This article originally appeared on First Things on June 26, 2014.
For the past decade, my wife and I have been the volunteer advisors to the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF). As reported last week in the New York Times, that relationship will soon come to an end because of Bowdoin’s demand that the fellowship adopt a non-discrimination policy that makes impossible faithful Christian witness.
Bowdoin’s policy comes in the wake of an emerging body of law permitting private and state universities to enforce an all-comers policy on leadership in all student groups. This means that even a student who rejects Christian teaching—on anything from the Trinity, to the Bible, to sexual chastity—can be made a student leader. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Hastings Christian Fellowship v. Martinez, 2010, allows universities to shape student organizations according to the prevailing culture of these institutions, even when doing so would prevent student organizations from adhering to a different view of the world, including one shaped by the teachings and practices of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We are ministers in a part of the Church that believes that there are doors of entry into the Kingdom of God with dimensions more narrow than those of prevailing culture. Jesus spoke about these doors in the seventh chapter of the first Gospel: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
With the law now favoring those who dislike narrow gates, campus ministers must get ready to take their eyes off the prize of campus rooms, campus vans, campus billboards, and campus funding opportunities for Christian activities. We have become far too enamored of these privileges at the cost of losing focus on the access that matters—to the Kingdom through a narrow door. Campus ministers like us will forfeit our passport, turn in our electronic keys, and travel the road to Jerusalem without special privileges. We will conduct campus ministry without a campus, and we can and must do so because of the nature of the Kingdom that we proclaim. It is the way that Jesus traveled.
As a lawyer, I understand the legal arguments which would push back against these trends. I believe in the First Amendment liberties of College students, the contract rights of students to have their student fees applied to religious associations of their own choice, and equal access for Christian students when other religious groups are favored with special privileges such as kosher kitchens. But such arguments can distract us from the real peril. Too much ground has been conceded over recent years in purchasing a “seat at the University table” at the expense of confusing the broad invitation of the Gospel to all comers (what I have described to my students as the wide end of the funnel) with the narrow demands of Christian discipleship for those who are called to enter (that is, the narrow end of the funnel).
The termination of this InterVarsity advisor by Bowdoin College was grounded on a refusal to endorse in writing the college policy of “non-discrimination” as it pertained to the internal governance of the BCF and its process of leadership selection in accordance with the doctrinal statement of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Attempts which we made to offer a ground of compromise in the form of a Religious Reservation of Rights were refused by the College.
This action by College deans in terminating our position with the BCF was followed almost immediately by an announced (but undiscussed) change in the rules and regulations of the Student Organization Oversight Committee (SOOC) which, as reported in the Bowdoin Orient, was “inspired by recent developments with the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.” According to these reports, the new procedures would permit the SOOC to remove student leaders when faith matters conflict with College Policy. In our view, the removal of leaders because of faith matters is not a matter that should be left to a student oversight committee.
For the record, during the period we were its advisors the BCF welcomed all students and faculty to participate in the opportunities for prayer, instruction, and Christian worship, without regard to their moral failure. The Body of Christ extends the grace and welcome of Jesus Christ to all who would respond to the invitation to turn away from “all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life ” (1 John 2.16-ESV). We commend all men to the grace of God in this work, and that applies no less to student leaders, student advisors and all other participants in campus ministry.
The commitment to extend the promise and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all members of the Bowdoin College community is also found in our shared view about the dignity of all persons, and this part of the InterVarsity Statement of Faith:
We [also] believe in:
The value and dignity of all people:
created in God’s image to live in love and holiness,
but alienated from God and each other because of our sin and guilt,
and justly subject to God’s wrath.
It is curious to be accused of advocating for discrimination. My wife and I were prison ministers in the late 1970’s, pastors of a Cambodian church involved in resettling refugees from Pol Pot in the early 1980’s; we travelled to the Cambodian border to visit them in UN refugee camps, pastors of a Chinese immigrant church in the 1990’s with refugees fleeing human rights abuse in China, and I am currently an asylum trial lawyer for victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. So why do we argue for the right to discriminate?
English translations of the Bible do not use the term “discriminate.” The word is found in no modern translation of the Bible. But the term with the same Latin root (discernere) is core to Christian teachings. And discernment, of course, is one of the mandates of Christian discipleship as we try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord (Ephesians 5.10). Paul writes in Romans 12.1-2:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Were the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship to agree to the College policy of non-discernment, it would forfeit the means of forming, holding, and making public the Christian beliefs it was trying to preserve. In a word, one cannot both affirm the non-discrimination policy of the College which rejects doctrinal statements, and then plead for the College to give the freedom to require leaders to affirm in behavior and belief the doctrinal statement so rejected.
I recently published two volumes on the collected works of Joseph McKeen, the first President of Bowdoin College. On January 2, 1803, Joseph McKeen, preaching in the Bowdoin Chapel, reminded Bowdoin students:
Religion is not designed to root out or destroy our passions, but to regulate, and direct them to their proper objects. They are designed by our Creator to answer important and valuable purposes, and they do so when they are under due government. The passions, hopes and fears were implanted in us by our Creator, and they serve important purposes when they are directed to their proper objects and they render difficult duties easy, they give a spring to our exertions, and they support, encourage and comfort us under the troubles of the present life.
But when they are directed to wrong objects, and employed to wrong purposes, they increase the evils of life, and produce much mischief and misery in the world. Whether we consider ourselves as men, or as Christians, the proper regulation of our passions is an object of great importance. Misguided passion violates the ties of religion and virtue. It makes man an enemy of his Maker, to himself, and to his fellow creatures. (Sermon on Ecclesiastes 5.7 “But Fear Thou God.”)
McKeen required those first Bowdoin students to be discriminating as a part of a broad claim for a theology rooted in creation. My study of his writings leaves me confident in making the following observation: Bowdoin’s first president would not be permitted to be the advisor to the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship in 2014.