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Calvin Makes Pivotal Policy Change

Changes to Christian school and church attendance requirements for faculty families may pave the way for increased diversity.

Trustees at Calvin University voted unanimously on May 8 to approve some significant changes in faculty requirements with regards to Reformed identity. While the University webpage headlines “Calvin Deepens and Strengthens Faith Expectations,” the student newspaper declares “BREAKING: Board of trustees vote that faculty no longer required to be CRC, send kids to Christian K-12 schools.”

What is going on? Calvin is an official ministry of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA). While faculty are still expected to understand and affirm the three forms of unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Cannons of Dordt, Belgic Confession), the new policy expects them to be members of a CRCNA-related Reformed congregation or “a Calvin University-supporting Protestant congregation.” This means, according to an interpretation I received from Calvin’s public relations office, any Protestant church that can support the spiritual formation of the professor, including support in the person’s faith pledge to uphold the three forms of unity. Furthermore, the new policy explains that they are “expected to demonstrate their commitment to a Reformed Christian view of education” which is evidenced in their “active support” for Christian education. This does not require their children to attend a Christian school, but like Article 71 of the Church Order and current policy at Calvin Seminary and the CRCNA, expects a commitment to educating children from a Christian perspective – which could be at church, camps and other venues.

Denominational walls have become more porous these days, comments former board member of both Calvin and Redeemer University, Martin Mudde. Some CRCs are not very Reformed, and other churches, like Baptists, can be very Reformed. He understands the need to open the church membership requirements wider. Yet he expresses concern: “Are we now changing the rules to attract ‘better’ teachers who do not value a Christian world and life view in day school education?”

Dilution or diversifying?
Now this is a pivotal policy change, and although some might say it was inevitable, given changes in Calvin’s faculty needs and a shifting cultural context, it deserves some conscientious reflection. I sat on the Task Force on the Reformed Identity and Mission of the university from 2009-2010 as a Calvin board member, and there was no shortage of research, discussion and passion over the years we met. On one hand, history seems to indicate that universities that have loosened ties with denominational roots have gradually – in the long-run of centuries – lost their particular Christian identity to increase their enrollment prospects and academic excellence. Harvard, Princeton and Yale would be some common examples.

On the other hand, there are values around racial diversity that make CRC culture in Grand Rapids a complicated matter – even if there are dozens of CRC churches and numerous schools to choose from. Furthermore, a Kuyperian “sphere sovereignty” perspective would argue that a university should not stipulate matters of church, and neither should a workplace make demands about the education of their employees’ children. This is the parents’ God-given prerogative. Finally, some departments have had strong, faith-filled candidates for positions that are extremely hard to fill but they felt stymied by these requirements on faculty’s families.

Now the board has always been generous with exceptions to the old policy. There have been many extenuating circumstances over the decades and concessions have been made, sometimes fairly routinely. Our committee in 2010 expanded some options here, but affirmed the traditional requirements for church membership and Christian schooling. We wrote a special Statement of Identity and Mission that beautifully encapsulates the Reformed educational vision in a few pages, hoping that it would inspire faculty to see Reformed accent not just as a matter of beliefs, but as a matter of belonging.

Developing the prof’s worldview
Ten years later, the policy has changed and the expectations for faculty are more intricate, and less intrusive of family. Calvin has been ramping up its new faculty training through the truly ingenious development of The Kuyper Institute for Global Faculty Development, putting more processes in place to cultivate faculty who can articulate the wonder-full vision of Christian education – and explain how a Reformed theology informs that investigation. Many new faculty have their eyes opened to a Biblical perspective that sheds new light on their discipline – and their faith. They feel more invited to an exciting academic project than pressed into a particular subculture.

Rev. Willemina Zwart is the Calvin board representative for Chatham, Huron, Hamilton and Niagara classis and she adamantly supports the shift. “We are moving from a checklist of compliance to a robust commitment toward Reformed integration of faith and life,” she explained. “It’s part of expanding what Calvin is all about to a wider constituency.”

Still, this is a complicated matter. President Le Roy said, “The vision is biblically and theologically rooted; it’s not sociologically rooted.” While it’s true that a Reformed perspective best not be confined ethnically or geographically, the writing of Calvin professor James K. A. Smith emphasizes that theology has sociological scaffolds, and our hearts are fundamentally shaped by cultural liturgies that structure our lives – Sunday at church, but also at home and all through the week. Sociology and theology are deeply linked. But perhaps this is the point: the sociology of the CRC needs to change, and Calvin is pushing forward in this direction.

Salvation for white-tailed deer
The move can be seen as an act of faith. “Calvin has been legally and confessionally [Christian] Reformed for over 125 years,” comments Director of Christian Higher Education in Canada and former President of Redeemer University Dr. Justin Cooper. “Providing for greater ecclesiastical and educational practice in its faculty and staff is an understandable decision by Calvin, given its changing student demographic, its commitment to racial and ethnic diversity and changes within the CRC related to Christian education support; it is also a calculated risk. This move will enable it to survive and maybe even thrive in the shorter term, while raising the prospect of becoming a more generically Evangelical and Protestant institution over time.”

Time will tell. It would be a dream to see a greater number and wider diversity of people become enthusiastic about the confession that our whole world belongs to God and is being redeemed in Jesus Christ. “Salvation is for the white-tailed deer,” said Rev. Zwart. “For many, that’s a new eye-opening Biblical vision worth sharing.”

This article appeared in print in the June 8, 2020 issue under the title “Belief and Belonging.”

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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