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Volume 14, Issue 1: Cultura

Testing Christian Colleges

Roy Atwood

The former president of Covenant College recently fielded a question about how his school planned to avoid becoming one more Christian institution that was apostate longer than it was orthodox. The question caught him a bit off-guard and revealed he really hadn't given the matter much thought. After a verbal pause ("Well, that's a very good question . . .") to collect his thoughts, his answer was brief: "With a lot of prayer."1 Prayer is good, of course, but during wartime such an answer is dangerously inadequate.

The promotion and preservation of faithful institutions designed to educate and equip the next generation of covenant youth for the difficult cultural and religious wars ahead requires our best strategic and tactical planning, not pious platitudes. And after the battle has begun is not the time to start thinking about how to guard the gate. As the Lord taught us in the Parable of the Talents, faithfulness requires more than a wing and a prayer. If we aren't disciplining ourselves and our children daily to be faithful in the lesser things, then almost certainly we won't rise to the challenge of the greater things at the moment of crisis.
Unfortunately, Christian academics have been remarkably thick-headed and complacent about learning from past collegiate apostasies. Christian colleges have become practiced at passing off recruiting slogans as serious discussion of first principles. In fact, Presbyterian and Reformed colleges are legendary for their complacency and for their inadequate attention to spiritual fidelity in the lesser details of organization, operation, and discipline. For example:
How many faculty members embrace feminism, homosexuality, multiculturalism, openness theology, evolution, or clever variants of the same?
How many faculty members have been disciplined or dismissed from the college for holding and/or teaching positions contrary to the college's own statement of faith or doctrinal standards, or for violating the college's code of conduct?
How many students have had extramarital sex, children out of wedlock, or abortions while under the college's oversight this year? How many students have tried illegal drugs or been drunk this year?
By what biblical principles does the college justify having dormitories?
What positive steps has the college taken to promote personal holiness and cultural reformation among its faculty members and students? Have those actions borne faithful fruit or discipline without succumbing to legalism?
On which principles has the college compromised in order to get approval to participate in federal and state programs, accreditation, academic associations, etc.? How does the college justify acceptance of state and federal money for projects or financial aid?
Sadly, most Christian colleges and their constituencies have been more eager to find approval from the keepers of the pagan academic status quo than to reform higher education according to the Word of God without apology or crossed fingers. But as James Tunstead Burtchaell's withering indictment of historically Christian colleges suggests, the process of academic apostasy begins at this very point, with a series of self-deceptions, little compromises on principles, and half-truths offered to constituencies about fundamental issues of institutional integrity. In his book The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (1998), Burtchaell shows how churches, parents, alumni, faculty, and administrators have repeatedly failed to guard or to reinforce their college's founding mission, doctrinal standards, and principles of conduct, and by that neglect have unwittingly become accomplices in their college's spiritual demise. The sad stories of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are well known, of course, but Burtchaell documents how even small, conservative evangelical colleges—Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed alike—are far down the path toward a similar fate. For example, Burtchaell's assessment of Dordt College, one of three Presbyterian and Reformed church-sponsored colleges he studied and a favorite in conservative Dutch Reformed circles,2 ends on this depressing note: given the trajectory of the college and the Christian Reformed denomination that sponsors it, it is "unlikely that Dordt's educators will have enough theological insight or inclination to awaken and inspire their students' minds to distinguish what is fraudulent from what is prophetic, what is seductive from what is sound."3
Christian higher education is in crisis, and many of our most "conservative" Reformed and Presbyterian colleges have become part of the problem, not part of the solution. No matter how much rhetoric a college may spew about its Reformed heritage or distinctive worldview, a distinctly anti-Christian paradigm still dominates Christian higher education. If Christian colleges simply refused to play the game according to the rules established by the anti-Christian academic establishment, the Church would no doubt see a wonderful reformation in its midst, and the scholarly world would be turned upside down. But lack of nerve and lack of faith keep the historically Christian colleges following the world, not leading it. The followers of Christ need faithful colleges and strong leaders who are devoting themselves to do more than pray after the enemy is already in the gate

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