(RNS) — Calvin University’s board of trustees has allowed a group of faculty members to deviate from a creed clause that considers sex outside of heterosexual marriage to be sinful, allowing them to continue serving in Christian school with respect for their beliefs.
The board vote on Friday (Oct. 28) to accept each of the individual faculties’ statements on confession issues means they will be allowed to maintain good standing at the Grand Rapids, Michigan school, which is wholly owned by the Christian Reformed Church, a Dutch Calvinist denomination of approximately 200,000 members. The school did not release the names or number of teachers who disagreed, as they were confidential.
The explanation of the difficulty of confession, sometimes called a “gravamen,” was necessary after the annual synod of the Christian Reformed Church voted this summer to codify its opposition to homosexual sex by elevating it to the status of confession or declaration of faith.
Faculties hired by Calvin University must sign a document stating that their beliefs correspond to a set of historical Christian creeds and confessions, such as the Nicene Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism. The faculty handbook states that they “must teach, speak and write in accordance with the confessions”.
But many professors at the 146-year-old school no longer believe that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful. And they want to support LGBTQ students on campus.
“It’s a matter of integrity,” said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history professor at Calvin who was among the first group of faculty members to request permission to deviate from the CRC’s stance on sex. “It seemed necessary to register my dissent so that I would have clarity on whether it was a space where I could continue to work, or if I no longer fit within the mission of the community.”
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The university is known in larger Christian higher education for its supportive and pastoral approach to LGBTQ students. It allows a student group, the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, to function on campus, and in the 2020-21 school year, the university failed to challenge an openly gay student body president.
However, the university does not allow students to have premarital sex and defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Those rules will not change, says a university spokesperson.
This year, Calvin did not renew a professor’s appointment for two years after agreeing to conduct same-sex marriage. That wedding also led to the university cutting ties with its old research center, the Center for Social Research, where one of the marriage partners worked.
In a statement, Calvin’s chairman of the board, Bruce Los, said the university benefits from having “different views among the faculties as they remain committed to upholding the CRC’s denominational standards.”
The university consulted with the church to give professors the right to disagree on this issue.
However, the matter is not over. In granting the professors’ wishes, the board said it would review professors’ guidelines on how to continue their work in a way that respects the authority of the denomination, but also protects their academic freedom.
The revised guidelines are expected in the coming weeks.
“Our wish is that Calvin be a place where even our differences of opinion are marked by love, charity and grace,” Provost Noah Toly said in an email. “We are hopeful that this process and outcome can serve as a model for others as we continue to grapple with important issues.”
A university spokesperson said candidates for faculty positions will be asked to affirm Calvin’s denominational standards. If they are unable to do so, they are expected to file a gravamen with the Professional Status Committee and the Board of Trustees before being hired.
Rev. Zachary King, general secretary of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, said Calvin has a long history of both denominational devotion and academic freedom.
The university, King said, “allows for dialogue and research on a range of issues that affect theology and doctrine. ”
When asked how she felt after the board’s decision, Benita Wolters-Fredlund, dean of the School of Humanities, wrote in an email to Religion News Service that she received a lot of responses. including: “relief that my job has been spared, as have the jobs of others in the group I care deeply about,” and “gratitude to the Board of Directors for a response that emphasized unity rather than discord.”
“I hope this decision will enable us to focus on the collective work of equipping students to be Christ’s agents of renewal,” Wolters-Fredlund wrote.
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(An earlier version of this story stated that the board received support from the church in granting the right to dissent to professors. It has been corrected to say that the university has consulted with the church. )