Drissell departs from Dordt University as board, CRC discuss sexuality

Sam Landstra—Co-Chief Editor

Photo Credit: Sophia Marcus

As the students drew, they listened.

At the front of the classroom, Matt Drissell, professor of art, read Annie Dillard’s “Seeing.”

“‘When I see this way, I analyze and pry. I hurl over logs and roll away stones,’” Drissell said. “‘I study a bank a square foot at a time, probing and tilting my head.’”

For the past fourteen years, Drissell has narrated the personal essay, an excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, to his Drawing I students. To him, “artmaking is a fully-engaged experience.”

“To follow Christ means to engage with the world, not flee from it,” Drissell said. “This is why it is important to drip ink, smear paint.”

At the conclusion of the 2021-22 academic year, Drissell will depart from Dordt University. Last year, the university’s board of trustees opted to not renew the professor’s contract, following discussion on his “appreciation for inclusion” regarding the LGBTQ community.

In Fall 2019, former provost Eric Forseth and Teresa Ter Haar, fine arts and communication division chair, expressed to Drissell concerns relating to his church membership. The professor, then a member of Covenant CRC, had been attending Church of the Savior, an LGBTQ affirming, episcopal church.

While Dordt approves its faculty to attend “local, confessionally Reformed” congregations, including Covenant, Church of the Savior did not fulfill these requirements. 

“It was totally my fault,” Drissell said. “I didn’t think it was a problem until it was a problem.”

Specifically, university-approved churches must “actively support the mission of Dordt University” and adhere to the three forms of Reformed Christian unity: the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort.

“We are an institution of higher learning committed to a Reformed perspective,” Todd Zuidema, Dordt’s director of church relations, said. “Our faculty should be able to represent that well.”

A year later in Spring 2021, after switching his church membership to Trinity CRC, Drissell remained a participant at the episcopal church. 

Then, after a faculty status meeting, President Erik Hoekstra spoke to Drissell, asking if he “appreciated the episcopal church’s inclusivity” regarding the LGBTQ community. Drissell said yes: “I just wanted to be honest.”

For Drissell, a same-sex relationship “can be showing how God’s love manifests.” He said, “There is so much sexual distortion for everyone, but there’s also so much beauty and possibility and goodness that is affirmed by God.”

Dordt’s Faculty Handbook says, “the only appropriate and permissible context in which sexual intimacy may be expressed as overt sexual interaction is in the marriage partnership of a man and a woman.”

Photo Credit: Sophia Marcus

Over the past five years, according to Hoekstra, the university has disagreed on sexuality with faculty or prospective employees in “one or two instances,” while “more than a dozen,” either current or prospective faculty members, referred to Dordt’s policy, its reasoning and application, as “refreshing” and “clear and scriptural.” 

As part of the university’s faculty hiring process, Hoekstra communicates to prospective employees the university’s belief and expectation regarding sexuality, as well as its requirement for faculty to attend a university-approved church and enroll their children in Christian education.

“‘When office consciousness is lost, the essential meaning of this work is lost,’” Hoekstra said, quoting the university’s Educational Task and Framework.

When the board of trustees decided to not renew Drissell’s contract, “seemingly” due to his affirmation of the LGBTQ community, Drissell appealed the ruling, asking the university’s faculty status committee to recommend to the board a reversal of the decision: “…although I disagree with the policy as written, I have and can continue to abide by it.”

On June 18, 2021, the board of trustees published a letter to campus and “reaffirmed the current policy” relating to sexuality: “We expect that faculty and staff who do not share our beliefs on these matters may not be able to sustain an employment relationship with this community.”

Also in the statement, the board related the policy to how the Educational Task and Framework requires its faculty to “participate in the Reformed tradition of Semper Reformanda – Reformed and always being Reformed, according to the Word of God.”

“You don’t work here just for a paycheck,” Hoekstra said, referencing the university’s Reformed tradition. “You serve here in an office to which you’re called here by God.”

According to Drissell, the statement represented “one, narrow end of understanding” within the Reformed community.

“If this was a clear-cut issue, there wouldn’t be these synods after synods,” Drissell said. “Why isn’t there room for different understandings on the issue?”

Before publishing the letter, the board, administrative cabinet, and academic senate also discussed case studies regarding sexuality, including whether they would attend the wedding of a same-sex couple.

“What does it mean to be a Christian institution of higher learning from a Reformed perspective?” Zuidema said, referencing the university’s desire to “clarify” their policy and remain “transparent.”

Drissell, faculty senate fine arts and communication representative, participated in the case studies as well: “So much of it was grappling with the expectations in the faculty handbook… How does it meet the complexities of this issue?”

As Dordt University discusses sexuality, the CRC plans to rule on the Human Sexuality Report this summer at Synod, the highest governing body in the denomination.

In 2016, Synod mandated the report to articulate “a biblical theology of human sexuality.” The 175-page report, released to CRC churches, reaffirms Synod’s 1973 position: “that same-sex attraction isn’t sinful, but acting on that attraction is,” according to The Banner, a CRC magazine.

The report concludes sexuality is “already confessional.” In the CRC, confessions hold the second-highest authority in the denomination, ranking behind the Bible and the ecumenical creeds.

Some churches, though, including Neland Avenue CRC, interpret the CRC’s position as pastoral advice: “We also don’t believe that having a uniform position on this matter is necessary to maintain unity as a body of Christ.”

 While disagreeing with the denomination’s confessions results in a violation of the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort, disagreeing with pastoral advice, given its lesser authority, does not. 

At Covenant CRC, Rev. Joel Kok wants the denomination to “accept one another, even when we disagree about important, disputable matters.”

This year, Kok wrote a communication to Classis Iakota, a lesser governing body within the denomination, upholding Synod’s 1973 position and inviting church leadership to consider a “commitment to both truth and unity.”

Kok’s communication cited the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, recalling that Jesus “calls us to a community that warns against scandal and also practices radical forgiveness and generous mercy teachings.”

Though the classis rejected the Kok’s communication, he and his congregation are considering sending the communication to Synod 2022.

Whether Synod listens to Kok or whether it defines sexuality as confessional or pastoral advice, Zuidema anticipates fracturing within the denomination.

“I think it’s going to be a watershed moment,” he said. “We mourn the continued division of Christ’s body.”

Aaron Baart, the university’s dean of chapel, said, “I hope we don’t break apart further… Because when we do, the only person who wins is the evil one.”

At Dordt, Synod’s decision won’t alter the institution’s policies on sexuality, according to Zuidema: “Dordt has kind of plotted a course.”

The university, while not owned by the denomination, is affiliated with the CRC, and yearly receives $800,000 from its churches.

Photo Credit: Sam Landstra

If, after Synod 2022, university-approved churches differ from Dordt or the denomination’s position on sexuality, Baart said: “We don’t want to be in a place where we’re telling people, ‘You have to leave your church home where you’ve been for twenty years.’”

Regardless of their congregation’s position, Baart expects the university will require faculty to believe in and abide by the faculty handbook. 

“I hope there is room for hospitality,” Drissell said about church membership. “I hope no one else ends up in my scenario.”

During Spring 2020, Drissell taught CORE-399. He says faculty “stay[ed] away” from sexuality: “There was fear that would somehow get someone in trouble. That’s problematic.”

In recent years, the campus has discussed sexuality in chapels, small groups, and doubt nights because, according to Baart, “we are always better and wiser when we thoughtfully engage new and differing ideas, weighing them against what we believe to be timeless truths.”

In Fall 2019, Baart led a chapel series on sexuality and gender titled Grace/Truth. The five-chapel series based itself on author Preston Sprinkle’s Grace and Truth.

“It’s probably appropriate to start with an apology,” Baart said on the stage of the B.J. Haan Auditorium, addressing the LGBTQ community. “I’m sorry.”

He referenced pornography, sexting, and divorce in the context of heterosexual relationships: “We have a lot of work to do there and a lot of egg in our face.”

For the fourth chapel, Baart read a letter from an alumnus, a celibate, gay man: “People at Dordt loved me as best they knew how.”

“I hope the LGBTQ students considering college who love the Lord come to Dordt,” Baart said. “I think this is the best possible place for them.”

As Drissell grades his students’ end-of-semester projects, he says he wants his students to realize his soon-to-be former employer’s position on sexuality isn’t the only position: “There are voices—sadly, somewhat quiet voices in the Christian community—who are willing to say, ‘No, you are good.’”

When junior Sophia Marcus heard of Drissell’s contract nonrenewal, she “was very filled with emotion, not good emotions, a lot of anger.”

During her freshman year, Marcus, an art minor, received Drissell’s instruction and music recommendations in Drawing I.

“He has notably open eyes and arms,” Marcus said, remembering how Drissell facilitated conversation at her table.

In Drissell’s Painting I, the professor challenged Marcus’ “everyday conception of what art should be,” when Marcus repurposed dryer lint and wax as part of a five-painting series on rural life and poverty.

“[He] finds beauty in the very common and mundane,” Marcus said.

Recently, Marcus painted an artwork for Drissell, using green and pale yellows and blues to depict a western, Sioux Center sky. She added migratory waterfowl and a “friendship” quilt square to the landscape, a reference to Drissell’s project on Midwest barn quilts, Externalities

“It’s not a goodbye, celebration painting,” Marcus said. “It’s maybe more solemn, like a farewell.” 

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