Dr. Larycia Hawkins and More Wheaton Woes

Wheaton College is in the news again, this time for suspending Dr. Larycia Hawkins for asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. (Check out recent coverage in The Atlantic and New York Times.) Wheaton also houses one of the biggest collections of the works of C.S. Lewis in the world. Lewis' Mere Christianity is on course to sell nearly 100,000 copies again this year. I'm partial to this little gem of a book because it fostered my return to faith after a brush with adolescent atheism.

The idea of Mere Christianity is simple: we're held together by a common core of Christian faith that has remained remarkably stable over centuries and across many cultures. This is where all the jazz, the juice, the power of Christianity resides.

Third Way Honors Mere Christianity

Third Way, rooted in Romans 14-15, is a corollary to Mere Christianity. If the center of faith is really as powerful as we believe it to be--upheld by a Risen Lord, no less-then we can afford to disagree on matters that reside beyond that common core.

But the teaching of Romans 14-15 has been so diluted over the years by those who mistakenly think it applies to "adiaphora"--matters of indifference--rather than to church splitting controversies in every generation of the church, that we're vulnerable to what's happening at Wheaton of late. We're vulnerable to driving some really good people out of some fine institutions--people like Julie Rodgers, a chaplain at Wheaton who's views on LGBT led to her resignation last year, and now Dr. Larycia Hawkins.

The Bad Fruit of Ignoring Romans 14-15

Without a clear understanding that Christians have always disagreed on lots of important theological questions, institutions like Wheaton will have more troubles like this. Does the Genesis creation account allow for interpretations that make room for evolutionary science (as Billy Graham, a famous Wheaton alum, allowed) or must every faithful Christian read these accounts as modern historical-scientific renderings of human origins? Is the Bible without error in all that it says? What does that even mean with a book like the Bible we have? Inerrant in the "original writings" which no longer exist? How does that help us engage what it says?

The problem is even messier. If all Wheaton faculty members were queried regarding their current views on any number of topics over which evangelicals, let alone other Christians disagree, there could be further suspensions. One can imagine that Dr. Hawkins was suspended because her views were poorly timed. She ran afoul of a constituency that has been worked up into a lather over Islam, thanks to the demagoguery of Donald Trump and others. And this, one might imagine, put the administrators of Wheaton under the unique and withering spotlight of an intense cultural-political-religious controversy.

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

There's a way out of this morass. But it requires a commitment to the apostolic counsel of Romans 14-15. In a nutshell it boils down to this: we're going to disagree over highly contentious issues. And we will be tempted to work ourselves into a lather over these disagreements. But we can step back from the brink and remember that since Jesus is risen from the dead, the Judge (please notice the capital "J") is standing at the door. We can afford to let him sort these matters out when he comes, any day now. In the meantime, we can feast ourselves on the rich fare of mere Christianity. In a community shaped by Romans 14-15, there would be plenty of room for Julie Rodgers and Dr. Larycia Hawkins at the table.

In the meantime, more Wheaton woes.

Ken Wilson is co-pastor of Blue Ocean Faith, Ann Arbor and author of A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor's Path to Embracing Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender People into the Company of Jesus (ReadTheSpirit 2014).

Originally published on the Third Way Newsletter.