• Caleb Kaltenbach

Calvin University's Chaotic Example

Updated: Nov 12


Calvin University (which shares land with Calvin Theological Seminary though they are two separate institutions) is a school in Grand Rapids with over 3,000 undergrad and graduate students. It's also the flagship school of the CRC denomination—Christian Reformed Church in North America.[1] Calvin University faculty and leaders are supposed to adhere to the Nicene Creed and Heidelberg Catechism.[2] In June 2022, the CRC “voted 123-53 to affirm that ‘unchastity’ in the Heidelberg Catechism includes adultery, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex. The move wasn’t just an affirmation of biblical sexuality but also a call for church discipline for congregations that dissent.”[3]


The CRC has actually enforced their June 2022 vote within their churches. However, the denomination’s flagship school has chosen not to align with the CRC. It all began a couple of years ago. Nicole Sweda was a full-time Research Associate at the Center for Social Research (formerly, an institute of Calvin University). She’s also married to a woman named Annica. The two were married in the Fall of 2021, had been living together since May 2020, and had been dating before then.[4] Dr. Joseph Kuilema, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Calvin University, officiated their ceremony. In an article detailing his denial of tenure, the university’s student newspaper (Chimes) indicated that Dr. Kuilema is an affirming advocate for LGBTQ+ students.[5]


How would Calvin University respond? For a while, it appeared as if the school would remain aligned with the CRC’s view of sexuality and gender. Take for example Calvin University Provost Noah Toly comments at the time:


Calvin is an institution of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and our positions and policies are intended to follow its doctrines… We don’t follow the doctrines of the church because we have to. We follow the doctrines of the church because we believe that’s the right thing to do…


Joining a community or institution almost always means inheriting positions and submitting to rules made by others, even if we don’t agree with all the rules, wouldn’t make those rules ourselves, or want to change the rule…


This need to live within a doctrinal framework and set of rules we don’t make is heightened in a confessional institution. Colleges and universities aren’t the only places where this happens, but they’re great places for students to grapple with this reality.[6]


Unfortunately, the school’s board recently voted to allow faculty members with contrasting views on marriage and sexuality (especially religion/ministry/theology faculty) to remain employees of the school by submitting an explanation of their disagreement.[7] The board is working to produce new guidelines for professors to help them express their convictions while respecting the school's and the CRC's beliefs.[8]


Some of you might be asking, “Caleb, what’s the big deal? Haven’t they worked out a good compromise?”


Let me say from the outset that I have nothing against this institution. I'm sure its leaders love the Lord and His church. However, I have serious concerns about their judgment and how they attempt to balance theology, academic expectations, and modern views of sexual identity.


The big deal is that a Christian college/seminary is headed for trouble when faculty are allowed to teach unbiblical viewpoints and directly oppose a major doctrine of the school. Academic freedom in a Christian college’s significant doctrinal views has boundaries that other areas of study would not possess. There’s more at stake here than what some realize. While there's a lot of theology at stake, I want to highlight three critical issues at stake in hopes that other institutions will not make the same mistake.



Elevating Experience Above Character

The decision to live together and have a ceremony all happened while both Sweda and Dr. Kuilema were employees at Calvin University and were required to support the school’s beliefs and values. As I indicated earlier, “Faculty hired by Calvin University must sign a document saying their beliefs align with a set of historical Christian creeds and confessions, such as the Nicene Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism. The faculty handbook says they must ‘teach, speak, and write in harmony with the confessions.’”[9]

Calvin University claims orthodox theological views on marriage and sexuality in its human sexuality FAQ page on the school's website.[10] Students are expected to abide by the following regarding sexuality:


"Calvin University expects students to follow biblical guidelines for intimacy and sexual relationships... The student conduct code prohibits sex outside of marriage, casual sexual encounters, cohabitation, involvement with pornography, and internet cyber sex."[11]


Elsewhere, Calvin University has outlined the following:

  • SEXUAL MISCONDUCT IN CONSENSUAL RELATIONSHIPS Definition: Calvin University holds that premarital intercourse and casual sexual relationships are in conflict with biblical teaching, and that conduct promoting such intimacy (i.e. nudity, partial undress, lying or sleeping in bed together) is ill-advised and unacceptable. For information on other forms of sexual misconduct, refer to the Sexual Offenses/Sexual Misconduct section of this code.

  • COHABITATION Definition: Whether students live on or off campus, Calvin University expects students to take our commitment to a Christian view on relationships and sexuality seriously. Examples of prohibited cohabitation include students in romantic relationships sleeping/napping together or “sleeping over,” students in romantic relationships living together, and students of the opposite gender living together. [Note: Students who believe they have a legitimate exception to this policy should contact a Student Life dean to arrange for permission prior to committing to a living arrangement].

  • INVOLVEMENT WITH PORNOGRAPHY, ILLICIT SEXUAL ACTIVITY, INTERNET SEXUAL ACTIVITY Definition: Students are expected to embrace biblical sexual purity and avoid activities that have the potential to distort the good gift of human sexuality. Examples include but are not limited to: involvement with pornography, illicit sexual activity, and internet sexual activity.[12]

Calvin University faculty and staff are also required to adhere to a policy that bans sexual and romantic activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. As CU alumni and employees, Nicole Sweda and Dr. Kuilema were familiar with the school’s policy on same-sex relationships. Nonetheless, they decided to go through with the ceremony.


Are there schools and individuals who legalistically and harshly apply such policies? Yes. But, there’s so much talk about harm that ideas like character /integrity aren’t even viewed as significant. What about Nicole Sweda? Wasn’t she fully aware of Calvin University’s community expectations regarding sexuality? And yet, did she not decide to compromise her integrity and live in contrast to the school’s beliefs and expectations rather than resign her position? Similarly, remember Dr. Kuilema from the beginning of this story? Was he not completely aware of Calvin University’s community expectations regarding sexuality? If I remember correctly, didn’t he compromise his integrity and officiate a ceremony in contrast to the school’s beliefs and policies?

Framing the compromise of integrity as "appropriate" makes the compromise of integrity in other life domains seem more palatable.

Still, some continue to view the former Calvin staff members and supporters as victims that were harmed by Calvin University. But is this true?



Gaslighting with “Psychological Harm”

After the Fall 2021 Sweda wedding, the Center for Social Research decided to separate from Calvin University. While Dr. Kuilema’s future at CU appeared to be in question at the time, Nicole Sweda resigned from her position and didn’t hesitate to share her feelings about the school’s historic beliefs and policies.[13]


“I want Calvin to be honest,” she said. “If they are going to cut ties with staff members, faculty and an entire center of over this, then just say that. And stop promoting things that make Calvin look more welcoming.”[14]


On a Go Fund Me Sweda created to aid LGBTQ+ Calvin students, she wrote: “As discriminatory policies and practices against LGBTQ+ people at Calvin University are brought to light, we know LGBTQ+ students currently attending the university bear the brunt of the physical and emotional toll that comes with conversations of the validity LGBTQ+ identities on campus.”[15]


Seriously?


Does a school’s historical/orthodox beliefs on sexuality/gender and policies (restricting romantic/sexual relationships) actually cause students to experience emotional damage? As Carl Trueman discusses in his writings, when disagreements over theology are viewed as psychological harm and the equivalent of physical oppression, there is little room left for dialogue.[16]

While emotional harm has occurred at some schools and still happens (though not as often), the phrase “psychological harm” has become a trump card or boogeyman used to scare anyone who disagrees into conforming to the metanarrative.

Those who don’t conform to the metanarrative are subject to name-calling, branded as harmful or worse, and even exiled in some cases. The sad result is that some who fight for complete LGBTQ affirmation have morphed into the oppressors they claim to be fighting against. Talk about gaslighting…


As one who was raised by three LGBTQ parents in the ’80s and ’90s, I’ve witnessed psychological harm and emotional abuse piled upon LGBTQ individuals—and I’ve seen the sad result. It’s evil. And still, what’s labeled as harm and abuse done by schools today is nowhere near the same… yet some would protest and claim that “I can’t say that” because it’s so… subjective. Well, a tremendous fallacy is constructed when subjective experiences are leveraged as primary sources to design objective organizational policies and standards.


Organizational Chaos

A Calvin University spokesperson has emphasized that the school won’t change its orthodox view on marriage and sexuality.[17] Yet, the school has already changed its view, and if history has proved anything, it indicates the school will probably continue shifting its view. More upheaval will follow when contrasting teaching on pivotal doctrinal issues and policies is allowed. Notice, I did not refer to “disagreement” rather I’m highlighting how the allowance of teaching in contrast to an organization’s beliefs, values, and standards will cultivate a new breed of chaos.

Apart from serious infractions of human dignity, the idea of experiencing “psychological harm” as the result of a school’s historical beliefs about sexuality/gender is so subjective that it shouldn’t be leveraged as a primary reason to create objective policies and community standards.

Yet, Calvin University has done just that… Besides the board’s clear opposition to scripture’s teaching on sexuality and gender, they’ve committed a grave leadership error. The university's board has fostered organizational disunity in its attempt to appease students, faculty, and other stakeholders who disagree with their historical/orthodox beliefs about sexuality/gender. The board has attempted to disguise this organizational error by misappropriating the word “unity.”


Calvin University’s chairman of the board wrote that having “diverse viewpoints among its faculty while remaining committed to upholding the confessional standards of the CRC.”[18]


Zachary King, a CRC denominational leader said that Calvin University’s decision “allows dialogue and research on a range of matters touching theology and doctrine.”[19]


While dialogue implies disagreement, it doesn't imply organizational chaos. The school will either keep headed down this path or it will turn the other direction and "over-correct." The wheels will eventually fall off this plan because contrary to what some espouse, “unity” doesn’t come from the allowance of "affirming teaching" at a "non-affirming school." Why? Because those who disagree about marriage don’t arrive at a biblical bottom-line conclusion. For instance:

  • Reformed and Arminian individuals differ in their view of the extent of God’s sovereignty in salvation, but both arrive at the same biblical bottom-line conclusion—salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:4-10; Titus 2:11-16).

  • Premillennial and Amillennial individuals differ in their interpretation of the end times, but both arrive at the same biblical bottom-line conclusion—Jesus Christ will appear visibly and physically to judge and initiate the New Heavens and New Earth (Isaiah 66; Revelation 19-22).

  • Young earth creationists and old earth creationists differ on the specifics of how the world was created, but both arrive at the same biblical bottom-line conclusion—God created the world (Genesis 1-2; Isaiah 45:12; Hebrews 11:3).

Nonetheless, those who disagree about the historic view of marriage don’t arrive at the same biblical bottom-line conclusion—God designed marriage to be between a male and a female (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 5:22-33). Leaders who are misaligned over significant values of the organization forge chaos in the organization. Misalignment clouds clarity and doesn't prioritize the organization's values.


Thus, the board itself has become the author of more chaos, especially since some people view their sexuality/gender as a source of their primary identity (e.g., extremists). The current decision of the board won't be enough. More students will lobby for the school to allow students to be in same-sex relationships. No compromise will satisfy extremists until Calvin University changes all of its doctrine, values, and community standards to fully affirm intimate relationships and marriage between two people of the same sex (because anything less is seen by extremists as psychological harm).

A majority of higher learning institutions in North America affirm same-sex marriage, so why isn't there room under the umbrella of sexuality for compassionate "non-affirming" views?

One can only imagine how this unfortunate situation will continue to play out. Regrettably, the Calvin University board has normalized the rejection of orthodox beliefs, sabotaged the school's organizational alignment, and created a situation that will probably spiral downward. They've also set a poor example for other Christian universities. My prayer is that other schools will not follow suit. I often talk about living in the tension of grace and truth, but what CU has done is anything but living in the tension of grace and truth. The school has attempted to balance the tension instead of living in it. Living in the tension calls for faith, but balance is a myth. Calvin University's board would've been better off choosing to live in the tension... the next best choice would've been just to become an affirming school... but this path will bring more stress.


You have no idea how much it grieves me to type this-- Calvin University has not only failed to represent its namesake, but it has also become a chaotic example not to follow (both theologically and organizationally).


_________________________________ [1] Joe Carter, “Calvin University Votes to Allow Faculty to Embrace Heretical Views on Sexuality,” The Gospel Coalition (November 10, 2022). [2] Yonat Shimron, “Calvin University Board Votes to Keep Faculty Who Disagree with Stand on Sex,” Religion News Service (November 2, 2022). [3] Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “The Christian Reformed Church Corrects Course,” The Gospel Coalition (July 29, 2022). You can find the document outlining the vote at https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/human_sexuality_report_2021.pdf [4] Harm Venhuizen, “’I’m Not Going to be Ashamed’: Queer CSR Employee Quits to Speak Freely About Split from Calvin,” Chimes (March 21, 2022). [5] Gwyneth Findlay, “Professor Denied Tenure by Board of Trustees,” Chimes (May 3, 2018). [6] Bob Smietana, “Fallout Over LGBTQ Spouses at Calvin University Captures Broader Evangelical Divide,” Religion News Service (March 22, 2022). [7] Yonat Shimron, “Calvin University Board Votes to Keep Faculty Who Disagree with Stand on Sex,” Religion News Service (November 2, 2022). [8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “LGBT+ Students and Homosexuality FAQ,” Calvin University. bit.ly/3O8YGaJ. [11] “Calvin University Community Life Policies” in “Student Conduct Code,” Calvin University. calvin.edu/directory/policies/student-conduct-code. [12] Ibid. [13] Lucy Kaltebjian, “Center for Social Research Announces Split from Calvin,” Chimes (February 20, 2022). [14] Bob Smietana, “Fallout Over LGBTQ Spouses at Calvin University Captures Broader Evangelical Divide,” Religion News Service (March 22, 2022). [15] “Support LGBTQ Students at Calvin,” GoFundMe. gofundme.com/f/support-lgbtq-students-at-calvin. [16] Carl R. Trueman, “The Impact of Psychological Man—and How to Respond,” Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute (November 10, 2020). See also the following 2 books by Trueman: Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2022); and The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020). [17] Yonat Shimron, “Calvin University Board Votes to Keep Faculty Who Disagree with Stand on Sex,” Religion News Service (November 2, 2022). [18] Ibid. [19] Ibid.