The CCCU, Union University, Gay Marriage, and the Problem of Evangelicalism

Over at First Things, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary has weighed in on Union University‘s decision to leave the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. 

If you have read this far, you probably know the story.  We have covered it here and here.  Union University has left the CCCU–an associated of Christian colleges–because it refused to expel two Mennonite colleges (Goshen and Eastern Mennonite) for allowing gay marriage among the faculty.

Let’s review.  There is nothing about gay marriage or sexual ethics in the CCCU membership requirements.  College and universities affiliated with the CCCU must have a mission statement that is “Christ-centered and rooted in the historic Christian faith” and be committed to “integrating Biblical faith with education programs.” I realize that this looks very restrictive to many secular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but from the perspective of evangelical Protestantism in America this is rather broad.  The CCCU has schools representing many Protestant denominations.  Member schools all think that being “Christ-centered” is very important, but they interpret what that means in different ways.  I am sure, for example, that both Goshen and Eastern Mennonite believe that their embrace of gay marriage is fitting with their deeply held beliefs about what it means to be “Christ-centered” and Christian.

Moreover, as Jay Green suggested in the comment section of this post, Goshen and EMU seem to be committed to defending the religious liberty of other CCCU members institutions who uphold more traditional views of marriage.

Trueman gets to the heart of the matter.  The problem, he argues, is with evangelicalism and its failure to offer any confessional boundaries.  He writes:

Many classic Protestant confessions contain definitions of marriage which implicitly rule out of bounds same sex marriage (and any other permutation of partners which the human mind might invent). And is marriage really more important than, say, the doctrinal differences between Baptists and Quakers? In the current climate, Christians need to be very careful to make sure that the perceived political needs of the hour do not translate into words and actions that can easily be shown by our critics to be highly selective and very inconsistent with respect to our larger doctrinal commitments and convictions.

This points to a wider problem which evangelicalism looks set to face in the very near future. It implicitly assumes too much and explicitly states too little. Roman Catholics have their Catechism, confessional Lutherans have their Book of Concord and Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Evangelicals often have at best very minimal doctrinal statements and a range of other, often confessionally unstated, cultural concerns which guide policy.  These brief statements of faith and ‘shadow confessions’ are wholly inadequate to handle the coming cultural storm or indeed to guide day-to-day catechesis within the churches themselves.  They  also mean that the ‘gospel’ can tend to operate as a useful means for justifying any distinctive stand which evangelicals care to take.


This problem is both theological and cultural. Theologically, it will not be solved by the simple addition of a clause on marriage to such statements. The Christian understanding of marriage rests upon a whole complex of other doctrines, from creation to Christology to anthropology to eschatology. For a confessional statement on marriage to be coherent, the confession must also address all of these other topics.  

Culturally, while American evangelicalism may be numerically healthy, the Union/CCCU debacle indicates a fundamental flaw in the movement which will only become more acute over time. It is too rooted in extra-ecclesial alliances and thus tends towards confessional reductionism.  If evangelicalism is to have long term theological stability, it needs to learn from churches with properly elaborate confessions and catechisms. That will involve a major culture shift which might well cost its current leadership significant power and indeed money. A movement built on broad-based networks of churches and parachurch organizations will inevitably fragment when it tries to move to more thorough doctrinal statements. Yet failure to do so is surely not an option at this point in time.  Evangelicalism may have the numbers but it needs confessional coherence to maintain its identity in face of the coming challenges.  The ambiguity of the case of Union and the CCCU represents precisely the kind of problem which a lack of comprehensive confessional commitment necessarily involves.  

Union’s stand is no doubt popular with the base.  It may also serve a useful wider purpose. Yet it points not to the strength but to the weakness of evangelicalism.

16 thoughts on “The CCCU, Union University, Gay Marriage, and the Problem of Evangelicalism

  1. Um, how is war not at issue in a nation that has been at war for the last decade and a half? Who has been paying taxes to support that war? Do these colleges have ROTC programs? Flags in their chapels? One could do on and on. And again, is war a less significant moral, Biblical, doctrinal, theological, etc issue than sex? The point is — this isn't about theology or doctrine. It is about culture war politics.

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  2. The Mennonites certainly believe that pacifism is not just a good thing, but essential to what it means to be Christ-centered, yet somehow they've stayed in this organization with other Christians who see things differently. Is sexual ethics somehow more of a deal-breaker or non-negotiable than matters of war and peace, life and death?

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  3. John: Sorry about calling you “Jim”.

    Tom: You say that “it's the layers of unBiblical doctrine [or in the PCUSA's case anti-Biblical praxis] that have corrupted the Christian religion since its origin.” I have some questions for you:

    1) Am I correct in thinking that an interpretation of scripture, such as the Catholic Catechism, is unBiblical in your view?
    2) How can one know how to apply the Bible without interpretations of it?
    3) Why would we think that the the Bible should be the only source of doctrine? For example, in September Robin Collins will be arguing that the universe is finely tuned by God for us to discover it. Collins takes this to indicate that basic science is providential and is good. This is clearly unBiblical since nothing in the Bible indicates that the Universe is finely tuned for discoverability. Indeed, Collin's talk contradicts scripture in that Collins rejects young earth. Is Collins wrong to look to unBiblical sources as Collins has? If so why?
    4) Does scripture speak to question 3? (It seems to me that it does. I would say that to reject all doctrine that is unBiblical is to be like the Pharisees. Of course, that is an interpretation and perhaps one that can be challenged, but I don't see how to challenge it or defend it without going beyond scripture. This is because scripture doesn't come right out and tell us how to interpret it or apply it. Interpretation is needed to tell what scripture says about how we interpret it. I'm curious to hear how either you or a Biblicist would respond.)

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  4. This points to a wider problem which evangelicalism looks set to face in the very near future. It implicitly assumes too much and explicitly states too little. Roman Catholics have their Catechism, confessional Lutherans have their Book of Concord and Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession of Faith.

    Dr. Trueman misoverestimates the power of ecclesiastical law. The Presbyterian Church [USA] just went “Lesbyterian”

    http://www.delawareonline.com/story/life/2015/03/19/wilmington-church-ordain-first-married-lesbian-couple/25027443/

    despite putatively subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith

    http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/boc2014.pdf

    which reads

    [XXVI]Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time

    As for

    Evangelicals often have at best very minimal doctrinal statements and a range of other, often confessionally unstated, cultural concerns which guide policy.

    Evangelicals would say that's a feature, not a flaw; it's the layers of unBiblical doctrine [or in the PCUSA's case anti-Biblical praxis] that have corrupted the Christian religion since its origin. There is only the Bible–magisteria and Confessions are the works of men, and hold no intrinsic efficacy, as we see in the case of the Presbyterians here. In the eyes of a Biblicist, Trueman could not be more wrong.

    [Indeed, the Reformed Confessions have been revised numerous times by their various adherents; one would think the PCUSA needs to get out their red pen.]

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  5. Ha! I've been spending a lot of time (figuratively) with Worthen lately. And you're right, of course. My point was mostly to underscore that socio-theological differences in the makeup of contemporary evangelicalism are a complicating factor here: It's not just that evangelicals disagree on specific (and I would argue secondary) matters of belief like sexuality, but that they also sometimes disagree on the best ways by which to orient their religious worlds (i.e., creed vs. lived discipleship).

    And you're right about the BIC and other Anabaptist groups: we do have confessions (though “fairly detailed” is subjective, especially when compared with some lengthy Presbyterian creeds). But it's equally true that the use of these confessions, in the Anabaptist contexts I'm most familiar with, is more as guideline than rigid proscription. That's at least part of the cause of much of the tumult in Mennonite Church USA over sexuality issues.

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  6. Devin: A very Molly Worthenesque answer. But certainly there is some common core of BELIEFS that Christians can all agree upon. The Apostles Creed? Nicean Creed? Lewis's *Mere Christianity?”

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  7. A nice idea, but one unlikely to gain much traction within the broad swath of American evangelicalism, in my opinion. Trueman's call is likely to resonate with Presbyterians (read: Calvinists) and other high-church Protestants who identify with evangelicalism. It will sit less well with the low-church and historically non-creedal Arminians within the group, like the holiness Wesleyan's profile in Hatch's book (which is great, by the way!) and the Mennonites who (inadvertently) set off this whole “crisis” in the first place.

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  8. Tim: Good thoughts. (And I am “John” not “Jim”). As Drew notes in the comment above, religious individualism and American democracy have always gone hand in hand. Americans have always feared any kind of commitment, confession, or catechism that might limit their autonomy and freedom. This is why Catholicism had such a hard time catching on in the United States.

    Drew: Great book. I have taught it several times at Messiah but I am guessing you were never in any of those classes. I recently taught in my History of American Evangelicalism course last Fall. It also worked well in my early American republic course.

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  9. For those looking to get deeper into the historical context for (American) Evangelicalism's lack of doctrinal cohesion, I'm currently working through Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity. I think it sheds some light on how there is an historical correlation between political libertarianism and religious libertarianism.

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  10. Amen! Thanks Jim. Trueman’s article is wonderful. Thanks for pointing it out. Trueman suggests that the evangelical movement should establish “properly elaborate confessions and catechisms”. He says that what is needed is “a major culture shift”. This is right and important. Systematic thought about our core commitments and a carefully articulated theology requires a lot of hard work and difficult work. Reading others (such as Thomas Aquinas) who have attempted to do so might be a good idea. I would suggest that the study of history, philosophy, and theology are an important part of the culture shift that Trueman is calling for.

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