In December, officials at Calvin University, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, voted to renew a two-year teaching contract for Joe Kuilema, associate professor of sociology. Eight days later, the provost received photos of Kuilema celebrating a same-sex marriage.
One of the women at the Oct. 15, 2021 ceremony, Nicole Sweda, was also a Calvin employee, school officials later learned. She has since resigned.
Now, the private university affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRC) is rescinding its recommendation to reappoint Kuilema. In a seven-page memo sent to Kuilema by Provost Noah Toly, school officials cited the professor’s failure to consult with his department’s dean, provost, or president about the observance of the homosexual marriage. The memo, obtained by Calvin’s student newspaper Chimes, included a summary by the Dean of Kuilema Department, Benita Wolters-Fredlund, who called his decision a “serious error in judgement”. She added that both Sweda and Kuilema were “clearly and unambiguously accountable to Calvin’s staff handbook, which condones sex only within the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Kuilema has taught at Calvin since 2008. The board previously turned down his tenure in 2018 due to his “tone and strategy” regarding LGBTQ advocacy. But the board gave him a two-year renewable contract that was due for second approval last fall.
Today, the university’s decision to terminate Kuilema’s contract sparked complaints and petitions among some students who chalked “Keep Kuilema” on campus sidewalks and handed out LGBTQ flags. An April 19 faculty letter to the board urged members to reappoint Kuilema. He said his actions mirror those of local CRC congregations, including one where Kuilema elders, who have determined that the denomination’s policy on Bible marriage is “unacceptably narrow.” The letter included 88 signatures – 64 from current faculty members and 24 from staff members and professors emeritus.
Calvin’s Board of Trustees sent an email to students and staff on April 23 stating that while LGBTQ people “should be welcomed and included”, the university must respect CRC positions stating “that the sexual orientation is not something anyone decides for themselves, that sexual acts are a choice, and those that fall outside of a covenantal union between a man and a woman do not reflect the intentions or desires of God for the people of God.
The controversy over the school’s handling of Kuilema’s reappointment has highlighted growing tensions between faculty and students. The university seeks to accommodate students who identify with LGBTQ and diverse perspectives while adhering to its denominational standard that homosexual activity is a sin, but homosexual orientation is not.
Provost Toly said Calvin is not unique as he grapples with a “changing landscape of pressures and new opportunities” in caring for the school’s LGBTQ students. “That includes increasing pressure from all sides, pressure to relax our approach and pressure to become even more restrictive,” he told me.
Other Christian colleges and universities face similar pressures. Faculty and students at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, have clashed with the school’s board of trustees after it refused to change its policy requiring faculty members to confirm a statement confirming the marriage between a man and a woman. In April 2021, after the board’s decision, 72% of faculty members voted “no confidence” in trustees.
Two Mennonite schools, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, updated their non-discrimination policies in 2015 to allow the hiring of teachers in same-sex marriages.
In Calvin, one problem is that a number of local CRC-affiliated congregations, including one where Kuilema elders, Sherman Street Church of Grand Rapids, have strayed from respecting the denomination’s positions on biblical sexuality and marriage. .
Sherman Street Church states that in November 2020, it decided to allow LGBTQ people “to receive the Lord’s Supper, to be ordained to all church services, to preach, to marry, to have their children and fulfilling all leadership roles”. Another Grand Rapids church, Neland Avenue CRC, appointed a deacon in a same-sex marriage in 2020.
Kuilema did not respond to WORLD’s email request for comment.
The annual CRC synod meets in Calvin in June. He is expected to approve a report affirming the church’s biblical beliefs, including on same-sex marriage and gender identity.
Matt Kucinski, associate director of media relations, said Calvin University allows faculty members and students to disagree with the CRC’s position, but expects them to respect it. The school sponsors a support group for LGBT students. Last year, Calvin students elected a student body president who came out as gay in a Chimes article from last fall.
Faculty and staff members who objected to the university’s decision to fire Kuilema argued that his actions “occurred within the confines of his personal life.”
“Same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. … A legal and personal action has become an employment matter, which sets a troubling precedent,” they wrote. I contacted several faculty members who signed their names. An emeritus professor of religion, Kenneth Pomykala, replied that he agreed with the contents of the letter.
According to Wolters-Fredlund’s memo, Kuilema said he received approval to officiate the wedding of Sweda and her partner from his president and program director, as well as elders, pastors, and the leader of his church council of Sherman Street Church. Kuilema plans to appeal the university’s decision on his reappointment, according to Chimes.
Sweda resigned from Calvin in March. The university reached an agreement with the Center for Social Research, where Sweda was a research associate, to have the center become a separate legal entity, in part because of its desire to include employees involved in LGBT relationships.
“I wouldn’t have come to Calvin if I had known the kinds of things that were going to happen to me and what was going on,” Sweda said. Chimes.