A Postscript to My Open Letter on Christian Higher Education

Benson Great Hall at Bethel University
Benson Great Hall – Bethel University

Last Tuesday I posted an open letter to American churches, describing what I see as the looming crisis facing Christian colleges like Bethel University and suggesting that one important facet of any lasting solution would be a renewed commitments by churches and denominations to financially support such institutions of higher learning.

As I hinted in my Saturday links post, the response to this letter was nothing short of astonishing. In its first day alone, it drew almost six times as many views as the previous record-holder — and the momentum didn’t die down all that much as the week continues. By Friday, several thousand people had read the letter here at the blog, and the editors of Bethel’s student newspaper were kind enough to reprint it on Friday, while several hundred prospective students and their parents were visiting campus. And I know that it’s already been circulated on the faculty listserv of at least one other Christian college, so who knows how the readership will spread from there.

I’m grateful for those who took the time to read it, and for the many who commented at the blog, on Facebook or Twitter, via e-mail, or in person. Whether you agree or disagree with my analysis and recommendations, please keep the conversation going!

Because it was occasioned by pending announcements of cuts to Bethel’s faculty, some of you are probably wondering how those went down. My own department came through it unscathed, but several programs in the day college, adult/graduate program, and seminary were eliminated. I’m not sure how much has been made known beyond the community and don’t especially want to get into that level of detail until it’s clearly a matter of public record. (Update: here’s an article on the results of the prioritization and review process from the Clarion.)

But I will say that I appreciate the hard work done by the administrators and faculty who reviewed our College of Arts and Sciences. As much as possible, they seem to have found savings that reduced the number of faculty reductions required.

Long story short: it could have been far worse. (Though I suspect that we’ll see the college faculty continue to shrink by attrition; e.g., we’ve been unable to make a full-time hire to succeed our long-serving ancient/medieval historian after he retired last year.)

In any case, as I wrote in the original letter, what troubled me was not simply this bout of layoffs (more to come, with additional staff reductions looming the remainder of the fall), but that it’s hard to know that the cuts will be sufficient to ensure longer-term health. Grateful as I am that more of my colleagues didn’t lose their jobs, I stand by the analysis and conclusions offered last Tuesday.

However, I did want to respond to some of the excellent points raised by commenters: namely, those clustering around the argument that the fault for declining financial support lies at least as much with Christian colleges as with the churches. So later this week (and perhaps into next) I want to address three specific questions:

  1. Are Christian colleges (or, more specifically, their students and faculty) too detached from churches?
  2. Are Christian colleges poor financial stewards of the monies contributed by churches and denominations?
  3. Are Christian colleges, in effect, poor spiritual stewards of the students sent their way by churches and denominations? (e.g., do those colleges deviate from their churches’

If you’d like to register your opinion on any or all of those questions before I start writing my responses, the Comments section is open below.

In any event, thank you again for reading and sharing a letter that was meant to start, not end, a much-needed conversation!

<<Read the original letter                               Read the first follow-up post>>


8 thoughts on “A Postscript to My Open Letter on Christian Higher Education

  1. Chris, Your series has struck a nerve with me. As you know (but others may not) I have spent half my life teaching Christian theology in three Christian universities—including Bethel College (1984-1999). One thing that has annoyed me to my wits’ end for thirty-one years has been “constituents’” reactions to what they think is happening in “their” college or university. This relates to some of the negative feedback you’ve gotten to your “open letter.” Frequently over the years I’ve encountered constituents of institutions where I taught who were simply confused about Christianity, the Bible, doctrine, their own denomination and its history and theology, etc. Let me give an example from my years at Bethel. One of my dearest colleagues in the Biblical and Theological Studies Department was an older Old Testament professor who had been a missionary for many years before coming to teach at Bethel and returned to the mission field after retiring. He was one of the most deeply spiritual and evangelically committed Christians I have ever known—a man with a profound love of the Bible and of Jesus Christ and for the churches. And he loved and nurtured his students. And they loved him. But certain “constituents” of the denomination harshly attacked and criticized him for two reasons. First, he was not premillennial; he was a defender of amillennialism. Some constituents had come to believe anything other than premillennialism was unbiblical, heretical, liberal. Of course, the denomination’s statement of faith does not specify any view of the millennium! But fundamentalism made premillennialism a dogma, so those constituents, all fundamentalists, wanted my dear colleague fired even though he was well within the boundaries of the denomination, evangelicalism and historic, orthodox Christianity. (I happen to be a believer in “historical premillennialism” so my colleague and I disagreed, but I knew he was not out of step with evangelical orthodoxy in this matter.) These constituents went about claiming the college was harboring “liberals” and “non-evangelicals” in the BTS Department just because of my colleagues’ amillennialism. Some of them did the same to a seminary professor of about the same age because he openly denied the “secret rapture” doctrine of dispensationalism. The administration was constantly having to fend off constituents who simply did not know that these professors’ ideas were well within the boundaries of evangelical orthodoxy. Or they did but wanted to enforce their doctrinal opinions on the college and seminary anyway. The second reason some constituents harshly criticized my colleague was that he taught that Noah’s flood was not universal but local. That is, that the water covered a large portion of the then-known world but not the whole earth. Again, some constituents called or wrote the administration to complain that this Old Testament professor was “liberal” for that. These people exist in all denominations and make it their business to spread rumors about the denominations’ faculties. Others believe them because “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” Word then spreads throughout the constituent base that the college or university or seminary “harbors liberals among the faculty” when, in fact, such is not the case at all. Administrators then spend many hours trying to explain to constituents that they simply don’t understand the denomination’s and the institution’s traditions. But, often, the more they explain the worse things get. So, the upshot is that certain constituents, including some pastors, make it their business to hold the college, university or seminary “accountable” based on faulty knowledge and false concerns. Then word spreads throughout the constituent base that “the college is going liberal.” In most cases that’s simply not true at all. But then people begin withholding support—again, without ever actually looking into the truth of the matter. This has been one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching in evangelical universities—“concerned constituents” who are simply confused and misinformed but often don’t want to be unconfused or correctly informed. I hear often that the seminary where I now teach is “liberal” simply because we do not teach that women cannot be gospel ministers, pastors. Of course, this has nothing to do with “liberal theology.” I, for example, grew up in one of the most theologically conservative, even fundamentalist, denominations ever that had women pastors since its inception. It was untouched by liberal theology. Its founders simply didn’t interpret the Bible the way many other fundamentalists did. It had nothing to do with liberalism! I don’t know what the solution is, but this problem seems endemic to American evangelicalism and especially to Baptist life in America. My testimony here comes from an insider’s view of it. I know for a fact that many accusations of “doctrinal drift,” “heresy,” “liberal theology,” etc., that have caused much grief and financial loss to evangelical institutions have been simply false. But some people enjoy spreading them anyway. And more enjoy believing them. And I suspect this has a lot to do with the gradual but disastrous loss of funding of evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries by their founding and controlling institutions.

  2. Chris, I have loved the intensity of your discussion and the clarity of your focus. I would like to address the second question above, that is, whether Christian colleges are poor financial stewards.
    As a graduate of a Christian college without a denomination (Wheaton) and a quarter century employee of a Christian college with close denominational ties, Bethel, I would say that just the opposite is likely true. Wheaton, for one, is not saddled with a seminary although it does have graduate programs; Bethel has until now had three seminary communities united under a single brand. I would like to propose the following: that Bethel give both of its continuing seminary sites to Converge International, essentially divesting itself of that part of the institution that has placed them at such a financial disadvantage vis-a-vis Christian colleges and universities that do not have seminaries. My guess is that the denomination, which is the sole recipient of the largesse of Bethel and its donors/students would refuse that gift. That would lead to a secondary solution.

    I have felt that the long-term solution for Bethel seminary is to join forces with the Evangelical Free Church and the Evangelical Covenant Church. Each of the three, heirs to the Pietistic movement in 19th century Sweden, bear the costs of a college-owned, denominationally directed seminary. Theologically, they are very similar and they serve essentially the same geography, the Midwest, California and assorted pockets in the Northeast and Northwest. Why not create, in Chicago or Minneapolis, a united seminary that would likely be supported by the sheer weight of three denominations rather than maintaining the current failing institutions?

  3. Tom, as someone who respects and admires the work you have done at Bethel, I offer this feedback with proper regards to your expertise and wisdom; I do think the language of being ‘saddled’ is a bit strong. Has the seminary made some interesting choices over the last 15 years, e.g. add Seminary of the East when it was in financial turmoil? Yes. Did Bethel originate from the seminary? Yes. I think if you jettison the seminary you jettison some of the fabric of Bethel in general, not to mention a large group of alumni and influencers who recommend all of Bethel because of their experience with the seminary. Does the seminary need to cover direct costs? Yes. Did it do that for the first time in recent memory this past year? I believe so. As a double Bethel graduate, I want Bethel to be stronger and succeed for another 140 years, I am glad, as Chris mentioned that there has been progress made to make Bethel stronger – will it work? Remains to be seen.

  4. It seems to me that we need to evaluate what it would mean for a college to be a “good spiritual steward” of its students. If that means replicating the theology of a student’s home church, a position Professor Olson’s comment shows is quite common, then it seems like a nearly impossible task. For one, Converge polity is such that the denomination includes a relatively broad range of beliefs within evangelicalism – there’s not always a clear position on issues. Secondly, part of a good education is showing students that there are other theologies and points of view, and this may lead to some students changing their minds. Being a good spiritual steward cannot mean that a college makes sure all of its graduates adhere to a specific point of view or list of theological statements. That understanding is just replication, not transformation.

    I would argue that we need a different understanding of what it means to be a good spiritual steward. Ultimately, I’m not sure what that formulation would be – that it points students to the living and resurrected Christ and teaches them to trust Him, perhaps, though this is open to debate. And, I’m hesitant to pose “transformation” as the defining factor of good stewardship, yet it gets at a key idea of what it’s meant for me.

    As a recent BTS grad, I didn’t come out of Bethel agreeing with everything in the statement of faith, nor with all aspects of Converge belief. [Honestly, I didn’t come as a freshman doing those things either]. However, as a result of my time there and interactions with faculty, I graduated as a committed Christian, with the ability to wrestle with difficult questions of faith, and convinced that churches are vital to the Christian community. I wasn’t those things, at least not in the same way, when I started. And, while I’m still in process, those convictions and skills have proven to be central to my post-Bethel life. If that’s the standard for being a good steward, as opposed to adherence to doctrinal beliefs, the conversation may be a lot more productive.

  5. Chris,
    Thanks for these discussions! As a former professor at bethel (2001-2005) I have a deep love of the place and know the fantastic faculty community you share there. I went from Bethel’s philosophy department to a business school at a Jesuit University, and that’s been different. I think that there are some other considerations leading to the financial struggles including the loss of denominational branding/identity, the optimistic spending habits of many of these schools in an attempt to keep up with the pack, the rise of some super-schools in the evangelical realm, and maybe most important, the lack of alum who make much money. I wrote a short blog on those thoughts:

    http://simplefreechurch.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/why-some-evangelical-colleges-and-universities-are-struggling-financially/

    Andy Gustafson

    1. Thanks, Andy. (I always regretted that I never had a chance to teach on a CWC team with you.) Your comments about endowment dovetail nicely with the post I’m preparing for today.

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