from someone at the CCCU today that clarifies a few things. August 31 is the deadline for gathering information on this case. A decision will come at some point after that.

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  2. I see your point about calling it second degree separation, except the fact that Goshen and EMU are actually members of the organization with whom Union is breaking ties.

    The whole thing is tricky because neither of these Mennonite schools has violated the letter of any of the CCCU by-laws in changing their policy: they still require a faith commitment of all faculty. So there isn't any formal reason to kick them out. And I know for a fact that both schools made it known that they would fully back the right of other CCCU institutions in their efforts to preserve their employee and student conduct policies. But I would predict that both schools will be moved to affiliate status, where other institutions that have similar policies are already.

    As schools within the pacifist tradition, do you think Goshen and EMU should have made this move voluntarily? Wouldn't that have been the peaceable thing to do? Maybe I'm not being fair.

    As far as I know, there is no pressure being applied to Covenant to leave the CCCU. However, if the CCCU ceased to be a place committed to lobbying on behalf of robust religious liberty in the wake of pressures building to enforce nondiscrimination policies on sexual identity, I think the CCCU as we know it would cease to exist.

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  3. I thought that a Union faculty member or two would “go rogue” and jump into this conversation. Too risky I imagine. It looks like Oliver and company have really circled the wagons in Jackson

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  4. Jay Green: Thanks for the comment. It IS “second-degree separation” in the context of the CCCU. Isn't it? Isn't the break with other LGBT-affirming schools implied?

    Yes, of course the CCCU needs to lobby on behalf of Christian colleges in Washington. And maybe this will play into its decision on August 31. Does it weaken its lobby? I don't know. Just how weak would the CCCU lobby become if two (or more schools) embrace gay marriage on religious grounds. I wonder if EMU and Goshen would support the CCCU's commitment to religious liberty for Christian colleges even if that meant being a part of a lobby for schools that oppose gay marriage based on religious convictions. This, it seems, would be a consistent position.

    Where is Covenant coming down on all of this? Will they leave the CCCU if EMU and Goshen stay?

    It also strikes me that EMU and Goshen have been pretty quiet about all of this. Do they even want to stay in the CCCU?

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  5. Tim Schoettle said…

    Tom, I agree that there are times when swift and immediate action are called for. However, I think such times are few and far between. Excessive haste is a much more common an error than excessive hesitation when it comes to severing a relationship. In this case we have a slow brewing conflict and/or disagreement in which it is far from clear how to best engage with those with whom we disagree. In most cases severing a relationship should be done slowly and after serious attempts at dialogue and mediation. That's how I feel about the case of Union and the CCCU.

    What Jay Green said. I also think the CCCU can move quickly to get Union back in the fold by requiring Goshen and EMU to recant or face the boot. I have noticed that in Reformation politics, it's often the orthodox who leave rather than stay and fight the liberals. For Union to decline to debate what they consider to be Biblically undebatable and therefore non-mediatable is perhaps wise, not foolish.

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  6. Sorry I'm a little late to the conversation here. While I agree that the move by Union was hasty (could've waited till a final decision by the CCCU was rendered) and unfortunate, I don't quite see it as a case of second-degree separation. Seems like first-degree separationism to me. It's not that they have broken ties with organizations who happen to link to LGBT-affirming schools in some other setting. They are breaking with Goshen and EMU because of their changed stance on gay relationships, and have broken with all other CCCU schools as a consequence.

    You have to admit that the move by Goshen and EMU severely weakens the standing of the CCCU as a lobbying agency in the midst of what may well turn out to be the greatest crisis in its existence: determining whether religious schools like those of the CCCU will retain the right to set religiously based standards of conduct regarding sexuality for students and employees while also retaining their tax-except status, federal financial aid, and regional accreditation. Having two schools within the fold who no longer hold to such standards kind of weakens the united front of CCCU member schools. Wouldn't you say that one of the core objectives of the CCCU is to have a strong and clear lobby within Washington DC on behalf of Christian colleges?

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  7. Thanks John. I appreciate the feedback.

    Tom, I agree that there are times when swift and immediate action are called for. However, I think such times are few and far between. Excessive haste is a much more common an error than excessive hesitation when it comes to severing a relationship. In this case we have a slow brewing conflict and/or disagreement in which it is far from clear how to best engage with those with whom we disagree. In most cases severing a relationship should be done slowly and after serious attempts at dialogue and mediation. That's how I feel about the case of Union and the CCCU.

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  8. John Fea said…
    Tim: Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan (another CCCU school that is pulling out over this issue), said: “Unfortunately, now, even if they ultimately do the right thing and remove EMU and Goshen from membership, the damage is done.”

    Union and Oklahoma Wesleyan believe that EMU and Goshen do not belong in the CCCU, but they also believe that the CCCU's decision not to *immediately* remove EMU and Goshen (and take time to reflect and pray about it) is a sin in and of itself itself.

    I'm not sure the “sin” riff is a fair locution, John. “Sin” is a antiquated term if not a pejorative to a 21st century audience such as this. Playing to the crowd. 😉

    In its silence/inaction, the CCCU lost whatever value, confidence and authority it held in the eyes of some of its members. It became a collection of capital letters you pay dues to, only to have it betray your faith and ideals.

    Hell, you can find all sorts of people to betray your ideals for free.

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  9. Blogger Jay Case said…
    A classic fundamentalist move — or move by people with fundamentalist inclinations. In order to be pure, you have to remove yourself from institutions that don't remove themselves from those you believe to be corrupting the faith.

    You say that like it's a bad thing, Jay.

    “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

    If Union doesn't quit now, in hopes that its protest will carry, eventually it will be kicked out.

    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/03/the-unhappy-fate-of-optional-orthodoxy

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  10. Tim: Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan (another CCCU school that is pulling out over this issue), said: “Unfortunately, now, even if they ultimately do the right thing and remove EMU and Goshen from membership, the damage is done.”

    Union and Oklahoma Wesleyan believe that EMU and Goshen do not belong in the CCCU, but they also believe that the CCCU's decision not to *immediately* remove EMU and Goshen (and take time to reflect and pray about it) is a sin in and of itself itself.

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  11. John, I particularly liked your first comment: “First, Union's decision to separate from the CCCU seems a bit hasty. The CCCU has not made any decision about the status of Eastern Mennonite's or Goshen's membership yet.” Quite apart from the issue of gay marriage, it is always concerning to me when I am rushed and forced to act quickly before having time to reflect and pray. Today in very different circumstances, I had occasion to say to someone: “Please wait until after someone has made the wrong decision before judging them.”

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  12. Good point, Jay. This is what I had in mind with the “second-degree separation” remark. Ironically, many conservative Southern Baptists believe that they are the heirs of the neo-evangelical movement of the 1950s. If Graham were still active today would he have refused to allow gay Christians to be on the platform with him? He certainly had no problem with modernists or liberal Protestants–many of them who denied essential doctrines of Christian orthodoxy.

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  13. A classic fundamentalist move — or move by people with fundamentalist inclinations. In order to be pure, you have to remove yourself from institutions that don't remove themselves from those you believe to be corrupting the faith. This is why some fundamentalists would not support Billy Graham crusades: he would allow ministers onto his stage who supported his crusade, but the fundamentalists questioned their theology. It's the quest for institutional purity.

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  14. Whatever you may call this attempt to neutrally support potentially every particularity within a conflicted pluralism, it is not particularly Christian or Christocentric. It looks very much more like legal pragmatism within a liberal framework not directed by any over-arching values beyond pleasing your biggest donors and constituents.

    And we know where that always ends up:

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=O%E2%80%99Sullivan%E2%80%99s+Law
    _______________________

    “O’Sullivan’s Law states that any organization or enterprise that is not expressly right wing will become left wing over time.

    An enterprise can stave off O'Sullivan's Law if their creators keep it in mind and remain vigilant and truthful.

    The Annenberg Foundation was started by a Republican but it didn't take long before O'Sullivan's Law had them handing a domestic terrorist money for educating kids.

    The ACLU, the Ford Foundation and the Episcopal Church all fell to O’Sullivan’s Law.”

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  15. Apart from the hastiness, imprecise theological statements, and lack of comity is there not a real question why members should pay into an organization that may lobby for or against public policies that go against their own interests or values?

    As example of the CCCU's commitment to combating secularization, Hoogstra has pointed to their support for exemption from the SSH contraceptive mandate. That involved only a small fraction of their members. She also mentioned CCCU's legal support for the right of its members to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage.

    Whatever you may call this attempt to neutrally support potentially every particularity within a conflicted pluralism, it is not particularly Christian or Christocentric. It looks very much more like legal pragmatism within a liberal framework not directed by any over-arching values beyond pleasing your biggest donors and constituents.

    Isn't this the American way of secularization? By trying to hold together a union of antagonistic sects with antithetical agendas, you end up with a supposedly neutral referee on top, and out of the resulting negotiations and compromises that are made, each subsidiary member is compromised until they all reach a substantial homogeneous parity.

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