News broke yesterday of Union University’s decision to withdraw from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). The decision has been hailed as noteworthy for two main reasons. First, as the flagship institution of Southern Baptist higher education, Union’s influence looms large over the rest of evangelical higher education. Media, culture, and academic standards often treat Southern Baptists as a bellwether for broader evangelical moods and movements, and the decision by Union to withdraw may serve as a sign for what’s ahead as Christian colleges navigate the turbulent waters of confessional integrity amidst the growing acceptance of LGBT ideologies. Secondly, Union is the first of its kind to withdraw on account of CCCU’s dealings with two Christian schools that have stated their intention to hire non-celibate LGBT individuals. This decision signals that a coming dividing line in confessional education may have just been drawn.
Union’s decision has been criticized for any number of reasons, mainly whether the decision to withdraw was premature, abandoning opportunity for further influence, or evidence of a separatist, fundamentalist mindset. Southern Baptists aren’t perfect. Let me repeat that: Southern Baptists aren’t perfect. But for all our shortcomings, the SBC is often looked to for leadership when contentious issues arise that require leadership for charting future evangelical paths.
Personally, I know many individuals who have joined Southern Baptist churches within the last year. When asked why, these individuals have answered in common reply: For all the imperfections of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), on the whole, the Southern Baptist Convention is unwavering as far as doctrinal integrity and commitment. For this, I am thankful. Evangelical identity can no longer subsist on vague assumptions that culture no longer shares. The times we’re in demand clarity. This is most acutely observed in the cultural pressure to accommodate on issues of sexual ethics. In the face of mounting pressure, Union—and by extension, the Southern Baptist Convention—provides a bulwark in its steadfast commitment to biblical orthodoxy. The individuals I know who have joined the ranks of the Southern Baptist churches have joined for this very reason on these very topics. They’re looking for a denomination that is confessionally rooted and expect such confessionalism to persist no matter the headwinds. It’s from this vantage that Union’s decision should be evaluated.
I stand with Union’s decision, and briefly, here’s why.
The Southern Baptist Convention all too frequently is the whipping boy of broader evangelical currents. To elites, we’re too provincial. To centrists, we’re too quick to draw lines.
Critics of Union’s decision, however, are overlooking the role that institutional memory plays within the SBC. They criticize the SBC based on external standards of ever-evolving evangelical mores without considering the internal rationales and strictures that guide institutional thinking within the Southern Baptist Convention. Critics of Union’s decision never fought the battles that defined a past generation of SBC leadership and decision-making.
The Southern Baptist Convention understands, more acutely than any other American denomination, the perils of institutional drift and haphazard attentiveness. For those new to this discussion, the SBC fought a two-decade battle in recovering institutions that had slowly drifted into heterodoxy. It took decades to unravel the errors of liberalism and to set our institutions back on a path toward biblical fidelity. Memory serves as a catalyst to prevent going down this path once again.
That’s the narrative in which to understand Union’s decision. By withdrawing, Union has communicated that a failure to deal decisively on matters of evangelical integrity will not be tolerated. This gets to another facet of the debate: the SBC and its institutions are often forced to play the unpopular role of gatekeeper because so few else are willing to. While I say this with no tone of gloating triumph, the sheer size of the Southern Baptist Convention catapults it to that position of influence and leadership regardless of whether it seeks such influence. It’s a messy, but necessary action to prevent the type of drift that accommodates unbiblical teaching.
It remains to be seen what exact action CCCU will take regarding these two schools. Many institutions and onlookers will reserve judgment on the merits of their decision until that time. But the moment of decision facing CCCU is a moment of decision that every institution will soon have to make. Every evangelical institution is going to have to decide on which side of the fence they’ll land on matters of sexual ethics. There is no third way. There is biblical fidelity; and there is disobedience. This means that the future of confessional education is going to require hard decision-making and a clairvoyance that refuses to nurse or re-litigate old battles. It is going to require bold leadership to maintain integrity to the Christian faith.