What Counts as a Christian College or University?

I was busy last week writing a sermon and Pietist Option talk (more on those tomorrow) and so didn’t have a chance to blog about the latest fracas involving Liberty University and its controversial president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. A quick recap:

• On Friday Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service reported that Liberty officials were eliminating its common claim (since 2012, at least) to be “the world’s largest Christian university.” Len Stevens, Liberty’s executive director of communications told Jenkins, “We are focusing more on quality than the sheer size of our university.” Using the Department of Education’s IPEDS database, Jenkins concluded that Liberty now enrolls over a thousand fewer students than Grand Canyon University.

Brian Mueller in 2015
Mueller in 2015 – Creative Commons (Jdhhauser)

GCU bills itself as a Christian university, but president Brian Mueller emphasized for Jenkins that “We are a university, not a church.” He pointed to several differences from Liberty, including the lack of a chapel attendance requirement for GCU students — about 30% of which, he estimated, do not choose the school on account of its religious mission.

• After that report came out, Falwell first blocked Jenkins on Twitter, then reached out to RNS to argue (in a story published yesterday by Jenkins) that Liberty is still larger than GCU. First, he pointed out that Liberty has more full-time students than GCU. Second, Falwell said that Liberty’s “definition of a Christian university only includes universities who hire faculty who adhere to fundamental Christian doctrine. GCU does not. Liberty does.”

“Why would you argue over such semantics?” our friend John Fea asked, in Perkins’ article yesterday. “Why would it be important to claim that you are the largest Christian university in the world other than to use this as a platform for your own theological and, in Falwell’s case, political agenda?”

Why, indeed? (Mueller, by contrast, told Jenkins that “we’re so divided as a country right now, extreme positions on the left and extreme positions on the right aren’t helping.”) And I’ve been around IPEDS enough to know that the size of an institution’s enrollment is a fuzzier concept than you might think. That’s especially true when dealing with universities that enroll far more online than residential students — which is the case for both GCU and Liberty.

But today I’m going to set aside the “largest” debate and turn to the second adjective in the contested phrase, since the question of what defines a “Christian university” is an old and not purely semantic one. Falwell acknowledged that, clarifying for RNS that “Liberty’s definition of a ‘Christian’ university for identification purposes refers to evangelical Christian universities.”

Oddly though, Liberty isn’t a member of the biggest group of evangelical Christian institutions of higher learning: the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Neither is Grand Canyon.

The CCCU's new(ish) logoWhat defines a CCCU member? There are standards for things like accreditation and financial integrity, but most basically, the Christian colleges and universities that make up the CCCU are committed to “integrating the Holy Scriptures—divinely inspired, true, and authoritative—throughout all aspects of the institution, including teaching and research,” “fostering Christian virtues rooted in the Scriptures and nurtured through the institution’s curricular and co-curricular programs,” and “advancing God’s redemptive purposes in the world by graduating students who live and share the Gospel in word and deed.”

Governing members of the CCCU (like my employer) must also “hire as full-time faculty members and administrators only persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ” (something like Falwell’s definition) and affirm three religious distinctives: “a historic Christian sexual ethic,” “Christian belief in caring for the marginalized, persecuted, and suffering,” and a “high view of God’s creation of the universe” that leads them to promote the “sustainability and preservation of the earth.”

It is possible to be a “collaborative partner” of the CCCU without meeting those qualifications. That list now includes Christian universities as prominent as Baylor, Pepperdine, Samford, and Seattle Pacific.

But not Liberty or Grand Canyon — neither of which, again, holds any status within the CCCU.

But then, there are far more avowedly Christian colleges and universities outside the CCCU than within it. The CCCU website includes a chart differentiating its 144 members (including affiliates) from 287 Roman Catholic colleges and universities, 225 Bible colleges, and 4 Mormon universities. (One Catholic university — Franciscan of Steubenville — is a collaborative partner.) It doesn’t directly mention the dozens of private colleges and universities with some kind of continuing affiliation to Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other mainline Protestant churches.

Litfin, Conceiving the Christian CollegeMost of those Catholic and non-evangelical Protestant schools would fall under the “Umbrella” category of religious college proposed by former Wheaton president Duane Liftin. Such institutions “seek to provide a Christian ‘umbrella’ or canopy under which a variety of voices can thrive.” While it likely has a sponsoring Christian denomination or tradition (and perhaps a “critical mass” of faculty, administrators, staff, or trustees from it), an “umbrella” Christian college or university “will nonetheless demonstrate genuine diversity. Some campus voices may be unhesitatingly secular, others open but searching, while still others may represent competing religious perspectives.” And that can include faculty voices, but “all are welcome under the umbrella so long as they can at least support the broad educational mission of the school…. The result is a relatively non-sectarian environment that can encourage rigorous Christian thinking even while serving as a venue where that thinking can engage other ideas in full.”

By contrast, Litfin placed CCCU members like Wheaton under the category of “Systemic” Christian colleges and universities, which “seek to make Christian thinking systemic throughout the institution, root, branch, and leaf.” And whose faculty “seek to live and work as Christians.” Indeed, “what marks off Systemic institutions from their Umbrella counterparts is that all of their faculty are drawn from those who embody the institution’s sponsoring faith tradition, however broadly or narrowly it may be defined.” Litfin concluded that “a truly Christian college is distinguished by a mission statement that articulates a Christian worldview and implements it through the curriculum, and by a faculty whose scholarship is anchored in that same worldview.”

But even this definition has been critiqued from within the world of evangelical higher education. Former Bethel professor Roger Olson, now at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, offered his own definition of “Christ-centered education” in our Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education — and referred readers to Litfin’s model as a “contrasting view.” For Roger, the key was not affirmation of doctrine or worldview, but “the experience of knowing Jesus Christ personally,” with the result that education would instill “certain dispositions in persons, dispositions that can be summed up in the word integrity—all of life and thought centered consistently around the person of Jesus Christ: his love, his justice, his peace, his care for persons.”

Not that “systemic” hiring policies or curriculum are inimical to the experiences of knowing Jesus or becoming more Christ-like. But they aren’t identical to those experiences. And there’s a big part of me that wonders if something like Roger’s Pietist definition is even practical within a large university population — let alone in a purely online program.

Let the debate continue.

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