The Cost of Discipleship

Recent events on college campus show the many challenges Christians students face in living their faith in the world. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a call to discipleship and any Christian organization that does not emphasize discipleship and the demands of the cross is not proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A recent article published in The New York Times describes the pressure Christian organizations are facing on campuses all over our nation. Because of a recent Supreme Court decision, colleges and universities are now demanding that Christian organizations on campus allow “any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs . . . be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.”

Below is an excerpt from the article written by Michael Paulson that was published in The New York Times:

BRUNSWICK, Me. – For 40 years, evangelicals at Bowdoin College have gathered periodically to study the Bible together, to pray and to worship. They are a tiny minority on the liberal arts college campus, but they have been a part of the school’s community, gathering in the chapel, the dining center, the dorms.

After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers.

In a collision between religious freedom and anti-discrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

The evangelical groups say they, too, welcome anyone to participate in their activities, including gay men and lesbians, as well as nonbelievers, seekers and adherents of other faiths. But they insist that, in choosing leaders, who often oversee Bible study and prayer services, it is only reasonable that they be allowed to require some basic Christian faith – in most cases, an explicit agreement that Jesus was divine and rose from the dead, and often an implicit expectation that unmarried student leaders, gay or straight, will abstain from sex.

“It would compromise our ability to be who we are as Christians if we can’t hold our leaders to some sort of doctrinal standard,” said Zackary Suhr, 23, who has just graduated from Bowdoin, where he was a leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship.

The consequences for evangelical groups that refuse to agree to the nondiscrimination policies, and therefore lose their official standing, vary by campus. The students can still meet informally on campus, but in most cases their groups lose access to student activity fee money as well as first claim to low-cost or free university spaces for meetings and worship; they also lose access to standard on-campus recruiting tools, such as activities fairs and bulletin boards, and may lose the right to use the universities’ names.

Leaders in a Christian organization should be Christians who embrace the demands of the gospel and who are committed to a life of discipleship.

Leaders of Christian Fellowships on college campuses lead members in prayer and Bible studies. However the requirement that “any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs . . . be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association,” puts in jeopardy the uniqueness that is found in a Christian organization: that those who lead the group be Christian themselves.

According to the article in The New York Times, Vanderbilt University, a school that at one time was associated with the Baptists, is requiring Christian students “to cut the words ‘personal commitment to Jesus Christ’ from their list of qualifications for leadership.”

In 2006, the late Robert Webber, a friend and a colleague at Northern Baptist Seminary, convened a group of scholars and practitioners who represent the next generation of evangelical leaders in the USA to sign a document called “A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future.”

That document was a clarion call for evangelicals to get beyond their present divisions and become energized once again by the Spirit. The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future called on Christians to make God’s story known through the rediscovery of the church’s mission in its worship, spirituality, and life in the world. Below is an excerpt from that document:

In every age the Holy Spirit calls the Church to examine its faithfulness to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, authoritatively recorded in Scripture and handed down through the Church. Thus, while we affirm the global strength and vitality of worldwide Evangelicalism in our day, we believe the North American expression of Evangelicalism needs to be especially sensitive to the new external and internal challenges facing God’s people.

These external challenges include the current cultural milieu and the resurgence of religious and political ideologies. The internal challenges include Evangelical accommodation to civil religion, rationalism, privatism and pragmatism. In light of these challenges, we call Evangelicals to strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church.

6. On the Church’s Embodied Life in the World

We call for a cruciform holiness and commitment to God’s mission in the world. This embodied holiness affirms life, biblical morality and appropriate self-denial. It calls us to be faithful stewards of the created order and bold prophets to our contemporary culture. Thus, we call Evangelicals to intensify their prophetic voice against forms of indifference to God’s gift of life, economic and political injustice, ecological insensitivity and the failure to champion the poor and marginalized. Too often we have failed to stand prophetically against the culture’s captivity to racism, consumerism, political correctness, civil religion, sexism, ethical relativism, violence and the culture of death. These failures have muted the voice of Christ to the world through his Church and detract from God’s story of the world, which the Church is collectively to embody. Therefore, we call the Church to recover its counter-cultural mission to the world.

I encourage you to read “Colleges and Evangelicals Collide on Bias Policy” in The New York Times.

I also encourage you to read Bob Webber’s “A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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One Response to The Cost of Discipleship

  1. Pingback: The Cost of Discipleship | A disciple's study

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