A Covenant Task Force organized by Dean and Vice President Deborah Sullivan-Trainor hosts a student-only conversation to talk about the Covenant.
William Washington jaunts into the Underground April 26, fistbumping students and exchanging enthusiastic greetings. Washington, Student Life Vice President, stands on the stage next to Student Body President Zoe Vermeer.
The occasion? A student conversation addressing Bethel University’s Covenant for Life Together, a document all students sign when applying to Bethel. The Covenant highlights Bethel’s standards of a biblical lifestyle and special expectations that apply to the Bethel community.
The event came out of the Covenant Task Force, a group organized by Dean and Vice President Deborah Sullivan-Trainor. Members volunteered to join the Task Force after Sullivan-Trainor announced the creation of the group at a fall faculty senate meeting, and the Task Force met every week for an hour on Thursdays since the beginning of the semester.
“As people created in the image of the covenant-making God, we covenant together to discover the mind of Christ and to become like Christ,” the Covenant states.
Washington described the purpose of the event: For students to have conversations about the Covenant without administration or faculty.
“Life is not always about rules and regulations. It’s about relationships,” Washington said. “And for us, that’s what the Covenant means. But if you, people who are part of the community, don’t understand, don’t recognize, or don’t believe it, it means nothing.”
After praying for wisdom and discernment for the conversation, Washington left the room. Vermeer took the microphone and informed students of her involvement in the Covenant Task Force, where she is the only student representative.
The goal of the Task Force is not to change the Covenant, but to think of ways the Bethel community can better live it out. According to Sullivan-Trainor, the majority of students currently think of the Covenant as signing a “Terms and Conditions” agreement of an iPhone update.
“But I would say personally, and I think it’s kind of the feeling of the task force, that it’s a pretty amazing document,” Sullivan-Trainor said. “If we were really all living that out, and I include myself in that I know I’m not living it out, it would be a sweet aroma that would draw people to us.”
The Task Force read the Covenant aloud together the first time they met, which is how Vermeer and Student Body Vice President Taji Onesirosan began the Covenant Conversation event.
I can list off 100 other people that have talked negatively about the Covenant who should’ve been there. People that are so quick to trash the Covenant were the same ones that were not there.
Transfer students Evan Gosen and John Barclay both attended the event and learned that students don’t actually get in trouble for “breaking the Covenant,” they get disciplined for breaking policies in the Student Handbook.
Gosen and Barclay, both biblical and theological studies majors, disagree on whether the Covenant is necessary.
Gosen thinks the Covenant is not necessary, his view stemming from his belief that Bethel should be more accepting of non-Christian students.
“I think for them, signing a Covenant is kind of a big step. It feels like a declaration of faith,” Gosen said. “And in signing the Covenant, it does feel like I’m saying that I agree with all the doctrinal tenets of Bethel’s theology.”
However, he thinks non-Christian students should still be expected to adhere to the institutional rules.
Barclay believes the Covenant sets Bethel apart from most other schools in the MIAC and in general. His biggest disappointment with the event was that more people didn’t show up.
“I can list off 100 other people that have talked negatively about the Covenant who should’ve been there,” Barclay said. “People that are so quick to trash the Covenant were the same ones that were not there.”
Gosen and Barclay both agree, however, that the alcohol policy at Bethel should be changed.
According to Gosen, his feelings towards the drinking policy and the “Bethel bubble” are the same – though both create nurturing environments, neither one adequately equips students for the real world.
For Gosen, completely banning alcohol consumption for undergraduate students makes students feel as if drinking is inherently harmful and cannot be done in a healthy manner. Therefore, students only learn how to drink irresponsibly because they feel it is something they need to hide.
Barclay and Gosen sat down and ate breakfast together to talk about the Covenant on May 2. They compared Bethel’s Covenant to the Community Covenant of Wheaton College, a private Christian college located in Wheaton, Illinois.
“The Bible requires moderation in the use of alcohol, not abstinence. Yet the fact that alcohol is addictive to many, coupled with the biblical warnings against its dangers, also suggests the need for caution,” Wheaton’s Covenant states. “The abuse of alcohol constitutes by far our society’s greatest substance abuse problem, not to mention the fact that many Christians avoid it as a matter of conscience. Thus the question of alcohol consumption represents a prime opportunity for Christians to exercise their freedom responsibly, carefully, and in Christ-like love.”
Barclay believes a change in the policy regarding alcohol would create more ministry opportunities as well as help the Bethel community to engage more transparently and actively in conversations about what it means to live like Christ.
The Covenant we have at Bethel is connected with the covenant we have with God, though it’s not the same thing. We are going into covenant with each other, but we’re doing that under the umbrella of being Christians, as well.
According to Sullivan-Trainor, however, the Covenant as well as policies can only be changed by the Board of Trustees, a group composed of nominated higher education professionals. One of the roles of the board is to “ensure that the traditional biblical, historically baptistic principles and doctrine of affiliated churches are not compromised, and to see that Bethel’s evangelical, pietist heritage is sustained into the future,” the Bethel website states.
The board voted to change the Covenant in 2008 to allow faculty and staff the ability to consume alcohol off-campus while not engaged in official Bethel activities or in the presence of students. According to Sullivan-Trainor, the process of modifying the Covenant is extensive, and there are no plans in the works currently to try to change it.
“The Covenant we have at Bethel is connected with the covenant we have with God, though it’s not the same thing,” Sullivan-Trainor said. “We are going into covenant with each other, but we’re doing that under the umbrella of being Christians, as well.”
Senior computer science and philosophy double-major Stephen Tetzlaff also attended the event and attributes the hurt some students have felt because of Covenant issues to a lack of clarity and understanding of the purpose of the Covenant.
“At times we will need to follow the biblical mandate to sacrifice our individual liberty for the good of the community,” Bethel’s Covenant states. “When differences arise, we will choose the course that demands greater personal restraint and self-discipline.”
Tetzlaff believes the Covenant, at best, involves people giving up their individual liberties for the sake of the community.
“They’re refraining from things they might be entitled to do for the sake of someone who that (action) may cause them to act against their conscience,” Tetzlaff said. “It’s to lift those people up more than it is to be a set of rules.”
Although the Covenant remains a debated topic in the Bethel community, a survey sent out in February by Vermeer and political science professor Christopher Moore show the majority of students generally feel positively regarding the Covenant.
“The idea that as a Christian community, we have a picture and a portrait of what it means to live in that community together and uphold each other and have that accountability is absolutely beautiful,” Barclay said.