Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College decisions spark tensions

by christiannewsjournal
Eastern Mennonite University

The governing board of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities wrapped up a two-day meeting today, and the future of the organization could hang in the balance.

Last week, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College announced they would change their hiring policies to include non-celibate homosexual staff and faculty. The two institutions had been in extended, open policy review processes, so the news did not come as a surprise to many CCCU institutions.

But the CCCU response did come as a surprise: In a brief statement, the council said only that it was aware of the policy changes and would discuss them at regular meetings of the board and membership. The board was already scheduled to meet yesterday and today, but the regular membership meeting will not take place until early next year.

“We hope the process doesn’t drag itself out for months and months,” said Brent Ellis, president of Spring Arbor University, a Michigan institution affiliated with the Free Methodist Church. “I’m not sure that us taking six months to deliberate is going to lead us to any other conclusion than what we would already have at this point in time.”

Some schools say they won’t be able to wait that long. Ellis said the change “opens up other institutions for potential conflicts. We haven’t changed anything, and we’re being required to defend our position.”

Dub Oliver, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., estimated at least 40 institutions would withdraw from the CCCU if it delays its decision until next year. He said his institution is not in doubt about keeping its biblical position on marriage, but he’s unsure if it will end up being with the CCCU or in a new organization: “I just need to know who we’ll be standing with.”

Some presidents are pushing for a special membership vote that would quickly settle the issue. But in a statement issued late this afternoon, CCCU leaders said they would stick with their original plan: “In the coming weeks and months, the board will be calling all member presidents to discuss this issue. This plan is consistent with feedback from CCCU members, the vast majority of whom are supportive of the board following a good and respectful process before making any decision.”

Sherilyn Emberton, president of Indiana’s Huntington University, said her institution is likely one that is willing to wait. She said sometimes stepping back is helpful, but “we would anticipate that out of that January decision would be something we could agree to. … I don’t see a lot of opportunity for compromise on this issue.”

Religious institutions’ right to hire only believers was the core reason a group of institutions founded the CCCU four decades ago. While the council maintains student programs and other functions, member institutions say its lobbying presence in Washington is the biggest reason they are part of the coalition.

“They’ve spent decades developing relationships on Capitol Hill,” Ellis said, noting all those relationships may not transfer to a spinoff group. “To develop an organization that would have the same standing and audience of the CCCU would be difficult.”

Some presidents told me they were led to believe Eastern Mennonite (EMU) would voluntarily leave the organization if and when it changed its employment policy. EMU president Loren Swartzendruber did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, but EMU spokesperson Lauren Jefferson said: “No such indication was made.”

Swartzendruber is a CCCU board member, but he recused himself from deliberations on this issue.

One potential compromise could lie in transitioning the two institutions to affiliate status, since they no longer align with the rest of the member schools on this key issue. Jefferson said EMU is open to that option.

The CCCU has always maintained loose membership criteria, and both EMU and Goshen argue they still meet the mandate to deliver “Christ-centered” education and hire only Christian faculty. Emberton noted the sanctity of life and marriage have always been “implied and understood” for full membership.

“This isn’t a rocket science issue,” said Ellis. “It’s very clear in Scripture that God-honoring sexual relationships are exclusively in marriage between a man and a woman.”

In its Tuesday statement provided to WORLD, the CCCU board acknowledged the “vast majority” of its member institutions hold to historic, orthodox teachings on marriage between a man and a woman, but stopped short of saying all needed to hold the same view.

The controversy is the first major test for CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra, who was hired last year after her predecessor lasted only 10 tumultuous months.

“My desire is that the CCCU would remain sound and strong and continue the great work it’s been doing for several decades,” Ellis said.

— by J.C. Derrick

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