Remembering Our Purpose in Christian Higher Education

September 6, 2016

The perennial cycle of academic communities launching a new academic year has commenced. This seasonal shift is a familiar ritual repeated throughout our nation from elementary schools and home schools to university systems. For a significant part of our populace, this is a time of year that brings about excitement, stress, and for many, a time of reflection. Like birthdays and certain holidays, this time of the year marks significant milestones celebrated by pictures of students plastered on social media of children with new school clothes on their first day of kindergarten, apprehensive looking youth on their first day of high school, and young men and women with faces that reveal both thrill and fear on their first day of college. These pictures are often accompanied by wistful comments longing for life to slow down, a yearning for simpler times. I can relate. Our point in history is marked by an increasingly complex and polarized world marked by rapid change and too little time.

So begins another academic year—another milestone—in the midst of 2016 A.D., anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. The Year of our Lord. I stress this because, 2016 is a year in which many are lamenting deteriorating world conditions, the demise of civility, the dangers of extremism, terrorism, and violence, and the seemingly ubiquitous anger of the populace. Couple this with the final stages of what will surely be remembered as the most bizarre U. S. election cycle in recent history and the rise of social media (which is often nothing more than an outlet for unsubstantiated rumor), and you have a recipe for general unhappiness and widespread angst.

While social media has democratized the sharing of news and information, it has also democratized the spread of bad ideas and falsehoods. All of this feeds a restless world, much of which is just looking for a reason and outlet to justify an already locked and loaded anger. It strikes me that a host of people are angry—at everything and at nothing in particular.

And yet, this is anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. Jesus reigns. His sovereignty and control is not diminished in 2016 any more than it was in the days of World War II, any more than in the brutal days of our own nation’s slavery, any more than in the days of Genghis Khan, or the days of Nero, Caligula or Diocletian and their respective persecutions of Christ’s church.

Whether we can possibly fully understand it, as believers and followers of Jesus, we believe and hold to the assurance and conviction that all things are being worked together ultimately for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. We have this faith—held as foolishness by the world—that in spite of what may happen around us, it will all culminate precisely as a good and loving God intends, with all things made right, all accounts settled, all evil appropriately dealt, and all things made new and perfect.

Easy comes the belief that things are worse today than at any time in history. Tempting is the feeling that having been born in a different time or era or place, our lives and our work might have been simpler or better. Such thoughts are patently false however, and the Word of God is clear.

In Acts 17:24-28, as he spoke with the leading philosophers in the Areopagus in Athens, Paul said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”

God determined the allotted periods and boundaries of our dwelling place. Incredible it is to consider that God made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, determined the allotted periods—that is the point of time in history—and the boundaries—that is the territory and geographical nations—of our dwelling places. God made each of us uniquely for this era, this point in history. God chose the location where we were born, chose where we were raised, and purposed where we are now. By His hand and by His will, we were made for Him, for this place, for this hour. And in Him we live and move and have our being.

In light of Christ’s reign and rule, in light of God’s sovereignty in choosing us for this place at precisely at this point in His grand story, how then should those of us who are engaged in education and particularly those of us in Christian higher education move forward as a distinctively Christian university? How should we approach this great privilege of living in community and fulfilling our potential? How should we proceed in successfully conducting our mission?

Our mission in Christian higher education is noble. As a Christian liberal arts university, OBU transforms lives by equipping students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ. As crucial as is our mission so are our University’s five core values. We are: Christ centered, Excellence Driven, Learning Focused, Missional Purposed, and Community Directed. Our mission and values drive who we are and what we do, and the boundaries of our actions.

Yet, I’ve been thinking not just of our mission and core values. I’ve been thinking much lately of our purpose—the why of who we are, and how and what we do. There is within our OBU mission statement a glimpse of our real purpose. In the midst of this well-crafted statement of who we are, and how and what we do (and amplified by and through our core values), we find this gem of the why we are a Christian liberal arts university. We find the reason why we equip students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ.

Within our mission, and guided by our values, we find the essence of our real purpose both at our institution, but also in distinctively Christian higher education as a whole. We transform lives. Now our purpose is fuller than this, and in drafting a purpose statement a college or university may choose to enrich the language. But, as I’ve been thinking and praying about the start of a new academic year, I am struck with the importance of daily reminding ourselves why we do what we do.

Professionally and in the context of our mission and core values at OBU, why do we do what we do? But more so as an individual, why am I here? Not what or who am I, or how or what do I do, but why am I here personally? How our purpose is carried out can be found in the classroom as well as behind the scenes. For example, helping to organize our university’s formal convocation, to prepare the stage, to have all things ready for our official start to the year are scores of individuals who worked tirelessly without the pomp and circumstance. They physically labored to move equipment in, to have the turf outside mowed, and to have the air conditioning, electrical systems, and sound equipment in order. These electricians, and plumbers, carpenters and HVAC professionals are skilled and certified for the job that they do.

So why do they do what they do at a Christian university? They use their skills and abilities, their talents and vocations on college campuses because they share and are committed to the mission, values, and purpose of distinctively Christian higher education. With all who labor in our cause, whether in accounting, secretarial offices, admissions, academic services, or on the faculty, they help fulfill the mission of equipping the students for lives of purpose. They choose to invest their talents and work in Christian higher education because they love God, and they love knowing that they are helping to change the world through the ones educated and sent out. They labor because they love students and get just as misty-eyed and full of satisfaction when students successfully complete their courses of study and graduate as the faculty do and as I do. Not a commencement goes by that I do not see a man named Dave Gilmore, our HVAC specialist, holding doors open for students and faculty, pitching in to help with all of the extra details, displaying a broad smile and brimming with pride as each graduate marches by. He has a job to do, but he serves a greater purpose.

The one who fixes the plumbing late at night, who shovels the snow off the sidewalks in bad weather, and the one who rides the mower that we barely notice—their work matters because they are helping to transform lives. Each of us has a mission that defines who we are and what we do. Each of us has a purpose. Our purpose can be fulfilled a number of different ways. Careers and jobs and positions and roles may help describe our mission—who we are and how and what we do. But our purpose gets to the heart of why.

Once we discover and then develop our purpose, we can find satisfaction in a multitude of careers, jobs, situations. Because our purpose exists and continues whether or not our job or career or location or platform changes. Our purpose exists and continues regardless of current economic or social trends and conditions. Our purpose exists and continues regardless of shifting morals and political winds of change.

To faculty; you are engaged in the heart of our mission. Our mission is most directly fulfilled through your work with our students. To equip students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ is the responsibility of every employee; but central to our academic identity is your investment in the classroom. We rise or fall, succeed or fail upon the faculty’s work of educating and preparing the student not simply to make a living, but to make a life. Faculty, how you teach, mentor, and model matters. How you fulfill your purpose on Bison Hill, and what you do with your calling to prepare each of these students for his or her calling matters. In equipping our students to be men and women who are able to lead and serve, much rests on your shoulders.

To our office and administrative staff, support personnel, and facilities management staff, our mission and our purpose of transforming lives depends upon your faithful service. Your own modeling of hard work and dedication, your own examples of serving others and living the Christian life matters. Your word of encouragement, your prayer, your support and engagement with our students is life transforming. Your work matters. Our mission in Christian higher education depends upon you fulfilling your purpose, which enables our students to fulfill theirs.

Students, you are at the heart of both a Christian university’s mission and purpose. Yet, even you are here to discover, prepare, and begin to fulfill your personal purpose. You are certainly in college to receive an education, obtain a degree, and prepare for a career. But these goals get at what you are doing and what you are becoming; these get at the who and how of your preparation. Critical, yes. But think deeper. Think about the “Why?” In other words, if you are preparing to be a teacher, a professional, an artist, scientist, go into medicine, music, or missions, come to understand that those are the means by which you fulfill your purpose. Science is your platform. The arts are your platform. Your profession is your platform. Your purpose is the reason why you have a platform.

During your time and preparation in college, you will be equipped for service and leadership using that platform. You will be equipped to pursue academic excellence, because as a Christ follower we are to strive for excellence in the areas and platforms we are entrusted to serve and lead. You will be equipped to integrate faith with all areas of knowledge because we believe that all knowledge and truth is God’s truth, and like Augustine, we give faith a priority in the relationship between faith and reason. You will be equipped here to engage a diverse world, because God loves the world, because other people matter, because you must better understand the world in order to be more effective in your calling and in fulfilling your purpose. You will be equipped to live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ, because those around us need our witness. Because we are called by God to a such a great salvation and hope, and because we are called by God’s Word as a royal priesthood, we should walk as sons and daughters of the Most High.

Our collective efforts in distinctively Christian higher education, are focused on coming alongside students at this marvelous moment in life to accomplish the worthy mission of equipping you. My challenge to students is to think more deeply than just vocational calling, to think more deeply even than about your mission—that is, who you are and what you do. Use your time here to explore your purpose, and think about how you are going to steward your career, your platform, and how your will steward your time and preparation in college.

Students, you are in college for such a time as this. I pray that for the world you are inheriting and soon will lead, that you will become as sons of Issachar. Following the death of King Saul and his sons by the Philistines, all of Israel began to gather at Hebron to join with and proclaim David as King. Mighty warriors gathered to him there and among them were the chiefs of the Tribe of Issachar. We read in 1 Chronicles 12:32a: “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do…”

Students, you are chosen for this hour of history to prepare for life in the service of a greater King than David—that is the eternal Son of God, Jesus. You are divinely appointed for this hour to prepare to be equipped to lead, to be equipped to serve. You are at a specifics place, at this point in history, to be equipped as sons and daughters of Issachar—that is, as men and women of King Jesus, men and women who understand the times and know what to do.

How you prepare is vital. How you study is crucial. Whether you are to serve as an artist, lawyer, poet, business professional, musician, scientist, teacher, missionary, minister, doctor, nurse, or philosopher, you’re calling is to prepare well, to seek excellence. You are to become the best in your field. But beyond that, you are to use your careers, to use those platforms in which you serve, to fulfill your purpose.

Much sooner than any of us can comprehend, the world will be led, governed, served, and determined by today’s students and generation. The future of our churches, our institutions, our governments will be determined and shaped by you, students. Prepare well for the future. The rest of us are counting on you. Be often reminded that your purpose in life transcends any positions or titles or careers or job descriptions you will hold. Invest your time wisely. What you do while you are in college matters. Steward well your opportunities. Indeed, to all of us who follow Jesus, who have placed our faith, our lives, and our futures in Him: our work, our efforts, our words, and our actions have great consequence.

So, I’ve been thinking. Our world is lost and hurting and needs us to serve as ambassadors of Christ, as bearers of the Good News.

I’ve been thinking. In a racially and ethnically divided world, we who are followers of Christ are needed to intentionally engage in the work of reconciliation, to seek the reconciliation of others with God through Christ, and to lead the efforts for racial and ethnic reconciliation both here and abroad.

I’ve been thinking. In a world fraught with social ills, followers of Christ are needed to stand up for the downtrodden, defend the defenseless, help free those enslaved by human trafficking, and love the ones who finds themselves alone and marginalized, and to do so consistent with the teaching of God’s Word.

I’ve been thinking. In a world that values monetary success and power structures, Christ followers are needed to show a more excellent way, a way of leading by serving. May we demonstrate the counterintuitive model of putting others before self and leading with humility and love.

I’ve been thinking. In our own country as we enter the final stages of a political season and presidential election, we who follow Jesus are needed to show that no political party dictates, owns, or fully represents the Christian perspective or vote. Whatever our leanings, may we recognize that we are made one, not by political party, but in Christ. May we remind ourselves that no political ideology, movement, or candidate will solve the great challenges facing our nation and world. Only God can change hearts and minds and only God can heal a nation.

I’ve been thinking. In an age when the loudest, angriest voices in the room demand the most attention, let our quiet dignity, actions, and words, as well as our love, gentleness, patience and self-control define us. Let our winsome witness drown out the madness. May we be found keeping Christ’s Great Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I’ve been thinking. In a time of diminishing religious liberty around the world, let us lend our voices and efforts to the cause of those who are persecuted, marginalized, mistreated, tortured, and martyred because of their faith.

I’ve been thinking. In an era where it is tempting to think that the world has come unhinged and that the challenges ahead are too daunting, let us be reminded that this is anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. Jesus reigns. And we have work to do. We have a mission. We have a purpose to fulfill.

David W. Whitlock

David Whitlock is the president of Oklahoma Baptist University. Active in a variety of professional organizations, Whitlock has served as a consultant-evaluator with the Higher Learning Commission since 2006. He has completed four academic institution evaluation visits, including a site visit to a Chinese institution. He also is an evaluator and mentor … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24