Mennonites, evangelicals and the sexuality debate in Christian higher education

Sep 15, 2015 by

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This is the first of a two-part blog series on the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities as they decide on a course of action after two Mennonite colleges changed their hiring policies to include those in same-sex marriages.

In late July, two Christian colleges stirred up a bit of controversy with two simple words.

Goshen (Ind.) College and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., announced on July 20 their decision to add “sexual orientation” to their schools’ nondiscrimination policies. The decision opens the door for both institutions to hire staff and faculty in same-sex marriages.

The announcement received attention from both secular and religious press. It also put the schools somewhat at odds with their sponsoring denomination — Mennonite Church USA — which earlier in July affirmed its position on “traditional marriage” (one man, one woman) yet also passed a resolution — despite ongoing ferment within the church — extending “grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

CCCU logo

CCCU logo

The announcement prompted a brief statement from the Board of Directors of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, in which both Goshen and EMU hold membership. This policy change is a first in the CCCU.

In their statement, the CCCU directors promised to process this policy change in “deliberative and consultative” ways, including “calling all member presidents to discuss this issue.” Some reports have suggested that the policy change may result in Goshen’s and EMU’s expulsion from the organization.

Given the intensity and controversial nature of the national conversation about human sexuality and Christian higher education, it’s not surprising — though it’s quite admirable — that the CCCU is choosing conversation over swift action. Yet some voices in the CCCU have demanded a sharper, faster response.

Union University in Jackson, Tenn., followed by Oklahoma Wesleyan University in Bartlesville, Okla., announced their withdraw from CCCU over the policy changes. The brewing tension reflects the political, cultural and religious climates in which the CCCU finds itself. Yet there’s more to the story.

It’s worth noting the schools that made this policy change are both Mennonite. Mennonites and other Anabaptists (like the Brethren in Christ or the Mennonite Brethren) have long functioned on the margins of the predominantly Reformed American evangelicalism embodied in the CCCU. Yet they’ve also been key players in the development of Christian higher education since mid-century.

Exploring the post-World War II journeys of American Mennonites and evangelicals — sometimes intersecting, sometimes diverging — offers some much-needed context for the contemporary moment.

As historian Molly Worthen has pointed out in her delightfully written and analytically nuanced book Apostles of Reason, both disenchanted fundamentalists and quiet-in-the-land Mennonites were on an evangelical trajectory in the years during and after World War II. For fundamentalists like Reformed theologian Carl F. H. Henry and minister Harold Ockenga, that trajectory took the form of “neo-evangelicalism,” a project to return evangelical faith to its once-held place of cultural dominance. This project involved a simultaneous reformation of fundamentalist dogmatism and rejection of mainline Protestant hegemony. Neo-evangelicals would be “geared to the times” (to borrow the slogan of Youth for Christ) while clinging to the “old-time religion.” In 1942, they launched the National Association of Evangelicals, a para-church agency intended to unite born-again believers in the cause to return an evangelical worldview to the center of American civic and religious life.

Bender

Bender

For Mennonites like Harold Bender and Guy Hershberger, an evangelical trajectory took the form of “neo-Anabaptism,” a project to give historical and contemporary legitimacy to Radical Reformation faith. In 1943, Bender delivered “The Anabaptist Vision” as an address to the American Society of Church History — a paradigm-shifting exploration of Mennonitism. As an academic treatise, the talk tore down dominant caricatures and defended Anabaptism as a subject worthy of study within mainstream academia. As an exploration of Mennonite self-identity, it emboldened Mennonites to step outside their ethnic enclaves, equipped them with a necessary apologia for Christian pacifism, and enjoined them to a religious identity that Bender called “evangelical Anabaptism.” Hershberger’s work — especially his groundbreaking 1944 War, Peace, and Nonresistance — functioned in much the same ways.

For a time, these trajectories converged. Neo-Anabaptist Mennonites continued to see religious faith as a life of discipleship, while neo-evangelical fundamentalists — shaped by a starkly Reformed theology — continued to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture as a guide for Christian conduct. Even so, their shared desire for religious legitimacy bound them in a common cause. Anabaptist groups like the Brethren in Christ and the Mennonite Brethren formally joined the NAE; some of their members even assumed leadership roles in the organization. Meanwhile, neo-Anabaptist Mennonites like Bender and, later, John Howard Yoder engaged in sustained dialogue with neo-evangelicals on issues of war and peace. Outside the NAE, Anabaptists took the helm of para-church agencies like Youth for Christ, while presidents of Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) and Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., helped to found the Christian College Consortium (a forerunner of today’s CCCU).

These converging trajectories ultimately diverged, however, amid the cultural and political tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, as both traditions struggled to maintain unified responses to the provocations of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the counterculture revolution, second-wave feminism, the global food crisis and other developments.

Among neo-evangelicals, two factions emerged: Arch-conservatives like businessman J. Howard Pew and Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell demanded unreservedly pro-capitalist and pro-nationalist positions, while a more progressive faction — described by one contemporary observer as “young evangelicals” and headlined by Sojourners founder Jim Wallis and feminist Sharon Gallagher — pursued women’s equality, pacifism and social justice.

Meanwhile, Mennonites also felt the reverberations of social upheaval. Defenders of Bender’s vision of nonresistance — politically quietist and oriented toward humanitarian service rather than social protest — chided those who employed the “peace witness” in resisting the Vietnam draft, joining civil rights protests and lobbying Congress to end the war. Anabaptist groups across North America hotly debated the biblical authority for women’s ordination. While more progressive conferences began to place women in pastoral roles in the 1970s, others threatened to divide over the issue well into the 1980s and beyond. Meanwhile, a growing chasm also developed over the orientation of “mission” in an Anabaptist context: Was the church’s primary duty to address social inequality and provide relief, or should it concentrate on more traditional activities like evangelism and church planting?

Some of these challenges drew Anabaptists and evangelicals together. Ronald J. Sider, a BIC-born professor and theologian, served as an emergent leader for the progressive wing of neo-evangelicalism, organizing the gathering that led to its earliest manifesto and authoring one of the movement’s signature texts, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977). (Sider would later admit that his Anabaptist heritage decisively shaped the argument of the book.) Quite provocatively, he argued that, “If they were consistent, Evangelicals would be Anabaptists and Anabaptists would be Evangelicals,” and he urged his Anabaptist denomination, the Brethren in Christ, to “dare to become evangelical” by avoiding the extremes of both fundamentalism and Protestant liberalism, echoing the third-way rhetoric of early neo-evangelicals.

Yet on the whole, Anabaptists and evangelicals chose different paths in the late twentieth century. Progressives won the day within the major Mennonite denominations, concluding a decades-long theological move from nonresistance to justice and smoothing out the historic differences between Mennonites and the secular social-justice left. (When these denominations merged in 2002 to form MC USA, several conservative groups splintered off as alternatives to the perceivedly progressive MC USA.)

By contrast, the irenic, unity-driven project of neo-evangelicalism collapsed under the opposing pull of right- and left-wing factions, with the Jerry Falwell-led Religious Right emerging from the rubble to capture the national imagination and successfully shape Reagan-era politics.

More recently, the popularity of Anabaptist voices within evangelicalism — think of Christian nation myth-buster Greg Boyd, or “ordinary radical” Shane Claiborne — suggests something of a renewed convergence between evangelicalism and Anabaptism, especially for young Christians who reject the church-state union forged by Falwell and his contemporaries. Meanwhile, the ongoing fragmentation within MC USA over same-sex unions — the hemorrhaging of congregations and conferences, and the splintering off of new denominational alternatives like the “evangelical and Anabaptist” Evana Network — reflects a more fundamental reality: that the cultural tensions and transformations implicit in the community’s move from nonresistance to justice have not been fully resolved.

The simmering debates within the CCCU — Will Goshen and EMU be expelled? Subordinated to affiliate membership? Will they leave voluntarily? — may seem like a significant rupture within the evangelical coalition. But as it so often does, historical reflection provides another perspective.

As the unfolding of the 20th and early 21st centuries has shown, both collaboration and conflict, convergence and divergence have long characterized encounters between Anabaptists and evangelicals.

By reflecting on that history, we might approach the present moment in a more nuanced — and more humble — way.

Devin Manzullo-Thomas is the director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College. Chris Gehrz asked Manzullo-Thomaswhose research often takes him to the intersection between Anabaptist and Evangelical Christianity — to provide some historical perspective on the CCCU process for his blog, The Pietist Schoolman, where this first appeared.


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