Ten months ago, InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship was put on provisional status with Vanderbilt University. Since that time, the university has allowed us to function normally. However, unless we omit our requirement that student leaders affirm our Basis of Faith & Purpose Statement, the university has indicated that we will not be approved as a registered student group in the coming year. (You can read more about religious groups’ situation at Vanderbilt in the “History” section of this blog.)
So, why are we keeping our creed, or statement of beliefs, in our constitution?
Answers to that question are many. However, in general, there are four primary reasons why keeping our creed in our constitution is so important to us that, despite our great wish to remain an official part of Vanderbilt’s community, we are willing to move off campus in order to retain our creed.
First, we believe that requiring our leaders to affirm the beliefs of the faith community they lead helps preserve our group’s unique religious identity as well as the purpose and mission of our group. Christians and other religious communities have used creeds for thousands of years to define who they are as a community and to preserve the religious tradition they have inherited. To abandon this practice would be to abandon a fundamental practice of our faith tradition, one that keeps Christians across the ages connected as part of the same body of believers and same faith.
Second, if we remove the belief requirements for leaders, we, as a community, would have no protection against further regulation of our beliefs and practices on campus. Without language in our constitution requiring leaders to affirm a particular religious belief, we lose protection of our right to freely exercise and express our beliefs on campus, because our constitution’s leadership requirements were the mechanism by which our beliefs and practices have been protected by former university policy. For example, if the university receives a complaint about what a religious group teaches or practices, and the university has approved a constitution that states what we expect leaders to believe and practice, then their policies protect us. Moving forward, there will be no written policy protecting religious beliefs or practices. In the end, functioning in an environment where our beliefs and practices are not protected by university policies puts all religious groups in a tenuous position.
Third, we believe the modern secular university is best served by protecting robust pluralism. We believe that diverse communities of belief, including creedal religious communities, have a place in university life and should have a seat at the table among other ideologies and philosophies. We want historic, evangelical Christianity to be authentically represented on campus. Since “Christian” is in our name, we want students who wander into our community to be able to see an example of authentic Christian beliefs and practices. Therefore, we want to ensure that our leaders represent these beliefs and practices.
Fourth, it is not uncommon for students to convert to another faith, renounce faith altogether, or drift theologically. Pastorally walking with students in these times of transition is difficult enough. Having them in leadership positions where they can (and have) sought to lead a whole student group adrift adds another layer of complexity. Intervarsity has had belief requirements for their leaders since the very beginning of our movement in 1941. Creeds are like a tuner in music. If we strip our constitution of creedal governance (requirements of belief for leaders), we won’t become a totally different sort of group overnight, but given time – 10, 15, 20 years – we will slowly move toward whatever the majority dictates and, little by little, lose our “tune,” with no mechanism in place by which to return to our original beliefs. Christians have used creeds for thousands of years because creeds ensure that we stay unified or “in key” with each other and with the historic, global faith that we have received.
In the coming days, the InterVarsity staff team at Vanderbilt will explore each of these questions further on this site.