You looked at the college website. You glanced at a brochure. But let’s be honest: you’re busy making money for tuition; you’re not getting paid to research Christian colleges and universities.
That’s understandable, but problematic, since it’s fair to ask: How Christian is your kid’s Christian college?
Parents make an expensive choice to send their child to a Christian college. One of the common reasons motivating this decision is the school’s faculty and their explicitly Christian beliefs. But because students often readily embrace what their professors teach them, it’s wise to have a notion of what is, in fact, being taught at this “Christian” school and by its “Christian” professors.
You can’t rest on an institution’s pedigree. Take one recent example: The Mennonite Church USA affirms that “God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) calls itself “an institution of Mennonite Church USA” that is “rooted in the Christian tradition and the Mennonite Anabaptist perspective.” Despite this, EMU recently came under national attention in Christian circles for changing its policy to include employees in same-sex marriages, a change that resulted in its voluntary departure from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Parents of EMU students may embrace such changes or deplore them. I’m not thinking about them. I’m thinking about the ones who are uninformed.
So if you’re paying for a Christian education, you should consider what kind of Christian education it is. You can’t just hope for the best.
Know the School’s Theology—and Your Own
First and foremost, know your own theological positions, as well their biblical foundations. You will find it impossible to discern how Christian your kid’s college is if you’re unclear about your own faith.
Second, be honest about how broad you are theologically. I don’t want to make parents unduly suspicious of Christian colleges, nor do I want to encourage partisan narrow-mindedness. But it’s good to think about how comfortable you’d be with your daughter deciding she doesn’t want to be a Reformed Baptist anymore but wants to be an evangelical Presbyterian instead—or a Roman Catholic. If the college is narrower than you are, you can explain how you’re broadminded about certain things the college holds dear. If the institution is broader than you are, you can alert your son or daughter to the areas where that’s the case.
Third, read the institution’s formal statement of faith. You won’t know whether it’s broader or narrower than you without exploring its professed beliefs. Colleges that seek to be explicit about their beliefs have every freedom to do so. Institutions that choose not to be explicit, then, often do so for a reason.
Assume a Broad Intepretation
If you don’t read anything else, read this: Parents should assume the broadest interpretation of Christian words. So, for example, Eastern University says:
We believe that the Bible, composed of Old and New Testaments, is inspired by God and serves as the rule of faith and practice, being the authoritative witness to the truth of God embodied in Jesus Christ.
Notice what’s there: The Bible testifies to God’s truth in Jesus. That sounds straightforward, even appealing. But it’s also a statement many non-Christians accept.
By way of contrast, consider how The King’s College in New York City puts it:
The sole basis of our beliefs is the Bible, God’s infallible written Word, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. We believe that it was uniquely, verbally and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that it was written without error (inerrant) in the original manuscripts. It is the supreme and final authority in all matters on which it speaks.
The statement adopted by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) stands between these two poles: “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” Working backward, the NAE uses words like only and infallible. King’s College talks about Scripture being the sole basis for beliefs and being written without error. Eastern University does not, and its omissions are non-accidental and telling. This means that you can deny Scripture is the only infallible, authoritative Word of God and still teach there.
Again, parents may embrace such openness, or they may deplore it. The point is that they need to be informed.
Ask Hard Questions
Finally, it’s vital to ask hard questions. Be forewarned: Questions the average parent thinks will be hard or awkward won’t be. You may feel awkward asking about evolution or sexuality, for example, but administrators will anticipate them.
There’s another set of hard questions, though, and these are ones parents should press. Here are four:
“Could you explain how someone gets hired?” Again, what’s said is important, but so is what’s left unsaid. It’s commendable if a college focuses on professional achievement or teaching excellence. In fact, it ought to be a requirement. But if a Christian college makes no mention of a professor’s sincere Christian convictions and explicit beliefs, that’s a problem.
“Could you explain how someone gets fired?” If a student hears a professor teaching something contrary to the university’s statement of faith, what’s the policy to handle such cases? If an administrator bristles at the notion of ever firing a teacher for certain beliefs, or if an administrator candidly discusses the dismissal of an unnamed professor for teaching against the institution’s beliefs, then you have a better indication of what classrooms are like than by simply reading the statement of faith.
“What books do students read when they participate in campus ministry?” Asking what books the college promotes internally illustrates what they think is important. Is social justice the campus chaplain or minister’s raison d’être, or is the focus on small group Bible studies?
“How do you determine who speaks in chapel or who lectures on campus?” In the course of your children’s college careers, you should want them to be exposed to great ideas, and even a few bad ones. So there should be a variety of answers to this question. If the answer centers on the school’s tight control over every speaker and lecturer, that should raise concerns about the school’s standard of academics.
Above all, parent, remember you are the one paying for the Christian college education. Don’t be afraid to ensure that’s actually what you’re getting.
James Bruce is an associate professor of philosophy at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. He is the author, most recently, of Rights in the Law. You can follow him on Twitter.