Queering Calvin University
In the 102 years that Student Senate has existed, we’ve never had an openly gay student body president. It’s beyond time that the LGBTQ community is represented in the highest student leadership position at Calvin. I’m proud to be the first.
A few years ago, I never thought that I would be coming out to the world through my school newspaper at my Christian university. I wanted to be known as the girl who started Dance Marathon and led students to raise $50,000 for our local children’s hospital, the girl who co-hosted a podcast for the Chimes, or the girl who tried out for every single hip hop dance guild and was rejected from every single one. But my legacy will invariably be different, because I am Calvin University’s first openly LGBTQ student body president. I’m bisexual. I’ve also questioned if I was a lesbian in the past. Usually, I use the term “queer” because it encompasses all of these identities.
One thing’s for sure: I am not straight. I’m sharing my story with the community because I take the weight of representation seriously, I have a desire to lead Calvin and the CRC [the Christian Reformed Church in North America] into the future and want other queer students to see themselves in my story. I’d feel as if I’d made a mistake as student body president if I did not use my platform to do so.
The CRC are the Dutch Reformed in America. The friend who sent me that link also sent along this 2018 essay by the Rev. Christopher Gordon, a pastor in one of the NAPARC (conservative Presbyterian) churches. Excerpts:
It was a painful decision for my father to leave the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC). He was pulled apart over it. He expressed all of his concerns to the new minister. “The direction you’re taking,” my father said, “is undermining the Great Commission of Jesus.” Immediately, the pastor yelled back, “this is what’s wrong with you Reformed people.” My father retorted, “But aren’t you Reformed?” That is a great question.
By being raised in the CRC I learned a lot about what can happen to a church. I have been a pastor in a confessional Reformed church for almost 15 years now. As I watch the shifts and listen to the discussions, this all seems like déjà vu. What took the CRC thirty to forty years to accomplish, in jettisoning her Reformed heritage, seems to be taking some NAPARC churches about a decade. I am particularly concerned for the PCA, but they are not the only one. There are other Reformed denominations following suit, but the PCA, at the moment, appears to be leading the pack.
The most disturbing part is that many seem completely oblivious to the shifts. Among a new generation of Reformed pastors and churchgoers, there seems to be little awareness that the project they are pursuing, and the shifts they are pushing, have already been tried and have ended with catastrophic consequences in the life of a major Reformed denomination.
The pressures being laid upon Reformed churches are many. As a pastor, I have felt the pressure to conform to the American way of church. Among the evangelicals in our community, our Reformed church is pegged as the strict church in town doing things that nobody else does. Downgrading those Reformed practices that are the most off putting is assumed to be the best path forward to reach a broader base of potential churchgoer. This is the very audience the CRC took to evangelicalism. The CRC’s commitment to downgrade became a commitment to the intolerance of its own theological identity, and the toleration of everything else.
The question to be answered is whether other NAPARC churches, like the CRC, have already been sowing these seeds of their own overhaul. In my humble opinion, when I look at the practices of many NAPARC churches, especially when it comes to corporate worship, I see little different from the evangelical church down the street. This is not the case across the board, but neither was it in the CRC. The general trend was clear. Once the CRC hierarchy opened the door to accommodation becoming a more broadly evangelical church, that door remained open for everything else. I fear that history is repeating itself.
The CRC, after remaking itself into another evangelical church, soon found itself absorbed by social justice issues. Synodical meetings were filled with social causes. The irony was, most evangelical churches didn’t fall into social justice as deeply as the CRC did once that door was opened. The thirst for relevance could not be quenched. They were like a man out of prison, running as fast as he can without looking back. Social activism and causes became a dominant focus of church life.
In the coffee hour (outside, socially distanced) at my Orthodox parish today, I was talking with a younger convert about how hard it is for so many Christians, across the different churches, to see clearly what is happening within their churches, much less figure out how to resist it. He told me about some family members who are in a conservative Pentecostal church, and how the teachings of the denomination itself are being fast undermined by the new hymns that the denomination is taking up. My interlocutor said that standing outside that denomination, from an Orthodox point of view, he can see what’s happening, and that it’s happening very quickly. But those within the denomination might sense that something is wrong, but nobody dares to say anything. This young man and I talked about how a determined and focused elite really can move entire masses of passive people.
Anyway, maybe you think it’s a good thing that the churches are moving this way. But you have to admit that it is a thing.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
As someone who works within Christian academia, it must seem very puzzling to those on the outside why institutions – like those discussed in this article – move towards “wokeness.” I do not believe that administrators or trustees set out to abandon traditional Christian thinking. How does this happen, then?
I suspect that the first step in abandoning orthodox belief occurs with the adoption of a neoliberal (i.e., corporate or business model) philosophy of institutional governance. While viewing the university as a business and students as customers has many negative impacts, the most important is that it sets a default anthropology of what it means to be humans in institutional relationship. In other words, the customer – provider relationship is by its nature contingent and open, not prone to obligation or fundamental commitment, and thus fully in line with secular society’s understanding of humanity. From here, how can an institution maintain a real commitment to theological orthodoxy? The institution is operating as a mechanism to meet consumer needs, which will tend to reinforce felt identity. Add in human resources, risk management, and the legal superstructure in which a university operates, and the cross-pressures towards conforming with the broader society’s philosophy of corporate management may be irresistible.
This is, by the way, the reason why evangelical Christians are in serious cultural trouble, whether we want to admit it or not. We have extended the neoliberal model to all our institutions, not just schools, but our churches and families as well. Some things in life – the most important things really – can’t be treated as business relationships without losing something essential of our humanity.