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Principles and Principals: Thoughts on a Cruel Week for a Christian School

Friday, 11 February 2022  | Dan Anderson



Sometimes in a fallen world, you’re presented with moral choices that have no clear solutions. You have to walk the path, but you can’t avoid a brush with tragedy. It’s a grief that a Christian leader needs to know how to accept. Without a category for lament in your worship, I don’t know how you’ll make it.

A Moral Tragedy

Citipointe was responding rationally to the developing framework of law and judicial interpretation by which religious institutions are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religious convictions. They did this in order to preserve something good — the mission of a Christian school to teach in line with the gospel. But this legal framework does not easily allow the pursuit of this good thing without the sacrifice of other good things — a case of moral tragedy.

For a range of reasons that are sensible enough when taken separately, our legal framework is currently driving polarisation within Christian institutions. There’s a good, lengthy discussion to be had about the path to this point, but the endpoint is to incentivise very clear, public and uncompromising positions on matters of doctrine and conduct. It does not allow for theological diversity or dissent within an institution without opening up the leadership of the institution to being sued. I’ve wrestled with this quite directly in trying to preserve space for complementarian and egalitarian Christians to work within the same organisation while seeking to access anti-discrimination exemptions for complementarians who wish to employ male bible teachers. You simply can’t do it without accepting some degree of an elevated legal risk. For a Christian Board charged by the stakeholders with protecting against risks, this creates a conflict of duties that is hard to reconcile.

It’s legally safer under the current arrangements to create institutions that are theologically uniform, and to be very clear that those who hold different convictions should not join. This is a loss in situations where Christians might want to recognise the difference between first and second-order theological differences and might want to work together while respecting one another’s freedom of conscience. It’s increasingly hard to make this happen. It’s also a loss when theological uniformity and clarity is vitally important (and I think that in areas of sexuality and gender, it is) but where gracious pastoral wisdom also needs to be shown. The institutional incentives are to move quickly to publically remove and discipline anyone out of line. It’s easy for love and long-suffering to get lost.

Citipointe did the kind of thing that Christian institutions increasingly find themselves needing to do under our current system (to be very clear and public about their convictions) in order to preserve the mission of the institution into the future. Preserving the mission of a Christian school to teach students in line with the gospel is a good thing. But under these conditions, it was also always going to involve losing other good things — and it was this loss of other good things that was deeply felt by those who responded to Citipointe with hurt from within the Christian community. 

A Recipe for Trouble 

Citipointe is a Christian school educating adolescents — young people who are in the process of moral formation. This is why its mission matters. It’s also almost quintessential to this group that they are both under the authority of their parents and seeking to understand themselves independently from their parents. Even as I write, my heart sinks with my own memories of what a painful, treacherous passage of life that is. A moment’s thought suggests that a parent who signs a contract that binds a child to abide by a statement of faith is involved in a morally fraught exercise, especially as that child progresses through those teenage years. It is precisely the kind of thing that, if it involved adults, we would resist fearsomely anywhere in our society. 

And of course, some of those adolescents will discover in this period of life that they are same-sex attracted or experience gender dysphoria. And they will be trying to work out what this means at precisely the same time as they’re trying to figure out how to be moral selves independent from their parents. It should come as no great revelation that some — maybe many — will walk away (at least for a time) from their parents’ convictions.

A contract that mechanically kicks-in to exclude a student from their school community under these conditions — depriving them of the relationships in which they are forming their identity — tragically compounds the difficulty of this passage of life by cutting them off from the Christian community that might otherwise patiently wait and love and pray for them. Behind this is the sweet seduction of being ‘bound by the rules’. We love to relieve ourselves of the difficult work of wisdom — the judgement that is attentive to the needs of the individual. Dealing with a situation that demands wisdom through a contractual mechanism was never going to work well. For what it’s worth, I am convinced that this was not the intention of Citipointe’s leaders.

Complex Goods

Those who protested Citipointe’s approach were recognising something morally important about this situation: Christians want to love lost kids through the toughest time of their lives, and this doesn’t seem to do that very well. In seeking to preserve the mission of the school, something else good was lost. 

But it is not simply the case that the pastoral needs of an LGBT student exhaust the moral demands of the situation. It is morally important to preserve the freedom of the Christian teacher to share the gospel and pray with a conflicted student. Preserving the mission of the school for a future generation of students does matter. These other morally important things have to be recognised and weighed. If we attend only to the pastoral considerations, we sacrifice something else. The potential loss of these other good things — the mission of the school — deeply worried those proposing the amended contract. 

What should Principal Brian Mulheran have done? I’m sure there are better and worse answers to that question, but I’m not sure that there are any that wouldn’t involve some loss of something good — this is what I mean by speaking of moral tragedy.

I thought hard about whether to share my own opinions about what the school should have done. I have ideas, but I’ve decided to keep them to myself. I don’t know enough about the reality on the ground to pronounce on whether the school leadership should have consulted more, whether the timing was appropriate, why the enrolment contract was deemed an appropriate means. I’ve been inside the room enough times to know that these things are always more complicated than they seem.

Inferences for Bystanders

I do think it’s worth drawing a few inferences for us bystanders:

1.     Whatever position you take, hold it with tears.

2.     If you’re a Christian spoiling for a fight and all you can see is cowardice or bravery, persecutions and enemies, then I’m not sure you have seen enough.

The last statement on the issue cannot be ‘religious freedom’ because it is not the last word of the gospel. Religious freedom is only an instrumental good for Christians, never an absolute one. This means we do not insist on our freedoms when the gospel mission demands we lay them down. And when the mission demands that we maintain religious freedom, we insist on our rights. But always, we judge everything by what is good for the gospel. It is good for the gospel that a Christian school maintain its Christian witness. It’s good for the gospel for us to have the freedom under law to maintain this witness.

I’m very glad for schools that operate with conviction and activists who lobby for religious freedom. But it’s not good for the gospel when adolescents become tokens in a strategic game. And if the alternatives are mutually exclusive, or have been lost in the hustle if the cause of the gospel will suffer one way or another, then worship requires lament, the path of action is walked with tears. 

3.     If you’re a Christian wondering, ‘why can’t we just show more love?’ and all you can see is insensitivity and outrage, then I’m not sure you have seen enough. Love may well be the last word, but it doesn’t free us from the difficult business of moral and political calculation. This is true both in the moment: what does it mean to love this vulnerable kid? And in the weighing of the needs of the specific case against the needs of the whole: what does it mean to love the whole school? It really is loving to show patience, compassion, empathy to a trans kid at a Christian school. It really is loving to ensure that a Christian teacher can teach biblical sexuality and pray with students. And being ‘loving’ doesn’t avoid the hard decisions about which debt to love you should pay when.

4.     So pray for our leaders who regularly carry the burden of such decisions. Pray for Citipointe Principal Brian Mulheran, who I think was seeking to walk this path and is bearing the cost. 

5.     And pray for students at Citipointe College. Father, would you bring some redemption from this? Strengthen those teenagers with extraordinary graciousness and wisdom in the coming weeks and let the beauty of the gospel be seen and heard. 

Let’s give the eschatologically penultimate word to Augustine of Hippo who wrote about the misery of Christian judges. In this age, we are all Christian judges:

Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognise the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God: “From my necessities deliver Thou me”.  (City of God, XIX, 6)

 

Dan Anderson is the Director (CEO) of the The Lachlan Macquarie Institute (LMI) based in Canberra, Australia. LMI seeks to train Christian men and women for wise leadership in politics and culture.

Prior to LMI, Dan was chaplain to Robert Menzies College (a residential college at Macquarie University established by the Anglican Church of Sydney) and the pastor of Trinity Chapel (the University church on the RMC Campus). He also served as the Anglican Chaplain to Macquarie University. Dan recently completed a PhD at Macquarie University exploring the ethics of forgiveness in political contexts. He is the Chair of the Board of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES). Dan holds a B.A. (hons) from the Australian National University and a B.Div from Moore Theological College. Dan is married to Emma and they have two young children (Nat and Evie). Dan and Emma met while studying at the Australian National University through the Christian Union.


This article was first published on 9th February 2022 at https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/principles-and-principals-thoughts-on-a-cruel-week-for-a-christian-school/. Republished with permission.


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