Commencement season has revived a fresh spate of debate about separation. Should Liberty University have invited Glenn Beck to speak? Should Al Mohler have gone to BYU (again)? And related, should Bob Jones University have invited Dennis Praeger to speak?
None of these three situations is the same, of course, and as they say, the devil is in the details. But the following factors connect all three situations: (1) they all involve faith-based universities with feet squarely in both the ecclesiastical and civic spheres, (2) each of which who has invited a speaker prominent in both the ecclesiastical and civic spheres who (3) professes a faith wholly irreconcilable with the faith-base of the institution to which he has been invited.
The complexities of our three representative scenarios should not go unnoticed. Were this a simple matter of a Mormon or a Jew being invited to preach at the worship service of a Christian church, or of an Christian pastor being courted to preach at the regular meeting of a synagogue or temple, the solution would be simple: no ecclesiastical fellowship is possible because Christ and Belial do not get along. On the other hand, if this were a matter of a civic university inviting a believer to address them on the strength of his/her success in some civic arena (say, business, medicine, politics, etc.), there is nothing (on the surface of things at least) that would prevent this address from occurring: civic “fellowship” does not rest on the same ground as does ecclesiastical “fellowship.” Christians hold a dual membership in life—we are members of churches, and we are citizens in civic society—and the basis of citizenry and “belonging” in those two communities is quite different.
The difficulty in the three situations in question is that a faith-based university is a complex blend of ecclesiastical and civic elements. Seen as a civic institution, on the one hand, a Christian university would hear few objection were it to invite an unbelieving expert in his field to offer a lecture or host a field study—so long as the “field” is something like piano repair or heart valve replacement or public court procedures. Seen as a para-ecclesiastical institution, on the other hand, Christian universities would rightly receive many complaints were it to host a persuasive sermon or theological lecture by a Mormon or Jewish expert in, say, hermeneutics, evangelism, or worship.
The question at issue in each of our three scenarios, then, is this: is it possible to establish in any or all of the scenarios proposed that a civic leader was addressing a civic issue in a civic setting? I would argue that to the degree that this may be established (i.e., to the degree that both the speakers and the institutions effectively communicated and preserved the civic nature of the event), then such an exchange of speakers is appropriate. To the degree that the ecclesiastical and civic spheres were conflated (i.e., to the degree that civic responsibilities were presented as being grounded necessarily in common ecclesiastical/faith commitments), then such an exchange of speakers creates considerable confusion.
Let the reader decide.