I'm an unlikely apologist for Trinity Western University's community covenant. Last month I left my education off a resumé for an arts and culture magazine because, well, I can't just say I have a degree in communications and professional writing; I have to say where the degree is from.
Living in Ottawa — where everything can be political — I've all but stopped wearing my TWU sweatshirt since the school's law school application became controversial. My TWU apparel used to attract the occasional polite question from parents or grandparents of prospective students hoping to get an insider's perspective on the school. Now, my once-favourite green and gold hoodie renders me overwhelmingly self-conscious as I sit writing in a café. Any indication of my alma mater seems an open invitation to question my politics and even my humanity.
I, too, would question the gall of anyone brash enough to flaunt their association with the school — and by extension, its code of conduct — across their chest if my only knowledge of TWU came from some recent news bites. But the issues are complex and my views sometimes unclear; and I may not have the quick, pat answers people are looking for. It's easier to leave my sweatshirt in the closet.
While I understand people's concerns about TWU's community covenant's traditional marriage implications, I also support a private institution's legal right to hold unpopular religious ideas and ask potential staff and students to comply with behavioural standards — regardless of personal belief — as a condition of membership. Though I can't speak to current students' perspectives on the covenant, I can revisit my own four years inside its bounds and recount the unexpected beauty I found within its limits.
"In making this pledge, members enter into a contractual agreement and a relational bond. By doing so, members accept reciprocal benefits and mutual responsibilities, and strive to achieve respectful and purposeful unity that aims for the advancement of all, recognizing the diversity of viewpoints, life journeys, stages of maturity, and roles within the TWU community. It is vital that each person who accepts the invitation to become a member of the TWU community carefully considers and sincerely embraces this community covenant."
—TWU Community Covenant
Despite a common misperception, TWU's community is not homogeneous. The purpose of the community covenant is not to weed out all but like-minded automatons. It's not intended as a list of rights and wrongs or a Dick Clark-style killjoy countdown; it's much more nuanced and suggests that precisely because we won't all agree, we need to make some extra accommodations. During my four years at TWU, from 2006 to 2010, the covenant entirely prohibited alcohol consumption for students, both on and off campus. But an assumption that the approximately 4,000 students who affirmed the covenant each year were all opposed to drinking on moral grounds is simply unfounded.
While some people find TWU's current alcohol restrictions (maintaining a dry campus and prohibiting drunkenness off campus) a legalistic hold-over from the zero-tolerance days of my tenure, others are doubtlessly grateful. It's a safer and more welcoming environment for people with a history of addiction, and there's more cross-year interaction as seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds aren't excluded from popular social venues. More than that, students are presumably paying tuition to learn, and as the covenant explicitly states, one of its main objectives is to "foster the kind of campus atmosphere most conducive to university ends."
In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt explores the three distinct moral matrices of autonomy, community and divinity. In the Western ethic of autonomy, the highest good is when people are free to pursue their own preferences — so long as they don't harm another's ability to do the same. Conversely, Haidt explains, the ethic of community "is based on the idea that people are, first and foremost, members of larger entities," and overindulgent individualism can "destroy the institutions and collective entities upon which everyone depends." Haidt writes that in the ethic of divinity, people are seen to be "temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted" — with all the attending moral responsibilities that entails.
When Haidt was 29, the self-described liberal atheist received a Fulbright fellowship to study the ethics of divinity in India, and after three months of immersion, he began to feel their pull. "For the first time in my life, I was able to step outside my home morality, the ethic of autonomy," he writes. "I could see beauty in a moral code that emphasized self-control, resistance to temptation, cultivation of one's higher, nobler self, and negation of the self 's desires."
Although they're inherently imperfect, I too can attest to the benefits of the less freedom-focused ethics. Some were as simple as living, studying and working in a completely smoke-free environment. Others were more profound, like the level of deep friendships formed and the respect I felt in an environment where most students were not pursuing sexual intimacy outside of marriage. Finally, I often forgot just how countercultural our dry campus was until I'd see another Dateline or 20/20 episode about hazing, alcohol poisoning or campus assaults. By no means was TWU perfect, but I was grateful it was different.
With nods to autonomy (physical and verbal intimidation and harassment are condemned), an underlying emphasis on community (phrases like "mutual submission for the good of others"), and a foundation of divinity (phrases like "true freedom is not the freedom to do as one pleases, but rather empowerment to do what is best"), TWU's covenant makes it an anomaly among North American universities.
"TWU rejects legalisms that mistakenly identify certain cultural practices as biblical imperatives, or that emphasize outward conduct as the measure of genuine Christian maturity apart from inward thoughts and motivations. In all respects, the TWU community expects its members to exercise wise decision-making according to biblical principles, carefully accounting for each individual's capabilities, vulnerabilities and values, and considering the consequences of those choices to health and character, social relationships and God's purposes in the world."
—TWU Community Covenant
Many Christians may wonder why TWU chooses to codify Biblical principles into black and white behavioural policies such as prohibiting sexual intimacy outside of marriage or the use of degrading materials such as pornography. Such rules might seem clunky and unnecessary when students could just affirm a creed or sign a statement of faith. After all, shouldn't basic Christian commitments naturally catalyze Christian community? The missing piece in the discussion is that TWU is open to all students, whether or not they are able or willing to sign a Christian creed. To maintain an atmosphere based on Biblical principles, then, the covenant serves as gatekeeper.
With their straightedge distinction, the school actually attracts adherents of other faiths and backgrounds with similar values. I know of some Muslim and Baha'i students who chose to study at TWU, in part for its community standards, and some international students — whether or not religious — seem to have done the same.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was often Christians (or those with a Christian background) who were most cognizant and critical of possible legalisms. As a reporter for the university paper, I covered a campus debate titled "Should Morality Be Instituted in a Christian University?" hosted by a student club. Featuring a panel of four popular professors, the debate packed one of the school's biggest lecture halls and became my first ever cover story.
Though each professor had a different take on the title question, the conversation remained — true to the community covenant's precepts — respectful in the face of disagreement. All maintained that a Christian university should be distinct from a secular institution, but they differed on their views of the covenant's effectiveness, and some questioned its scope.
"Why do we choose these rules?" asked a religious studies professor, explaining that substances, sex, civility and violence weren't the only areas that could be legislated based on Biblical morality. "What about gossip or pride? What about greed? Should we kick out students who drive a BMW to school?"
In their closing remarks, the speakers shared their visions for the TWU community. A philosophy professor used this statement to challenge the audience: "What do you as students think is worth policing?" He looked intently at the crowd and then quickly added, "You'd better not say ‘nothing.'"
"Members of the TWU community, therefore, commit themselves to cultivate Christian virtues, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, selfcontrol, compassion, humility, forgiveness, peacemaking, mercy and justice…. Ensuring that the integrity of the TWU community is upheld may at times involve taking steps to hold one another accountable to the mutual commitments outlined in this covenant."
—TWU Community Covenant
One of the most common arguments I hear against TWU's covenant is an assertion that students don't follow it anyway, so why bother with the facade? While some of the covenant's precepts are inevitably ignored, I don't see this as a reason to settle for the lowest common denominator — especially when striving to create a healthy community for living, learning and working. I agree that the school would be hard-pressed to find a single student in perfect four-year adherence to the covenant, but I found that a shared knowledge of the standards elevated our overall social and cultural norms of campus and academic life.
While these shared expectations undoubtedly caused certain behaviours to be more carefully hidden, they also invited an element of discipleship and accountability into our common life. Whether we personally agreed with the specific behavioural limitations of the covenant became less important than the simple fact that we had all agreed to abide by them during our time as students. This created an open door for peer leaders and friends to challenge each other on behaviours or attitudes out of line with our common commitments. And while conversations like these would make little sense within the ethic of autonomy, they're a normal part of life and accountability within the less Western ethics.
A common pastoral analogy recounts two ranchers with very different ways of keeping tabs on their cattle. The first has a well in the middle of the field for the cows to drink from; the second, a fence around his property. Neither have major problems with runaway cows.
Many would say that the fi rst rancher's technique is both superior and sufficient. If a fence requires constant upkeep and even patrol, why not focus exclusively on the living water that draws people into community? This emphasis is important, but the fence-heavy rancher can't be so easily dismissed. The well-only approach may foster more inclusion, but the fence allows for better formation. With clear boundaries come more intentional commitments and therefore the possibility of more robust discipleship.
Of course, any sort of discipleship encouraged within an educational institution will be widely questioned, but the school's mission statement overtly states that TWU is "an arm of the Church" with an aim to "develop godly Christian leaders." And private religious institutions aren't the only ones holding members to a higher standard than rote obedience to the law. A 2015 decision by Ontario's government-owned Hydro One to fire an off-duty employee for being complicit in the on-camera harassment of a journalist brought renewed attention to the quiet ubiquity of organizational codes of conduct and their application both on and off the work site.
Recently, some fellow TWU graduates created a values statement for alumni as an extension of the school's current covenant. Opening the alumni association email, I felt initially hesitant to read this latest iteration of a code I hear so repeatedly maligned. Instead, "The TWU Alumni Way" was a refreshing picture of the qualities I see formed and forming in my friends from TWU, and a document in close alignment to the ways I hope to live my life. The authors spoke of whole-person development, lifelong learning, openness to others' ideas, thoughtful response to the world's most profound needs and a humble posture — one that balances self-sacrifice, mercy, justice and compassion — as we seek to follow Christ.
TWU has an alumni, staff and student community I should feel proud to belong to. The school's counter-cultural norms — especially distinct for a North American university — created a beautiful, challenging environment that I was privileged to learn and grow within. The emphasis on respect, civility and patience led to many enlightening conversations in and out of the classroom, and, sadly dissimilar from my life off campus, I never felt degraded, dismissed or physically insecure.
I won't presume my experience was universal, but I suspect I'm not alone. It might just be time to take my TWU sweatshirt — and education — out of the closet.