*** The following is a letter I have written in light of the recent events at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. I have emailed it to Board Chairwoman Mary Bauman and shared it on social media. Please share this with friends and family associated with Hope College and its mission. If you want to read more things like this, follow my writing here. Thank you! ***
To Hope College Board of Trustees,
I greet you from Winter Park, Florida, as a Hope College alumnus of 2006! Though I wished to stay in Michigan and visit old professors and friends often, my career in education took me to Florida where I’ve been blessed to start a family. Distance aside, my memories of Hope are still invaluable, and I love my alma mater deeply.
Like many other alumni, I have grown privy to the rising concerns over President John Knapp’s reforms since his appointment in 2013. Clearly the concerns of the Board – and the support of Dr. Knapp by many students, faculty, and alumni – highlight the tension Hope College has hosted in the recent decades.
I am writing to lobby for a decision. The decision I pray you make is one that will have lasting consequences. To choose otherwise will cost Hope College in both staggering treasure and immeasurable trust. Students will turn away. Donors will close their purse strings. And elite faculty will seek posts elsewhere. Worse, I believe that the wrong choice will lead Hope away from the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and toward a lesser gospel of its own making.
This is why President John Knapp must remain at Hope College for at least a few more years, so that the fruit of his new policies may be properly seen and assessed.
Now, this subject is difficult to address with specificity. The communications between you and Board Members, as well as Hope faculty such as Dr. David Myers, have been conducted under the umbrella of confidence. Some of these communications have been leaked to the public, and it is only through these breaches in confidence that alumni such as myself have come to possess knowledge of the Board’s desire to terminate President Knapp.
I must also proceed with a caveat: If President Knapp has committed a violation of ethics or law that the public is unaware of, then he must face the consequences for his actions.
However, due to the lack of any reports, rumors, or news that would indicate so much, I cannot assume that President Knapp has committed a crime worse than offending a small but powerful pocket of Hope’s trustees and donors.
First, let me say that I respect the Board’s willingness to delay the proceedings to “take more time for discussion.” This is a sign of wisdom and prudence, one that has potential to gain trust among the public.
However, I am gravely concerned that this delay is in fact a feint designed to terminate President Knapp once his largest support base, the student body, is dismissed for the summer. Such a move would destroy faith in Hope’s body of invisible, privileged leaders, the powerful men and women that students never meet but exert incredible force over the Hope College experience.
I’ve seen the power of these invisible elite firsthand. In 2005, Hope College went through a similar upheaval during my junior year.
Another troublesome and progressive personality, Dr. Miguel de la Torre, openly espoused a view of Christianity that embraced gays and lesbians, yet “[took] scripture seriously,” to quote the 2011 Statement on Human Sexuality. Then, as is the case now, confidential emails were leaked, exposing a strategy to gag Dr. de la Torre and eventually remove him. Students were outraged. And with the wisdom of hindsight, I now know why.
No doubt, many students agreed with Dr. de la Torre’s interpretation of scripture, and wanted Hope to conform to it. But Hope does not have to conform, especially if it feels those Biblical passages concerning homosexuality are law, and that the law should not be violated at the institutional level.
Students are drawn to Hope by its promises, one of which is Christian Community. The conclusion of Hope’s Statement on Human Sexuality reads: “Hope College affirms the dignity of every person as a creature made in the image of God and thus worthy of our earnest respect, our insistent protection, and our self-sacrificing love.” These affirmations – and the implicit promises of Hope’s well-produced brochures, manicured lawns, chapel services, and welcoming atmosphere – sell an idea to the prospective and current Hope College student. And to many, that idea promises that differing points of view won’t just be tolerated – they’ll be encouraged, all in the knowledge that God’s grace is sufficient.
Yet the backhanded dismissal of Dr. de la Torre – and what seems to be the impending covert termination of President Knapp – betrays these promises. These actions are not made by the students, the faculty, or the alumni at-large. They are made by a small group of powerful and privileged elite, and they are often shrouded by secrecy and whispers.
It is this sense of betrayal and deceit that angered Hope College’s students in 2005, and it angers them today, in 2016.
If Hope College took a more rigid position on homosexuality, declaring that it was antithetical to the Word of God, sinful, heinous, and banned among the student body and faculty, no one would be surprised by the removal of Dr. de la Torre or President Knapp. It would be natural for Hope to spit out such unappetizing ingredients. Prospective and current students would also know precisely where the college stood. They could make the informed decision to enroll elsewhere, seeking the community of their choice.
Yet Hope presents itself as the best of both worlds. It sells itself as the bridge between a Christian lifestyle and a world that desperately needs Christ. It doesn’t claim to be rigidly adherent to specific and contextualized Biblical precepts (as Bob Jones or Liberty University do, perhaps), and it proudly declares that its mission is “to educate students for lives of leadership and service in a global society … in the context of the historic Christian faith.”
The context of our evolving culture demands a maturation of our ability to see God’s Word as holy and infallible, yet pliable and paradigm-breaking. The idea isn’t to change God’s Word; The idea is to see Jesus as God’s Word (John 1).
This is why Jesus trumped the regulations of Leviticus. This is also why no one thinks twice about birth control, artificial insemination, or a remarriage after divorce anymore. Our culture has adapted, and we as believers in the immense power of Christ’s death and resurrection trust that God is strong enough to redeem His children in spite of a wildly evolving culture.
After all, can we ever perfect our society so that it is sinless? Will the Body of Christ ever be “pure enough”? And what of the sins we cannot see in ourselves? Psalm 119 prays, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law,” and Jeremiah 17 confesses, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; Who can understand it?”
And yet the Gospel doesn’t even demand that we achieve purity or perfection! The communion table is for sinners – for the dirty and filthy. That is why, in John 13, Christ washes our feet, and not the other way around. He, and he alone, has to wash us. No other cleanser will do.
So as I return to the matter of the Board’s decision, I want to reiterate that the main issue here is not homosexuality, or even Dr. Knapp’s prerogative in asking Provost Rich Ray to step down.
The main issue is trust.
Hope’s students, faculty, and alumni often struggle to feel that they can trust the unseen leadership to make decisions that reflect the college’s – and the Kingdom’s – best interests. It is this that you must keep in mind as you move forward with the matter of President John Knapp’s office.
If you decide to remove Knapp from office and install a president more to the liking of several trustees, do so knowing that this is first domino that must fall. Hope must also become more rigid in its application of rules and restrictions regarding human sexuality. Heterosexuals must be policed as strictly as homosexuals (and believe me, I heard stories about plenty of lechery and debauchery on campus during my time as a student). And if this is the road that Hope chooses to travel, Hope must travel it clearly and deliberately. Declare your intentions on every brochure and guide map. Rewrite the college’s Mission Statement. Do not hesitate to inform homosexuals that Hope College is not a place where they will find community and welcome, due to their blatant violation of Romans 1 and Leviticus 18 and 20. If this is where your religious convictions take you, do so without secrecy or second thought, but with shocking clarity.
But if you decide to extend Dr. Knapp’s tenure and give him the time and grace to see his policies through, do so with similar boldness. I compared Hope College to a bridge, linking Christian truth to a world aching for the love and redemption of Jesus. Dr. Knapp’s policies do not threaten to destroy the bridge; They add extra lanes to it, allowing increased traffic to and from the Gospel.
I believe President Knapp is a faithful adherent to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a wise leader for Hope College’s future. He engages students with compassion and flings open doors of opportunity to students of color. Hope has become home to an increasingly diverse student body, thanks largely to him. These traditionally marginalized students now see Hope as a place where they have a voice. To remove Knapp so soon into his tenure would strike a devastating blow to the mission of our school, sending messages contrary to the love of Christ into the world, stamped and sealed with the insignia of Hope College.
I understand and respect that there are details of this matter to which I am not privy. I also trust that the decision you make will be achieved carefully, patiently, and in the context of prayer.
But I want to close with the words of Chairwoman Mary Bauman, shared in 2013 at the appointment of President Knapp:
“Dr. Knapp is well known by, and has an excellent reputation with, leaders in Christian higher education across the globe. We are confident that [he] will only enhance Hope’s efforts to become a destination institution for students and faculty who value an excellent academic program in the context of the historic Christian faith.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
A decision lies before you. It will determine the course of Hope College for decades to come. It will bolster trust or shatter it. It will establish Hope College as a bridge to the world for believers in Jesus Christ, or make it a haven for blind guides and Pharisees.
It is your decision. Make it wisely.
NoahDavid Lein ‘06
NoahDavid writes regularly as David H. Safford at DavidHSafford.com. He crafts stories for passionate readers who are hungry for something fresh and new, and who crave the inspiration to seek justice and ease suffering in their own unique communities.
Cover Image Credit: “Graves Hall,” Leo Herzog, Creative Commons