Eastern University has become the first non-Mennonite Christian school in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) to amend its policies to allow for the hiring of LGBT+ faculty and to add sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination statement, according to Religion News Service. In response the CCCU has put Eastern’s membership is on “hiatus” and removed the school from its online list.
The change in policy isn’t completely out of character. Eastern University is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA, a mainline denomination with a history of theologically liberal positions. The school had previously welcomed openly LGBT+ students and allowed a student-led club to advocate for LGBT+ students. For a liberal mainline Protestant school to discard Christian orthodoxy and embrace a heretical view of sexual immorality isn’t shocking.
Still, it raises the question of why such shifts occur and whether they’re inevitable. Eastern was founded in 1925 to be an institution that was theologically conservative in embracing the Bible and the “fundamentals of the faith.” But in less than 100 years, the school has discarded historic Christian orthodoxy. What leads to such change?
It might be presumptuous to imply the path from orthodoxy to heterodoxy is the same for all institutions. Yet there does seem to be a recurring pattern that includes three steps.
1. Enter through the egalitarian opening.
Let’s start with a controversial yet uncontestable claim: every Christian institution that now rejects the orthodox Christian view of sexuality first embraced the egalitarian view of gender.
Pointing this out may seem unfair. Egalitarianism is a second-order issue—orthodox Christians may disagree about it, but it nevertheless creates significant boundaries. For example, women serving as pastors is a second-order issue, akin to the mode of baptism. Sincere believers may come to different conclusions, but they are unlikely to be able to join the same church.
Every Christian institution that now rejects the orthodox Christian view of sexuality first embraced the egalitarian view of gender.
Sexual morality, however, is a first-order issue, a fundamental truth of the Christian faith. The sexually immoral, adulterers, and homosexuals are among the groups that will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9). To teach people they can embrace such sexual immorality and still go to heaven is to promote heresy.
Why associate the two issues? Because without the groundwork laid by egalitarianism, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for people to embrace certain types of sexual immorality, such as LGBT+, and claim to be faithful Christians. As Ligon Duncan has explained,
The denial of complementarianism undermines the church’s practical embrace of the authority of Scripture (thus eventually and inevitably harming the church’s witness to the Gospel). The gymnastics required to get from “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” in the Bible, to “I do allow a woman to teach and to exercise authority over a man” in the actual practice of the local church, are devastating to the functional authority of the Scripture in the life of the people of God.
This destruction of the authority of the Scripture made it possible for LGBT+ groups to gain a foothold in Christian institutions, especially in colleges and universities. Additionally, by eliminating gender distinctives the egalitarian movement undermined the concept of gender essentialism. Egalitarians are not solely at fault, of course. But they’re not altogether innocent either.
The point, though, is not to cast blame but rather to highlight an obvious reality: any institution that’s currently egalitarian is highly susceptible to being overtaken by those promoting a heretical view of sexuality. Those who want to advocate for LGBT+ acceptance enter through the egalitarian opening.
2. Promote the unconstrained future.
The egalitarian movement also popularized the notion that the past could be dismissed if it constrains desires, particularly the desires of women. To conclude that the Bible allows women to be pastors, the movement had to throw out nearly 2,000 years of thinking, teaching, exegesis, and biblical reflection. Yet for the most part, egalitarians attempted to reach their foregone conclusions by making arguments based on logic, hermeneutics, and reason. The promoters of sexual immorality who follow in their wake have abandoned that thoughtful approach.
Mary Harrington observes that many ideas promoted by this group aren’t evaluated on the basis of being true, or even reasonable, but on how much they constrain desire—and constraining desire is now taboo.
Harrington notes that most people now believe the enemy is “anything that limits the free play of individual desire.” And there’s nothing that constrains desire more than orthodoxy. For Christian institutions, orthodoxy is based primarily on the Bible but also on the creeds, catechisms, and other writings of earlier believers. For the promoters of sexual immorality, this enemy—orthodoxy—must be overcome so individual desire can reign more fully.
For the promoters of sexual immorality, this enemy—orthodoxy—must be overcome so individual desire can reign more fully.
If this preference for unconstrained desire was merely limited to the “woke,” Christian organizations wouldn’t have much cause for concern. But opposition to constraints on desire is part of the American DNA. Indeed, far too many Christians pay lip service to biblical ethics while giving their full allegiance to the neopagan ethic of “Do what you will, so long as it harms none.” Constraints shouldn’t be in place, they believe, unless there’s clear and obvious harm done to other people by allowing the behavior.
Whom does it hurt if women serve as pastors? Whom does it hurt if your son wants to marry his boyfriend? Whom does it hurt if your daughter wants the world to deny reality and pretend she’s a man?
To even ask those questions is to align oneself with the outdated, unenlightened, ancient past (i.e., before the 1960s). No one wants to be a fuddy-duddy and on the “wrong side of history.” Which is why we allow constraints to be contested, first in our hearts and then in our institutions.
The result, as recent history has shown, is that where constraints are contested, orthodoxy will sooner or later be conceded.
3. Proscribe the new orthodoxy.
Major moral shifts start with a concession, something slight, seemingly trivial. A minor compromise. The institution seeks to find a way to loosen the constraints on what was previously an inviolable doctrine or practice by tolerating a seemingly unimportant gesture. On college campuses, it almost always starts by officially recognizing an LGBT+ advocacy group or allowing professors to support same-sex marriage. Such gestures feel inconsequential while allowing an institution to feel magnanimous. The gesture says, “We hear you, and we care.”
But the concession, however small, signals the institution considers orthodoxy to be a matter of preference. The justification for the doctrine is no longer “Thus saith the Lord, thus we shall do” but now “This is what we believe, but we can do it your way too.” The result of such a shift, as Richard John Neuhaus warned us, is that “where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”
What he meant by “Neuhaus’s Law” is that orthodoxy implies there’s a clear standard, but making orthodoxy optional concedes that point. And because of the rule of liberal tolerance, it “cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false.” The orthodox are allowed to keep believing what they want, as long as they don’t have the temerity (or the power) to constrain the desires of those who reject the orthodox view.
Where constraints are contested, orthodoxy will sooner or later be conceded.
Many institutions are oblivious to how this shift upends institutional dynamics. They believe they’re making a compromise. But the exact opposite is true: having compromised on orthodoxy, they’ve put themselves at the mercy of those advocating sexual immorality.
This subtle distinction about who’s in power is compounded by the fact that the promoters of unconstrained desire tend not to press their advantage too quickly. Neuhaus’s Law often has a considerable lag time within Christian institutions.
The reason is that Christians in institutions are nice. The nice Christians don’t want to constrain the desire of women who want to be preachers, but they also don’t want to force out all the genial senior citizens who cling to complementarianism. They don’t want to constrain the desire of their LGBT+ members, but they also don’t want to force out the few young people who hold to the belief that homosexual behavior is immoral. Why not just wait until the old people die off and the young folks cave into social pressure? What’s the rush? Sure, an institution may eventually have to proscribe the new orthodoxy of unconstrained desire, as they did within the United Methodist Church. But most institutions can afford to be patient, since the future belongs to them.
Decline Isn’t Inevitable
Seeing this pattern unravel our institutions is discouraging. Yet the fact that it’s recognizable should give us hope. If we can discern the pattern, we can work to stop it. We can take action to protect our institutions from sliding into heresy and leading people to hell. We can work to recover the integrity of our institutions or admit they’re lost and leave to start new ones.
The decline of Christian institutions is not inevitable. But it takes diligent effort and courage to prevent it. If we start now, we may be able to pass along faithfully orthodox churches, denominations, ministries, and universities to our brothers and sisters in the future.