Over at his Patheos blog, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has offered an interesting commentary on the move by Union University to leave the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Union has done this because of the decision by two member institutions, Eastern Mennonite and Goshen, to permit faculty and staff to be in same-sex marriages. McKnight does not agree with same-sex marriage nor the policy of the two colleges, but he objects to the language of ‘gospel’ being used by Union to justify its withdrawal.
I am more sympathetic to Union's move than McKnight is. I can see that extraordinary times could lead to action which, while not strictly necessary or perhaps even entirely consistent, might yet make an important public statement. But I do, however, have a lot of sympathy with his central point. Groups like CCCU exist for the mutual convenience of the members. Their unity is really pragmatic and only very superficially theological. Thus, the problem with leaving on the basis that gay marriage is a gospel issue is that CCCU’s membership is so diverse that it embodies at best only a very minimal understanding of what the gospel is. Indeed, it is unlikely that Union would ever have regarded the available doctrinal consensus of CCCU institutions as an adequate account of the Christian faith, so to protest on this one issue makes accusations of simple anti-gay prejudice look plausible to the outside world. The gospel was never the basis of the confederation in the first place so can hardly provide a rationale for departure.
The obvious question is: If the definition of marriage is so important to member colleges as a basis for such institutional connections, why was it not part of the articles of association to begin with? One might object, of course, that gay marriage is a relatively recent issue, but that is beside the point. 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.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.