This article contains two personal stories of two former students who faced a culture of inconsistency and works-based salvation when they attended Cedarville University.
Cedarville University is a place for intentional community. Everyone is equal, and everyone loves each other. No one matters more than anyone else, because God made all of us and we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
So much rhetoric.
This is what Cedarville states in every chapel they teach, in every dorm meeting, and on every webpage you can find. If you asked the president, Dr. White, or any of his constituents if this is true, he would vehemently agree with you. If you asked the students? They would generally have a drastically different answer.
Many individuals, including myself, feel that the RA’s (lol don’t we love ‘em) disproportionately distribute punishment to students. The first time I noticed this was in a dorm lounge. I was sitting next to my boyfriend, about 3” away, focused on my own laptop as I wrote a paper. He tapped on me to show me a meme. I looked over at his phone right as one of the RA’s was walking past.
Within an hour, I had gotten an email stating I’d earned a PC for sitting on my boyfriend. Given the fact that, well… I wasn’t, this was infuriating. It was especially so because at the same time, right behind us, a couple was expressing far more *physical affection* than I was. The RA told them hello, so I know they were noticed. However, the RA and the girl in the relationship were friends, and so they didn’t get in trouble as I did. These people were within 6’ of me. This was the first time I noticed the bias of the leadership towards the people they liked more, or that were more popular.
Without even getting into the legalism of the rules which Cedarville has in place, I believe we can all see the issue here. There is no consistency. The handbook condemns actions such as “intimate forms of touching” (page 12 of the 2020-2021 handbook), but as far as PDA, that’s the only rule I can see.
Another personal story that should be included in this involves two friends of mine. One of them is a little edgy but absolutely wonderful, and the other is quite popular, especially amongst the authority figures on campus. This involves the dress code (specifically where it regards length of clothes) and how it is applied by those in authority. For context, the dress code states: “Clothing should not be excessively short or revealing. For example, skirts/dresses should fall mid-thigh, midriff and underwear should not show…” and that’s the relevant portion.
The first girl got pulled aside for breaking dress code recently. I don’t believe she got a PC, but she did get a talking to. She was wearing a knee length pencil skirt which had a slit for mobility (like all pencil skirts do). Basic officewear, but since it had a slit the RA told my friend that it was “inappropriate and distracting.” This also shows a lack of understanding on the part of the RA as far as what basic business formal clothes look like and what is considered immodest by most (Christian) people.
My other friend runs well within the popular crowd, including those with authority. Within the same week as this other story, she wore a pair of sheer tights with a skirt far above her mid-thigh. Many of the popular girls on campus wear similar things to this, and when I’ve spoken with them it has been clear that they haven’t been dress-coded for it.
This comparison may seem like a stretch, but these stories are barely breaking the ice when it comes to times that the “authorities” —fellow students who are supposedly under the same rules—take it upon themselves to bully those who are less popular and just allow those that are popular to do whatever they want. I could list countless instances that I’ve seen just in my time here, but there’s not enough space in this article for it. Let alone the fact that these legalistic rules regarding interpersonal relationships and “modesty” shouldn’t even exist in my opinion… but since they currently do, they should be applied to everyone justly. If we are called to “above all else: seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” (Micah 6:8) why do we ignore this justice and humility in its most basic applications?
We say our rules are based in Christianity. If this is the case, we need to apply them the same way that Christ would. Equally and without preference towards people who have this “social status.” As Christians, popularity and how much we like a person should have nothing to do with how we treat them. Our internalization of the Holy Spirit is the only thing that should change that.
Saved by Works or Faith?
At Cedarville University, what they preach and what they practice are very different things. If you spend much time in their Bible classes or their chapel services, you will hear the gospel of grace preached; that is, a person is saved by grace alone. However, what they practice is very different. They put such an emphasis on the “spiritual disciplines” and “doing” Christianity that the truth of salvation through faith by grace often gets pushed to the background.
I was a student at CU for a little over 2 years and I fell into the “saved by works” mindset that has overtaken the campus. One example of this was the big emotional altar calls that would happen at the beginning of each semester. They’d have a mandatory multi-day conference focusing on a particular topic with sessions morning and evening for the first few days of the semester. Without fail, one predictable thing that would happen during one of the evening conferences was an alter call presented by one of the faculty members who would call for the students to turn away from the sins they had lived in during Winter/Summer break and return to the Lord. The emotions are high and the pressure is higher. “Be a good Christian and repent” hangs in the air of the chapel during the dramatic altar call. I gave in to this pressure a few times while I was at CU. I thought “if I do this I’ll be a good Christian, right?” I truly believe that God was at work during those times. However, I also believe that oftentimes the focus was too much about “doing the right thing” and not enough on the relationship with God.
But it was more than just the conferences that taught me Cedarville’s version of Christianity. While I was there I struggled quite severely in my personal life. When I would ask for advice from faculty—one faculty member in particular—they’d almost always respond with asking me how much I was reading my bible and praying. Most of the advice that I got regarding my struggles was similar. This began my first semester as a student there and continued until I left partway through my Junior year. I learned that if I read my bible every day, prayed every day, paid attention in chapel, etc., I was a good Christian. If I didn’t do those things I felt guilty and was a bad Christian. I learned from Cedarville that if I did all the spiritual disciplines, my struggles would ease back and life would get easier. Fall Semester 2019 was no different. I had spent the summer of 2019 mad at God and not wanting much to do with Him. Fall Semester came and Bible Conference was powerful as usual. And once again I repented from my sin and thought “maybe this time will be better” That was August 21, on August 24th I fell back into self-harm, and on August 31 I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt. 10 days… 10 days between me “returning to God” and me being hospitalized for the suicide attempt. I had planned the attempt in about the 12 hours leading up to it and part of my reasoning was “I have done all the right things, and my anxiety/depression/borderline is still bad. Maybe this will help.” It didn’t. My mental health continued to deteriorate after that incident until I ended up withdrawing from Cedarville Mid-October 2019. I am by no means saying that the incident was CU’s fault, I was just me badly coping with what CU had taught me.
Recently I went back and read through journal entries from various times during my time at CU and I saw a theme. Most of them were written when I was struggling and they all said essentially the same thing: “I’m doing all the right things, yet my mental illness is still really bad. I don’t get it, what am I missing?!!” Time, after time, after time. I poured out frustrations about how life just didn’t make sense. I’d do everything my profs and leaders told me, yet life still sucked. There were several times throughout my time at CU that my mental illness was so bad and I was so confused with my faith that I was suicidal. It was one of those suicidal times that led me to the severe self-harm that ended me in the hospital. But what I didn’t understand it at the time is that I was frustrated because Cedarville had been teaching me a works-based gospel with a seasoning of the prosperity gospel in there. “If you stick to all your spiritual disciplines, your general quality of life will get better, that includes your mental illness.” This hurt me deeply while I was there, but I kept making excuses of why it was my fault that I kept failing time and time again.
When I left CU in October 2019 I was barely holding it together. It took over 2 weeks for the anxiety and stress caused by CU to leave my system. But worse than that I left frustrated, frustrated at the university, frustrated at myself, frustrated at God. I went to Cedarville to learn and to grow, and instead, every semester felt harder than the last. The Christianity that I learned at Cedarville didn’t make sense in my life. So for months I just was kind of apathetic toward God. And now, February 2021, about 15 months after I left CU, I’m angry once more about the Christianity CU taught me. I am thankful to God that He has drawn me back to Himself and I am now finishing my degree at an online school. But I still hold emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds and scars from my time at CU.
Below is a excerpt from a letter that I wrote to CU, but never sent.
When people talked about CU they said what I wish was true of me. “CU has amazing community!” then why did so many of your people wound me and made me feel like an outcast. Where was that community when I’d melt down in tears from an panic attack in public and no one would help me? Was it that “amazing community” that cause so many of my “friends” to either ghost me or turn their back on me? “CU has a gospel of grace and loves their students.” Where was that gospel of grace when I couldn’t turn in assignments on time due to anxiety? Where was that love when my RD lashed out at me and made me feel like a criminal when I was hospitalized? Where was that grace and love when I watched friends leave in silence due to how you mishandled their high-profile sin? “We’re saved by grace” your chapel preachers and professors said countless times. Yet your faculty, staff, and students chastised me and judged me repeatedly for not reading my bible enough or praying enough. Yet your people blamed my anxiety on not doing enough Spiritual disciplines. Your “genuine community” was mostly fake. You taught people to lie and to just put on a good show. This recent scandal there nails in that point. It’s all about what you look like on the outside, not what’s actually going on. It’s all about keeping up appearances. I get it. You’re a private Christian University, you rely on appearances to keep students and money coming in. But I’m choosing to not live that life anymore. I’m choosing to not let my personal wellbeing stuffer just to stay at an expensive Christian school that is treating me like crap. It’s not worth it.