Gender, equality and doctrinal statements

by Richard on December 6, 2012

There’s been a bit of fuss in the Methodist corner of the socialmediaverse about Bristol University CU’s attitude toward women speakers at its meetings. It’s almost impossible to discuss a CU or its parent body (UCCF) without thinking about the doctrinal basis of that body, so here’s my reflection on just that first written a few years ago.

“So why won’t you sign the UCCF doctrinal basis?”

That’s a good question. Thank you for asking. ;)

First, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about. UCCF is the ‘parent body’ of Christian Unions on British university and college campuses. Members of affiliated CUs (and any speakers invited to address the CU) are required to sign up to its core beliefs, or doctrinal basis.

And before I go on, I need to make it clear that I think that UCCF and CUs around the country do some great work and are generally great people. I’m in no way casting any nasturtiums or questioning their right to exist. I welcome them as my brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever may sometimes be said.

That said, why wouldn’t I sign the statement? Two main reasons: the content of the doctrinal basis and (more important) its intent.

Item (f) on the atonement says “Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.” That’s OK, as far as it goes, but it in my view it goes too far in attempting to tie down the way that our salvation in Christ “works”. It isn’t that Christ’s substitutionary death is untrue, just that it isn’t all there is to say on the subject. Furthermore, our salvation is not bound up with Christ’s death. The scriptures are clear that his resurrection is also crucial (pun intended). Of course I accept completely that we are saved by the grace of God (I’m a good Wesleyan, me!) but this can be overstated to imply that what Jesus’s followers do has no bearing on their salvation. Again, the scriptures would argue.

On the scriptures, the doctrinal basis says: “The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.” If the statement were confined to the second sentence, I’d have no problem, but as it stands I could never assent to it. What does “as originally given” mean? It implies that somewhere a copy of a ‘primitive’ Bible might be found, pure and unadulterated by the deliberate and accidental influences of human beings. But anyone who has done any study at all of the history of the Bible knows that any such idea is nonsense. The Bible as we have it is good enough for me. And this word “infallible” is deeply problematic. I know what it means — “incapable of error” — and that is a far greater claim than the Bible makes for itself. To make the claim of infallibility stick, believers are required either to do violence to the English language, twisting words so out of shape as to render them meaningless, or to the scriptures themselves making the text jump through complex hoops that make my head spin. Sometimes, both things happen at once. I could write alot more about this, but perhaps a seperate post on the whole ‘infallibility thing’ is called for. For now, suffice to say that its inclusion fatally holes the UCCF doctrinal basis as far as I am concerned.

But even if I agreed with every word of the basis, I still would not sign it. As I said before, my greatest concern is not with its content but its intent, which is that it should provide the basis of fellowship. It is an attempt to put rigid bounds on those who can be included which seems to me to be antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the CU were a church, there might be a case to be made for this (though, as you’d expect, I’d still be wanting to argue for very fuzzy edges), but it is not. CUs are ecumenical groups operating on college and university campuses. It seems to me self-evident that they should be encouraging conversation and learning across different disciplines and between people of different understandings. To rule someone else out as “unsound” or “apostate” before you have even spoken with them, to refuse to listen to anyone who has not provided evidence of their doctrinal purity, to deliberately disengage one’s academic studies from one’s pilgrimmage of faith is tragic — and it is behaviour seen routinely among CU members in my experience. To give just one example, the university where I work hosts a series of public theological lectures by speakers of world renown — normally 2 or 3 a term. We’ve had D.Z. Philips, Nicholas Lash, Morna Hooker, John Polkinghorne, I. Howard Marshal, George Carey, Frances Young and many others. Solid scholarship. Thought-provoking. And how successful do you think we’ve been at persuading the CU to support them? On a practical level, it doesn’t matter. We can fill the lecture theatre as it is. But he thought of young, intelligent Christians deliberately depriving themselves of these opportunities (which may never come again) makes me very depressed.

Of course, it is not simply the doctrinal basis which drives this kind of behaviour. The attitude taken by some church leaders feeds it too. But it is the doctrinal basis which provides the constitutional foundation for CUs to cut themselves off from fellow believers. And it makes me sad.

One of my concerns is what happens to christian students when they graduate. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many CU members, even those who have held positions of leadership, simply give up their faith when they leave university. The reasons for this are bound to be complex, but I’d be very surprised if the principle of exclusion which undergirds the doctrinal basis were not at least partially to blame.

So I won’t be signing it. And if that makes me unsound in your eyes, I’ll have to live with that. But the kettle is always on if you want a chat anytime.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 12.06.12 at 1:15 pm

So the leadership of women in the church is a “secondary issue”. I’d like to know the criteria for determining primary/secondary. I suspect there’s simply one criterion: a difference of opinion. Profound that.


Mark Byron 12.06.12 at 11:52 pm

Both the atonement piece and the infallibility piece are standard evangelical boilerplate.

I was part of InterVarsity in the US, which is a sister-group to UCCF; they had something comparable. “The unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.” is their take on the former and states that Jesus “assumed the judgment due sinners by dying in our place.” for the former.

IVCF was rather pan-evangelical, enough where it would be see as a bit too liberal by some folks. However, it is on the evangelical side, which will get into your craw. I can see where UCCF would do likewise.


Richard 12.07.12 at 7:51 am

“…it is on the evangelical side, which will get into your craw. I can see where UCCF would do likewise.”

I thought you knew me better than that! Being on the ‘evangelical side’ is fine, splendid and respected. What I object to is when it is defined as the *only* side, as it is here.


Godfrey Rust 12.08.12 at 11:38 am

Well put, Richard. “Evangelical boilerplate” is a nice and rather sad concept. It’s paradoxical that organizations who insist that the Bible has the last word on everything feel compelled to go and add their own.


Wood 12.11.12 at 10:51 am

I remember the year when UCCF declared me — and who am I anyway? — an enemy and my church kicked me out of student work. It still smarts. For all their talk about being a minority and being persecuted (and don’t get me started on that) they’re the second biggest student group in the UK today, second only to the NUS itself.

@Mark: UCCF are not completely representative of IFES (of which IVCF is also a part), being one of the most conservative mainstream Christian groups in the UK today. They don’t even work with the Evangelical Alliance or Spring Harvest (neither of whose doctrinal bases are exactly skimpy), let alone more open groups.

@Kim: I heartily agree with your assessment, although I often find these days that I think you haven’t gone far enough! Clearly I am not the man I once was.

But one note, though: I heard the thing about CU committee members losing their faith in later life back when I was a student, nearly twenty years ago (!) now, and a few years ago I did a bit of research and found that at no point had anyone ever done any serious polling on the subject.

It’s wholly anecdotal — if someone gives you a statistic, it’s not real at all. I have a feeling anyway that in the terms of the UCCF I remember having contact with, “losing your faith” or “falling away” is considered to be cognate with “not being a conservative evangelical of the UCCF variety”; by UCCF standards Kim and Richard aren’t considered Christians, and me… well.

I recall a former CU member telling a (gay) (Christian) friend that “liberals are worse than murderers” because they lead you into error and heresy and you think you’re saved and you’re not, and at least if you’re a Muslim or an atheist you’ve got a chance of repenting or seeing the light. That’s the sort of thinking you’re up against — the kind of thinking that sees people who are supposed to be on your side and question your assumptions as more dangerous than out and out enemies.


Kim 12.11.12 at 3:47 pm

@ Wood: I was being kind. I might have referred to the theological brain-death of male-headship CUs. But then these are kids. I blame their ministers and youth leaders, and, of course, the UCCF staff workers, ecclesial Peter Pans who perpetuate theological adolescence.

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