Trinity Western University has been to the Supreme Court of Canada twice, three times if you include the Law Society of B.C. and Law Society of Ontario cases as separate occasions. All because of the mandatory nature of a Community Covenant for staff, teachers and students that includes a biblically aligned prohibition on sexual relationships outside of marriage between one woman and one man.
Last week, Trinity Western’s board of governors decided it was time to remove the mandatory nature of the Covenant in regard to students.
There have been a variety of comments about the decision, most from people outside the Trinity community. But an important comment was made by Trinity Western President Bob Kuhn.
In a letter to donors and the university community, President Kuhn stated, “We will remain a Biblically-based, mission-focused, academically excellent university, fully committed to our foundational evangelical Christian principles.”
That’s the starting point for consideration of any and all other remarks. Trinity Western will remain:
- academically excellent; and,
- fully committed to foundational evangelical Christian principles.
The Covenant will remain a requirement for staff and teachers. It will become optional for students.
Social media opens the door to expression of opinion by the informed and uninformed. But, most comments miss the commitment expressed by Bob Kuhn.
One twitter commentator, a lawyer, referred to the Community Covenant as “perjury,” judging that Trinity Western had “wasted court time and public money to advance a fundamentalist, discriminatory cause under the cover of Christian beliefs that it turns out weren’t sincerely held.”
A law professor notes, “I don’t think that #TWU’s decision to relax covenant says anything more about the strength of their beliefs than would a Hutterite’s agreeing to a photo in order to drive, or a veiled woman removing it in order to vote or, even, take a bus.”
Facebook comments have ranged from “like,” “sad face” and “wow” emojis to comments such as, “about time,” “wrong direction,” “compromise,” and “not sure what to think.”
I’m not going to tell anyone what to think, but I will share my thoughts en bref.
A Christian community does not enter the court system to defend something it does not believe in. Trinity Western has stood up for practices associated with its foundational beliefs on a number of occasions. The university has officially stated it has not abandoned its beliefs, but is modifying expectations for the student body.
In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada thought it unlikely that a gay or lesbian student would want to attend Trinity Western. That proved to be incorrect. In fact, because of the four points made by President Kuhn, students who did not share the religious commitments of TWU sought out the university and attended for a variety of reasons. The series of court battles occasioned by proposing a law school, initially accredited by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education with the Covenant in place, caused a rethink on the mandatory nature of the Covenant for students, not its abandonment.
I wasn’t in the room and have no inside knowledge about the board of governors’ decision. But, we can imagine the thoughts in the minds of the men and women charged with this difficult decision.
How many times must we spend how much money to fight this in court? It was sensible to fight it in 2001. The result presented reasonable grounds to fight in pursuit of the planned law school. Trinity Western took a stand for religious freedom. Not once, twice or three times (the 2001 and 2018 decisions) but on several occasions both inside and outside the courtroom.
Every person in that room has experience with the Church. Churches require the leadership to ascribe to commitments of faith and practice. Churches require members to do the same. Churches do not ask the same of all attendees. In fact, the goal of most church leaders and congregations is to have people attend who do not ascribe to the church’s beliefs and practices.
In light of the reversal of precedent in Ontario for Christian Horizons, a community living Christian ministry for people who experience disabilities, there was a working example of how to maintain the Christian nature of ministry while adjusting to the demands of the judiciary. Christian Horizons had a similar experience. Its statement of Biblically-based lifestyle requirements for staff was approved within the administrative law system in 1992, and then challenged in 2010 for its position on same-sex relationships.
Trinity Western is a Christian university of liberal arts, sciences and professional studies. It is not a seminary. Students are studying with professors who teach from the perspective of a Christian worldview. They may not necessarily be preparing themselves for the ministry or Christian academia, or even studying Christian topics, but most are preparing for life as citizens who share a Christian perspective on community, and community service.
I get that some people will be disappointed with the board of governors’ decision, particularly because Trinity Western has not yet decided whether they will reapply to establish the proposed law school. This is not about you or me. Nor is it about abandoning Christian faith or practices. It is about continuing to teach with integrity, from a Biblical perspective with a standard of academic excellence, and without the particular distraction of potential legal challenges resulting from the mandatory Covenant for students.
Please continue to join me in prayer for the governors, staff, professors and students of Trinity Western University as they enter this new phase in ministry, even though it looks a lot like the school’s most recent phase.
The Covenant is not gone. It has moved to a more welcoming format. If you haven’t read Trinity Western University’s Community Covenant, it’s still worth a read.