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.