Where Christian Colleges Go to Die

Faith and Beginnings

Most Christian colleges were founded by people of great faith. The original faculty and administrators believed wholeheartedly in the Christian mission of the college as the decisive reason for its existence. Many colleges founded within the last hundred years began as a protest and an alternative to the dominant culture of academia. Students, faculty, and donors were attracted to these colleges because of their distinctive Christian identity. They unhesitatingly confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior, crucified and risen from the dead. And they expected every teacher and administrator to adhere to this faith and to live consistently with this confession. Students, too, were required to attend worship and to live by the community’s moral code. Beyond this basic evangelical confession, some colleges required adherence to denominational confessions or expanded evangelical confessions, and they expected community members to live according to a strict moral code. Why, then, do so many of these colleges fall away after such a faith-filled beginning?


Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:1-4).

The Logic of Survival

Christian colleges face many of the temptations individual Christians confront. Of course, just as colleges do not have hearts and tongues with which to believe and confess, they do not experience bodily lusts that can lead them astray. However, colleges have a character formed by a combination of its tradition and its current community. It is a kind of collective personality we can call a “soul.” And this soul can be tempted by certain threats and allurements to abandon its founding principles. Holding true may prove costly:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul” (Mark 8:34-36).

The instinct for survival is basic to every human being. When the Lord bragged about Job’s faithfulness, Satan replied, “Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face” (Job 2:4-5). Christian colleges, too, want to survive, and that urge can drive them to compromise their Christian mission. Colleges are expensive operations, and the roadside of history is littered with bankrupt colleges. They need tuition paying students and gifts of money and property. In its efforts to attract students and resources, it will be tempted to broaden its base of support to include people whose priorities do not align with the Christian mission. The college survives but at the cost of its soul.

Ambition and Assimilation

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Luke 6:26)

If a Christian college survives, it faces a second temptation. Colleges are driven by ambition to achieve ever greater prominence. They move beyond the narrow circle of their denominations to gain a regional reputation, and then, they set their sights on national prominence. How does a college gain national prominence? Of course, a college can become well known for its winning athletic teams or its beautiful campus. But I am speaking about its academic ranking. Many factors contribute to academic standing, but one stands out as essential: the academic accomplishments of its faculty. Colleges ambitious to climb the rankings ladder must recruit highly trained, talented faculty and provide them with time and resources to conduct research that gets noticed nationally and internationally. Accomplishing this goal requires a change of priorities. (1) Academic potential becomes the number one qualification for faculty recruitment and retention. A college with national ambitions cannot hire and tenure Christian teachers if they are mediocre researchers. (2) It requires lots of money. Nationally ranked colleges and universities must build huge endowments to support reduced teaching loads and research. Seeking grants from government agencies and industry becomes part of faculty job descriptions. (3) The research faculty members produce must be impressive to the national and international community of scholars working the same fields.


If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mark 8:38)

These academic changes will produce a dramatic transformation in college culture. The outstanding faculty will demand the freedoms and privileges enjoyed by their colleagues at “peer” and “aspirational” universities: virtually unlimited academic freedom, near unconditional tenure, and complete control over the curriculum. Having been recruited and tenured for their research prowess, they do not devote their primary loyalty to the Christian mission of the college but to their disciplines and their peers in the academy. Hence they find themselves embarrassed by remnants of the old Christian college culture that still remain, which, when measured by the ethos of the national academic culture, appear quaint and unenlightened.

The Kingdoms of the World

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt 4:8-10).

The college’s new national profile will expose it to scrutiny by the dominant academic culture. Gradually, social pressure from without and from within will force it step by step to conform to the national culture. What began as a protest and an alternative to secular academia becomes celebration and assimilation to that culture. Politics replaces faith, social activism displaces evangelism, and self-expression crowds out moral conscientiousness. The college has gained the world but lost its soul. A poor bargain indeed!

Series Ends. Although there is more to say, this post concludes the four-part series on “open letters” to higher education. I will probably feel the need to revisit the topic, since I have spent all my adult life studying or teaching in colleges and universities.

3 thoughts on “Where Christian Colleges Go to Die

  1. nokareon

    Another great and thought-provoking post, Dr. Highfield! These warnings are certainly prophetic today – not only to Christian academia, but churches and Christian organizations as well. I want to see if I can offer one incisive prod to nuance a claim you made at the end of the post:

    “What began as a protest and an alternative to secular academia becomes celebration and assimilation to that culture. Politics replaces faith, social activism displaces evangelism, and self-expression crowds out moral conscientiousness.”

    Would you consider acknowledging that the arrow of politicization runs in both directions – not just towards cultural assimilation and affirmation, but also towards vocal rejection and opposition? In the entirety of the post up to this point, the warnings (survival, ambition, embarrassment) can apply as easily to polarization of Christian higher education to one end or the other of the culture war. Yet in landing the plane, you tip your hand, so to speak – it is primarily politicization towards the political/cultural left that you have in mind. However, we also see other institutions in Christian academia erring towards the politicized right, which is equally problematic.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the hullaballoo concerning Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy Dean right now. This isn’t the channel to wade into the particulars of that case, but it goes a good way to press my point here – the city-on-a-hill vision of a Christian academia that poses a winsome alternative to the mudslinging politics of worldly culture can be just as easily compromised in a rightist direction as a leftist. How can Christian education stand as a beckoning alternative to the machinations of the political machine if it itself enters into the mud-ring as a contestant?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Got to prepare for class…but I agree that the knife cuts both directions. I have been in environments where the temptations were to the right, to sectarian dogmatism, and where academic freedom is an alien concept…but now i live where there is no middle ground. More later.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Good evening Ron.
    The language or etymology of the word “college” (as in university) is an interesting one. I can find as early as 12-13th century usage (Fr.) where it means ” gatherings of like-minded individuals for institutional teaching and learning, or colleagues in a club or a guild with a common purpose, and even, ecumenical groups of clergy sharing policy”. But one phrase which is common to all such definitions is ” acting under an endowment, or having been permanently (securely) endowed”.
    Now it wasn’t the early disciples’ or apostles’ lot that they had colleges, churches or much anything described as even a “House of God, OT”; they met in the power of the spirit, for the love of God. When the church at Jerusalem was established, and as with Jesus’ missions, there was considerable sponsorship, courtesy of Peter, Paul, John and countless others’ free giving.
    And that’s my point. Even when the term ‘college’ was first used, their sponsors and donors completely understood the need for impartiality, generous donations or endowments. They were not to be bought. The ‘take no food, no staff and coat’ idea coming straight from Jesus. It’s Old Testament truth that God is impossible to purchase, and more than that, it is irrational to think you can put Him where you want. To do so dilutes the ‘soul’, it infects, contaminates and pollutes all of the institutional goals at the people level, and then at the corporate. In one sense at least (spiritual), as we believe Jesus Christ to be the head of the body of the Church, firmly reinstating Him as the head of any Christian college would be a good restart. So that it may be prophetic that God will not be instituted? And as you’ve quoted Ron “..college… foundation should be pervaded by the spirit of enlightened Christianity”. Both in the little spirit and the big Spirit sense i feel.
    However, art and literature, science and biology, history and politics, and world theologies (including religions) remain just topics. They are types, and worthy subjects for higher education and study. I cannot confuse them with my own Christian faith. Studying any or all of these topics at college remains only study. Religion with a capital “R” should not be, will not be controlled by politics (governance) nor pitted against pure academic study. Religion transcends.
    There is a difference between pure and applied learning if you will, some establishments have downgraded their teaching to historical theology, whereas others have maintained practical hands-on applied religious study. If any institution choses, and is able to obtain by God’s will the holiest, charismatic teachers (for they will be judged the most harshly) AND also, operate in pure Christian worship then that is a great blessing; and indeed it resembles a church if one may say. Hard to do when you look at what we’ve said…
    Although, in this day and age both churches and colleges operate, to some great extent, within the accurate bounds of your detailed analyses Ron. There are thousands of Islamic, Buddhist, Sikh and other universities the world over whose governments count and revere them high above politics, and whose academic discoveries have truly benefited mankind (for thousands of years).
    Finally. The nature of humanity towards the mystical, the pagan, the heretical, the magical and the gnostic has not gone away, it is alive and thriving in all of those things it fails to comprehend; including some might say ‘parts’ of academia. Perhaps sadly, this lacking still includes God the Father, as Jesus warns us, and as St Paul was amused by the mini-tabernacle in Rome ” to the unknown God.”
    “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force”.
    ” Hast thou faith? Then have it before God!”
    “For by grace you are saved through faith. And not by your own works, lest any one should boast: it is the gift of God.”

    Liked by 1 person


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