The news out of New England late last month chilled Christian college leaders and other concerned evangelicals around the United States. Gordon College, north of Boston, announced September 22 along with its regional accrediting agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), that it would devote at least one year to reconsidering its policy forbidding “homosexual practice.” The NEASC asked Gordon to ensure that its “policies and processes are non-discriminatory and that it ensures its ability to foster an atmosphere that respects and supports people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds.” Deciphering academic jargon, it seemed to many the diversity NEASC has in mind does not include tolerating schools such as Gordon that abide by biblical teaching on homosexuality.
However, on October 6, Gordon issued a statement that, “contrary to recent media reports, Gordon’s accreditation is not in jeopardy, as its admission and employment policies have always been in full compliance with the NEASC Standards for Accreditation and with nondiscrimination employment law, which has been in place in the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] since 1989.”
Indeed, I heard little consternation over this latest challenge from more than 800 Christians gathered last weekend in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston for The Gospel Coalition New England Regional Conference. As evangelicals from other regions watch with concern as Gordon takes criticism from regional media and government officials, New England's Christians seem accustomed to such treatment. It's nothing out of the ordinary. What's extraordinary is the spirit of unity among many New England churches and resolve to trust God and support one another even if finances and freedoms dwindle.
Richard Lints and Stephen Um serve together on the staff of Citylife Presbyterian Church, with campuses across Boston and its suburbs. They teamed up on the organizing committee for this weekend's regional conference, and both teach at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS), the pre-eminent evangelical seminary in New England. Lints has watched the Gordon College situation closely as vice president of academic affairs and dean of the Hamilton campus of GCTS, nearby but not directly affiliated with the college that also takes its name from founder A. J. Gordon, the famous 19th-century evangelical pastor. I asked Lints on a panel covering “Faithful Witness in a Complex Culture” whether Christian higher education has a future in New England as gay-rights activists and their allies seek to impose their will on evangelicals, a small minority in the region. He didn't hesitate to affirm that Christian higher education will endure, though almost certainly not in its current form. Much depends on how far accrediting agencies and governments push to enforce changing social norms with regard to sexuality.
Accrediting agencies derive their power from conferring legitimacy on colleges and universities seeking federal aid for tuition grants and subsidized loans. Loss of accreditation would devastate already strained budgets. But according to Gordon, their accreditation is not currently up for consideration. The college explains:
In recent months, the college’s leadership established a working group to look at how the college cares for LGBT students at Gordon. This group is not charged with reviewing policy, nor is the group submitting a formal report or recommendations. Rather, their charge is to ensure that Gordon fosters an educational environment where tough questions can be engaged and where all students are cared for while upholding the college’s Christian convictions and mission. Gordon will comply with the request to provide a status report for the Commission on Higher Education September 2015 meeting, which—to reiterate—does not imply the college’s accreditation is being reviewed or in question.
Gordon’s policy, held for decades and in keeping with historic Christianity, does not single out homosexuality; its standard of behavior, expected for anyone who lives on campus and works for the school, reserves all sexual activity for marriage. But homosexuality is the aspect of human sexuality where public opinion has changed most obviously in recent years. No one can afford to ignore this trend, which challenges any Christian who wants to follow the biblical commands while loving our neighbors annd sharing the gospel with them. “As a Christian college,” Gordon says, “we seek to be a place of compassion for all people while we uphold biblical teaching, stressing intellectual maturity as well as Christian character.”
After I spoke with Lints about the institutional effects of these new developments, Um sought to steer our discussion to address the many younger Christians in the audience. Due to scores of colleges and universities in the area, Boston skews younger than comparably sized cities, and the audience for TGC New England reflected that youth. In a moment I realized my mistake, as many of these committed evangelicals probably did not understand why we worried over the consequences of defying authorities that do not share Christian views on sexuality. Many of these young believers have never known a world sympathetic to the full biblical teaching on sexual ethics. Thankfully, they're not intimidated by the trends and see no hurdle to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with their friends and launching new campus ministries and churches in areas that lack gospel witness.
At the same time, they may not understand why those campuses and neighborhoods need a new Christian presence in the first place. After all, it's not for the absence of beautiful church buildings and centuries-old private colleges with long-forgotten Christian mottos. These buildings scattered throughout New England and concentrated perhaps most apparently in Boston stand as silent witness to Jesus's warning not to seek the world at the expense the soul (Matt. 16:26). They are silent of the integration of faith and learning that humbly acknowledges Christ as creator and sustainer of all things (Col. 1:16-17). They are silent of the hallelujahs that ring out from the mouths of those who know they have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the beloved Son (Col. 1:13).
But they weren't always so quiet. I wandered through the bustling streets of Boston on a blustery Friday afternoon in search of First Church, formerly home to Charles Chauncy, the erudite enemy of Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening that erupted in Boston and through New England in the early 1740s. Chauncy's great-grandfather had been second president of Harvard College when the greatest on-campus debate concerned whether infants should be baptized by full immersion. By the 1740s First Church and Harvard had succumbed to a kind of rationalism that mocked the supernatural experiences Edwards sought to discern as the revivals raged. Within a few decades First Church left Christianity altogether as New England began to indulge in once-trendy philosophies now relegated to a few pages in the annals of American literature. Today the Unitarian Universalist congregation awkwardly hangs a banner for “Standing on the Side of Love” next to a “No Trespassing” sign. Its classic steeple anchors a complex that must have been innovative during the height of 20th-century modernism. Near some flyers for programs that promise parental advice is a statue of founder John Winthrop, the man who envisioned a “City on a Hill” and delivered the most famous sermon in American history.
A little closer to where we gathered for TGC New England I walked through Old South Church, the only Congregational church in Boston that resisted Unitarianism. During the revival Old South was led by Thomas Prince Sr., the man who took up Edwards's call to start a publication that would spread news of the gospel's advance around the world. The Christian History became the first Christian periodical in America and an indispensable resource for historians of the awakening. Prince invited the famed evangelist George Whitefield to Boston, where in October 1740 he preached before what was probably the largest gathering of any kind in America before the Revolution. Yet along the way, as Old South settled into a remarkable Italian Gothic structure listed on the National Register of Historical Places, the church succumbed to theological and social pressure from the world. Old South today boasts of its open and affirming posture toward gays and lesbians and smells of stale neglect.
Surrendering to the spirit of this age may seem like prudence to some who would encourage Gordon College to go beyond the requests of its accrediting agency and drop its convictions on sexuality. But at what cost? Boston doesn't need more buildings that used to house spiritually vibrant classrooms and congregations. Their silent witness speaks volumes. Meanwhile the one who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3) told his disciples in the most famous sermon in human history, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:12).
If we take the founder and perfecter of our faith at his word, then church leaders like Lints and Um and many others I saw in Boston this weekend are ready for abundant blessings. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told his disciples. “Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). Jesus goes before us to prepare a place among the many rooms in his Father's house (John 14:2-3). Why forsake everlasting joy in the courts of the King (Ps. 84:10) for another musty museum where the Son of Man will not find faith when he returns? (Luke 18:8).