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Whither Christian higher education?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jason Allen is president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — Institutions of higher learning are facing numerous and interconnected challenges across America. A shrinking college-age demographic, nagging questions about the value of advanced degrees, the online revolution, persistent economic sluggishness and escalating costs coalesce to present daunting operational challenges to even the best-funded institutions.

These factors, and others, have been like a spiraling whirlpool, drawing virtually every institution into its vortex. Yet, for distinctly Christian ones, this is where the challenges begin, not end. Christian institutions, with doctrinal and lifestyle expectations for their community of learning, are particularly vulnerable. Indeed, the signs are ominous.

Daily, Christian institutions are being challenged, threatened and punished for holding to traditional biblical understandings of human sexuality, gender and marriage. Though Christianity has taught — and Western civilization has affirmed — these norms for millennia, many find these truth claims increasingly intolerable.

As a result, Christian institutions are paying a price. Boycotts, protests, accreditation reviews and litigation are regularly raining down on Christian schools, but the most looming threat comes from the federal government’s Department of Education and Internal Revenue Service.

Most every Christian institution currently has an uneasy partnership with the federal government, on such matters as Pell Grants, federal student loans and the benefits of tax-exempt status. Losing any or all of these will come with devastating financial consequences. In our new national order, such losses are entirely possible.

The latest — and most ominous — sign emerged during the recent oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges. The revelatory moment came when Justice Samuel Alito pressed Solicitor General Donald Verrilli on the potentiality of a religious institution losing its tax-exempt status if it refuses to affirm same-sex marriage.

Representing the Obama administration, Verrilli responded, “You know, I — I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I — I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is — it is going to be an issue.”

A college or seminary losing its Title IV qualification or tax-exempt status would be more than an institutional inconvenience; it would be an existential threat. Therefore, the institution determined to survive without forfeiting its Christian convictions must take at least three steps.

First, Christian institutions must be clear and consistent about their convictions. Faithfulness to one’s confessional heritage and mission demands it; a discerning constituency should expect it; and courts of law will necessitate it. Intentional ambiguity on the great theological and moral challenges of our generation never was a virtuous strategy, and it is no longer a tenable one. In the courts of law, only Christian institutions that have clearly codified and long practiced their biblical convictions will have a fighting chance.

Secondly, Christian institutions must quickly develop a sustainable business model. Operational sustainability necessitates that institutions prepare to free themselves from dependency on Pell Grants and federal student loans. Furthermore, they must devise contingency plans for losing their tax-exempt status. These considerations are not prompted by paranoia; they are prompted by realism.

Finally, Christian institutions must engage the new — and most urgent — front in the culture war: religious liberty. Now is the time for every religious institution, Christian or otherwise, to advocate for religious liberty. The government that is powerful enough to limit your neighbor’s religious liberty may prove powerful enough to eliminate yours.

The threats before Christian institutions are real and mounting. For stakeholders in Christian higher education, these are disturbing considerations, but necessary ones.

Jesus warned His followers: You cannot serve two masters. Both God and secular man are expecting unqualified submission. Those committed to the former better be ready convictionally — and operationally — to do just that. For we may soon find out how relevant our Lord’s words are for Christians — and their institutions of higher learning.

    About the Author

  • Jason Allen