Practice and Affection, Not Just Belief: Further Thoughts on How Colleges and Universities Remain “Christ-Centered”

Earlier this fall I shared the text of a brief speech I made to a Christian College Consortium symposium at Wheaton College: a Pietist perspective on what it means for schools like the CCC’s thirteen members to “stay Christ-centered.” I suggested that “staying” cannot be static and that “Christ-centered” must be understood in terms of our relationship to a person. “Our primary task as a Christ-centered university,” I argued, “is not to stand watch on the intellectual frontier demarcating orthodoxy from heresy. It is rather the task of conversion, turning people towards the person in whom we live and move and have our being, however near or far they stand from him.”

Litfin, Conceiving the Christian CollegeNevertheless, I suspect that many in the audience at Wheaton would agree with that college’s former president, Duane Litfin, that “Christian higher education — Christ-centered education — does not merely arrive at truth claims; it begins with them, and the most staggering truth claims at that” (Conceiving the Christian College, p. 66, emphasis original). So I wasn’t surprised that the conversation that followed our presentation quickly turned to the question of what happens when faculty come to hold beliefs contrary to the creed, confession, or other statement of the institution’s core theological commitments.

Take, for example, the first of the twelve articles in my own university’s affirmation of faith:

We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, fully inspired and without error in the original manuscripts, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that it has supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.

Does this mean that our faculty must hold to the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy to teach at Bethel? What if they contend that Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible? (Here are two points of view on that one.) If one of us converts to Roman Catholicism, does that imply a belief that the Bible no longer has “supreme authority,” or at least that it shares that status with an earthly magisterium?

Litfin (who famously dismissed a Wheaton professor who converted to Catholicism) would warn that such “loss of commitment to the institution’s distinctives is not a sign of health.” But “Longstanding members of a college community can lose sight of this” and try either to change the distinctives or, failing that, “simply circumvent them in whatever way possible. Such a development probably does represent a kind of organizational entropy leaders must intercept” (p. 252).

I don’t mean that particularity in doctrine has nothing to do with institutional distinctiveness, much less that right belief is unimportant. But I do want to suggest that orthodoxy is not the only important measure of health for a Christian community, and perhaps it’s not even the most important one.

I haven’t been able to shake the instinct I felt on the dais at Wheaton, that such debates are skipping past a prior question:

Isn’t the most important measure of health for any Christian community that it shares common practices and common affections? Isn’t a “Christ-centeredness” defined first and foremost by orthodoxy at risk of a spiritual deadness, if the belief isn’t accompanied and enriched by orthopraxy and orthopathy?

Bethel chapel in the library, 1973
When Bethel first moved to its Arden Hills campus, chapel was held in the library. (And one of my predecessors on the History faculty played organ.) Courtesy of the Bethel University Digital Library

First, practices. If, as Philipp Spener wrote in Pia Desideria, “it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice,” then shouldn’t we ask of our Christian college communities:

  • Do we pray together, or study Scripture together?
  • Do we engage in corporate worship, or corporate confession?
  • Do we break bread together, or stoop to wash each other’s feet (figuratively or literally)?
  • Do we interrupt our busy routines to share times of rest and silence?(I can’t recall the school — Fresno Pacific? — but I seem to remember reading that back in the Sixties at least one Christian college held no classes on Wednesday morning, creating a kind of sabbatarian space to be filled with worship, prayer, or community service. If my memory is failing me and this never happened… Well, it’s still an interesting idea!)

I haven’t seen an extensive study of such practices by faculty and other employees on Christian college campuses. I don’t think those dimensions of life together are altogether absent, but if I were to evaluate the Christian learning community where I’ve served for 11+ years, I’m not sure I could say we look all that much like the post-Pentecost koinonia whose members “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… [who] were together and had all things in common…” (Acts 2:42, 44)? Among other challenges, we find ourselves increasingly subject to a market economy that seeks to maximize productivity and efficiency, rather than participants in a biblical economy that seeks fruitfulness and flourishing and values sabbath rest.

Of course, dedicating shared time to a core set of common spiritual practices would not by itself (any more than shared belief by itself) guarantee “staying Christ-centered.” All of those practices can be misdirected. Or they can be done out of legalistic obligation.

Which is why right feeling is as important as right practice and right belief. As I did in my September talk, let me turn to Bethel’s most influential Pietist, former president Carl Lundquist. Reflecting on “Bethel as Community” at a 1970 faculty and staff retreat, Lundquist started with “One Commitment” (before “One Faith”):

Carl Lundquist
Carl H. Lundquist, president of Bethel from 1954 to 1982 – Bethel University Digital Library

Whatever may be our secondary allegiances our primary loyalty is to Jesus Christ as Lord. We love Him because He first loves us. He has become the supreme affection in our lives. As a result we enjoy a personal and intimate relationship with the Lord that adds the warm overtones of deep spiritual devotion to all of life. This New Testament teaching has been intensified for us at Bethel by the pietistic heritage in which our school was born. Bethel grew out of reaction to cold, formal religion in Sweden, however orthodox it may have been theologically. To our forefathers Christianity was more than a creed. It was Christ. It was life. We are both truest to our tradition and timeliest on the current scene when we continue to stress the genuine life that is in Christ. Out of such Christian authenticity flow naturally prayer and discussion of spiritual issues related to the academic topics of the classroom as well as regularity of worship in daily chapels and Sunday worship. It is when spiritual vitality ebbs that we tend to legalize these. But when spiritual life is genuine and satisfying we want to pray, witness, worship and praise together. And students learn this more by our example than by our precept. We thus become one at the point of our common love for the Savior and our commitment to Him.

Do members of the community share a love for Jesus Christ: an affection so abundant that it overflows into expressions of worship and devotion, so generous that it moves us to love others, even our enemies?

If so, I guess I trust that questions of right belief can be resolved. If not, then I’d suggest that the community has more to worry about than theological “entropy.”

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