Friday, August 31, 2007,10:00 AM
The Gospel and Wheaton College
I received my Wheaton Alumni magazine in the mail the other day. Usually I just flip through it and skip to the gossip pages in the back - who got married, who had a baby, who wrote what book, the fun stuff. This issue though intrigued me. It sought to examine why student activism is on the rise.

When I was at Wheaton in the nineties, I knew nothing about social justice. Oh there were a few activist groups on campus that would do things like picket abortion clinics, but the concept of helping the oppressed really wasn't on my radar. I had friends who would go off about public health issues or American injustices in Latin America, but they were on the fringe. It took my own post-college personal study to realize that caring for the needs of others is a Biblical value.

So, to have student activism highlighted in the Wheaton magazine surprised me. Then I actually read the article. While it does applaud the students for their idealism, it takes a rather apologetic tone in doing so. The section on students for peace devotes a good portion of the space to how those students learned to understand the convictions of those in the army after a panel discussion on campus. The activism article was followed not so subtly by an article about Wheaton alumni serving as Chaplains in the military. Apparently the college wants to make sure that rich alumni don't get the impression that the school officially supports these rogue activist students. (and before you tell me I'm too cynical, I worked for the Wheaton Advancement department for a few years and know the posture one must assume when wealthy alumni are involved.) But the equivocating and the apologies were nothing compared to college President Duane Litfin's back page editorial.

Litfin addresses the rise of student activism by asserting that "we must never allow our activism to eclipse our verbal witness... the temptation to reduce the contribution of the church to the so-called 'social gospel' is always before us." Apparently we are tempted to help others so that we can hear the applause and respect of the world, but they should be hating us because of Jesus. Litfin writes, "feed the poor, heal the sick, stand up for the oppressed and the world will often approve. But name the unique name of Jesus and it will often not be applause you hear." Does he really think that students are following the command of Jesus so that they can be approved by the world? Apparently to Litfin, those commands of Jesus are insignificant parts of scripture that obedience to does nothing to proclaim Christ.

The editorial then goes on to quote and reject the famous saying of St. Francis, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." Litfin claims that this saying is false, "the gospel cannot be "preached" nonverbally. The gospel is inherently a verbal thing. It requires verbal expression. Social activism can never take its place." No wonder I never heard about social justice at Wheaton. All that is deemed acceptable there is the truncated gospel of Christ's economic exchange. What matters is verbally confessing Christ so that we get into heaven when we die and not following the way in which Christ taught us to live. If Christ was sent to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God and all we focus on is his death on the cross (and condemn his actual message) there are some serious issues going on here. I am reminded of this quote I came across in a Christianity Today interview with Ruth Padilla DeBorst.

When Christianity came into Latin America, many of the indigenous groups simply changed the names of their gods: They gave them Christian saints' names. But they really continued worshiping their original gods. Churches were built on top of temples. Seventy-five years ago, John Mackay wrote a wonderful book, The Other Spanish Christ, which asks whether Latin America could discover the Christ who was incarnate, who walked the streets and died and rose from the dead and is powerful today. This Christ was not widely portrayed in the first evangelization of Latin America. Christ was either a helpless baby, toward whom we feel affection and compassion, or a corpse, a dead body with no power or ethical demands. This is what happens when religion is too closely linked with power: The problem is not just that religion underwrites oppression, but that the gospel itself is lost. If Christ is just a baby or a dead body, I can keep on living and not allow Christ's lordship to shed light on all dimensions of my life."

So can the evangelical church and places like Wheaton College accept not just the Christ who dies, but the living Christ who makes ethical demands? Will the full Christ be allowed to be known within those institutions or will a hollow Christ used merely as God's sacrificial pawn be all that is allowed to be taught? I know I've traveled a long way since my time at Wheaton, but I also know (as this article attests) that there are students at Wheaton now who are embracing the full gospel no matter what protestations the administration makes to the contrary.

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posted by Julie at 10:00 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 8/31/2007 11:14:00 PM, Blogger Katherine

    I graduated from Wheaton in '06. Reading the Wheaton magazine is interesting for me because, since I started getting issues of it before I graduated, I got to compare Wheaton life from the inside with the image presented to the larger public. There is sometimes a sizable disconnect. There are also different levels--the students are at one, the faculty at another, and then Litfin and the Board of Trustees (and the amorphous but powerful and influential alumni it seems) at yet another. It's almost like a continuum. Whatever Litfin might say FOR the college can tend to be quite different than what the students IN the college actually believe and do.

    Social justice is a real presence at Wheaton, not central, but definitely not fringe, either. I had minimal exposure to it beforehand (I grew up Southern Baptist, in Texas), but I actually learned it and began to make it my own AT Wheaton. Many students practiced it, advocated it, and educated about it, and a fair number of the faculty gave support in the form of their own actions, teaching, mentoring, and also in sponsoring groups and speaking out with conviction on a number of occasions. AIDS, urban issues (did you have Wheaton in Chicago during your time?), racial justice and reconciliation (there was a BIG conversation and stirring about that at one of the MIF weeks that seems to have pushed the issue into greater visibility and permanence), gender justice, fair trade and fair labor, economic development, and environmental justice (one of my friends at Wheaton started up a chapter of A Rocha and has been very involved in environmental justice issues)--all of these I discovered through Wheaton, and they have set me on a very different and perplexing path than I was on before Wheaton.

    Oh yes, and one of my roommates worked for Phonathon, so I got a good dose of alumni attitudes and politics. When we changed to the Community Covenant and allowed dancing and all other manner of "sinfulness" alumni stopped giving "because the Holy Spirit told them to". *sigh*

    Wow, sorry, this is a long comment, but I thought it might be helpful to give my perspective. Plus I love your blog and have lurked on it for a while now.

  • At 9/01/2007 08:32:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    Katherine - thanks for stopping by and for your comment. Its nice to hear from a recent student. I'm over at the college from time to time and know a few current students and knew that these days things among the students are different. The awareness level in the evangelical church on social justice issues has been raise drastically over the last 7 years (since I graduated). The students and Litfin were at opposite ends of the spectrum when I was there too, but on other issues (he is a cessationist and most of the students weren't).

    The alumni issue is the big one though. I remember during Phonathon having alumni telling me I had lost my salvation because I went to a school that allowed us to watch "moving pictures." so it's no wonder that a slightly warped picture is what the school chooses to present to alumni.

  • At 9/08/2007 09:43:00 AM, Blogger bfine107

    I'm also a Wheaton alum ('05) and share your thoughts quite a bit.

    You might like one of my posts about Wheaton on my blog...

    also, I started this site called and am hoping to populate with like minded thinkers. Let me know if your interested.
    and also, if so, add your blog here:

    thanks, ariah

  • At 9/08/2007 09:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

    Some powerful words here, an inclusive vision of Christianity:

    Making a pilgrimage means setting out in a particular direction, travelling towards a destination. This gives a beauty of its own even to the journey and to the effort involved. Among the pilgrims of Jesus’s genealogy there were many who forgot the goal and wanted to make themselves the goal. Again and again, though, the Lord called forth people whose longing for the goal drove them forward, people who directed their whole lives towards it. The awakening of the Christian faith, the dawning of the Church of Jesus Christ was made possible, because there were people in Israel whose hearts were searching – people who did not rest content with custom, but who looked further ahead, in search of something greater: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, Mary and Joseph, the Twelve and many others. Because their hearts were expectant, they were able to recognize in Jesus the one whom God had sent, and thus they could become the beginning of his worldwide family. The Church of the Gentiles was made possible, because both in the Mediterranean area and in those parts of Asia to which the messengers of Jesus Christ travelled, there were expectant people who were not satisfied by what everyone around them was doing and thinking, but who were seeking the star which could show them the way towards Truth itself, towards the living God.

    We too need an open and restless heart like theirs. This is what pilgrimage is all about. Today as in the past, it is not enough to be more or less like everyone else and to think like everyone else. Our lives have a deeper purpose. We need God, the God who has shown us his face and opened his heart to us: Jesus Christ.


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