SBC Life Articles

Christian Colleges — Accountable, Not Autonomous

The less accountable a Christian college is to the church and the less willing the church is to hold its schools accountable the more the trend over time is away from that church's confessional position. There is good historical research to support this claim in James Burtchaell's work The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches.1 His study shows how nearly every Christian college in America that breaks away from accountability to the church eventually drifts away from biblical authority and has either left or is on its way to leaving Christianity itself.

Why does this drift happen? The fundamental reason lies in the answer to a basic Bible question. Where did God place the apostles and prophets, in the college or in the local church? The answer is clear. God gave the apostles and prophets to the church. They are her foundation, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). The faith "once for all entrusted to the saints" was given to the church to contend for (Jude 3), because the church — not the college — is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).2 Paul considered himself a servant of the church (Colossians 1:25).

How do these Scriptures speak to the relationship between Christian colleges and their respective churches? They say that the role of preserving the message of the apostles and prophets does not belong to the college but to local churches. I am not saying that sincere and godly people cannot remain faithful. I am saying that, theologically, the way this is done for individuals as well as for institutions is to remain accountable to their churches.

Someone may reply, "Why can't a college practice self discipline by calling itself back to its constituting purpose?" Such a question can be asked rightly, because it acknowledges that those involved in Christian higher education ought to stay faithful to the Christian message. Robert Benne in his recent book Quality With Soul would agree, calling on colleges to practice voluntary commitment to their sponsoring tradition as a means of indirect accountability.3 "Such an arrangement resonates with American notions of academic freedom and institutional autonomy while, if tended properly, also maintaining a powerful link of pledged accountability to their sponsoring traditions."4

I do not doubt the genuineness of such a pledge. My objection is that it puts too much trust in man. God did not give the job of preserving the Christian message to individuals or to Christian colleges. He ordained the church as the "pillar and support" of the truth. We simply are not able to do what the church alone is designed by God to do to preserve its message.

What means does a church possess that makes it more fit than the college for the preservation of its message? Many could be suggested, and frankly a spiritually sound and intellectually serious college, speaking prophetically to the church and helping the church love God with all her mind, ought to be considered one of those means. However, I will focus here on one means that positions the church uniquely to contend for the faith. The church controls access to its membership and consequently to its ordinances, and these are, among other things, doctrinal matters. The confession, "Jesus is Lord" and the belief that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9) are doctrinal confessions. The church baptizes a man upon his profession of faith and invites him to the Lord's table. The church can also withhold these through church discipline. The church, not the Christian college, was given the keys to the kingdom. The church disciplines its members, when their life and doctrine go astray, and the church can remove people from membership for due cause. God called the church to train its ministers, who oversee these ordinances, and Christian colleges are Christian only in so far as they see their life flowing out of the church and not standing over it or independent from it. The church gives life to the Christian college and not the other way around. Remaining accountable to the church, then, is the biblical means for the Christian college staying faithful to the church's message.

The day Christian colleges baptize and receive members upon their profession of faith and the day they administer the Lord's supper is the day they will be competent to safeguard the Christian message. Of course, I am speaking tongue in cheek. The Christian college should not baptize or serve the Lord's Supper. Jesus assigned those ordinances to the church, and the college should not assume that prerogative. In the same way, however, the Christian college should not presume upon its ability to preserve the Christian message without the means God gave only to the church.

Chaotic times force us to clarify our thinking. I am coming to believe more than ever that claiming to be conservative and promising to remain conservative does not in itself guarantee my faithfulness. I must make myself accountable to Christ's church so that God can work through the prescribed means of accountability He gave the church to help me stay true. The same applies to Christian colleges that intend to remain distinctively Christian.5

Francis Schaeffer tried to warn evangelicals back in 1984:

"Two of the Protestant denominations in the United States now in the place of decision, interestingly enough, have recently tried to protect themselves, as did the Northern Presbyterian Church, by electing a conservative executive officer … Do not think that merely because a Bible believing man is elected as an executive officer or is appointed to an important position, this will give safety to a denomination. If the two power centers in modern denominations — the bureaucracy and the seminaries — remain in the control of the liberals, nothing will be permanently changed. There must be a loving but definite practice of the purity of the visible church in any denomination if it is really to dwell in safety. The holiness of God must be exhibited in ecclesiastical affairs. We must practice truth, not just speak about it."6

Schaeffer was reflecting on his own experience as a Presbyterian in the 1920s when conservatives in one year elected a conservative president of their denomination but were not able to discipline their schools. In the end nothing changed, except that the denomination continued its liberal slide. As far as I know Schaeffer never named in print the denominations he was talking about. I assume one of them was my own Southern Baptist Convention, but he died soon after he wrote it. His statement haunted me throughout my education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1980s while I tried to sort out the arguments on both sides of the struggle for the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Norman Geisler reminded us again in 1999 that we need to steer right to go straight:

"The only way to keep on the straight orthodox path is to keep turning to the right. Churches, schools, and even evangelical scholarship will naturally go left, unless they are deliberately turned to the right. The prevailing winds of doctrine blow against us. And if we are to resist them we must have a firm grip on the wheel of the Good Ship Evangelicalism and steer it to the right."7

Why do we need to turn right periodically? The reason is we never drift toward the Bible. When we drift, it is always away. Such is our nature as sinners. The only way back to the Bible in the Bible is repentance that happens when we are held accountable.

No one means for the drift to happen. James Nuechterlein, editor of First Things, put it well:

"The moral of the story of the decline and fall of most religious universities in this country is clear: the road from religion to secularity that most of them followed was paved with massive institutional forgetfulness and disastrous good intentions. The movement from religion to secularity was the result most often not of any secularist plot but rather of a fit of absence of mind, combined with a lusting after acceptance by the secularist academic establishment. Schools that had been born Christian, that had stayed Christian, that had assumed they would always remain Christian, suddenly awoke to find they were no longer Christian, or were so far down the road past Christian identity that it was too late to recover."8

When a Christian college that is not accountable to the church drifts from orthodoxy, how can it be brought back? The challenge for sponsoring churches is to tenaciously but lovingly guard the theological fidelity of their schools.



1 James Burtchaell's thesis in The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1998). See also George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
2 J. P. Moreland, Love God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), p. 44.
3 Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 183-84.
4 Ibid., p. 184.
5 For a sustained argument from a mainline liberal perspective that church related colleges ought to seek maximum autonomy in the college-church relationship in order to preserve their integrity as educational institutions see Merrimon Cunninggim, Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).
6 Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster. Reprinted in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, vol. 4, A Christian View of the Church (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), p. 355.
7 Norman Geisler, "Beware of Philosophy: A Warning to Biblical Scholars," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (March 1999), p. 16.
8 James Nuechterlein, "The Idol of Academic Freedom," First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life 38 (December 1993), p. 16.

    About the Author

  • Andy Chambers