The InterVarsity Situation: Christian Unity in the Face of State Derecognition

Last month I started a graduate program at California State University, Fullerton. 

Like many new students, I strolled around campus that first day, uncertain about how the experience would go. Would I enjoy collaborating with new colleagues? Would my studies in instructional design add to my toolbox as a teacher? Was I nuts to go back to school only a year after earning a Ph.D. in New Testament?

That same month, an executive order was implemented at Cal State Fullerton and the 22 other campuses of the Cal State system that “derecognized” InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and similar Christian campus ministries. Only recognized groups may meet on-campus without significant bureaucratic entanglements and costs. For InterVarsity, it’s a clear, “No.”

This is a big deal. With 447,000 students, the Cal State system touts itself as “the largest [and] the most diverse” university system in the United States. Under the order by then-chancellor Charles Reed, no student religious group would be recognized unless its leaders were not bound by the beliefs of that religious group.

Many InterVarsity chapters require their leaders to demonstrate assent to a doctrinal statement. In other words, their identity derives from their unity with other Christians. No competent student of history can read their doctrinal statement and fail to see how it unites this vibrant, intellectual campus ministry not only with contemporary followers of Jesus but also with the universal church across the ages.

By standing for unity, InterVarsity is no longer welcome at Cal State. [Tweet This]

This hits home for me on several fronts. First, as a person of faith attending Cal State, I feel marginalized. It is unjustly arbitrary, for example, that fraternities and sororities are granted exemption on issues that go to the core of their identity, while religious groups are not. In what way is it less heavy-handed for a university administrator to decide arbitrarily for 447,000 students what is in bounds and what is out of bounds than it is for students to define their own groups?

Second, I feel patronized. Yes, it is true that some, if not many, will find challenging and possibly offensive InterVarsity’s core beliefs, including “the unity of all believers in Jesus Christ” and “the unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.” Those beliefs can manifest in subversive behavior that may make others uncomfortable. But should university students be protected from ideas they might find offensive or challenging? In what substantive way is the Cal State policy different from the demand in some quarters for equal time for creationism during a biology class? When truth needs to be propped up, that’s a sign of hegemonic ideology. It is far more intellectually honest to let people express themselves in ways that are consistent with their core values, and let others decide for themselves on the merits of the case.

Third, as a former leader in my alma mater’s InterVarsity chapter, I feel a mixture of anger and sadness that many students may not experience the same ease of connection with diverse classmates, staff workers, and Christian faculty that was so formative for me. My friends challenged me to go beyond the parochial Christianity of my childhood. InterVarsity provided a safe place to dialogue, to make mistakes, and to grow. I laugh when I think of how my über-Catholic roommate and fellow IV member, Ryan Gable, would leave my copy of the Catholic catechism open on my desk to some inflammatory passage, such as papal authority. The Luther-toting evangelical in me would respond by leaving a virtual post-it note on his computer with a polemical Bible verse like “do not call anyone on earth ‘father’” (Matt 23:9).

Ryan is now a Dominican friar with a Ph.D. in phenomenological philosophy from Fordham University, and I am a married father of two boys with the aforementioned Ph.D. When he was ordained this summer as Fr. Justin Gable, I was proud to address him with the customary honorific and to kneel in the traditional manner to receive one of his first blessings. Sorry, Luther!

The diverse, influential, life-long friendships I made in InterVarsity were completely organic. They were not imposed by a university administrator whom none of us had ever met. Moreover, they were nourished by our unity in the Lord Jesus whom we all had met. To use the words of InterVarsity’s statement of faith, we had become living examples of “the value and dignity of all people” and “the unity of all believers in Jesus Christ, manifest in worshipping and witnessing churches making disciples throughout the world.”

Similar to the process at Cal State, our Jesuit, Catholic university required our InterVarsity chapter to jump through some administrative hoops in order to be a recognized organization, including submitting a list of our leaders. This was a formality. On paper, we accommodated the university’s biases toward hierarchical leadership. In practice, we didn’t care who was named “president” or “vice president” on a piece of paper. These categories were meaningless to us.

Christians have long been viewed with suspicion for our rejection, if not outright subversion, of “traditional values.” It is not a recent development for followers of Jesus to be condemned for “hatred” and to be denied state recognition. Scholars argue that the word “Christian” itself was probably coined as a slur, differentiating polite society from “these people who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

In the largely pluralistic milieu of the Roman Empire, Christians often were seen as uncompromising and a threat to social order. For example, the Bible describes Paul as being run out of Ephesus by merchants upset that Christian teachings not only were discrediting the Artemis cult but also — and more to the point! — were driving away paying customers and hurting their bottom line (Acts 19). Activities like these are confirmed by Pliny the Younger in his correspondence with Emperor Trajan (Ep. 10.96-97). Pliny tells Trajan that Christians’ “stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.” Christianity makes claims that are irreconcilable with other religions, so this “depraved, excessive superstition” must go.

Similarly, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus describes first century Christianity as “a most mischievous superstition,” whose followers were accused of “hatred against humanity” during Nero’s reign (Ann. 15.44). Earlier, Christians so “constantly made disturbances” that Emperor Claudius expelled them from Rome (Suetonius, Claud. 25).

And we could go on.

The misguided “derecognition” of InterVarsity in the California State University system echoes ancient misgivings about Christianity. And that should give hope to followers of Jesus. The early church flourished without state recognition. Unity with that church — and its Lord — will show that InterVarsity can flourish apart from a Christendom model of state recognition.

And if not, we will still follow Jesus.

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