Wheaton College and the Courage of Being Confessional

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RNS-WHEATON-FIREDMy newest post for Religion News Service:

The uproar over Wheaton College’s recent decision to begin termination proceedings for a tenured professor was oh-so-predictable.

When Larycia Hawkins sought to show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors by donning a hijab and declaring that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God,” the college sought clarification and then placed her on administrative leave while it investigated whether her theology was out of step with the school’s statement of faith.

Since that time, Wheaton has borne the brunt of the criticism online.

The way the story gets told, the professor is the “martyr” for daring to push against a doctrinal boundary. The college is the rigid and impersonal institution, holding its professors to the letter of the law and unwilling to entertain new ideas.

It’s not surprising to see the story play out this way, really. From the time we cast off the chains of King George, Americans have made heroes of the individuals who challenge institutional authority. We applaud anyone who is courageous enough to be true to his or her convictions, no matter what those in power may say. Within this anti-authoritarian culture, doctrinal statements seem quaint and harmful, and those who push the boundaries are heroic.

But what if we flip the common framing of this story?

What happens when we recognize that it takes a lot of courage today for an institution to challenge a culture that has no patience for enforcing doctrinal guidelines?

What if it’s Wheaton College that dares to push against a culture that resists religious standards of accountability?

What if it’s not the embattled professor, but the college that is being true to its convictions, even to the point of being mocked by outsiders or accused of sacrificing “academic freedom”?

Make no mistake. Wheaton College is the “rebel” when it comes to enforcing its doctrinal standard, especially considering our society’s distaste for dogma.

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