Cedarville University has been a firestorm of controversy the past several years. Prominent voices and student advocates like Bill Brown and Carl Ruby were ushered out of leadership, and new conservative voices were inducted. These exchanges of power were facilitated largely by a coup with a common conservative vision and mindset for the University–a vision that exclude those outside a narrow set of doctrinal beliefs.
Many people would claim that Cedarville is returning to fundamentalism, and I would agree, though we must carefully define fundamentalism. The Fundamentalist Movement originally arose from the Scopes Trial–Christians felt threatened by an increasingly modernist and skeptical culture and therefore highlighted the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. What is ironic is what fundamentalism has ultimately become by popular definition–hyper-conservatism. To be a traditional fundamentalist, the Nicene Creed is the only doctrine statement necessary. The creed states all of the basics of Christianity, which are, in bullet format:
- We believe in one God, the Father, the creator of heaven and earth, seen and unseen.
- We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.
- For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.
- For our sake he was crucified; he suffered death and was buried.
- On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
- He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
- We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
- We believe in one holy, universal, and apostolic Church.
- We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
- We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The hyper-conservative form of fundamentalism actually adds conservative interpretations to doctrine, largely related to controversial Bible passages. But it’s hardly fundamental; at best it is a pharisaic movement to protect Christian integrity, and at worst it is a fetish with conservative interpretations of scripture.
While I have been caught up in the dog(ma) fights at Cedarville, this University plays a part in a much larger flaw in evangelicalism. Culture wars are breeding grounds for doctrinal controversy that churches, fundamentalist or otherwise, get unnecessarily stuck in.
Too often, churches feel pressured to specify what they believe, so as to distinguish themselves from those (individuals or churches) who disagree. Unfortunately, this pressure commonly comes from congregants who somehow believe it virtuous to be part of a congregation that collectively agrees on certain, typically controversial, issues outside what is explicit in the gospels and illuminated in church history.
I was recently in a conversation with a local pastor and a community friend who were discussing differences in the various Baptist denominations (e.g., Independent Baptist, Southern Baptist, Free Will Baptist, Missionary Baptist, “Old Fashioned” Baptist–I’m not making this up!). Much of the breaks and shifts within the Baptist Denomination have to do with slight doctrinal differences established at the Conventional level (i.e., the Southern Baptist Convention). But my pastor made the pertinent statement that churches–individual churches–are autonomous. They can decide for themselves what they want to believe.
While I agree with my pastor in part, I think his statement falls shorts. Not only are churches autonomous, but people are autonomous! That said, we ought to allow individuals to come to their own conclusions about what they believe within a Christian framework. Could not that Christian framework be as simplistic as the points of the Nicene Creed?
Churches do add doctrine though, often as if people will fall away into apostasy if they do not adhere to certain tradition or interpretations of scripture. But as more doctrine is drafted, we isolate and condemn beliefs outside our own. We do a disservice to Church history to believe that we have finally “got it right” in our tradition. As more doctrine is added, diversity dwindles; the only people who believe like us are people who look like us. (In Cedarville’s case, the would white, American men). As our theology and doctrine becomes more limited, genuine academic and religious discourse disappears. Questions are silenced and doubt is condemned for the sake of doctrinal unity.
But doctrinal unity is a farce! Doctrinal unity is division until exclusion. Doctrinal unity is amputating a part of the Body because we believe that other parts are sick.
But there is no life without connection to the Body! We were made to be in connection with the rest of the Body! In the upside-down Kingdom of God, unity (connection with the Body) is only possible in diversity. Without diversity, you do not have unity–you have uniformity. A Body composed of only ears is not unified, it’s uniform. Those ears are meant to be in connection with eyes, and noses, and hands, and feet.
Uniformity is being identical; unity is combining different parts into a collective whole.
And so I’m calling for a simpler doctrine. Not a statement that verifies opinions on end times and womens’ roles and sign gifts and drinking and dancing as facts, but a doctrine that allows unity in diversity. A doctrine that allows individuals to come to their own conclusions. A doctrine that allows for religious discourse.
A doctrine that unifies the Body, not divides it.