Scholars have long debated the precise etymology of the word “Protestant.” While some have promoted the widely held view that it originated from its root word “protest,” others have advocated that the term is more properly translated as “proclaim.” Regardless of the initial meaning, the term Protestant throughout history has most certainly been synonymous with those who are unwilling to back down from a good fight.
Such is the case with Union University’s recent departure from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), where news of two member institutions endorsing same-sex marriage has caused a firestorm of controversy. On the website of Union University, President Samuel W. Oliver openly grieved the move, yet stated:
Our advocacy for Christ-centered higher education means that we must stand with institutions that share our commitments. Regrettably, that is no longer the case with the CCCU. …Our faithfulness to the authority of Scripture takes precedence … marriage is at the heart of the Gospel. To deny the Bible’s concept of marriage is to deny the authority of Scripture.
Without debating the underlying cause of the departure, I’d like to examine Union’s exit from the CCCU from a historical perspective, one that evaluates the Protestant proclivity to withdraw rather than engage. Or, perhaps more precisely, the regularity in which Protestants use withdrawal as a form of engagement.
In his seminal work, Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr set forth five distinct paradigms that explored the tensions between the church and the culture at large. Of the five (opposition, agreement, Christ above culture, tension and transformation), evangelicals have often differed widely on a proper Biblical response to issues that frequently divide not just fellowships, but entire denominations.
I can't think of an organization that has become more orthodox merely by the retreat of evangelicals.
A case in point is my own fellowship of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The denomination itself was birthed out of a departure from the PC(USA) over issues related to (among others) the authority of Scripture. The Protestant penchant for flight is part of my very own DNA. I confess this while recognizing that a Presbyterian split did little to stem the tide of liberalization of the PC(USA) and in fact has only hastened it in that direction. Indeed, this is a scenario that has played out in nearly every mainline denomination across America. I can't think of a denomination, church or organization that has become more orthodox merely by the retreat of evangelicals.
And yet, I sympathize with the tension of many who are asking questions related to remaining and reforming or cutting your losses and moving on. To quote the great Kenny Rogers, the challenge for many is “to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” For an institution like Union, the choice was clearly to sever ties. But is this always the wisest choice?
For many evangelicals, it is time to leave when the fight becomes the mission. When the need to right a wronged ship takes precedence over arriving at the destination, it is time to grab a lifeboat and simply let her sink. On the other hand there are others who sense that it is their calling to stay and serve as light in places edging towards darkness.
How followers of Christ answer questions such as these remain at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian in the modern world. For the sheer complexity involved I scarcely can judge brothers and sisters who find that their struggle to keep the lights on has finally trumped their original vision of reaching the lost with the Gospel.
And yet, I also want to continue to hold out the potential power of Niebuhr’s vision for transformation, in which Christ is upheld as the example of neither fighting against nor retreating from culture, but rather transforming it. As additional institutions currently grapple with their own relationship with the CCCU, it will be my prayer that our history of protest would be overshadowed by a new legacy of reclaiming what is lost for Christ through perseverance and preservation; of living as salt that stays put.