More about the Wheaton College Controversy and Christian Higher Education

More about the Wheaton College Controversy and Christian Higher Education January 7, 2016

According to news reports, Wheaton College (IL) is moving to fire the female political science professor who said publicly that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I blogged about this earlier; I won’t repeat what I said then. The new situation is the announced intention to fire her (previously she was only suspended) in spite of her tenure status and her saying “No one is safe.” By that she apparently means that if Wheaton can fire her for what she said, that does not directly contradict anything she has signed such as a mission statement or statement of faith, then no faculty member at Wheaton is safe.

I wish to repeat only this from my previous post about this controversy: There may be “personnel issues” the Wheaton College administration is taking into account but cannot talk bout publicly. I have known of such situations.

Here, however, I have to assume, unless I am told otherwise, that the above is not the case and respond only based on news reports. I have no insider knowledge about the events “on the ground,” so to speak–which really means “in the closed rooms where such decisions are being talked about and made.”

One of my favorite bloggers is my friend Christopher Gehrz, a historian who teaches at Bethel University and writes a blog called “The Pietist Schoolman” at www.pietistschoolman.com. He has also been blogging about the Wheaton controversy and in a recent blog post he asks this:

If you’re a Christian college professor, staff member, alumnus, or student, does the Hawkins case cause you to fear for the future of the liberal arts on such campuses?

  • Do you have a clear sense of the boundaries of what you may say and ask within learning communities that both value the academic freedom of the liberal arts and require affirmation of certain theological doctrines, ethical standards, etc.?
  • Have those boundaries shifted of late?

These are interesting and timely questions. My own observation of evangelicalism and evangelical higher education over the past thirty years is that these boundaries are shifting. And I do not think evangelical colleges and universities are as clear as they could and should be about them–even within themselves. Many tend to be jerked around by powerful constituents–usually extremely conservative ones.

I could wax long and eloquent about examples. As editor of Christian Scholar’s Review in the 1990s I heard many horror stories from faculty members of evangelical Christian colleges and universities–about how powerful pastors and lay people were putting pressure on their institutions to censor faculty. There was then and continues to be a “chill” over academic freedom in many such institutions even about matters not clearly stated in their official documents.

Some years ago I had a “brush” with all this that involved Wheaton indirectly. My college president (George Brushaber, now retired) invited me to speak to the presidents of the 13 colleges of the Christian College consortium. Those 13 colleges constitute a veritable “Who’s Who” of mainstream evangelical liberal arts colleges from Gordon College to George Fox College and many in between (geographically). During my talk, or during the Q & A after it, somehow the subject of “Oneness Pentecostalism” came up. I had been asked by the state affiliate of the National Association of Evangelicals to consult with them about whether to admit to membership a Oneness Pentecostal church that wanted to join. It was not a member of the United Pentecostal Church which is officially “Oneness” (denying the classical doctrine of the Trinity in favor of something like modalism) but held a similar view of the Godhead (viz., Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three manifestations of God rather than three distinct persons). I advised the NAE state organization to admit the church to membership IF it was clear it was moving in the direction of affirming the classical doctrine of the Trinity. I thought embracing the church, if it was moving in the right direction, could help it get there.

The then president of Wheaton College strenuously objected to my advice and asserted that Oneness Pentecostals are certainly not evangelicals and probably not Christians at all. I said I did not agree and thought they are just confused. I re-affirmed my belief in the classical, Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. According to my college president, later, after I was out of the room, the then president of Wheaton strongly advised him to launch an investigation of me that might lead to my being fired–for “fudging on the Trinity.” In my opinion, that is typical fundamentalist thinking. If I think someone is a Christian and that person holds a heretical view, then I am a heretic. (Only one other of the 13 presidents expressed to me any qualms about my advice to the state NAE organization.)

Fortunately my president did not launch an actual investigation of me that was leading toward my being fired. However, he did ask my department chair to consult with me about the matter. I assume he was hoping I could be convinced not to say controversial things in such a highly charged setting. My department chair did but brushed the matter off as unimportant and nothing to worry about.

I do think, however, based on my own observations and experiences, that constituents of many evangelical Christian colleges and universities are increasingly calling the shots–even about matters not officially confessional/doctrinal. It is a kind of “open season” on faculty and administrators of such institutions–by extremely conservative pastors and donors.

I will conclude, for now, simply by saying that IF the Wheaton professor is indeed fired only because of what she said about Christians and Muslims worshiping the same God no one is safe. Clearly she had no idea saying that could lead to her being fired. Should she have known it? It doesn’t matter. Administrators have the duty to make such boundaries so clear nobody can be in any doubt about them. Instead, the boundaries often shift in an ad hoc manner depending on powerful constituents’ whims. Is that the case at Wheaton? I don’t know, but that is a concern I would have were I on the faculty.

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