Domestic Religious Liberty

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August 24, 2018

How Not to Survive as a Faithful Christian Community

The decision of Trinity Western University, announced Aug. 14, to drop its morality code under adverse pressure from the Canadian Supreme Court, is certainly the most important, and devastating, news concerning domestic religious freedom this year. The Community Covenant requires participants at the university to adhere to commonly understood Biblical morality, including the reservation of sexual relations for the Biblically prescribed marriage of one man and one woman. It has been the focus of years long struggle in the courts between Trinity Western and several provincial law societies in Canada, who refused to receive TWU law school graduates.

TWU’s decision is more important even than the judicial decision of the Canadian Supreme Court in June to allow provincial legal societies to exclude TWU law graduates, effectively ending the possibility of a Christian law school in Canada. The current struggle over sexual morality in the Western world has two parts to it. First is the effort to prohibit the practice of Christian morality, which demands separation from sexual and other sins, and secondly the reaction of the Christian community to comply or not. Christians finally have no control over the first, but they do over the second. It is up to Christians not to comply and take the penalty, and regrettably, Trinity Western did not do that.

The university had other options. It could have 1) closed the new law school and kept the morality code for the rest of the university, although it would have faced pressure against its other professional schools, or 2) attempted to keep the law school open, sending graduates to provincial law societies that accepted the school (doubtful, since TWU is located in British Columbia, where the law society decided not to accept graduates), or 3) established belief as well as morality requirements for students, requiring students to accept a list of basic Christian doctrines, rather than being open to the general public (making it a “confessional” school, which reportedly might have gotten a different decision from the Canadian Supreme Court), or 4) closed the entire university (a radical, extremely painful, but essential step to take if one is faced with having to compromise with sin).

As it is the code is kept mandatory for faculty and employees, but not students. This means that not only homosexual activity, but any sexual activity outside of marriage is permissible for students. Further, the morality code in general has been dropped as mandatory for students, and so distinctively Christian standards of behavior generally have been dropped for the student body. Thus the university really cannot claim to be a Christian community, although it will continue to teach from a Christian perspective. And of course, even the morality code for faculty was immediately threatened by LGBT advocates. It is also very reasonable to expect the new, voluntary code, which incoming students can still sign, will be challenged as humiliating (or “demeaning”) to students who don’t sign, much as voluntary corporate prayer is not allowed in public schools. Although the ability of TWU and other Christian schools to teach Christianity or Christian morality is not now challenged, and likely won’t be for some time given current jurisprudence, logically it could be in the future, on the same basis. Indeed, the very possibility of religious schools can ultimately be challenged as harmful to society, if they teach anything with which secularists disagree.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, which strongly supported Trinity Western during its long legal battles in the Supreme Court and lower courts, also supported the school in its decision to drop the covenant for incoming students. But while we do want to be supportive of Christian leaders in a very difficult position, it seems to this writer that it is wrong to support a decision to abandon Christian standards at a Christian institution. Yes, TWU does have the right to set religious standards that people in the wider society may disagree with, but that is from the standpoint of religious freedom. From a Biblical standpoint, we should not compromise with sin under pressure. Indeed, the original claim of religious freedom lacks principle if it is possible to compromise. The very logic of liberty of conscience is that we should never take an evil action, and we are doing so if we do not remain separate from sin as the Bible requires.

Trinity Western’s decision is really an unacceptable compromise with sin. While it is true that the university was and is open to non-Christian students, it has professed to be a Christian institution. Participation in TWU is entirely voluntary, and contrary to the Canadian Supreme Court, no one should feel constrained to go there. An organization professing to be Christian should provide a Christian environment, and the community covenant did that. This environment cannot be maintained in the absence of Biblical sexual morality. Chastity is essential to the gospel given in the New Testament, and without it there is no Christian life. Institutions that continue to claim allegiance to Christ and his gospel, and which function with a substantially Christian clientele, having compromised their standards under pressure, will simply help make the case that the sexual revolutionaries want that it is possible to have faithful, biblical Christianity without chastity, which it clearly is not.

If voluntary institutions cannot be maintained on a Christian basis, no Christian community, ultimately even churches or families, can be maintained in obedience to Biblical commands. As this writer noted in an article earlier this summer after the Canadian Supreme Court decision, the right to church discipline was strongly affirmed by the same court, so we are some distance from the ultimate denial of religious association, but since in reality religious doctrine is being judged harmful, and since the private world finally does affect the public world, the threat to any Christian association is real.

It is imperative that we take the penalty when required to compromise. The point at issue is a clash of absolutes – God’s commands versus the modern commitment to self-actualization. God requires that people be separate from sin. As for the other side of the conflict, nothing short of full surrender will satisfy LGBT liberation, since any separation from the sin of homosexuality is found offensive, and therefore illegitimate “discrimination.” The alternative Trinity Western took, compromising while still presenting itself as a Christian institution, is the worst possible alternative. It now becomes easier to argue, at a rhetorical level, that conservative Christian institutions can accept homosexuality and still be Christian (which they cannot), and that protracted struggle is to be expected and pays off in the end. It also would seem to be very difficult to again claim liberty of conscience on the particular issue conceded (in this case the mandatory covenant for students), since the university has conceded that it is not, finally, a non-negotiable issue. The university would have to make the difficult admission that its concession to prevailing opinion was wrong to restore the claim to liberty of conscience.

There must be a time when the rubber meets the road. After talking for years about religious freedom and liberty of conscience as being fundamental and indispensable, TWU should have proved it by not caving into pressure. We must back up our religious freedom rhetoric by not compromising and accepting sinful behavior in Christian organizations.

It is to be expected that the practical character of the university will change, as it already has changed in its standards. Students and faculty, now surely the majority, who agree with Christian teaching, will be on the defensive, with the university having been corrected by the wider society and conformed to societal correction, while persons opposed, including especially anyone identifying as LGBT, will be assertive in advancing the righteousness of homosexuality and seeking to suppress Christian teaching.

The Biblical command to separation from sin requires that Christians not tolerate sin in their midst. If the university is being disobedient by tolerating sin, then involvement in it is disobedience to the command to be separate. There is nothing necessarily sinful in involvement in an organization which is in some respects facilitating sinful activities. One can, for instance, work at or use a public hospital at which abortions are performed. But a Christian organization, if that is what Trinity Western still considers itself, and from its statement announcing the end of the mandatory covenant it would seem to, cannot righteously tolerate sinful activities as part of its life. The problem for individual Christians comes in participation in an organization calling itself Christian which compromises with sin, not in involvement in any organization which tolerates sin. To completely separate ourselves we would have to, as the apostle Paul says, withdraw from the world.

The capitulation of TWU of course has grave implications for Christians in the United States. The attempt in California in 2016, with proposed legislation SB1146, was far more drastic than the decision of the Canadian Supreme Court. The latter simply said that professional associations may refuse TWU graduates. The proposed California legislation would have prohibited any sexual or religious requirements at all in schools in California except seminaries. That legislation was substantially defeated after a vigorous public relations effort, which pointed out the contribution religious schools make to California and what their loss would mean. Religious schools were left with the ability to discipline or expel students or faculty that do not meet religious standards. But is Biola University, for instance, or other any other Christian school in the state willing to stake its life on its Christian character, given its desire to advance the gospel, the enormous love and work that have gone into it, and the enormous capital investment? The answer at TWU was no. It is hard to believe that other Christian institutions will not compromise if their ability to function is threatened. But that is the only righteous response, both for Christian organizations and individuals.

Despite the 2016 election, conservative Christians in this country may well be faced with the situation that would have resulted if the election had turned out as expected. In that situation, enemies of religious liberty will be in power who will take actions such as the Canadian Supreme Court took and the California legislature wanted to take. And in that situation, it will then be important, as it already is important, not to make any concessions that compromise with sin. Make no mistake, Christians who are then faithful to Biblical commands to separatism are destined to be an underclass, excluded from business and the professions. There will be a loss of institutions, public service, and jobs. This will be decried as the baneful effect of religious doctrine, but if moral autonomy is the supreme value of society, obedience to God is most important to Christ’s disciples. Our hope is always in Christ, who we know will prevail in the end, but however our situation develops, obeying God’s commands in Scripture at all times is essential to being disciples of Christ.


8 Responses to How Not to Survive as a Faithful Christian Community

  1. Steve says:

    Shouldn’t have opened the law school in the first place. The monetary hit involved in closing a profitable professional school is unthinkable. Reality tells us its not going to happen, regardless of the religious considerations. If you don’t want your religious principals destroyed, don’t establish secular businesses. I know, too late for lots of religions that have secular empires.

    • Steve,

      The law school was not secular, because it was part of a Christian university. I assume you would hold that all of the other schools at the university are “secular” because they are part of a university which is not “confessional” (has no belief requirements), or perhaps, just because they are part of an accredited university placing students in the public sphere.

      The question then is, what other organizations can be “religious.” Hospitals, charities, schools? There are religiously-affiliated institutions, and therefore, properly religious institutions, in all of those categories. Your line of argument seems to be moving toward saying that only houses of worship are religious. Religious exercise involves much more than worship, and these voluntary religious organizations provide social service according to their religious principles.

      As for monetary investment being an overriding consideration, no, it should not be for a committed Christian. One’s commitment to God is more important than anything. God requires separation from sin (2 Cor. 3:17), and a Christian institution cannot tolerate sin in its midst. As I said in the article, there is the option of re-defining an organization as secular. For Trinity Western, being Christian was too great of part of its reason for existence for that. Rather than tolerate sin in its midst, TWU should have taken any “monetary hit” involved, up to and including closing the university.

      Rick Plasterer

  2. William Miller says:

    Why does this deny you the right to practice your beliefs? Or is it imperative that everybody around you follows those same practices? There is nothing stopping somebody at a Christian university from following their belief to the degree that you feel necessary – just as it should be their right to chose not to follow every rule and practice. You’re afraid that people are going to chose not to follow your dated opinion and practices. You don’t know the end-all answers. Versions, interpretations, and translations of your bible are many – and if you are claiming a “freedom of religion” right, then you should be giving students that freedom. I’m honestly unsure how you can call this a freedom of religion issue, when your version is “students can only follow this belief” and this change means “students can pursue their religion to the depths they believe” – this is a win for Freedom of Religion.

    • Steve Bredesen says:

      What part of voluntary organization are you not hearing? People don’t have to go there or accept the standards. It must be the right of a voluntary organization to set its standards. If I don’t like or accept those standards I can go elsewhere that has standard I agree with.

    • Mr. Miller,

      Traditional Christians who accept the sexual morality the Bible teaches in a straightforward way, which was well laid out in the Community Covenant, are being denied their religious freedom if they cannot have an institution regulated by their beliefs. The same is true for all such believers in Canada, who are being denied a law school regulated by their beliefs.

      Your argument amounts to saying that individual religious freedom means there can be no religious organizations, which must be regulated by religious standards, or they are not religious. You are using the concept of religious freedom to destroy religious freedom.

      Rick Plasterer

  3. David Gingrich says:

    So sad for Canada.

  4. Wm Bell says:

    So sad for Christianity.

  5. Bruce says:

    Well said. The same is happening to the United Methodist Church, of which I have been a member for nearly 75 years. I can’t believe how some people can not only accept sin, but promote it. It’s a sad day for Churches.

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