Colleges ("Christian" or Otherwise) and the Church

by Dudley Ross Spears

August 24, 2000

     "Church colleges have been the hot bed of innovations, and have led all churches from their original ground without exception." So wrote the late J.D. Tant in a letter to O. A. Carr, as published in the Firm Foundation, March 1, 1910. Brother Tant's critique of the influence of so-called "Church colleges" was his own studied assessment. How correct was he?

     Congregations of Christ through the years have had a most difficult task of remaining free from both the financial and moral support as well as the influence of colleges that are built and maintained by members of the church. With the most noble of intentions, some members of the church put enormous energy and money into the building and maintaining of privately endowed colleges where the Bible can be taught by what they consider to be sound teachers. The motive -- It is good for our youth, and in turn, good for the church to have such secondary educational institutions. But at what price?

     Robert F. Turner spoke at the Florida College Lectures in 1962 on the topic, "The Historical Development of Educational Institutions." State and privately endowed secular schools were not the primary focus of his speech. He spoke of colleges and other schools which have either a direct or indirect connection with the church of our Lord. Turner said:

     "And possibly the most important of all church-school ties, although receiving far less attention than others, is this matter of 'indoctrination.' The early schools in this country were designated 'secular', and brethren placed a limitation upon the extent to which doctrines could be taught there. They abhorred the very idea of 'Theological' schools. Later schools taught distinctive doctrines, but held they were private business, teaching as a farmer might teach hired hands. Then schools began to adopt the name 'Christian' and boast of their soundness in the faith; still contending they would not do the work of the a church. Is it necessary to comment upon church-school ties of today? One college President recently contended we had gone out on the plains of Ono and compromised with Daniel Sommer when we say the schools are secular, and that churches 'as such' can not support them. Are not such schools 'our' Theological institutions?" (Florida College Lectures, 1962, page 22).

     That which brother Tant called "Church colleges" though beginning as a "private" and "secular" enterprises, evolved quite naturally. Originally financed only by tuition, private donations, and business enterprises owned by the school, some of these institutions looked to the lucrative treasuries of local churches. I well remember hearing the late G. C. Brewer saying, "these colleges help the church; I see no reason why those churches thus helped cannot help the colleges." At the same time it was men like Brewer who, in order to promote putting such schools into the budget of local churches, made the analogy, "We support Orphan Homes from the church treasury to do benevolence; on the same principle we can support Bible Colleges from the church treasury to do the work of edification." And then there was always added the common question, "If not, why not."

     The "why not" was probably the spark that ignited a furious controversy that has lasted nearly a half century among churches of Christ. The introduction of the Orphan Home issue fueled the fire with strong emotionalism. Who wants to see a little starving waif go without food, clothing and shelter? As the focus shifted from church supported colleges to church supported Orphanages, many brethren also shifted their concept of the place of colleges. They began to view the college, not as a "Church college" but as an "adjunct to the home." But still, there was that underlying view of it as a school that teaches the Bible.

     We will have our colleges, but we will not allow congregations of Christ to financially subsidize them from the common treasury of the church. They must be "adjuncts of the home, not the church." That concept was popularized by great men such as Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Jack Meyer and others. Is that a legitimate distinction? If so, it has not relieved the problem of the influence "Christian" or "Bible" colleges have had on churches. Brother Tant's fears and warnings were, and are, legitimate. From the inception of Christians building and operating schools, gradual changes have produced something so close to what brother Tant called a Church college, the distinction is barely noticeable.

     No doubt schools owned and operated by Christians do much good. We would rather have our children educated in an atmosphere where there are faithful Christians who teach them, where they can associate with Christians who supervise them, and where they can forge friendships and relations with other young faithful Christians. We make jokes about sending our daughters to a certain school to get an "Mrs. degree." Friends, this comes pretty close to being the bedraggled old saw, "The end justifies the means" philosophy. It may not be exactly that, but it borders on it.

     It would be ideal if secular schools operated by and for Christians (mainly) could leave the church of Christ completely alone. The early aversion to such enterprises becoming our "Theological Seminaries," may be intact in word, but not in fact. The concept that "our" colleges are not "our" Theological Seminaries," is becoming a sham. As a matter of practice, some elderships look to "our" colleges to train "our" preachers. And that does have an influence on churches of Christ.

     In a description of the influence on the church exerted by Bethany College, (established by Alexander Campbell) James DeForest Murch wrote, "Soon a steady stream of well-equipped ministers of the gospel was flowing out to give leadership to the churches from coast to coast. These men, reflected a methodology in preaching that was peculiar to Bethany." James DeForest Murch, "Christians Only," page 146. {editor's note: Learn more about "Bethany College" from Maurice Barnett's article}

     Was Tant merely an alarmist? Was his view justified? Have schools that are associated in any sense with the church become the "hot bed of innovations"? Are "our" colleges about to lead "churches from their original ground without exception"? History will be the only judge.

     While recognizing the good that many have received from colleges operated by Christians, it is foolish to ignore a warning such as Tant's. As far back in history as the ancient School at Alexandria, religious/secular institutions of learning have led the church astray.

     In his development of the history of theology, John Lawrence Von Mosheim wrote,

     "To the common people, the principal truths of Christianity were explained in their purity and simplicity, and all subtitles were avoided; nor were weak and tender minds overloaded with a multitude of precepts. But in their schools, and in their books, the doctors who cultivated literature and philosophy and especially those of Egypt, deemed it elegant and exquisite, to subject divine wisdom to the scrutiny of reason, or rather to bring under the precepts of their philosophy, and to examine metaphysically, the nature of the doctrines taught by Christ." (Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern, Volume 1, page 177).

     In the past several generations we have seen the adverse influence of institutionalism flow from schools such as Freed Hardeman, David Lipscomb, George Pepperdine, Abilene Christian, and Harding. I speak from experience, having attended David Lipscomb and having been graduated from Harding University. Doctrinal positions are part of the warp and woof of schools brethren build, support and operate. Are we seeing this same sort of adverse influence regarding doctrinal issues coming from Florida College? What we see in schools that have fostered and spread institutional concepts of Christianity cannot be ignored in what comes from Florida College.

     Is there a danger in the influence that comes from Florida College, her staff and faculty, as well as those she graduates with a special emphasis on Bible teaching? Please read the material presented in the July and August, 2000 issues of this publication relative to the apparent looseness regarding creation. Ask students who have been graduated from that institution lately if they know of faculty members who believe the doctrine known generally as the "day-age" concept of creation. Consider the distribution of materials that teach and defend the "day-age" or "gap" theories of creation. Has any of it come from the campus of Florida College? Is it really true to say, "no one at Florida College believes the day-age or gap theory of creation?

     Most of the colleges that have been either directly or indirectly associated with churches of Christ are known for their particular doctrinal and religious stance. Faculty and staff of "Church" colleges are hired with considerable (if not complete) consideration given to the doctrinal stance of each prospective teacher. Brother Ferrell Jenkins, head of the Bible department at Florida College spoke the following in a lecture at that institution.

     "Individual Christians who believe in that for which the school stands should provide the financial and moral undergirding necessary." (F.C. Lectures, 1976).

     How does a school take a stand deserving the financial and moral undergirding of that institution? Should we ask a college, such as Florida College, to publish their stand on all the issues confronting us? But how does such a college establish such a stand? Obviously, the governing board of the institution, through the president and others, hire those whose doctrinal and religious views reflect a certain stand on various religious issues. There may be nothing detrimental about a college taking a stand, but when that spills out among churches of Christ, who will affirm brother Tant's words were foolish and in vain?

     "Let the church be the church; let the college be the college," This has been repeatedly offered through our history. It proves to have all been said in vain. Colleges cannot let the church be the church. History seems to tell us that is impossible. Churches are going to be influenced by colleges. Colleges brethren have undergirded financially and morally are not often influenced by churches. I wait to see if the objections to Florida College, that have recently been offered, might prove this wrong. It may be that Florida College, her board, faculty, staff, students and alumni will realize the danger others are seeing.

     It is doubtful that such a school can ever fully recoil from being (de facto) what brother Tant dubbed a "Church" college. I believe brother Tant was justified in his fears of the way Church colleges germinate innovations and lead churches astray. It cannot be denied that colleges have been the hot bed of innovations.

by Dudley Ross Spears

Back to the Top | Back Home