Dancing at Calvin and Christian Liberty

In presenting its case to Synod 1977 for the introduction of school-sponsored social dancing on the campus of Calvin College the Board of Trustees made use of the concept of Christian liberty (1977 Acts of Synod, pp. 223ff.). At the time this appeal puzzled me, and I am still puzzled. In sorting out my thoughts on this matter I have come to believe that this appeal is out of place. First of all there is an important sense in which the concept is misapplied. And in the second place the Board of Trustees has undermined its own case by this appeal to Christian liberty.

The biblical teaching of the freedom which the Christian has in Christ is a many faceted treasure. This liberty means that the Christian is free from the duty of keeping the many demands of the Old Testament ceremonial law, free from the curse of the law, free from the unbearable burden of seeking to earn God’s favor by keeping the law, free from the commandments of men and human tradition, free to keep God’s commandments in the obedience of grateful love, free to enjoy God’s good creation without being shackled by a host of inhibitions to “handle not, nor taste, nor touch.” This treasure has another significant facet, as we learn from I Corinthians, chapters 8–10. These chapters deal with the eating by Christians of meat that had been offered to idols before it was put up for sale in the marketplace. The apostle Paul makes it plain that a Christian may feel perfectly free to eat such meat, that no sin is involved. In support of his position the apostle quotes Psalm 24:1, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof;” and he asserts that an idol is nothing and so can do nothing to the meat. Yet, there were Christians who were troubled by this. They felt they might be guilty of the sin of idolatry in eating such meat. To them eating such meat was therefore sinful. The apostle admonishes those who like himself see no wrong in eating such meat to abstain from eating it under circumstances in which their fellow Christians would be offended, that is, led to do what they judged to be sinful.

Each one, it is clear, was free to make his own moral decision, including the decision on the part of certain Christians to desist from the use of such meat out of respect for the moral sensitivity of fellow Christians. It was truly a situation of free moral choice. Now suppose the church at Corinth had somehow been involved in the sale or distribution of the meat in question. If the church had been so involved, the freedom of moral decision would have been very much compromised. Then those who felt that eating such meat was sinful would have been burdened with the task of demonstrating that the churcwas doing something wrong.

When Calvin College officially sponsors social dancing it is taking the issue out of the arena where Christian liberty properly belongs. Such sponsorship does not make for a situation of unencumbered free moral choice. The church institution is officially engaged in the dancing business. So the person who is persuaded that such dancing is wrong has his moral decision encumbered by the fact that he is going contrary to the judgment of his church, the holy house of the Lord. The moral choices at Corinth were free because the church was not involved in the meat business. The moral choices at Calvin can be free at this point if the church school is not involved in the social dancing business.

Furthermore, those in the Corinthian church who felt that eating such meat was sinful not only did not have to prove that the church was doing something wrong; they did not have to prove that their own position was right. They were not placed on the defensive. Their moral choice was simply a free decision of conscience. And on the basis of that conscientious judgment the apostle said that Christians like himself who were persuaded that eating such meat was perfectly all right should abstain from such eating under circumstances which might involve violation of the conscience of fellow Christians.

I trust my point is clear, and that in the limited area of the appeal to the concept of Christian liberty the Board of Trustees has undercut its own case for social dancing on the Calvin campus. It is evident that there are many members in the Christian Reformed Church who feel that social dancing. properly directed and controlled, is a very proper and desirable means of recreation, social interaction, and fulfillment of the cultural mandate. But it is equally obvious that there are many in the church who feel that social dancing is accompanied by moral hazards to which they do not wish to subject their young people. In their judgment such dancing tends to weaken the moral restraints that protect people from falling into sin, or the controlled program of dancing proposed for Calvin College will be a step toward participation in morally dangerous dancing. Such moral hazards are clearly expressed in a popular song of a few years ago, a song in which a “girl from Sheboygan” is quoted as saying to her dancing partner, “dance me loose.”

It is difficult to see how the church can on the one hand agree to set up a program which many members feel is filled with moral danger, and then on the other hand appeal to the biblical concept of Christian liberty in support of that program. In my judgment there is an unresolved conflict here.

The proper path for the Board of Trustees to follow in this matter is to demonstrate to the church beyond a reasonable doubt that the program of social dancing proposed for Calvin College is free from the moral hazards that the church has for so long associated with such dancing. Indeed, this demonstration ought to show that the proposed program will be an unqualified “good” in the lives of the church’s sons and daughters at Calvin. Such demonstration should also face the question how the proposed program of social dancing is to avoid becoming an incitement to their dancing experiences that are more interesting and exciting than the antiseptic program at the college. Such demonstration is the responsible course for the church to follow out of respect for its own special character of holiness, and out of regard for the moral earnestness of the church‘s long history of concern with respect to social dancing.

Edward Heerema is a retired pastor of the Christian Reformed Church at Bradenton, Florida.