Joe Kuilema, a professor of social work at Calvin University whose reappointment was delayed after he officiated an October 2021 civil wedding of a same-sex couple, was informed last week that the school’s professional status committee is not recommending him for reappointment; his contract will conclude in August. Kuilema has the right to appeal and told Religion News Service he intends to do so.
Calvin’s student publication Chimes shared news and memos describing the professional status committee’s decision. In a March 22, 2022, memo Benita Wolters-Fredlund, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, said she was “obliged to consider a far wider body of evidence than is typical for a reappointment process,” noting a “unique history” in which Kuilema was asked by the school’s board in 2018 to use “good judgment” and abide by “university expectations around tone and strategy in relation to his LGBTQ+ advocacy.” Kuilema was denied tenure by Calvin’s board of trustees in 2018.
As the university of the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin “holds to the position of the CRC on human sexuality, articulated in 1973 and 2002,” the school’s website says. “That is to say, we believe that homosexual orientation is not a sin, and we strive to love our gay, lesbian, and bisexual students as ourselves, as God expects of us. We also affirm that physical sexual intimacy has its proper place in the context of heterosexual marriage.”
That position opposes same-sex marriage, and faculty are expected to promote and live within the church’s boundaries. While positions may be challenged, there is “an appropriate tone and strategy for expressions of ecclesiastical freedom,” a 2016 Calvin document on Confessional Commitment and Academic Freedom says. “(The Covenant for Faculty Members) suggests a strategy that begins by consulting with those in authority, and a tone of bold humility that cares enough about the confessions to raise difficult issues and, at the same time, is willing to submit to the judgment of the church.”
Benita Wolters-Fredlund’s memo said, “Prof. Kuilema’s act of officiating a fellow employee’s LGBTQ+ wedding strongly suggests that he condones behavior that is out of step with stated policies and furthermore easily be interpreted by outsiders as Calvin condoning such behavior.”
Kuilema told Religion News Service he was “deeply disappointed by the committee’s decision.” He said, “I love Calvin University. I love working here. I love our mission. And I think it’s important to say that I did what I did, because of that mission.”
Kuilema’s local congregation, Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he has served as an elder, has adopted a stance different from the denomination, which does not limit marriage to a man and a woman. Last spring the Sherman Street council affirmed, “That LGBTQ+ people of Sherman Street, whether single, in a dating relationship, or married, who confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, enjoy full participation in the life and leadership of the church.”
The appropriateness of individual congregations taking individual stances on this matter is disputed. When Neland Avenue CRC, also in Grand Rapids, appointed as a deacon a woman who is married to a woman, other congregations accused Neland of “breaking covenant” and requested that synod (the broadest assembly of the CRC) admonish the council. Others communicated support for Neland, which said it was not acting contrary to the confessions but only contrary to pastoral advice, and maintained that a broader assembly cannot discipline a narrower one. The CRC’s Council of Delegates discussed the matter in a meeting held in lieu of synod last June and decided to defer to Synod 2022.
The CRC’s human sexuality report is also coming to that synod, convening June 10-16 at Calvin University. The report, requested by Synod 2016, reiterates the denomination’s 1973 position and provides a theological underpinning and pastoral guidance for many aspects of human sexuality and culture. The report has been criticized and praised. Synod will consider not only the report, and an appendix of “diverse LGBTQ+ voices,” but more than 50 requests (formally called overtures) and another nine communications in support of or against or suggesting a delay for enactment of the report. The weight of those deliberations, in part, caused the denomination to launch a prayer initiative ahead of synod called Together Seeking God’s Face.
Calvin’s decision to not reappoint Kuilema takes place in that backdrop. Kuilema’s appeal has to be received by May 2 and would then be reviewed by the executive committee of Calvin’s board of trustees. There is no prescribed timetable for an appeal in the faculty handbook.
Kuilema has support. Benita Wolters-Fredlund’s memo noted that Kuilema’s dossier includes letters from 21 colleagues who “enthusiastically support his reappointment,” naming “his deep knowledge of, passion about, and commitment to Reformed theology and to Calvin’s mission” as a key reason for their support. And Chimes reported last Thursday (April 21) that 88 professors, and a further 30 staff, had signed letters to the board of trustees stating their disagreement with the decision.
Prior to the news of Kuilema’s reappointment not getting approved, petitions circulated among students, alumni, and supporters of Calvin University. One, called “Keep Kuilema,” was started by Nicole Sweda, a Calvin alum and one half of the couple whom Kuilema married in October; the other, called “Stop LGBTQ+ discrimination at Calvin University,” was started by Calvin alumni Lindsay Owens and Grace Swanson. The Banner asked Provost Noah Toly about his receipt of that second petition and for clarification of the statement “Calvin University will continue to abide by the teachings of the Christian Reformed Church, listen in a spirit of grace and truth, and be a place where constructive disagreement and debate will take place.”
Toly said, “Every member of the Calvin University community is expected to live by the CRC’s understanding of a biblical sexual ethic. Consistent with that CRC position, Calvin’s community standards make a clear distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. At the same time, those standards also reflect the CRC’s position that God intends sexual relations solely for expression within the context of marriage, defined as a covenantal union between one man and one woman. Therefore, the university has policies prohibiting sexual relationships outside of this context, and we do intend to continue enforcing our policies.”
Some, both inside and outside the institution, question whether Calvin’s approach—one that emphasizes welcome and services for LGBTQ+ students while also trying to uphold the existing denominational policy—is tenable. Asked whether Calvin would consider distancing itself from the CRC, Toly said, “Our covenantal ecclesiastical partnership with the denomination is not only viable, but it is valuable. We firmly believe it makes us a stronger institution. Calvin has become the university we love not despite our relationship with the church, but because of that relationship. We are not reconsidering it.”
About the Author
Alissa Vernon is the news editor for The Banner.