(RNS) — When a former student asked Calvin University professor Joe Kuilema to officiate her wedding last fall, he said yes right away — despite a school policy that views same-sex marriage as sinful.
That decision will likely cost him his job.
Kuilema learned this week that Calvin’s Professional Status Committee decided not to renew his two-year appointment to the Calvin faculty due to his ongoing conflict with Calvin’s leaders over the issue of LGBT inclusion.
“I know this is not the outcome you were hoping for, Joe,” Calvin Provost Noah Toly wrote in a letter dated April 18. The letter and several supporting documents were published online by the Chimes, Calvin’s student newspaper. The university confirmed the letter and documents are authentic.
Kuilema, who plans to appeal the decision, said he was not surprised by the news.
“I 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.”
The social work professor, who was a church elder at the time he officiated the wedding, has long been known for his support of LGBT students at Calvin, which is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He said that even though the wedding was a civil ceremony, he consulted with the pastors at his church ahead of time.
That church, like Calvin, is part of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination that opposes same-sex marriage and teaches that sex should be limited to within a marriage between a man and a woman. Unlike other churches in the CRC, though, Kuilema said his congregation affirms same-sex marriage.
“I thought I had the personal academic and ecclesial freedom to do what I did,” he said.
In a March memo, Dean Benita Wolters-Fredlund called Kuilema’s decision to officiate the wedding a “serious lapse in judgement,” given that Calvin adheres to the CRC’s teachings forbidding same-sex marriage.
“Thus, despite Prof. Kuilema’s stellar record in the areas of Christian Reformed commitment, teaching, scholarship and service, and in contradiction with the unanimous recommendation of the tenured faculty in the Sociology and Social Work Department, I am unable to recommend that Prof. Kuilema be reappointed,” Wolters-Fredlund wrote.
The memo also detailed that Kuilema, who began teaching at Calvin in 2008, was denied tenure in 2018 due to “concerns around his tone and strategy with regard to controversial theological topics and LGBT+ advocacy.”
In 2011, Calvin’s board issued a statement, limiting the role faculty could play in discussing LGBT issues.
“Advocacy by faculty and staff, both in and out of the classroom, for homosexual practice and same-sex marriage is unacceptable,” the statement read, according to The Banner, a CRC publication.
Wolters-Fredlund had previously recommended Kuilema’s appointment be renewed for two years and said in the memo that he had worked in good faith to “improve his tone and strategy around LGBTQ+ advocacy.”
That assessment changed after Calvin leaders learned that Kuilema had officiated the wedding of Nicole Sweda and Annica Steen in October 2021. At the time, Sweda worked for Calvin’s Center for Social Research. She is also a former student of Kuilema. The wedding put both Kuilema and Sweda at odds with school policy and led the Center for Social Research to spin off from Calvin, causing controversy on campus.
Kuilema intends to appeal the decision. If that appeal fails, his time at Calvin will end when his current contract expires in August.
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More than 100 faculty have signed a letter of protest in support of Kuilema, pointing out that the professor was in good standing with his home congregation, which approved of his actions. They argued school leaders were usurping the role that belongs to churches and pastors.
“By judging Dr. Kuilema as disqualified for reappointment, the Provost and PSC are effectively exercising discipline of a faculty member when Dr. Kuilema’s own congregation not only did not exercise discipline but affirmed his participation in the wedding ceremony,” the letter states.
Sweda said she was disappointed but not surprised Calvin would move to cut ties with Kuilema. She said when they first talked about the professor officiating the ceremony, he knew there could be fallout.
“I don’t think it has eclipsed the happiness of our wedding,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for our marriage, Calvin would have found another way to get rid of him.”
The dispute over Kuilema comes at a difficult time for Calvin. The school has long tried to be welcoming to LGBTQ students while still adhering to the CRC’s views on sexuality. Now Calvin leaders, like leaders at other Christian schools, find that more and more students — as well as faculty and staff — are less willing to accept anything short of full LGBTQ affirmation.
At the same time, the CRC, which owns the school, is poised to harden its stance on sexuality. At this year’s denominational annual synod, the Christian Reformed Church is expected to approve a report from its Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality, which affirms the denomination’s traditional beliefs.
Kuilema said that in the past the CRC teaching on sexuality was considered “pastoral guidance” — which meant there was room to disagree. The new report raises that teaching to a matter of confession, he said, meaning there would be no room for dissent.
The professor said he’s not sure what he will do if his appeal fails. A lifelong CRC member and Calvin graduate, he said the thought of leaving the school was heartbreaking. Still, he believes officiating the wedding was the right thing to do and would do it over again, if given the choice.
“My personal faith is stronger than ever,” he said. “At the same time I am increasingly disillusioned with organized religion.”
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