Things took a turn for the worse for evangelical campus ministries nationwide last week. America’s largest university system, California State University, has officially “derecognized” InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on all of its 23 campuses. This was in response to IVCF’s refusal to comply with CSU’s new “all-comers” policy requiring all campus organizations to open up leadership roles to any students—even students who reject the organizations’ foundational beliefs. What this means in practice is that a Democrat must be allowed to lead Republican campus organizations, a Muslim must be allowed to lead Jewish campus organizations, and so forth. The policy is aimed at conservative evangelical opposition to homosexual practice, an issue that has quickly become the defining cultural shibboleth of our generation. Christian groups across the country, including Christianity Today and First Things, have spoken out against CSU’s decision. But they aren’t alone; even secular outlets like The New York Times and The Denver Post have weighed in against the policy. Even so, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of such policies, as in the case of schools like Vanderbilt University and Bowdoin College. Since the policy applies to all campus groups equally (not just Christians), CSU probably cannot be faulted on legal grounds for discrimination. But the writing is still on the wall: our nation’s secular institutions will not tolerate the intolerance of biblical values. In light of this rising tide of hostility toward traditional Christian beliefs, how should we as Christians respond?
What are the options?
One option would be simply to comply with the policy. IVCF and other campus ministries could hypothetically bite the bullet and allow non-Christian students to lead alongside Christian students. The pro would be that this type of collaboration could foster mutual dialogue between believers and unbelievers with potentially edifying results. Further, one might hope that any non-Christians will eventually see the futility of trying to lead a Christian organization and give up. But in my opinion, the cons far outweigh all this. For one, should the schools really have the right to dictate the terms on which campus organizations try (or not try) to foster dialogue? Is it necessary for such dialogue to take place within the leadership? Further, it is not clear how someone who rejects an organization’s foundational beliefs can simultaneously support the organization’s mission. How exactly can an atheist lead a Bible study in a way that does not undermine IVCF’s very raison d’être? That isn’t leadership; it’s trolling.
Another option would be to dispute CSU’s decision by appealing to a supposed ethical “neutral ground” to which believers and unbelievers have common access. That is, we could argue on the basis of general principles like “justice” or “fairness” that IVCF should be allowed to continue its ministry unmolested. But it is highly questionable whether such neutral ground even exists. Can we really expect unbelievers to properly understand such principles when their thinking has been so radically skewed by sin? John Calvin argued that no one can rightly interpret God’s revelation in nature (including his moral will) apart from the “spectacles” of Scripture (Calvin, Institutes 1.6.1). That is why Article 3-4, 4 of the Canons of Dort reads:
There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God. [Emphasis added]
I believe there is another approach that Christians can take, and it is by following the path forged by neo-Calvinist theologians like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. These men confessed that Christ is Lord over “every square inch” of creation, and developed a number of principles by which Christians can engage secular culture. I will explain how some of these principles can shed light on the current controversy between CSU and IVCF.
Structure, direction, and common grace
In his book Creation Regained (Eerdmans, 1985), Al Wolters draws a distinction in the created world between structure and direction. By “structure” he means those creational systems and relationships which were designed by God and have been preserved in spite of humanity’s fall into sin. By “direction” he means the value-orientation of these structures with respect to their divinely intended purposes. For example, the family is a creational structure ordained by God, and the fall has not so damaged it as to completely eradicate it. However, the basic direction or orientation of a family can conform more or less to God’s original design. Hence the tragic reality of abusive marriages, divorce, and so forth.
The enduring presence of creational structures is how neo-Calvinists understand the doctrine of common grace. Stated simply, “common grace” is God’s undeserved favor displayed indiscriminately toward believer and unbeliever. It is rooted in such passages as Matthew 5:45, where Jesus declares that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The doctrine can also be found in Psalm 145:8-9: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” The very fact that creational structures exist among both believers and unbelievers is a testimony to common grace. Moreover, such structures are never completely misdirected in the hands of unbelievers. Michael Williams writes:
Wherever justice and mercy are sought, the kingdom of God pushes back the kingdom of evil. It may—by God’s common grace—take place completely outside the body of Christ. Indeed, the behaviors and attitudes of our unbelieving neighbors may sometimes come closer to the kingdom in some areas of life than those of believers.1
This pertains to the present controversy at CSU, since education is itself a creational structure. Whatever one may conclude about the particulars of the ideal approach to education (be it public schools, private schools, homeschooling, etc.), the fact remains that God has designed the universe in such a way that humans need an education to acquire the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to fulfill their cultural mandate (Gen. 1:26-28). As such, we can conclude that CSU and other secular universities, for all their shortcomings, conform in some degree to God’s creational design. Therefore, Christians may expect to find some measure of God’s justice and goodness present in even the most hostile and anti-Christian educational environments.
However, this generally positive outlook on the unbelieving world needs to be tempered by recognition of the comprehensive and corrosive effects of sin. In contrast to those who posit any realm of neutrality between believer and unbeliever, neo-Calvinists believe that there is a fundamental antithesis that runs between—and even within—all humans. Every system of thought, whether regenerate and unregenerate, rests upon fundamental faith commitments. The conflict is therefore not between faith and reason. Rather, it is between Christian faith-based reasoning and non-Christian faith-based reasoning. Kuyper wrote concerning Christian and non-Christian thought:
They are both in earnest, disputing with each other across the entire domain of life and cannot desist from the attempt to pull to the ground the entire edifice of each other’s contradictory claims.2
The forces of sin, self, and Satan are in constant and violent opposition to God’s universal lordship, and there can be no truce between the two sides. For this reason, any appeal to common principles of “justice” or “fairness” will meet with only limited success. Unbelievers will always redefine such terms so as to deny God’s lordship whenever possible. Now this is not to say that they have absolutely no sense of justice (remember common grace), but rather that their sense of justice will always be inherently self-contradictory and unstable. Unregenerate ethics is parasitic upon the “borrowed capital” of regenerate ethics, and for this reason it can never be fully consistent with its own presuppositions.
A third pillar of neo-Calvinist thought is the principle of sphere sovereignty. Although God exercises absolute lordship over every sphere of life—including the family, the church, the state, the school, etc.—he has set limits on the respective role and authority of each sphere, so that they might not encroach upon one another. When sphere sovereignty is violated, we experience the excesses of totalitarian government on the one hand, or radical individualism on the other. By contrast, when sphere sovereignty is respected, it encourages human flourishing and creativity as well as social harmony and justice.
In the present context, we find that CSU has violated sphere sovereignty in two significant ways. First, as an academic institution it has usurped the authority of God’s Word and put itself in the place of a moral and ethical arbiter. Second, by dictating the practices of campus ministries, it has encroached upon the sovereignty of the church. Now it needs to be pointed out that IVCF functions as a para-church organization, and it is not accountable to a local church or denominational body. This may raise a host of other questions about the proper nature of campus ministries and para-church groups, but the point remains that it is the church’s responsibility to attend to the spiritual welfare of college students, and the academy does not have the right to dictate how the church may do that.
So what’s next?
In light of the above principles, what should a Christian response look like? First, a neo-Calvinist perspective should prevent us from getting our hopes up too much. The reality of the antithesis teaches us that no one, whether believer or unbeliever, is in a position of total objectivity. As a result, we may expect that CSU and other secular universities will continue in their opposition to Christian values, and this fight will probably not be resolved any time soon. Nevertheless, one thing that we can do is point out to them the inconsistency in their thinking. Do these schools, which claim to be champions of tolerance, realize just how intolerant their policies are? Moreover, the policy sets a precedent that would prove absurd in other contexts: what if, for example, the federal government established an “all-comers” policy which required the military to admit individuals who refused to submit to the Uniform Code of Military Justice?
Another possible response would be to boycott schools like CSU and seek an education elsewhere. Joe Carter at The Acton Institute writes:
Colleges and universities are businesses that exist in a competitive educational market. A free market solution is to refuse to support the business’ “product.” In other words, Christians should refuse to attend schools in which their beliefs are “derecognized.” Similarly, alumni should refuse to provide donations to support a college or university that considers our faith not welcome on the campus.
On yet another front, this controversy has served to highlight the importance of Christian involvement in the political sphere. We need more godly men and women pursuing callings as federal judges and legislators, who can fight against the tide of antipathy toward the only sure foundation of justice. This does not mean that we should expect to make America a “Christian nation” (which it never was to begin with). But by recognizing the church’s role in witnessing to the expansion of God’s kingdom throughout the earth, we may be enabled by God’s grace to achieve a small foretaste of the glories that will come when Christ returns. The struggle will not end before then, but we do not struggle as those who have no hope.
- Michael Williams, Far As the Curse Is Found (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 265.
- Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1931), 133.