In his recent article responding to Carl Trueman, Provost of Union University C. Ben Mitchell makes the point again—joining his President—that Union’s reason for disunion with the CCCU was theological fidelity in the face of Goshen and Eastern Mennonite's theological unfaithfulness.
His point is that Union stands for being “followers of Jesus” and “Christian unity” and “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” Further, they are already aware of “disagreement about some theological matters” and the CCCU schools are committed to “certain essentials of the faith once for all delivered to the saints” simultaneously adhering to particular theological postures in one’s particular school and its theological tradition.
Union’s own mission statement enabled them to be part of the CCCU while it stood with the CCCU’s mission. As Mitchell puts it:
We take the CCCU’s missional affirmation of Christ-centeredness and service to biblical truth very seriously. We believe that claiming Christ’s lordship over Christian higher education is, or should be, a robust theological claim.
There it is: “a robust theological claim.” From which Mitchell makes this inference:
That is why we have been so deeply disappointed over the last nearly two years in the CCCU leadership’s unwillingness to deal decisively with whether or not the organization will take a stand for traditional marriage. The good news that Jesus is Lord entails that we believe what he says wholeheartedly and follow him faithfully. In our view, one cannot consistently affirm his lordship and affirm the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.
He finishes with what amounts to a slight left jab at Carl Trueman who said the connection at CCCU is “pragmatic”:
We believe that the CCCU leadership’s indecision to affirm exclusively what we take to be Jesus’ view of marriage hinders its ability to promote and defend distinctively Christ-centered higher education. Insofar as that support includes advocacy in Washington, D.C. for institutions of Christian higher education, we believe our association with the CCCU significantly weakens our collective voice for our distinctive mission, at a time when we are under increasing scrutiny. If defending our mission of biblical, Christ-centeredness is pragmatic, we plead guilty.
To all this I would say: It is big leap to go from the essentials of the faith and theological robustness to the ethics of same-sex marriage. Not that I disagree with Union or with traditionalists on the ethical stance about same-sex marriage —I’ve been contending for the traditional view for a long time. The issue is that essentials of the faith and theological robustness speak to the Christian creeds and not to anything about marriage. The CCCU’s terms about theology, as I understand them, were designed to set a boundary against theologically liberal colleges and seminaries and against church- and denomination-based schools. The problem was that there were some Christian colleges in name only. Perhaps now Union thinks that of Goshen and Eastern Mennonite. I suspect these two offending institutions have not changed their theological statements.
Furthermore, the CCCU has been a mishmash of theological orientations and persuasions and articulations for its entire history. Notice this list of Christian colleges/universities and that Union has been in some kind of “fellowship” with these schools for as long as it has been part of the CCCU. The point is clear: There is here a widespread—if not breathtaking—set of differences between these schools. Theological robustness is stretched beyond anything that could possibly be maintained in one theological statement. Here is the list:
Anderson University in Indiana
Evangel and other charismatic and Pentecostal schools
All the Churches of Christ schools
Franciscan at Steubenville is overtly and radically Catholic
Friends, George Fox, Malone and other Quaker schools
Fuller Theological Seminary
Traditionally, conservative Evangelical schools will have tensions with all or some of these institutions, and vice versa. The CCCU embraced this kind of diversity at the theological level because its concerns were not primarily theological but rather rooted in some very basic agreements.
What cracked the surface here, then, was the culture war being waged over same-sex marriage—not commitment to theological robustness and the essentials of the faith. What Carl Trueman rightly calls “comprehensive confessional commitment” is not what the CCCU has in mind because it offers only a basic theological commitment for pragmatic, practical, and strategic common concerns. These are schools who say they are “Christ-centered” and who believe in the “essentials of the faith” but who gather not to discuss theology but to help one another along in their commitment to Christian higher education. One could well say the CCCU’s statement is too thin to garner deep theological unity—but it may well answer back that its concerns are more practical.
So what this crack-up with the CCCU illustrates is the total inability for theologically non-specific theological statements to hold Christians together theologically. Generic brand theological statements in low churches will never be enough and nearly all such churches end up amending the statements, producing white papers, or announcing at some level new conclusions about pressing theological concerns. The CCCU is not in the position, nor does it have the theological breadth and depth, to adjudicate pressing theological challenges.
Union’s disunion will inevitably lead to isolationism. Baptists have a history of splitting and reforming, and they have used two methods: (1) bring it to a congregational vote or (2) act according to conscience and soul liberty and break away to found a new church. The latter was the way of Roger Williams because the former just wouldn’t reach his conclusions often enough. Unfortunately, Union has chosen the way of Roger Williams to form his famous church of one. With whom now will Union form a cooperative fellowship to participate in healthy and diverse discussions about Christian higher education? I’m watching.
As for me, I wish Union had remained, fostered serious dialogue, and waited for schools that don’t fit to see the error of their ways. The basis for such dialogue is already in place.
Scot McKnight is the Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary.