By / Sep 22

We’re celebrating our bicentennial at Union. For 200 years, Union University has stood as a model of excellence in Christian higher education. A place where learning is integrated with our faith in Christ, where it is infused with the hope of Christ, and where it is transformed by the love of Christ.

Remembering the past 

From a small-town academy to one of the nation’s premier Christian universities —the story of Union University is one of faith, Christian commitment, and dedication to excellence. And, it is the story of how faithful people in faithful churches help sustain God’s ongoing work of educating our young people.

Union stands as a testimony to God’s faithfulness, and we remain committed to our mission of providing Christ-centered education that promotes excellence and character development in service to Church and society. That’s what Union University has been about for 200 years. Many schools have come and gone. Other schools have lost their biblical bearings and drifted to the siren’s song of the wisdom of the age.

But Union remains as resolute and committed to its biblical foundation as ever. At Union, we believe God has spoken to us through the Scriptures. We believe the Bible is trustworthy, reliable, and true. We believe Jesus Christ is our only hope for salvation. And we believe that pursuing him and loving him with our hearts, souls, minds, and strength is what God has called us to do. 

Union traces its origins to Jackson Male Academy, the forerunner of West Tennessee College, which opened on Feb. 3, 1823. Madison County had been chartered by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1821, and its county seat, Jackson, was created in 1822. As with other frontier communities, its people immediately began to establish the types of institutions that they had left. The good people of Jackson wanted the best education possible for their children. To obtain that objective, they established “a College of high standing and extensive usefulness,” relying on the “cooperation and patronage of the citizens of West Tennessee.”

The story of Union is the story of how two institutions—West Tennessee College and Union University at Murfreesboro—merged into one college, Southwestern Baptist University, and then Southwestern Baptist University changed its name to Union University and incorporated a third college, Hall-Moody Junior College of Martin, Tennessee.

God has proven himself faithful to Union University, time and time again. Through war and peace. Through fire and storm. Through prosperity and want. Through blessing and trial.

Looking forward to the future

As we celebrate our bicentennial this academic year, Union University stands on the brink of its third century. At the same time, we find ourselves in an increasingly secular, post-Christian society that disdains many of the beliefs and convictions Union holds dear. The higher education environment has never been more competitive, and institutions like Union must be equipped with the resources necessary to successfully navigate the cultural waters in which we sail.

Despite the challenges before us, we are confident that God has great things in store for Union. As we look to the future, we see the ways God has used the university over the past 200 years, and we dream of what he will do in the days ahead.

We dream of a campus that continues to attract students from all over the world—students who come to be taught and mentored by world-class professors who are skilled at instructing their students in how to think about their subject matter through a biblical lens. We dream of providing students with state-of-the-art facilities that will equip them to be excellent in their fields. We dream of being a campus, based in West Tennessee, that is a beacon to the world and that showcases the glory and the beauty of Christ.

We dream of Union alumni who will be the hands and feet of Jesus in every context imaginable: pastors, nurses, teachers, business owners, doctors, social workers, scientists, parents, community leaders, missionaries, musicians, engineers, coaches, accountants, artists, church members, and on and on the list goes. They will join the Union alumni around the world—now 21,000 strong—who are serving the Church and society and making a difference for the kingdom of God.

Ultimately, we dream of how God will use Union University to send out an army of alumni to be salt and light to a lost and dying world—alumni who will take the gospel with them to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

Let us never say that we failed to dream big about what God can do through Union. Let us never say that we doubted the urgency or the importance of our mission. From now until Christ’s return, the mission of Union University will be vital and necessary in making disciples, in equipping students to serve, in supporting churches, and in reflecting and proclaiming the glory of the Lord to the world around us.

As we celebrate, we look back to what God has done in Union’s past, and we look forward with anticipation to what he will do in Union’s future.

Psalm 16:6 says, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Union University does indeed have a beautiful inheritance. The Lord in his kindness has richly poured out blessing after blessing upon Union over the last two centuries. As we reflect upon God’s goodness to us, and as we dream about what God can and will do through Union in the days ahead, we pray that he will move the hearts of people during this pivotal moment in Union’s history to pray for us, to partner with us, and to help us sustain the mission of Union in the days to come.

In December 1874, a committee of Tennessee Baptists reported, “Thus far the School has more than realized our highest expectations and the future is hopeful.” Almost 150 years after that report and 200 years since our founding, we can say the same.

The minutes from that meeting go on to say something important to emphasize today, “but let us not forget that in building up the University we are laboring not for our own selves alone but for the whole Baptist denomination . . . and let us hope that we are laying the foundation of an institution which we hope by the blessings of God to continue for the ages to come.”

May we never forget how important it is to continue to build up this institution for the glory of God and the good of mankind.

By / Aug 9

From the morning the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the discussion about abortion and the pro-life movement has been evolving constantly. Our country is having conversations and debates about legislation at the state level, criminalization of women, contraceptives, privacy, and so much more. These are discussions that are sure to affect many college campuses this fall as students return. As debate from activists on both sides begins again in this post-Roe context, how should a Christian college student approach these conversations?  

For many of them, they are walking into a spiritually dark and secular place. The Christian position in defense of the preborn is likely to be a minority position on many campuses, subject to intense challenges. They are going to be questioned on what they believe about abortion, whose “side” they are on, and how they can justify being on the “wrong side.”

This is not necessarily new. College students have conversations like this all the time. Sometimes they go well, and sometimes not so much. What is new, however, is the intensity, passion, and assumptions behind these conversations.

For the Christian, the answer to the question of how to engage is simple and revolutionary at the same time: speak the truth in love. Christians on campus need to approach these conversations in such a way that Christ is glorified.

Here are three thingsChristians on college campuses should remember when they approach these conversations. 

1. Our identity should not be found in policy or activism, rather it should be found in the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

The first thing college students need to remember is that our identity ought to be found in Christ. Typically, when we engage in conversation it is because we are passionate about what we are talking about. If you find yourself engaging in political conversations, then you probably find that immigration, gun control, or any other political issues are important to you and flow from your worldview. In essence there is nothing wrong with being passionate about these issues and discussing them. However, Scripture teaches that the love of God should be our priority (Matt. 22:37). Therefore, if we exalt Christ more in our own lives, then having political conversations may become seemingly less imperative in comparison to having gospel conversations.

The reality is that we talk about what we care about (Col. 3:2). So, anytime we engage in political conversations, we must first remember what our priorities are. As believers, our priority is to fulfill the Great Commission and share the gospel of Christ with all people. We know that political ideologies do not dictate eternity, but faith in Christ does. We can have hope and assurance that God is sovereign, and we can have hope regardless of the political issues we talk about. Our identity is found in an event on a cross over 2,000 years ago, not whatever is trending in the news.

2. Our goal should not be to prove somebody wrong, but to represent Christ.

The second thing to remember is that we need to stay humble. Far too often conversations about politics become more about ego than anything else. If we are being honest, we know that most of the time neither party in a conversation will change their mind, so the purpose of these conversations ends up being to prove who is smarter or more knowledgeable. As college students, it is important to remember that we are young and have much to learn. We do not know everything about every topic and should not act or talk as if we do. Therefore, our goal in a conversation should never be about exalting ourselves, rather it should always be about exalting Christ.

It is crucial to remember that if you profess that you are a Christian, then you are an ambassador for Christ. (2 Cor. 5:20). We represent Christ in every conversation we have. Think about how Jesus throughout the Gospels showed humility through the washing of feet. Let us, in the same way, be humble and treat people with kindness even in difficult conversations in which we may disagree. Let us not be argumentative, arrogant, hateful with our speech, or demeaning. Rather, let us be an accurate representation of Christ’s humility through being fair minded, open to listen, and wise with our words. 

This is not to say that we equivocate between harmful and unjust beliefs, or that we treat all perspectives as equally valid. But we do treat those who hold those views with respect and dignity as those who are made in the image of God. Before we represent a political party, activist group, or any other organization, we are first and foremost ambassadors for Christ. That is something that should be handled with reverence. 

3. Our conversations should always point back to the gospel.

The final thing to remember is that regardless of the subject of our conversation, it ought to point back to the gospel as we are able. Most of the time on a college campus, when a Christian’s worldview is challenged, you can expect it to be from someone who does not believe in Christ. Therefore, that makes these conversations all the more important.

Think about what we have talked about thus far: our identity is found in Christ, and our goal in any conversation should not be to prove somebody right, but to represent Christ. All of this points to the fact that as Christians, political conversations with nonbelievers are a perfect opportunity that ought to be taken advantage of. 

Political conversations give you the opportunity to be salt and light (Matt.5:13-16). You can show somebody what the love of Christ looks like in a time when they are least expecting it. You can demonstrate what it means to have hope in the midst of a dark and fallen world. These things speak volumes to somebody who is lost and in need of Savior.

I believe in the providence of God, which means that I do not believe in accidents. Thus, I think that every conversation we have with somebody was intentionally designed. As college students, we have a decision to make: Are we going to use these conversations for our own personal ambitions, or are we going to use these conversations to bring glory and praise to the name of Jesus Christ? Do not shy away from difficult conversations. The Holy Spirit is with you and will guide you (Luke 12:11-12). We are called to obedience and to be a witness for the sake of the gospel.

By / Jul 19

In a unanimous decision, the federal court for the 8th Circuit held that administrators at the University of Iowa are violating the First Amendment by removing Christian, Muslim, and Sikh student organizations for choosing student leaders who share the group’s mission and values. The court’s ruling of InterVarsity v. University of Iowa follows a series of recent decisions that uphold the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and specifically rejects skewed applications of anti-discrimination policies based on a leader’s viewpoints. 

What is this case about?

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has thrived on the University of Iowa’s campus for 25 years with the mission of “courageously proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior, engaging in discipleship around Scripture, and loving people of every ethnicity and culture.” The University of Iowa chapter of InterVarsity has been recognized for its excellence in community service and student engagement, but on June 1, 2018, the university threatened deregistration for violating nondiscrimination policies. 

It is only logical for an organization’s leaders to share its beliefs and priorities, and the process of determining a leader’s position based on his or her ability to further a group’s mission has never been deemed “discriminatory,” at least not under the law. After InterVarsity responded with a reasonable appeal and explanation, the university deregistered the group and barred it from operating on campus. The university went as far as to say the group was engaging in discriminatory activity by simply “encouraging” students to live by a shared mission. Thirty-eight other student groups, mostly religious, were deregistered that summer for noncompliant leadership requirements. Becket sued the university on behalf of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on Aug. 6, 2018, and InterVarsity v. University of Iowa was decided unanimously in favor of InterVarsity on July 16, 2021.

What is the significance of this case?

This case protects students and organizations from differential treatment based on university officials’ viewpoints. Universities are spaces for the competition of ideas, but at the University of Iowa, administrators imposed their own opposing views on religious groups. Political and ideological groups, sororities and fraternities, and sports clubs, who used similar vetting processes for leaders, were left untouched. The 8th Circuit left no room for discussion about the constitutionality of this oppressive strategy. Hopefully, the uncontested decision sends a clear message to other university, college, and high school administrators that a public institution must remain a place where students learn and share ideas independent from a leader’s preferential control. If educators at the University of Iowa want a closed environment, they should look for a job at a private institution. 

What does this mean moving forward?

According to Becket, this the third case of its kind in recent months (InterVarsity v. Wayne State and BLinC v. University of Iowa). The increase in religious freedom cases communicates a couple of important messages. First, constitutional rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religious exercise, and freedom of association are being challenged frequently, especially on college campuses. Secondly, lower courts are following the lead of the current Supreme Court and hearing cases related to these foundational freedoms in an effort to clear up any gray areas with increasing enforcement of antidiscrimination policies in public institutions and municipalities. 

Ultimately, today’s decision affirms students’ First Amendment rights while attending public universities and denies leaders of any public institution the ability to define discrimination based on personal views. According to Becket, “the Court communicated the extremity if the University’s overreach, saying it would be “hard-pressed to find a clearer example of viewpoint discrimination.” Nondiscrimination policies are meant to protect, not to create a new form of oppression based on who the person in power wants to accommodate.

The ERLC continues to stand for the religious liberty of all in the U.S. and throughout the world and will continue working to ensure that religious liberty is honored and protected.

ERLC intern Anna Claire Noblitt contributed to this article.

By / Jun 22

When facing doubts and fears, the last thing you want to do is isolate yourself and struggle alone. Sometimes we do that because we don’t think others will understand. Or maybe we feel embarrassed that we are questioning our beliefs. But we have to be honest about our struggles and bring them into the light. This is why your involvement in Christian fellowship on campus is so important. 

You need a deep, strong group of believers on campus who can support you when you walk through tough times. Lean on them. Let them speak truth to you. Let them encourage you to persevere. That’s what the body of Christ is for: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Eccles. 4:9–10).

Study your faith deeply

I know that the last thing you want to hear right now is that you need to do more study. You probably think you have enough coursework to occupy your time! But the study I am talking about is even more important. If we are going to battle our doubts, we have to be committed to studying God’s word. And I don’t mean just studying passages of Scripture (as important as that is), but I mean diving deeply into the entire Christian worldview so that we understand not only what we believe but why we believe it.

If you think about what causes your doubts, you will realize that each of those causes can be addressed (at least in part) through deep study. If a person has intellectual doubts, studying the evidences and reasons for the faith can help quell her concerns. If a person has lost his way morally, the word of God can be a reminder of the importance of obedience and how God empowers us to follow him. If a person has dealt with great suffering, a deeper understanding of the nature of God—his goodness, his sovereignty, his purposes for evil—can provide great comfort and perspective. And even if a person is a chronic worrier, the Scriptures speak to that too. The psalmist shows us how to trust God with our fears: 

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place . . . no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. (Ps. 91:9–10

Here’s the point: good theology matters. A believer with a solid theological foundation is able to handle these difficult questions better than a person who has a shallow understanding of the Christian faith. And good theology is not automatic. One must study diligently to attain it.

Get wise counsel

Even if you have solid fellowship, and you are committed to deep study of God’s word, you still need to lean on Christians who are wiser, older, and more mature. After all, you are not the first Christian in the history of the church to wrestle with these things. Many have gone before you, and you need to learn from them.

Who can provide this wise counsel? Well, one obvious answer is a pastor at your church. Pastors are trained to handle such difficult questions and are therefore a great resource for finding help. Again, this is why being part of a good church is so important. You can also get wise input from a biblical counselor, someone trained to help apply God’s word to the issues and problems we all struggle with. And of course, you can look to a mentor, perhaps an older believer who has invested in you and is looking out for you. 

Doubt your doubts

When we doubt some truth of Christianity, we often don’t realize that we are doubting that truth because of some other belief we hold. In effect, then, we are swapping out one belief for another. If so, then when we find ourselves doubting one of our Christian beliefs, we can fight back by challenging the belief that replaces it. Timothy Keller provides a helpful example.1Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York: Penguin, 2018), 39. Imagine you meet an atheist who turns out to be kind, happy, and moral, and this makes you doubt whether Christianity is really true. A little reflection will reveal that there is another belief that is feeding this doubt, namely, the belief that atheists ought to be bad, awful people. And since they’re not bad, awful people, then you doubt your faith. 

But it is precisely this belief, argues Keller, that you should challenge. Why should we think that atheists must be awful people? It turns out that such a belief is highly problematic. The Scriptures teach that even non-Christians can be outwardly kind and good by virtue of being made in the image of God. Moreover, the Scriptures also teach that believers are often serious sinners because we are saved not by works but by grace. So this alternative belief falls apart upon closer scrutiny. This is what it looks like to doubt your doubts. Fight against the belief that is trying to replace your Christian belief.

Grow from your doubts

While our doubts can seem like they’re destroying us, don’t forget that God may have other purposes for them. As strange as it sounds, there’s a certain spiritual depth, and a certain spiritual strength, that we will never reach without going through an intense season of doubting and struggling. When we push through such a season, we can find ourselves all the stronger on the other side of it. Indeed, some of the great saints of old have had to endure such trials so that they may prove more faithful in the end. Even Jesus himself endured a “dark night of the soul.” In the garden of Gethsemane, he suffered greatly under the prospect of what lay before him, in anguish even to the point of death (Matt. 26:38). 

Of course, in the middle of such doubts, it is not always easy to see what God’s ultimate purpose might be. Sometimes we cannot see it until it’s all over and we look back. It’s worth noting that it was when Martin Luther was in his darkest season of doubting that he wrote his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” And that hymn, born out of a period of doubt and darkness, has strengthened millions of believers since.

This article was originally published by Crossway.

  • 1
    Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York: Penguin, 2018), 39.
By / Nov 19

I didn’t expect applause when the student presenter said, “I’m the resident heretic for the Divinity School.” To say I was hesitant was an understatement.

This was my introduction to graduate studies in religion as I was touring prospective programs. As a committed and theologically conservative evangelical, I was a bit unsure. However, I would eventually join this self-professed heretic and study with those who chose the program for its decidedly liberal perspective on matters of faith and religion. Over my two years in this program, I discovered important things about the need for Christians in educational spaces and the ability to dialogue with one another across theological lines

Depending on who asks, I get two responses when I tell them where I went to school. The conservative Christians I know always ask follow-up questions to ensure that I am still one of them. Those on the opposite side of the theological spectrum see it as a marker that I have at least learned from those different from me. I may not agree with them, but I at least understand why they think as they do. The degree grants me a position of influence and a hearing that I would lack if I had chosen another school.

What our influence looks like

So what does influence look like for a prophetic minority in culture?

It looks like the student who is an evangelical explaining to his liberal friend why he believes in the inerrancy of Scripture while they study for a Hebrew Bible final exam. It is the conversation between the Christian and their co-worker at their campus job. It’s the kind of influence that comes from friendship, proximity, and care for the other person. It is not quick, and it is not easy, but relationship discipleship rarely is.

It’s remembering that those who disagree with us are not our enemy. In this era of outrage and polarization, it is easy to write off the other side as the enemy or evil. But the people I encountered weren’t evil. We disagreed, but we also found places of communion. They didn’t believe in a literal resurrection, but they were committed to ending racial injustice. They didn’t agree with my views on marriage, but we both agreed that the church should care about the poor and marginalized.

Even the angriest of my classmates were not without cause. I could not fault them for being angry at an evangelicalism that met their skepticism with rejection, not love. As Christians, we should acknowledge that just as often as people reject the message of the gospel, they are also rejecting the messengers who they believe don’t care about them.

In Matthew 5:13, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the “salt of the earth.” He then follows it with a warning that if the salt loses its flavor, it’s not good for anything. At the same time, salt is no good if it is left in its container. If it is never used, then it is just as problematic. Salt that isn’t salty, and salt that is never used have the same effect: nothing.

In the same way, Christians should not be isolationists and withdraw from culture. We do not practice a form of monasticism in which we purposely avoid the world. Christ did not pray that we would be taken out of the world, but that we would be protected as we were sent into it (John 17:15-19). The church is the place where we withdraw so that we might be renewed and prepared; but we withdraw so that we might go out.

How we engage the university

Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian and statesman, said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” This includes universities and colleges. Christians must not absent themselves and cede their influence and vision in the realm of education. While Christians should not think of this influence as based on a model from the years of the Moral Majority or the Religious Right,  these groups did correctly understand that to absent yourself from the conversation is to give up a say in the outcome.

So we should help Christians, especially those making decisions about education, to look for the ways that their influence can be leveraged for the kingdom. While there is merit to seeking an explicitly Christian education, they might prayerfully consider how the same degree could be leveraged at a state or private institution that does not share the same commitments. Their time at college could be a time of engaging those around them who might never listen otherwise, and who they might never be around in such a concentrated number.

It could also be a time when they learn something they did not expect. My time with high church students gave me a deeper love for the liturgy of church history. Also, issues such as race, justice, and poverty were emphasized in ways that I had not heard. I did not always agree, but I came away with a new layer of how the gospel affects all of creation.

Christian parents, you should be thinking even now about how to prepare your children for their future education and vocation. It is important that we not simply fall into the trap of choosing a good college because of the name or prestige. At the same time, those colleges carry social capital and can give students access to a mission field that is untouched. So, you should be training the young Christians in your household to see every sphere of influence as one in which they can work for the advancing of the kingdom.

Christians of the past have always recognized the importance of education. The Jesuits would found schools as a means of evangelism when they entered a new region. The early European universities were begun to train clergy. Christians should not be afraid of the world of academia. We should not abandon it. It is not the realm of the world, but that of a God who calls us to love him with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind (Lk. 10:27). For in every classroom, Christ’s declaration of “Mine!” still rings true.

By / Apr 2

The Monthly “Research Institute Forum” is an initiative of the Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Learn more about the Research Institute.

Given that many students are narrowing down decisions on which college to attend during this time of the year, I am wondering if you all would each answer the question:

As professors, what would you tell parents and students are the most important criteria for selecting a college?

Nathan Finn

As an academic dean in a small Christian university, I regularly talk with prospective students and their parents about this very issue. I think certain criteria always apply, and others apply in only some situations. I’ll put them in the form of questions that prospective students and parents need to be asking.

First, what is the student’s sense of vocation, and which academic programs are best suited to that calling? This question presumes that you are thinking in terms of God’s calling more than less-important questions such as compensation, prestige, etc. It’s important for believers to think about the vocation(s) God might be leading them toward based upon a combination of desire, giftedness, wise counsel, opportunity for kingdom influence, etc. I believe the answer to this question is more important than questions about institutions and even majors, since more than one pathway might lead to vocational flourishing. (Side note: pastors and youth ministers need to be equipping the church to think vocationally rather than simply occupationally, but that is another topic for another day.)

Second, which institutions offer combinations of a solid foundation in the liberal arts and strong major opportunities? The liberal arts help to form students into particular types of people, while in many cases one’s major(s) helps prepare them for certain types of occupations. So is there a sufficient grounding in the arts, humanities, and sciences that can enable students to flourish in their chosen major, whether the latter is in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, a STEM-related field, a health profession, or business?

Third, if you are considering Christian colleges and universities, which ones seem consistently Christ-centered, and what is the their academic reputation? The best Christian institutions are guided by a strong commitment to a Christian worldview, engagement with the Christian intellectual tradition, and the intentional integration of faith and learning across the academic disciplines and professions. Some Christian schools aren’t that different from the regional state school down the road, other than offering a couple of Bible classes and chapel services. Many nominally Christian schools don’t take seriously the implications of the gospel for all of life. Avoid institutions that either downplay the role of faith or settle for academic mediocrity.

Fourth, if you are considering secular institutions, what opportunities are available through campus ministries and area churches to help a student grow in his or her faith? This question applies to Christian schools as well, but it’s especially relevant when looking at secular schools. If you believe God is leading you to attend an institution that is non-committal or even hostile toward Christianity, make sure you maintain meaningful connections to a healthy local church and the wider body of Christ. Know in advance that you will be able to thrive spiritually, perhaps in spite of the worldview(s) you are immersed in on campus.

Finally, what options make the most sense from a financial standpoint? Every school wants you to believe their education is worth the cost—and in some cases, this is undoubtedly true. But the fact is, families are in the driver’s seat: schools need your money more than you need their programs. Few students attend college for free, so for most folks, it’s a significant financial investment. Make sure you are making a wise investment, that you are incurring as little debt as possible, and that you have a plan to pay down any debt as soon as reasonably possible after you are finished with your formal education.

Andrew Lewis

I have now spent the majority of my academic and professional career in public universities, but I have also spent time at selective private universities and an evangelical seminary with an undergraduate college. From my experience and observation, finding the right college is more about what you do when you arrive on campus than what sort of institution you choose. A variety of colleges can provide paths to educational and career development, while aiding personal and spiritual growth. But it is primarily up to the student to pursue these goals, hopefully with excitement and discipline.

When selecting a college, you certainly want a quality institution, a dedicated faculty, career resources, and the presence of a supportive Christian community. Yet, colleges cannot force their students to attend class, study, develop professional skills, build mature friendships, and cultivate real Christian maturity. Individual students must seize these opportunities.

Some colleges might be better at promoting these qualities and channeling students toward making positive choices. The right kind of programs, curricular and extra-curricular demands, and campus culture can incentivize students to diligence and reflective engagement in the process of becoming educated and building good character.

Unfortunately, special curricula and an overtly Christian culture can often carry a hefty financial price tag. Basically, there are trade-offs. Some are financial on the front-end (tuition), some financial on the back-end (earnings), and some less measurable character qualities (e.g., intellectual, spiritual, personal, etc.).

So what should parents and students do? I suggest that they assess their personal situation with honesty. What are the student’s realistic career goals? What does the family’s financial picture look like to achieve these goals? How disciplined and mature is the student, and where could he or she use help? What type of resources, curriculum, and culture would be most helpful for sustained educational success, while also protecting and bolstering the student’s spiritual and personal life?

I recommend visiting a variety of colleges to get a feel for how the campus resources and cultures fit with the student’s needs and wants. (And while you are on these campus visits, also investigate local churches and Christian ministries.) Getting comfortable with institutional resources and culture prior to enrolling will make it easier to make the transition.

In my view, across the U.S. today, a student can generally obtain a quality education while finding a spiritually supportive community at a variety of educational institutions. A successful college experience is mostly about what happens after a student arrives on campus. Students and parents can help make those more important choices easier by considering in advance how different colleges fit with the needs of particular individuals.

Jonathan Pennington

My wife and I have six children with ages ranging from 21 down to 13. We have one who is about to graduate from a private Christian college, one who is a sophomore at a state university, another one who will be a university freshman in the Fall, plus three more teenagers still at home. College has been a big topic of discussion and stress in our household for some time and will continue to be for some years to come!

I’m quite hesitant to give overly specific advice about college decisions because so many factors are person-specific—vocation, calling, financial situation, intellectual abilities, etc. But I can offer a few thoughts of a general and visionary nature.

First, a college degree can and should give job-related skills, but this is not the ultimate goal of education. Education is first and last about forming us to be a certain kind of people. From the ancient Greek tradition of paideia, down to the American vision of an educated populace necessary for democracy, education has rightly been understood as shaping people’s sensibilities, loves, and vision toward individual and societal human flourishing through a broad, liberal arts curriculum. Christians, of all people, should value highly the formation of the individual, not just the acquisition of skills.

The practical import of this for making college decisions is that various colleges should be valued accordingly as to what they offer beyond pragmatic skills. For many, this may mean the decision to attend a Christian college, but not necessarily. I would prefer a well-rounded and balanced university educational curriculum and experience over a narrow skill-set and limited-scope education, whether Christian or not.

Second, one of the greatest factors in higher education decisions like never before is the exorbitant cost relative to average household incomes. Again, so many factors are at play with this issue that it is impossible to be dogmatic. I would generally encourage incurring minimal debt (both parents and students), though I don’t think it is necessarily a mistake to take loans for education if one considers education as a financial investment in one’s future earning potential as well as life-satisfaction.

At the same time, none of us should buy a house we can’t afford to live in. So we must seek a wise decision about the costs incurred in private versus public education in conjunction with the degree earned and its potential in enabling a return on investment. Of our three kids who are of college age, different decisions have been made on the financial side—decisions that included the major chosen, scholarships earned, and individual desires.

Finally, it is life-giving to remember that God’s will is nearly always a circle not a dot. That is, God is inviting us to be wise but we need not live in anxiety about accidentally making the wrong college choice. There are pros and cons for every situation, and the Father gladly provides and blesses his children without reluctance. Consider the many factors, pray for wisdom, and then step toward what seems best with confidence that God is at work in us for our good.

The views represented in this post belong only to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ERLC.

By / Mar 6

Religious institutions play an essential role in contributing to the diversity of higher education options. A wide array of options adds crucial value for students considering educational opportunities. Faith-based institutions contribute to the diversity of academic options.

Christian institutions of higher education ought to have the same access to generally available benefits as secular institutions. As stated in the recent Supreme Court opinion in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, “This Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that can be justified only by a state interest ‘of the highest order.’”

Accreditation processes should not be used to favor secular over religious. Religious schools that fulfill the accreditation requirements should be accredited, as is the case with secular schools. Accreditation agencies reach beyond their purpose when they seek to pressure—or coerce—religious institutions to act in a manner contrary to their religious mission.

Financial aid should adhere to its original purpose of helping students pursue academic goals. Student aid should not be wielded as a tool to change a religious institution’s core tenets and character. Students in need of financial assistance should not be used as pawns in disputes over social issues.

It is essential that institutions of higher education are able to educate according to their mission. Christian colleges and universities contribute to the common good of communities by educating students on the value of all persons as created in the image of God. These schools ought to be able to fully participate in the public square while maintaining policies that are consistent with their religious beliefs.

We call on Congress to protect faith-based institutions of education from accreditor and state and local government overreach. Southern Baptists support the right of religious institutions of higher education to maintain their religious character. This overreach hinders the ability of religious institutions to stay consistent with their religious character, and in doing so, prevents them from serving students. Legislation must ensure that accreditors and other federal, state, and local actors are required to respect the religious mission of an institution of higher education.

By / Jun 24

We are living in the midst of an unprecedented sexual revolution, one that presents particular challenges to Christians and those committed to religious liberty. British theologian Theo Hobson has observed that there can be no third way for the Christian church on the issue of homosexuality. Churches will either affirm the legitimacy of same-sex relationships and behaviors or they will not. According to Hobson, the sheer speed of this revolution’s success, its ability to paint those who will not join it as morally deficient and intolerant, and its power to completely turn the moral tables threaten to shake the very foundations of the Christian church.

But the Christian church is not the only institution the sexual revolution has in its crosshairs. Christian higher education is also under tremendous pressure. The religious liberty challenge we now face places every religious educational institution in the arena of conflict where erotic liberty and religious liberty now clash. Marc D. Stern of the American Jewish Congress, for example, has aptly recognized the challenge same-sex marriage would represent in regard to American religious liberty on the campuses of religious colleges. He sees the work of religious institutions as inevitable arenas of legal conflict.

This threat, of course, poses no danger to theological liberals and their churches and educational institutions because those churches have accommodated themselves to the new morality and find themselves quite comfortable within the context of the new moral regime. But faithful Christian colleges and universities will face the immediate threat of being further marginalized in the larger culture. Some will be threatened with the denial of accreditation and labeled outlaws simply because they remain true to historic Christian conviction and biblical orthodoxy.

Many religious institutions, especially colleges and schools, are now regularly confronted by the demand to surrender to the sexual revolution with regard to nondiscrimination on the basis of sex, sexual behavior and sexual orientation pertaining to admissions, the hiring of faculty and student housing. In some jurisdictions, lawmakers are contemplating hate crime legislation that would marginalize and criminalize speech that is in conflict with the new moral consensus.

Furthermore, colleges and schools have been challenged concerning their own internal policies and student discipline when it comes to the application of convictional moral principles in the lives of students. For that matter, the courts are soon to see an avalanche of cases related to employees in these schools that challenge the rights of Christian and other religious organizations to hire and fire on the basis of religious principles and teachings.

Yet the law is not the only instrument of legal coercion. Coercion can come in regulations undertaken by voluntary associations, as these generally follow the lead set by legislators. Religious colleges and universities participating in intercollegiate athletics are likely soon to discover that groups such as the NCAA will come under pressure to exclude any institution that discriminates on sexual orientation from participation. Accrediting agencies, some of which have long struggled to accommodate Christian institutions within their existing nondiscrimination policies, will come under increased pressure to eliminate from membership any school that discriminates in any way on the basis of sexual orientation in the admission of students, the discipline of students, student housing, and the hiring of faculty. Ominously, one respected Christian college, Gordon College near Boston, Mass., has been officially notified of a review by its accrediting agency (the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education) over this very issue. Other schools are soon to receive the same kind of scrutiny.

As the sexual revolution completely pervades the society, and as the issues raised by the efforts of gay liberation and the legalization of same-sex marriage come to the fore, Christians now face an array of religious liberty challenges that were inconceivable in previous generations. Nowhere is this more evident than the challenge presented to us by the transgender revolutionaries. Recent controversies at California Baptist University and Azusa Pacific University demonstrate the vexing dimensions to this challenge.

In the case of Azusa Pacific University, a female professor and former chairman of the theology department announced her intention to become a man. She was shocked when the Christian university found her announcement incompatible with its moral code. Just a few days later, California Baptist University in Riverside made national headlines when the school discovered that a male student had appeared in the media claiming a new identity as a young transgender woman. Given California law and the government’s nondiscrimination policies, both institutions needed to play legal defense. Furthermore, both schools are accredited by regional agencies that have their own nondiscrimination policies. The transgender revolution poses a unique set of challenges related to admission, hiring and housing for schools. Of course, these challenges will only escalate as the transgender revolution escalates.  

We now face an inevitable conflict of liberties. In this context of acute and radical moral change, the conflict of liberties is excruciating, immense and eminent. In this case, the conflict of liberties means that the new moral regime, with the backing of the courts and the regulatory state, will prioritize erotic liberty over religious liberty. Erotic liberty has been elevated as a right more fundamental than religious liberty. Erotic liberty now marginalizes, subverts and neutralizes religious liberty—even on the campuses of America’s Christian colleges and schools.

The new moral revolution is seriously threatening the religious liberty of these schools and their right to be Christian. Religious schools are in the conflict whether they like it or not. If they are going to survive, they are going to have to stand. They are going to have to stand on the same authority that faithful, orthodox Christians have been standing on for the last 2,000 years. They are going to have to stand with conviction, courage and compassion as they speak truth in a world that wants them silenced. 

This article was featured in our inaugural issue of Light Magazine. Visit the ERLC store to download Light for free and discover more resources.

By / Dec 4

The following lecture was delivered on October 29, 2014, as the 2014 Herschel H. Hobbs Lecture.

In his breviary on sin, former Calvin College president and professor of systematic theology, Cornelius Plantiga, Jr., narrates a scene from a movie that introduces his treatise on the topic.  His recounting of that episode is as follows:

In the film Grand Canyon, an immigration attorney breaks out of a traffic jam and attempts to bypass it.  His route takes him along streets that seem progressively darker and more deserted.  Then the predictable Bonfire of Vanities nightmare; his expensive car stalls on one of those alarming streets whose teenage guardians favor expensive guns and sneakers.  The attorney does manage to phone for a tow truck, but before it arrives, five young street toughs surround his disabled car and threaten him with considerable bodily harm. 

Then, just in time, the tow truck shows up and its driver—an earnest, genial man—begins to hook up to the disabled car.  The toughs protest:  the truck driver is interrupting their meal.  So the driver takes the leader of the group aside and attempts a five-sentence introduction to metaphysics:  “Man,” he says, “the world ain’t supposed to work like this.  Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be.  I’m supposed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can.  And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off.  Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here.”[1]

This cinematic vignette provides the name for Plantiga’s book—Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be—and sets the stage for Plantiga’s discussion on the doctrine of sin.  The title for this book as well as this opening movie scene serve as an apt introduction and description for the issue that I believe our Lord wants us to consider today in this lecture. 

Our world finds itself perpetually grappling with the multifaceted complexities that are the result of the Fall of humanity in the Garden.  A primary expression of that horrific event in Eden is the ongoing struggle each generation has with the issue of racism and racial prejudice.  A cursory look at current media reports certainly attests to the reality and ever-present struggle of the tensions and conflicts among the people in our own country and among the nations of the world.  The human race is mired in a seemingly endless conflict of racial tension, strife, and war.  To borrow the title from Plantiga’s book, this is not the way it’s supposed to be.

Much to my chagrin, racial challenges and tensions are not limited to contexts external to our campus.  As members of the global community, the modern Christian university find itself, surprisingly yet not unexpectedly, confronted with the realities of the Fall and with the sinful consequences that ensue from that event.  The Christian university is not immune to the struggles of race and racism.  To state it plainly, we who are involved in Christian higher education find ourselves grappling with the realities of sin in general and with racism in particular today.

I have served in Christian higher education for nearly twenty years.  In my time of service, I have participated in a multitude of discussions and witnessed numerous incidents that are directly connected to or are reflective of the ongoing struggle of racism.  Listen to a sampling of examples that I personally know of that have been verbalized among students.

“Why are black people so loud?”

“Is living in the dorm the same thing as living on the reservation?”

“Can I touch your hair?  And, why do you black people always carry lotion?”

“Why do you people never look at other people in the eye when we meet on the sidewalk? Are you ashamed of being Indian?”

“I wish I were Asian, then I would never have to study.  After all, all Asians are smart.” Another form of this sentiment is:  “I wish I were Asian, then I would never have to work because all Asians have money!”

“You people have it made!  You can live on casino money.”

“You need to speak English here and stop speaking Spanish!  You aren’t south of the border anymore.”

When the individuals who made such comments are confronted about these statements, the following responses are offered as justification:

“Hey, I’m not racist.  I’m just stating the obvious.”

“Hey, I’m not the only one around here who feels this way.”

“Hey, this is a two-way thing.  Those people feel the same way about us as we feel about them.”

I could cite more examples, but I think you get the point.  These comments uttered on college campuses are representative of what I suspect are greater numbers of comments and actions.  More recently, anonymous, cowardly individuals have been enabled by social media and anonymous phone apps to make bigoted, prejudicial, racist, sinful comments, profoundly demonstrating the need for followers of Christ to take action. 

A Christian university must be committed to the ideals of the Christian faith.  Our mission (what we do) expresses our founding and ongoing commitment to be a distinctively Christian university.  Our core values (how we do what we do) assert our conviction that we conduct ourselves in accordance with the ways of Christ.  We speak of all truth as God’s truth.  We speak of the pursuit of truth as the pursuit of knowing God. 

We work to integrate our understanding of the Christian faith in all facets of the university.  We believe that the “uni” in our understanding of “university” is the Christian faith, that which ties all of the diverse components of the university together into a coherent whole.  And yet, despite our institutional commitments and initiatives that seek to embody and express these ideals, we find ourselves engaged in the midst of struggles regarding race and racism.  To quote our catch-phrase of the hour, “this is not the way it’s supposed to be.”  This is not the way our university is supposed to be.

The parables of Jesus point us to the realities of life in His Kingdom.  They remind us that we were created for a reality different than the one in which we presently find ourselves, a reality in which things would be the way they are supposed to be.  Jesus’ parables awaken our imaginations of what life in the Kingdom would be like.  His parables are “revolutionary revelations” of the purposes of God in the Kingdom of Jesus.

The human imagination is a powerful thing, an expression of being created in the image of God.  The human imagination moves us to creative expression, prompts us to exploration of truth, and pushes us from complacency to action.  Our imagination can move us to seek beauty and goodness, and our imagination can lead us to corrupted, prideful, self-indulgent thoughts and actions.  We are fallen creatures, living in a sinful world, and our internal and external sinful corruption affects our imagination.  By the grace of God and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, however, a redeemed imagination can help us to follow Jesus by conceptualizing what our life would be like if our world were “really as it ought to be.”

So, as we confront the issue of race and racial reconciliation, let us briefly consider the parable of the Good Samarian (Luke 10:25-37):   “Being a neighbor” in the Kingdom of Jesus has unlikely and unexpected expressions.  Mercy (neighbor behaviors/actions) comes from unexpected sources.  In this Kingdom, our enemy becomes our neighbor.  In the Kingdom of Jesus, an enemy (a person of a different race, different culture, different appearance) becomes my neighbor, my brother, my sister.  We were created to live in a world where our enemy is transformed into our neighbor. 

Imagine life in a world like this, in a Kingdom like this.  Imagine living in a Kingdom where the King of the Kingdom rules in perfect love and righteousness, a reality where the sinful corruption of racial prejudice and racial animosity do not exist.  Imagine if that world were presented to you now—today.  This world, the Kingdom of Jesus, is in fact a present reality.  We can begin to live in that world, in that reality—now—today. 

In our fallen world, in the kingdom of this present age, we too often see those of different nationalities, different ethnicities, different cultures, as our enemies.  These attitudes breed racist words, birth racist perspectives, and prompt racist actions.  These expressions are sinful and contrary to the way of the Jesus.  If nothing else, the parable of the Good Samaritan reveals to us that the sin of racism has no place in the Kingdom of Jesus.  In His Kingdom, Jesus transforms enemies into friends.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, in fact all of the parables of Jesus, capture our imagination about His Kingdom, an eschatological reality that many scholars describe as “already/not yet.”  On the one hand, the Kingdom of Jesus is not fully present.  His Kingdom is a reality that will one day be completely and fully consummated, but that Kingdom is not yet fully present.  In this sense, the Kingdom is “not yet” here.  On the other hand, Jesus Himself declared that His Kingdom was at hand.  In His first advent, Jesus proclaimed that His Kingdom was manifested by and through His coming.  The inauguration of His Kingdom began at His first coming and is unfolding presently within human history.  In this sense, His Kingdom is “already” present.

Although the full and final expression of His Kingdom is future, we as His followers do live presently in the actual reality of His inaugurated Kingdom.  As His followers, we are a people transformed by the power of His gospel.  We are people of redeemed words, redeemed feelings/passions, redeemed thinking, and redeemed actions.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has transformed how we live with and relate to one another. 

As members of a Christian university, we are to reflect the reality of the Kingdom of Jesus.  Our university must be a place where the ideals of Jesus are lived, taught, declared, and practiced.  As a Kingdom school, our university should be a place where the power of the gospel transforms enemies into neighbors, where those who speak, look, and act differently are transformed into brothers and sisters.

I want to propose to you today a way forward for Christian institutions and universities in matters of the gospel, the university, and racial reconciliation.  I believe a biblically-grounded, gospel-driven, Jesus-focused university has a revelatory mandate from the living God to do gospel work—to declare and take action to make a Christian university reflective of the Kingdom of God.

To help us understand our mission and mandate, we must understand our identity as Christian universities.  Our universities are the convergence of the vision and mission of hundreds of believers and churches with the distinctive mission of Christian higher education.  In a real sense, a Christian university exists as the “academic arm” of the Church. 

A Christian university exists to assist the universal church and the local churches of our state convention to equip disciples in a Great Commission, Great Commandment mission.

A Christian university exists exist to assist the Church in her mission to see that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

A Christian university exists exist to assist the Church in her gospel message and mission.

A Christian university exists to live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to declare His Lordship in gospel word and gospel deed. 

The founding mission statement of a one Christian university captures well the prevailing purpose for any Christian university:  a Christian university exists to lead students to Jesus, to teach students of Jesus, and to train students for Jesus.  We today must continually embrace that core conviction that defines our raison d'être.

Because of these commitments, we as a community of confessing believers should model the beliefs and dispositions commanded by the New Testament.  These Christ-like dispositions are true for all followers of Jesus, including those of us who work and study at a Christian university.  Although a Christian university is not a local church, we are to think, feel, act, and live as members of the Church. 

These convictions and commitments speak directly to the issue before us this morning and, I hope, provide us a path to follow and teachings to guide us as we seek gospel reconciliation within our university community.  I believe that a Christian university should model the power of God to reconcile followers of Jesus, from all nations and all peoples, in and through the gospel.

I am proposing a way forward for us on this matter.  The ideas and actions offered are nothing new or original; much of my presentation is to remind us of what we may already know.  Toward that end, I first offer a few definitions that shape my proposal, followed by a brief reflection on two biblical texts.  I will then develop some theological ideas that should shape our vision and our mission.  I will conclude with some practical steps to start us moving, followed by a final challenge.

Definitions

The first concept that I want to define is “gospel.”  In its most basic expression, the gospel can be defined as “the message of salvation to all who believe in Jesus Christ.”

In Romans 1:16, the apostle Paul defined the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  In this statement, Paul clearly declares that the gospel has implications for issues involving race and reconciliation.

John R. W. Stott defines the gospel as “the message that in and through Christ crucified, God substituted himself for us and bore our sins, dying in our place the death we deserve to die, in order that we might be restored to his favor and adopted into his family.”[2]  As J. I. Packer rightly notes, this belief “is a distinguishing mark of the world-wide evangelical fraternity; it ‘takes us to the very heart of the Christian gospel.’”[3]  This substitutionary, sacrificial understanding best embodies the overall biblical witness of the gospel and will serve as our working definition.  When I use the term “gospel” in this lecture, this is what I mean.

“Justice” is the next term to be defined.  The concept of “justice” is a faded entry on a dog-eared page of our society’s lexicon. When someone is the victim of a heinous crime, we sometimes hear, usually in emotive, unflinching terms: “I want justice.” What they often mean is retribution. When civil liberty spokespersons talk about “justice,” they tend to think in terms of Robin Hood: dismantling systemic exploitation and redistributing money and power. They likewise often intend to be the beneficiaries of this “justice.” Because the term justice is often used like this, it seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment.

Of further concern is the ongoing dissection of justice into sub-categories.  Concepts like “social justice,” “racial justice,” “economic justice,” and so on, are regularly bantered about, yet these types of uses only denude the term of any real meaning. Bifurcated justice only serves the interests of the sub-set of individuals who are offering the particular plea at that moment.  This is not justice.[4]

In Jesus’ Kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution, redistribution, or special interests.  Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that justice in the Kingdom of Jesus concerns restoring humans to God and others. In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes “making something right,” and for something to be “right,” there has to be a standard.

The ultimate standard of justice is the act of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The cross of Jesus established once and for all the righteous, just standards of God.  The cross of Christ revealed the magnitude of what justice demanded and what love provided.  The resurrection was the vindication of the just act of God and demonstrated the acceptance of the Father of the sacrifice of the Son.

The quintessential expression of the justice of God is most visibly expressed by the justification and the spiritual transformation of a sinner into a Christ-follower who now loves God and others. The Christian living the Great Commandment and Great Commission becomes a powerful force for manifesting the justice of God.  The follower of Jesus is to “hunger and thirst for righteousness [or justice].”  To get things right in our world, according to Jesus, is to love God and others and work for ways to express such love.  Only gospel justice can satisfy this hunger/thirst and express this love, thereby “making things right, the way things ought to be.”

Understood in this way, justice needs no adjectival qualifier.  Of course, justice is social.  Of course, justice confronts economic injustices.  Of course, justice addresses racial issues.  All of these areas (and many more!) have relational components and, as such, are encompassed by a robust, biblical understanding of justice.  Of particular concern for us today is the fact that gospel justice does in fact speak clearly and unequivocally to matters of race and reconciliation.  Gospel justice demands the eradication of all sin and sinfulness, and this certainly includes racism and prejudice.

The next term to be considered is racism.  Racism can be defined as discrimination against those of different ethnic background.  Racism is an expression of the sin of pride.  As such, racism is an attitude or action that verbally or physically oppresses another person or group of persons on the basis of the belief that the person or persons who are executing the acts of oppression are ethnically superior to the other person or persons being oppressed.[5]  At its core, racism and racial prejudice are sinful and contrary to the purposes of God.  Racism has no place in the Kingdom of Jesus.  Racial prejudice is an affront to justice in the kingdom of Jesus.

The final term to be defined is reconciliation.  Reconciliation is the act of bringing together two parties who previously were estranged. Specifically, reconciliation is God’s divine act of removing enmity between Himself and humanity, on the basis of Christ’s death, in which God’s holy displeasure is removed. Human beings thus can be restored to a proper relationship with God (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). The result of reconciliation is called salvation.[6]

The atonement of Jesus Christ is the power of God at work to overcome the devastating enmity and hostility created by human sinfulness.  The gospel is the power of God to reconcile us from exclusion and alienation.  Reconciliation flows from the love of God and removes the hostility between God and us. 

The divine-human act of reconciliation serves as the basis for authentic human-to-human reconciliation.  The gospel of reconciliation is the foundation of and our only hope for true reconciled relationships in all spheres of human existence.  The Kingdom of Jesus is a God-created community where reconciliation is the permeating culture.  God the Father is creating a community of the Reconciled by the power of His grace.  Racial hostilities can now be eradicated in human-to-human relationships.  Because of gospel reconciliation, authentic racial unity can now be realized.  In the Kingdom of Jesus, the gospel is the justice of God in pursuit of reconciliation (in all its expressions) overcoming and eradicating human sinfulness, including racism. 

As followers of Christ, we have been commissioned by the resurrected Lord to have a message and a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5).  In this sense, reconciliation is not only a reality of life for believers, but it is also a primary purpose for Kingdom ministry.  Gospel reconciliation is the real and meaningful removal of barriers, of hostility, of estrangement.  Gospel reconciliation is an expression of the justice of God and is the embrace of peace, relationship, and community.  Gospel reconciliation is a real thing, a way of life, for followers of Christ.  Gospel reconciliation is the heart of and a way of life for a Christian university.

Biblical Foundations

The book of Acts provides for us the account of an event we call the Jerusalem Council.  The early church convened this council in order to address issues that were at the core of gospel, including racial issues affecting fellowship and ministry.  The council would address how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could come together in true, authentic ministry and fellowship.  Strangely, I take comfort from this and other similar biblical passages that remind us that racial struggles are not new.  The church has had to wrestle with these issues from its inception.

The issues addressed were profoundly complex and systemic and, at a human level, seemingly insurmountable.  By the gracious and providential leading of God, however, the early church developed ways in which both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus could enjoy meaningful reconciliation while honoring the unique cultures and ethnicities of both groups. 

This is not to say that racial tensions were forever resolved and never again arose in the Church.  This is not to say that the Church has been perfect in its appropriation of reconciliation.  The Church consistently has had to wrestle with the notion of reconciliation and how it would play out in the lives and ministries of God’s people.  The Jerusalem Council did, however, demonstrate for us that the gospel of Jesus could create a unified people from all nations, from all peoples, and from all races. 

The second biblical passage for us to consider is Ephesians 2:11-21.  Perhaps no other book in the New Testament stresses unity in the church as much as Ephesians does.  Reconciliation and unity in Christ are the central message of this epistle.  Ephesians is supremely concerned about unity among the people of God.  The centerpiece of Paul’s argument concerning unity is found in Ephesians 2:11-21:

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

After discussion of the salvation of the individual in 2:1-10, Paul unveiled in vv. 11-21 a new aspect of the work of Christ:  the reconciliation of believers not only to God but also to one another.  Salvation is more than believers receiving forgiveness of their sins.  Salvation includes union with Christ and with one another.  Reconciliation with God brings reconciliation with His people.  You cannot have one without the other.  In fact, the biblical witness is that the reality of reconciliation with God is demonstrated by the reality of reconciliation among His people.

The implications of this passage are profound and immediately relevant to the challenge before us today:

First, in Christ separation and alienation are removed; the separated are now connected to Him and to His people.  The alienated are now adopted into His family and are made citizens in His Kingdom with His people.

Second, peace (reconciliation) is foremost personal.  Jesus Christ not only brings peace, He is Himself our peace.  True peace and reconciliation are only found in Him.

Third, the atoning work of Christ breaks down sinful divisions and abolishes hostilities.

Fourth, the Kingdom of Christ is characterized by one race of human beings.  The atonement of Christ brings the re-creation of fallen, alienated, fragmented humanity into one, peaceful, reconciled race of Kingdom people.  Through His gospel, Jesus creates a new race of people for His kingdom.

Fifth, to be joined to Christ and His people is more than just a welcoming of presence.  We are joined together in mutual contribution and participation in His Kingdom ways and mission.

The theology of Ephesians is significantly crucial for confronting racial hostility.  Christians of all races belong to Christ and are part of His church.  Divisions cannot be tolerated or allowed to continue.  Racial barriers and hostilities are a festering wound in the body of Christ.  The perversion of both active and passive racism must be confronted and removed.  Although we as the church must engage with racism by means of the gospel on a societal level, we must first address it within the body of Christ.  The point of Ephesians is not only that all Christians are equal and that hostilities have been abolished.  The point is that all Christians have been joined to God and to one another.

Countless other biblical texts and teachings speak to this issue.  The biblical metaphors for the church (such as a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a family of faith, the temple of God, the body of Christ, the fullness of God, the bride of Christ, etc.) have profound, nuanced meaning for racial reconciliation within the church.  The prophetic oracles of the Old Testament against the oppression of the vulnerable and marginalized likewise have application to this matter.  The overall biblical narrative speaks to this issue, for “in the beginning” we find the people of God (Adam and Eve) standing in unity in the Garden in the presence of God, and at the conclusion of the biblical account (in the book of Revelation), the nations are standing in unity in the New Earth, as one people, before the throne of the Lamb of God.  From beginning to end, the purposes of God on this matter are crystal clear and unequivocally undeniable. 

Theological Development

In light of these definitions and brief considerations of biblical teachings, let me offer some theological considerations.  First, authentic reconciliation, the kind we long to have and the kind we were created to have, is only found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Reconciliation is therefore Christo-centric; the reality of true reconciliation will not be, cannot be, realized apart from the resurrected Lord.  As such, authentic reconciliation cannot be humanly manufactured or legislatively dictated.  Behaviors can be restrained and guided, but only the Lord Jesus through the power of His gospel can transform a heart and bring reconciliation.[7]

Second, reconciliation is an essential component of the Kingdom culture of Jesus.  Reconciliation is a primary expression of the way of Jesus among His people.  As Paul asserts in 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21, the love of Christ compels us to embrace a ministry of reconciliation.  Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel message and ministry of the church.  A primary expression of this reconciling message and ministry is racial in expression.

Third, to be joined to Christ is to be joined to His people.  Evidence of the authenticity of our salvation is expressed in our capacity, willingness, and action to pursue with all vigor and zeal reconciliation in the family of faith.  With this in mind, we have every right to question the integrity of the claim of someone who confesses to be a Christ-follower yet denies or resists a life of reconciliation.  One who claims to love Christ and yet is racist toward others at best makes his or her claim dubious, and at worst, is simply lying about the authenticity of their faith commitment to Jesus.

Fourth, reconciliation brings not only affirmation but also participation; that is, inclusion and opportunity.  With regard to racial reconciliation, the biblical metaphors for the church reveal to us that the gospel demands the following for life in the Kingdom of Jesus: 

For the “family of faith:” anyone from any ethnic background who has received the new birth that the Holy Spirit brings has a place at the family table and a voice and influence in family affairs;

For the “temple of God:” anyone from any ethnic background who confesses Christ is an essential building-block, a “living stone,” to be placed in the structure of the temple of God next to and alongside all the other “living stones;”

For “the body of Christ:” anyone from any ethnic background who claims the lordship of Jesus, is a vital, necessary member of His body and is essential for its healthy function and enjoys direct access to the Head of the body, Jesus Himself;

For the “priesthood of all believers:” anyone from any ethnic background who has received the gift of salvation is a priest in the priesthood and is expected to embrace the priestly duties of sacrifice, service, and mediation and serve alongside all other priests;

For the “the heavenly communion:” anyone from any ethnic background who confesses Jesus is Lord is a part of the worshiping community, surrounding the throne of God, declaring with all the saints, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power, dominion, and glory forever!”

This is the power of the gospel.  This is what reconciliation is.  This is the way it’s supposed to be.

Implications for a Christian University

What are the implications of all of this for a Christian university?  As a Christian university, the community should look like, must look like, the Kingdom of Jesus.  The Kingdom is composed of diverse ethnicities, a racial mosaic.  Our universities should reflect this reality in appearance and in conduct.  This is our conviction and our confession.  We work toward this reality not because of societal expectations or political correctness.  We embrace this conviction because such is the heart of our Lord.  As followers of Jesus, His passion is our passion.  We become “reconciliation universities” because the gospel demands that we do so. 

The commitment to be a biblically-grounded, gospel-driven, Christ-focused university has significant implications for us that shape our university culture in every way.  Allow me to address a few of these.

First and foremost, on the basis of all that I have said up to this point; my conviction, the conviction of the college, the conviction of the board of trustees, and the conviction of the faculty and staff—minority students, minority faculty, and minority staff must be genuinely welcomed.  The message needs to be communicated clearly: “You are welcome here—at this university!  You belong here—at this university!  You are invited to participate in the mission here—at this university.  Your participation and opportunity is essential for us to advance the mission here—at this university!  You belong here!”

Our Christian universities were founded to be reflective of the heavenly mosaic of the nations, expressing the heart of our Lord Jesus. Whether Asian, Hispanic, or Indian—whether black or white—or whether a combination of some or all of these, we must reach out and unequivocally declare:  you are welcome here, you have opportunity here. Jesus has invited you to be here to know and to love Him, His ways, and His people.

Second, our efforts in these matters must be biblically-grounded, gospel-driven, and Christ-focused.  We must allow our Christian faith as revealed in the Bible to be what propels and shapes our convictions and efforts in these areas.  Although sensitive to and mindful of social, economic, and political issues, concerns, and challenges—we do what we do, and we believe what we believe, because our identity is found in Jesus Christ and is expressive of our citizenship in His Kingdom.  Although we are not a local church, the beliefs that dictate what we do (our mission) and how we do what we do (our core values) are biblical in foundation, theological in expression, and ecclesial in practice.

Third, our ongoing quest must have tangible, meaningful action.  We in the academy love a good conversation.  We attend professional conferences and workshops, we write books and articles, we give presentations and lectures, so that we can have a good conversation.  We can discuss and converse on any matter, on any subject, sometimes into utter, glassy-eyed oblivion.  And although this is a conversation that needs to be had (we are starting it today!), our discussions must yield action.  We must come to conclusions that move us forward in tangible ways to be a reconciliation university.

As such, all organizational facets of the Christian university must embrace this conviction and responsibility.  Those of us that serve in administration, on the staff, and on the faculty must embrace this conviction as core to our identity and mission.  Those of us that are students here must likewise understand that reconciliation will be a normative expression of our gospel convictions.  This is the way it must be!

Further, let me propose that the classical bifurcation between administration and faculty cannot and should be not manifested on this issue.  Although there is a place for a healthy distinction between these two groups, when it comes to gospel reconciliation, there is no “us and them.”  We all must be likeminded and model to one another the unity and peace we desire to see rampant in all segments of university life. 

To our students and student life staff:  student life functions must provide structures, events, and opportunities that are unique to minority students as well as inclusive of minority students.  Both are appropriate and needed.  For example:

The student government association must develop leadership opportunities and student organizations that are inclusive and encourage participation of minority students.

The student development staff must develop organizations and implement events and opportunities that are meaningfully relevant for minority students.

The student ministry department must recruit minority leaders & participants in global outreach events and initiatives.

To the faculty:  we need to learn and/or improve pedagogical techniques that account for and are sensitive to the needs of our minority students.  To illustrate this need:  a black female student recently shared with me her concern (maybe even her fear) regarding when she discovers that she is the only minority student in a class.  She told me that she cringes at the thought of being the only black student in the room, knowing that if any topics or discussions arise about race issues or civil rights, in all likelihood, she will be expected to speak authoritatively and passionately about these matters, representing the concerns and the history of all black people.  She then said to me, “I just want to run and drop the class.  I don’t want to be singled-out because of the color of my skin.  I just want to be a regular student, treated like any other student in the class.”

Those who serve on the faculty of a Christian university must intentionally take these and other like concerns to heart. Pedagogical methods must be designed and implemented to enhance and encourage learning for our minority students.  Our teaching must embody and express the reconciling work of the gospel.

I could address how reconciliations impacts other areas of the university, such as recruitment/enrollment, advancement, athletics, spiritual life, and so.  I think, however, you get the point.  We can do better, and we will do better. 

Conclusion

The challenge before us today, before this generation of Christ-followers, before our Christian universities, is to be ever diligent in this matter.  Sin does not simply disappear when one generation engages in gospel work to eliminate or alleviate its manifestation.  Rather, each generation of Christ-followers must intentionally confront the challenges and realities of racial division and racist attitudes and practices.

My own university where I currently serve—Oklahoma Baptist University—has a history of engaging racism and racial discrimination.  In one sense, our university implemented initiatives in the early days of the civil rights movement that were on the forefront of racial reconciliation in Christian higher education.  The decision to take those steps was right and necessary.  It is appropriate for us today to celebrate the efforts of those who have gone before us and confronted the racial prejudices and practices of that era.

But neither we nor any Christian university can rest upon these past actions for the ongoing quest of gospel reconciliation in the present.  What was done in the past is only as meaningful as we in the present continue to move forward in the legacy of gospel-reconciliation.  Each generation of Christ-followers must rise to the occasion and join the effort for the continued advancement and propagation of the gospel and the expression of that good news in all its manifold ways, including racial reconciliation.  For us today, the primary, historical event that sets the agenda for our unrelenting quest of gospel reconciliation is not the past actions or decisions of bygone university leaders, but rather the decision of God the Father to send God the Son to achieve atonement for sin through His death on a cross. 

Permit me a moment to speak to those for whom the gospel realities that I have described are not applicable.  These students may be at a Christian university because of the outstanding academic reputation and quality education.  These students may be at a Christian university because of athletic or other student-life opportunities.  These students may be at a Christian university because of a relationship with a young man or woman.  These students may be at a Christian university for any number of reasons.  Whatever the case may be, if these students were completely honest this morning, they would have to admit that they are not at a Christian university because of the distinctively Christian mission of the school.  For them, gospel reconciliation is neither a pressing concern nor a present reality.

First, let us assure these students that they are welcome.  We affirm their educational pursuits at our institutions.  We are glad that they have chosen to pursue their academic endeavors at a Christian university.  Let me say to these students:  we are praying for you.  We pray that you will discover and embrace the Lord Jesus and His glorious gospel. 

For those present among our university communities for whom gospel reconciliation has no meaning or purpose, let those of us who confess to follow Jesus challenge these students.  Invite them to consider the claims of Christ.  The life of love they long to have, the life of significance they desire to have, the fulfillment of their deepest passions—these can only be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  By grace through faith, these students can know God the Father through the atoning sacrifice of God the Son.

If any harbor racial resentments, animosities, or hatred toward other human beings, there is hope.  Jesus Christ bore the guilt and penalty of sin, including the sin of racism.  The Lord Jesus can pardon and forgive sin, including the sin of racism. 

To those outside the family of faith, I am a living testimony to the grace and forgiveness of God.  If someone like me can receive forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life with God, so can you.  He has done this for me, and through the gift of His gracious salvation, He can forgive you.  Through Him, you can be reconciled to God and to others, to Christian brothers and sisters of all nationalities.  This type of life is real, and you can become a member of His family—now—today.  Should you reject the call of Christ to embrace His gospel and confess His lordship, please understand—and I say this with all love and compassion—you will be the minority.  Our intention is to cultivate a gospel culture that is perpetually pursuing reconciliation with God and His people.  I invite you to consider His purposes for your life.  Be reconciled to God the Father through Jesus the Son.

To those who belong to the family of faith, we must encourage our minority students, faculty, and staff.  We must tell them and affirm to them that they are at a right place, a loving place, a university where the lordship of Christ is evident and inviting to all races of all peoples.  If you are a follower of Jesus Christ and a person of color, I invite you to join with me, our administration, faculty, staff, and student body—to engage this issue directly.  Racism is sinful, ugly, and prideful.  Left unchecked, racism will destroy our university community and each of us as individuals.  The overt and latent racism recently expressed at certain Christian universities is reflective of a small group of people who do not know Jesus as Lord or who need to repent of their sin and receive the gracious forgiveness of our Lord. 

I encourage you to pray about standing alongside me in this spiritual conflict.  I truly believe this is spiritual warfare.  I implore you, brothers and sisters, despite what a few may have expressed or what you may have experienced, do not allow the sinful evil of racism of a few to direct your decisions or influence the course of your life.  

To minority students who may have considered transferring from or dropping out of one of our Christian universities because some have sinfully manifested racism directly or indirectly toward you, I appeal to you to stay and stand with us and with our Lord.  We cannot allow evil to dictate university culture or shape university identity. If you are a follower of Jesus, we need you—godly men and godly women—of all colors from all nations and all ethnicities, to join together in the gospel ministry of reconciliation—to resist and rebuke the present evil of racial division that reflects the “spirit of this age.” I am praying that you would stand with me, with our sister institutions and their respective trustees, administration, faculty, staff, and students; with all those who know and love the Lord Jesus and who have embraced His gospel of reconciliation.

Gospel reconciliation is the will of Jesus for our universities.  Jesus is building kingdom universities, “reconciliation universities.”  Brothers and sisters, let us be reconciled to the Lord and to one another.  This is the will of God for me, for you, for us. Will you stand with me?   After all,

 

[1]Cornelius Plantiga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be:  A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 1995), 7.

[2]John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, 1986), 7.

[3]J. I. Packer, “What Did the Cross Achieve?  The Logic of Penal Substitution,” Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974): 3.

[4]Many Christian thinkers have shaped my understanding on the biblical view of justice, but the author who has significantly shaped my thought on this matter is Timothy Keller, Generous Justice:  How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2010).

[5]Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 2001), s.v. “Racial Prejudice.”

[6]R. Stanton Norman, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville:  Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), s.v. “Reconciliation.”

[7]For an excellent overview of reconciliation, the gospel, and the glory of God, see Christopher W. Morgan, “The Church and God’s Glory,” The Community of Jesus:  A Theology of the Church, eds. Kendell H. Easley & Christopher W. Morgan (Nashville:  B & H Academic, 2010), 213-35.