The winds of change in our culture are blowing gusts across college campuses, both secular and Christian. And in this changing environment, the distinctions between faithful Christian institutions and the outside world have never been clearer. But will the majority of Christian institutions be able to stand where other formerly faithful Christian schools have stumbled?
Special interest groups—notably those supportive of the Equality Act—are applying increasing pressure on colleges and seminaries to conform to new ways of thinking on issues that would compromise their Christian mission. Christian colleges and universities that are committed to the Biblical view of human sexuality—particularly related to same-sex unions and transgender ideologies—could lose accreditation and millions of dollars in government student aid.
One of the most significant legal issues in the days ahead will be the right to hire Christians of like-minded faith and practice. Christian colleges and universities will not be able to carry forth their distinctive mission unless all faculty and staff embody what it means to be faithful Christ-followers who are committed to the truthfulness of Holy Scripture and the transformational power of the Gospel.
Unfortunately, some colleges and universities will be satisfied with a minimal commitment to warmhearted piety, kind relationships or Christian activism. While these things are commendable and even essential, they are insufficient by themselves to sustain an institution’s fidelity to Christ and His mission. In fact, if they are isolated from a vibrant Biblical Christianity, they will erode the Christian identity of a college, perhaps leading it to give in to the sexual revolution and other unbiblical demands. In the days to come, it will be essential for Christian colleges, universities and seminaries to hold firmly to a vision for Christian higher education that clearly articulates a call for thoroughgoing Christian thinking, living and service grounded in a holistic Christian worldview.
What Do We Mean by ‘Christian College’?
What is needed today is a full-orbed, theologically shaped vision for Christian higher education that will help us to engage a darkened culture and to prepare a generation of leaders who can effectively serve both church and society. Christian higher education involves a distinctive way of thinking about teaching, learning, scholarship, subject matter, student life, administration and governance—all grounded in the orthodox Christian faith and securely tethered to Scripture.
A distinctive Christian college or seminary is not just about saying a prayer at the beginning of class or weekly chapel programs, as important as these things are. Christian educators recognize that the Christian faith is more than a moral guide or warmhearted devotional practices or service projects—our faith must influence how we act, what we believe, what we think, how we teach, how we lead and how we treat one another.
A well-rounded Christian approach begins with an understanding of the self-revealing God who has created humans in His image (Genesis 1:27). We believe that students created in the image of God are designed to discover truth. And we recognize that the exploration of truth is possible because the universe, as created by the Trinitarian God, is intelligible.
These beliefs are held together by our understanding that all truth is God’s truth—grounded in Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17), and in whom are found the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). The Christian faith, therefore, provides the window to see the world, recognizing that faith seeks to understand every dimension of life under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Learning from Those Who Have Gone Before Us
The richness of the Christian tradition can provide guidance for the complex challenges Christian education faces. Scripture is supreme, but I believe that an appeal to tradition is timely because the larger culture, at best, is indifferent to the Christian faith, and the Christian world tends to be confused about its own heritage and beliefs. The great affirmations throughout church history, though neither infallible nor completely sufficient for all contemporary challenges, can nevertheless provide great wisdom and insightful guidance for those seeking to maintain right Christian thinking, right Christian believing and right Christian living.
At the heart of this calling is the need to prepare a generation of Christians to think Christianly, to engage both academia and the wider culture, to serve society and to help the church to reconnect with its mission. To do so, we must reclaim, renew and revitalize the breadth and the depth of the Christian tradition.
A Call for Renewal
As we call for renewal among faithful Christ-centered colleges and seminaries, we must not be naïve to the challenges ahead.
We need Christ-centered campuses that are faithful to the lordship of Christ, reflecting a commitment to Scriptural authority and its bearing on all subject matter across the curriculum.
If there is to be a future for faithful Christian higher education, then these institutions must remain mission-focused, prioritizing their calling to be distinctively Christ-centered, theologically shaped, informed by Biblical truth and rooted in confessional commitments, as well as a Christian worldview that seeks to reclaim the best aspects of our Christian heritage. Without these commitments firmly in place, there will be no long-term future for Christian higher education. Institutions may be able to do many things well, but if they lose sight of their calling to this distinctive mission, they will sadly find themselves following the tragic history of the long list of schools that have lost their Christian identity along the way.
In recent years, with the rise of secularization and pluralization, we have observed a shift from conversations about truth to “truths” to “my truth.” It has been observed that we now find ourselves in a postmodern culture that is dismissive of any truth claims and increasingly unable to think critically. If there is to be a future for distinctively Christian higher education, we must emphasize the importance of truth and the unity of knowledge, recognizing that a Christian worldview depends on an understanding that all faith, all knowledge, all wisdom and all truth find their source in God.
Christian colleges must seek to balance grace and truth, building grace-filled communities that emphasize love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control as the virtues needed to create God-honoring campuses that exemplify the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, prioritizing the worship and service of God as central to all pursuits in life. In these places, distinctive undergraduate and graduate education—grounded in the conviction that all truth has its source in the omniscient God of Scripture—will be able to flourish in this confused, rudderless culture in which we have been called to serve. ©2021 David S. Dockery
In addition to serving as president of the International Alliance for Christian Education, David S. Dockery is distinguished professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served as president for nearly two dozen years at both Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago.