Are Christian Colleges Poor Spiritual Stewards?

One final follow-up to some of the comments on my open letter on churches and Christian higher education.

In part two of this mini-series, I took up the argument that churches and denominations might not give as much to Christian colleges because the latter tend to be poor stewards of the former’s funds. Today I want to consider a different kind of stewardship problem:

Bethel Academy and Seminary, 1920
Bethel as it was in 1920 — Used by permission of the Bethel University Digital Library

Are Christian colleges poor spiritual stewards?

A handful of commenters (here and in repostings on Facebook) thought not. How, they wondered, could churches be asked to entrust either monies or young people to colleges that were more “liberal” than the denominations that founded and supported them? Wrote one Bethel alum in response to my open letter:

I believe a large reason for decreased support from the denomination and individual churches can likely be traced to the drift theologically I’ve observed at the institution. It was discernible when I attended and has only been amplified in recent years. As a comment above references, is there any surprise that when a church sends its students to a school for education, only to find them returning with a theology that is more left-leaning, said congregation feels disinclined to continue sacrificial giving to said institution?

Likewise, an earlier commenter (not a Bethel alum) felt

betrayed by my own small Christian college experience. The college as a whole was far more liberal than the denomination to which it belonged (at least as I grew up in it). I could pay a fraction of the cost to receive the same kind of information at a State University without a condescending belittling of my faith, which is why I eventually transferred. When my family friends from church found out the reasons I came home from their alma mater, they dropped their support.

While she pointed to financial reasons for declining church support, she believed that “there are also many people who are speaking with their tuition dollars and donations. I think they are telling Christian colleges that they are out of touch with their constituents; that perhaps the colleges are transforming their young members into people that are more of the world than they expected, that there is not as big of a difference between Christian colleges and other schools as they would like to see.”

When I floated this line of criticism — and the notion of “spiritual” stewardship — in the postscript to my letter, I quickly received a pair of important responses from two former members of the Bethel community. I won’t reproduce them in their entirety, but they’re each worth quoting at some length.

First, theologian Roger Olson (who taught at Bethel from 1984 to 1999 before moving to Baylor’s Truett Seminary) questioned the legitimacy and accuracy of most “doctrinal drift” complaints:

Roger Olson…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…. 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.

Then Sara Misgen, a recent graduate of Roger’s former department now herself pursuing graduate study in theology, asked just what good “spiritual stewardship” meant:

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 [Worldwide, the missional name for Bethel’s denomination] 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.

…I didn’t come out of Bethel agreeing with everything in the statement of faith, nor with all aspects of Converge belief…. 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.

Logo of Converge Worldwide

I don’t have a ton to add to those two perspectives, coming from two people I respect highly. But since this is actually a good moment at which to reflect on what differences Pietism makes to Christian higher education at Bethel, let me tack on a few comments:

First, I would join Sara in strongly rejecting the notion that Christian colleges exist to replicate in students the theology they inherited from their parents. Indeed, as a Pietist college, Bethel ought to be especially wary of this temptation, since the Pietist would insist that Arndt’s “true Christianity” cannot be inherited or assumed; it must be freely chosen as part of the process of conversion. In the context of Christian higher education as I’ve come to value it, that requires the intense questioning of theological and other assumptions through the experience of the liberal (better: liberating) arts. Not to say that students won’t end up reaffirming the original assumptions (some will, others won’t), but they’ll have “made their faith their own” (to recycle a common Bethel cliche).

And Pietists, being innately ecumenical and irenic in spirit, should probably be comfortable with their colleges’ graduates occupying a vast number of points on a theological scatter graph — so long, we pray, as Christ remains at the center.

Second, there is unavoidable tension between church and college when it comes to doctrine. I wouldn’t argue that colleges are perfectly free to innovate, completely detached from any set of core theological commitments that connect it to its ecclesial sponsor and supporter. But I’m not entirely sure how to identify which of those commitments are essential and which are adiaphora.

(A personal illustration… Those applying to teach at Bethel must sign a twelve-point affirmation of faith originally drafted by the Baptist General Conference in the early 1950s. But current faculty — myself included — have freely dissented from one or more articles. In my case, as a Covenanter generally holding to Lutheran theology on sacraments, I couldn’t affirm the BGC’s view limiting the meaning of the “ordinances” of the Lord’s Supper and baptism to, respectively, commemoration and “immersion of the believer.” Those objections didn’t even come up in my interviews. At the same time, the conventional wisdom that I received from older faculty was that certain articles — the first half of the twelve? — were dealbreakers.)

But as a general rule, I think that the heritage shared by Bethel and its sponsor militates against setting extensive doctrinal tests. As a Pietist institution, it ought not to place too much weight on someone’s intellectual assent to a doctrinal statement, which does little to distinguish living faith from dead orthodoxy and whose theological propositions must bend the knee to the Scriptures, even if they’ve long been viewed as essential. (“Where is it written?” asked our Swedish forebears of doctrines as diverse as atonement and baptism; they rarely agreed on the answer, even if the standard was the same.) And to the extent that either Bethel or Converge remain Baptist organizations, they draw on a distinctive Baptist heritage that (unlike some others) is not confessional or creedal.

* * * * *

Finally, I would do as I usually do when thinking about Bethel’s model of higher education, and turn to long-serving president Carl Lundquist. Specifically, his 1961 annual report, which sought to define “the kind of program of Christian higher education Bethel is maintaining on behalf of the Baptist General Conference” and seems to continue to maintain on behalf of Converge Worldwide. Early on, he sounds a lot like Roger:

Carl Lundquist
Carl H. Lundquist, president of Bethel College and Seminary, 1954-1982 – Bethel University Digital Library

…one of the occupational hazards of higher education is the possibility of misunderstanding and resultant suspicion. Distance from the campus, lack of specific information, minor imperfections that always exist—all have a way of distorting facts and sparking false rumors…. I wish that all of our people could have the inspiring experience of being on the campus long enough to sense its throbbing concern to relate our evangelical faith to all aspects of our contemporary society…. If our people could actually see what God is doing through Bethel, I do not think they would be unduly disturbed by the occasional criticism that comes our way and that seems to characterize other Christian schools as well….

Lundquist went on to argue for a “large measure of personal freedom” on a Christian campus like Bethel — rooting this claim not only in American history and Baptist identity, but in the liberal arts (“It is in the nature of a liberal arts education to free men from ignorance, superstition, provincialism, and uncritical reasoning”), a “climate of learning” in which the student will freely “reach convictions that will be his own and not hand-me-downs from a teacher,” and the developmental stage of later adolescence, when one needs “positive guidance but freedom for individual response.”

But while he then acknowledged the importance of faculty possessing academic freedom, including the freedom to disagree with each other and the denomination on non-essential points, and to ask uncomfortable questions, he raised the very problem identified by the commenters mentioned above:

A serious concern to us is whether or not an educational program dependent so heavily upon annual voluntary gifts will be adequately supported if in the exercise of responsible freedom is raises provocative questions and deals with controversial issues.

Acknowledging that Carl Henry had, for this reason, encouraged Christian colleges to build up endowments (“because individual giving by Christian people would fluctuate too much according to the emotional and oftentimes uncritical reaction to the issues being dealt with in the classroom”), Lundquist nonetheless preferred to depend on the financial support of the people of the BGC in order to safeguard the school’s historic identity: “At Bethel we have not sought to build up large endowment funds lest these should eventually provide a wall of insulation between the desires of our people and the sensitivity of our school.”

Perhaps this remains one of the factors inhibiting endowment growth at Bethel; I tend to agree more with the other Carl in this case. Nevertheless, I’m mostly struck by the paragraph that followed, in which he defined what seems to me to be the proper relationship between college and school:

If a school moves so far out ahead of its people so that no one follows, it no longer is giving leadership. But if a school settles to the level of the lowest common denominator of complete agreement among its people, it has settled for dull mediocrity and also no longer gives leadership. Our hope at Bethel is to find the golden mean where there exists sturdy confidence in the spiritual and intellectual integrity of the school even when it raises disturbing questions, engages in rigid self evaluation, expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and seeks less popular but more consistently Christian solutions to the problems that vex mankind.

In general, I think Bethel finds that golden mean and should retain the trust of its ecclesial sponsors as it continues its inherently “risky” work in good faith. But if it has lost church donors by seeking better solutions than what the Christian status quo has to offer and by producing graduates who come to congregations asking hard questions and rejecting easy answers… I’m afraid that’s a cost we need to bear. Because if we’re failing on either count, we ought not to be in business.

<<Read the previous entry in this series

6 thoughts on “Are Christian Colleges Poor Spiritual Stewards?

  1. As a Bethel BTS grad and current M.A. student in Theology, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to pull funding from a school based on changes in doctrine. Any doctrine or theology that stays completely static throughout time is responding poorly to its culture and its constituents/adherents. For example, I now go to Luther Seminary. Though I am not Lutheran, most of my classmates are. The ones who are more successful in their studies are the ones who can see how their centuries-old beliefs are not always viable options in the 21st century and seek to adapt and change with this. The ones who don’t often find themselves upset and frustrated, along with a lower level of comprehension/understanding of course material. Similarly, using the phrases “God’s ways are not our ways” or “in this world but not of it” to describe a resistance to answering tough questions or adapting theology to a new age are not only shameful to one’s education, but also disgraceful to the created nature of the human mind–one that can think abstractly about infinite theories, that can entertain multiple ideas, that is capable of reason and logic as well as faith and commitment. Though I disagree with Bethel’s theological positions, I am grateful for the education I received there as it taught me to consider the breadth and depth of theology and find my place, my connection with the Divine, within it. The fact of the matter is, Bethel is producing brilliant grads, and in regards of the BTS department, it is one of the finest in the country. If donors are afraid of this, then I’m not entirely certain why they would want to fund theological study in the first place.

  2. I think you are asking the wrong question. It is the churches that have, for the most part, changed. I have seen a trend in evangelical churches to look inward and become more isolated from the culture, other churches, and even their own denominations. As churches have become more corporate in their strategical thinking, they become more business-like and see other ministries as competition. As the economy tightens, so does their vision to share their resources.

    1. This is such an important point, Jon. Thanks for raising it. I’ve tried to focus on the college side of things, in part because I’m not a member of a Converge church, but I think you’re absolutely on to something. Want to write a guest post? 🙂

  3. The only thing I would add to this article (well done, by the way!), is that Bethel’s commitment to excellent scholarship, rigorous and critical thinking skills and an open-minded and open-hearted pursuit of God’s heart is what has made this institution something to be applauded. There is room for many points of view, held humbly since none of us has an altogether pure vision of God’s point of view. I have a notion when we get to see God face to face he’s going to ask us what in the world we were doing tearing one another apart over so many doctrines, practices and beliefs and point out to all of us that we all had a whole lot of things wrong! Humility, compassion, intellectual honesty and rigorous encouragement of critical thinking — a combination I saw and experienced in spades at Bethel.

    While I was at seminary I worked for a psychologist who grew up in a minister’s home and, as a result of all that he saw, heard and experienced, rejected faith and the church. After having been on staff part time at four different churches as a worship leader, I can say I totally understand his rejection of “religion”. He had been very skeptical about my studies up to that point but hadn’t voiced it to me. The movie of Christ’s crucifixion came out before Easter that year and he asked if I had seen it and I hadn’t. He also had questions of a more historical nature, which I was able to find information on and share with him from some of my research and text books. All of that opened quite a dialogue with him and he was amazed that we were so willing to entertain and debate rigorously all kinds of points of view with the goal of deeper understanding, greater compassion and more humility. And my atheist boss said “you know, you are going to need to see it because people will have questions and will come to you for some perspectives”. He was right. Up to then he assumed the label “evangelical” meant all I was getting was an indoctrination, not an education. Bethel unknowingly became something more than an institution but an opening to a deeper spiritual conversation with someone who’d long ago left faith/religion behind because of falseness, shallowness and hubris.

    Many of the critics are all too often poorly informed, poorly taught and suspicious of rigorous intellectual pursuit brought to bear on scriptures, faith and practice. When I went to a Christian college as an undergrad people at my church asked if I was afraid I may lose my faith. I answered at the ripe old age of 17 that if my faith was so weak that learning and the pursuit of deeper understanding would make me lose it, it was not a faith worth having. We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, MIND and strength. We are not required to check our intellect at the door. Unfortunately, too many churches seem to demand this. My younger daughter, for one, simply will not sign onto a faith walk that insists she deny science and other forms of learning. Thank God for places that will allow her to grow into faith with ALL of herself and not require her to ignore her intellect.

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