Gordon College’s Tightrope Between Theology and Diversity

Every religiously-affiliated college and university is discriminatory. The question is the degree to which the institution discriminates and how close those policies come to breaking policy with accrediting agencies and civil authorities. Right now Gordon College is navigating their niche in between these entities.

It is very difficult for a college to maintain its theological integrity when it places values on specific identities and behaviors while at the same time it seeks to expand it programs and ranking as an institution that is advancing potential careers of its students. It is easier for an institution to maintain its boundaries and grow when the social environment in which it sits is more conducive to its given worldview. Institutions like Liberty University or BYU are physically located in environments that are good matches with their policies and honor codes. Both are in very religious areas where the sponsoring denomination of the institution is in the majority of the religious adherents for the region. Internal policies will often have a much better match with civic policies.

Institutions like Gordon College have a different path to carve given that their own religious values may not be as well matched to the environment. This is where internal policy and external pressure find friction. Gordon College finds itself in an area that is less religious and politically liberal creating a disconnect between its worldview and that of the outlying communities. This is no more true than in Gordon College’s policy regarding homosexual behavior.

It is perfectly justified for the institution to have clear religious view on homosexual behavior as it is with many other institutions across the country. There is nothing inherently illegal in such policies as long as it is clear in all of the admission and enrollment literature. As with many evangelical institutions, especially those within the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Gordon requires students and faculty to profess their Christian faith commitment. This commitment assumes behavioral standards which are binding. The very first of these includes sexual conduct and homosexuality.

A. Practices Governed by Scripture—The following behavioral expectations are binding on all members of the Gordon community.

Those words and actions which are expressly forbidden in Scripture, including but not limited to blasphemy, profanity, dishonesty, theft, drunkenness, sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice, will not be tolerated in the lives of Gordon community members, either on or off campus.

With this in mind, Gordon College is doing something different to address the needs of those in the LGBT community to feel safe at the college, even if the college does not affirm the lifestyles of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender students. The core of the college policy has to do with behavior itself. So the issue for Gordon College is how to be both affirming of its students and clear about its conduct policy in a way that does not outright reject students who may not feel they fit its understanding of what a committed Christian looks like.

(President Michael) Lindsay said in his email that the college has spent the last nine months discussing the issue of human sexuality. On Monday the college announced a series of initiatives, including more training for staff, surveys to address the well-being of students as it relates to sexuality and sexual identity, stronger anti-bullying policies, and the formation of a task force of students, faculty and staff.

Opening up the conversation like this is a new direction for an evangelical college. It might not look like much from an outsider especially from a secular or liberal perspective. However, with the mishandling of sexual abuse that is at the forefront of higher education and the fallout of Bob Jones University’s egregious coverup, this has the potential to be a positive direction for how to handle a religious community that will only be more diverse in its sexuality if Gordon College does not become more prohibitive of the students it accepts.

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3 thoughts on “Gordon College’s Tightrope Between Theology and Diversity

  1. Have you been able to have any dialogue with the CCCU or its members on issues like this as a result of your dissertation research? I’m also wondering if you published any of that material or have plans to do more with it. And what do you make of the disaffiliation from the CCCU of some of its conservative members who are clearly hoping others will follow?

    I’m puzzled by the situation the CCCU has gotten itself into. It has supported litigation against the HHS contraceptive mandate which is divisive among its membership. It has supported the right of its members to discriminate against same-sex married people. It has also supported the right of its members to refuse to discriminate this way. Can they sustainably function as a diverse coalition that helps its members resist secularization while also accommodating all their members’ forms of sectarian resistance? Some of these strategies appear antithetical and do not even work out of the same notions of secularity, sect, society, and how these things should relate.

    • It’s a hard boundary to maintain. I haven’t done anything with the dissertation yet. A trend that has emerged that will be interesting to watch is how increased secularization in terms of those who have dropped out of the religion market will affect sectarian organizations. It is one thing to maintain a boundary against those who are passionately oppositional, it is another thing to do so against those who simply don’t care anymore.

      • I’m not sure what you mean. What formerly religious colleges have “dropped out of the religion market?” I see the situation as one where students and their parents are less and less interested in a sectarian or even broadly evangelical notion of religious identity. They are increasingly interested in a culturally conservative political identity where religion is a normal, if not central, part of the campus culture but not in the very defined and enforced way it is at CCCU member schools. I could see some CCCU members possibly moving in this direction, which would indeed be a form of secularization, but they wouldn’t see it that way. They would see an explicitly religious school that accepts married LGBT couples for religious reasons as the ones who are secularizing.

        In your research did you look at the impact of external moneyed interests in the CCCU that do not pursue confessional or sectarian agendas but instead focus on theo-political issues like creationism and homosexuality?

        I’m not sure if/how the CCCU was involved in the drive to establish a center for Intelligent Design at Baylor (which failed), but ID’s biggest single source of support — the philanthropist Ahmanson family — has been involved with the CCCU for decades. Oddly they are theonomistic Anglicans who sent their son to Hillsdale. Hillsdale as you may know is a libertarian-conservative mecca not affiliated with the CCCU except through its Free Market Forum, which was started with funding from an anonymous benefactor when David Ahmanson was an undergraduate there. At the same time, Hillsdale also adopted its “Guidelines Regarding the Mission and Moral Commitments of Hillsdale College” which is a vague commitment to “Christian morality” specifically focused on an anti-same-sex marriage position that the college adheres to. While it’s not explicitly stated, Hillsdale’s honor and behavioral codes round out the picture that this is a school that reserves the right to discipline openly LGBT students on the basis of their marital status, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Many conservative Christians think Hillsdale is a “Christian college,” and those who are down
        “with the gay is not OK” message may see it as “more Christian” because it is able to take the positions it does due to its historic refusal of federal funding. For the old school political and religious right, historically they’d see Wheaton as the “Evangelical Harvard” and since the 1980s-90s, they’d see Hillsdale as the “Conservative Harvard.” But if “Evangelical” comes to mean substantial acceptance of same sex marriage and so on, they’re going to drive away a certain number of constituents who will suddenly find a place like Hillsdale much more attractive. I wonder if that’s not where Hillsdale is skating now because it’s where they think the puck is going to be.

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