The Church and Higher Education: Conflict or Complement, Part 2

The following is part one of a transcribed speech Dr. Davey delivered at the annual Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) Conference in November of 2009. It will appear at SI in three parts. Read Part 1.

The second word that I would bring to your attention is the word “autonomy.”

In the first century church in Rome there was a tremendous conflict brewing. The Jewish converts had established, built and led the early church. But in AD 49, the Roman Emperor, Claudius, deported all the Jews. Gentiles effectively took the reins and led the church for the next 5 years. Then, when Claudius died, the Jews returned to the church in Rome which was now controlled by the Gentiles.

The question became painfully apparent: “Who owns this place?”

It is not a coincidence that Paul would spill a lot of ink discussing the issues of Gentile and Jewish distinctives, while at the same time teaching them the truths of Christian fellowship. The questions are still asked today. Who owns your local church? Who owns your school? Who calls the shots? What are the lines of authority?

I believe no single issue has eroded the relationship between churches and schools more than this issue of autonomy. Respecting one another’s distinctive roles, structures, institutional preferences, codes of conduct—yet pursuing Christian fellowship around a confession of biblical faith—will be a huge step in the right direction.

Let me speak in practical terms here. Pastors and church leaders need to allow the faculty and administration of schools to operate without your advice unless they ask for it. The school is not a church. Allow it to choose institutional preferences and purposes defined by its own leadership and agenda.

On the other hand, presidents and faculty—let the churches in your region and beyond operate without your advice, unless they ask for it. And when your students graduate, let them graduate! Allow them to serve unencumbered in their ministries world-wide. Yes, encourage life-long relationships, but not life-long loyalty or accountability to the agenda and perspective of their alma mater.

Over the years I have watched schools in several circles act as bishops over virtual parishes they’ve created with their graduates and their constituencies. The results in these ministries are predictable:

  • uniformity replaces unity
  • church leadership is stunted as the school demands an “apostolic” authority
  • ministry creativity is stifled—everyone acts and serves in the same way

Let them graduate and go. Let them wrestle with the issues they face in their church and the unique ministry direction and methods they adopt with their own deacons and elders. The truth is they will address issues never conceived possible while training for ministry. My pastoral theology students now write position papers on subjects like animal rights and cloning—issues I had never heard of when I began pastoring.

I was involved yesterday in two different email interchanges with pastoral staff members. One issue was how to respond to a request for signed affidavits related to divorce proceedings. Then I got a couple of emails asking how to respond to lesbian and homosexual couples (two different couples—a pair of women and a pair of men). They began attending about the same time and have begun bringing their adopted children to Sunday school. Emails are flying. Do we let the children attend? What if they have a birthday party and invite the other children to their home? Do we say anything to the other parents? Do we even let them return? Of course they can’t join, but can they attend Sunday school?

This stuff never came up in seminary.

In case you’re wondering, the short answer was, let them attend. How else do you reach the point where, like Paul to the Corinthians, you say, “but such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11).

Our children’s pastor said that one of these little adopted boys was walking out of Sunday school with his two dads and he looked up at one of them and said, “They talked about God in there. I wanna come back.” We deliver the truth to a world of sinners who attend at will—and we become communicators of the gospel which brings sinners to repentance and dead people to life.

Now we would hope that the majority of your congregation is genuinely redeemed rather than unregenerate—you’ll find that out at the annual business meeting!

Churches can be messy. Churches are different than schools. Churches have to deal with people who don’t fill out applications to attend. And they can attend for free. You can’t give volunteers demerits; you can’t require shoes or a shirt with a collar when they show up for the second service. At least I don’t think you can.

The church has unique challenges, and institutional leadership that appreciates and encourages church leaders will go a long way to bridging the chasm of conflict. But it works both ways. The church needs to remember that it is not a college or seminary.

Pastors who try to intimidate and coerce an institution to adopt their preferences, their parameters, their polity—certainly outside of any doctrinal issue—should be reminded that there is institutional autonomy. The school is accountable to a separate board, budget and preferences. It, too, faces unique challenges, unknown to most pastors.

So, in the best of worlds, church leaders can provide a gracious model for ministry students—a place for students to serve and intern—while the educational institution can provide a place for leadership training and assistance and resources—and don’t forget a first-rate library.

Frankly, the world is watching, both inside the Christian community and outside. A generation of future pastors and educators and missionaries and professionals are watching both sides of the chasm. They are shaping their perspective by what they hear. They are taking cues from our reactions and our words. They are listening in chapel and they are reading our blogs. They are watching us deal with the temptation to move from spiritually influencing one another to selfishly dominating and controlling one another. And we are reproducing ourselves.

Two of the most famous Christians in the Victorian era in England were Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker. Spurgeon of course preached to 10,000 every Sunday morning. Parker’s congregation was second in size (there in London) to Spurgeon’s. Early in their ministries, they fellowshipped often and even exchanged pulpits. Parker prayed that God would fill Spurgeon’s tabernacle and he would simply preach to the overflow. Both men pastored churches numbering in the thousands. But unfortunately, they had a disagreement. From what I’ve read, it seems that Spurgeon started it. He accused Joseph Parker of being an unspiritual pastor because he often attended the theater where plays and operas were performed. Parker fired back, criticizing the fact that Spurgeon was a poor example because he smoked cigars, both in private and in public. Both considered one another to be misled and misleading in their example.

Their words became sharp. Their disagreement was such news that reports of it were carried in the London newspapers. Two great men of the faith, known throughout London, broke fellowship with one another over cigars and operas, and their friendship would never be the same.

I’m not recommending cigars or opera—they belong in the category of Romans 14 where Paul would remind the Gentiles and Jews that they would one day personally stand before their highest authority—at the judgment seat of God and give an account (Rom. 14:12).

I find it fascinating that, in the context of Romans 14—issues of petty disagreements—Paul says, “Don’t forget about the coming judgment seat of God. That’s the final word of accountability.” In the meantime, how do you then operate with grace—somewhere between synergy and autonomy? How do you work together (assuming a similar confession of faith)? How do you synergistically complement one another so that the combined efforts of two distinctive bodies (church and school) can create a greater effect by working together than they ever could alone?

How do leaders pursue synergy while at the same time respecting autonomy?


Stephen Davey is the senior pastor at Colonial Baptist Church and President of Shepherds Theological Seminary, as well as principal Bible teacher on the “Wisdom for the Heart” broadcast. After earning a Master of Divinity degree from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Sacred Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, Stephen and his wife, Marsha, moved from Dallas to Cary, NC and started Colonial Baptist Church. Colonial is now a thriving church with three Sunday morning services and more than 2500 members. In 2003, Stephen and the elders of Colonial founded Shepherds Theological Seminary.
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There are 3 Comments

Joel Tetreau's picture

Great part 2. My God grant both churches and institutions the grace to respond to each other the way Stephen has outlined this. Straight Ahead!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Steve Newman's picture

While I agree that there should be leeway for Christian higher ed to operate, I have seen way too many times when such institutions were not accountable for what they were doing doctrinally and in practice. They did not produce the product they were intended and chartered to build. As a parent with a number of children entering the teen years, I am looking to see what these schools produce before I make recommendations for my kids.
I do believe that the local church is "pillar and ground of the truth" and carries an authority that a Christian higher ed institution does not carry, no matter how well run.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Quote:
I believe no single issue has eroded the relationship between churches and schools more than this issue of autonomy. Respecting one another’s distinctive roles, structures, institutional preferences, codes of conduct—yet pursuing Christian fellowship around a confession of biblical faith—will be a huge step in the right direction.

Let me speak in practical terms here. Pastors and church leaders need to allow the faculty and administration of schools to operate without your advice unless they ask for it. The school is not a church. Allow it to choose institutional preferences and purposes defined by its own leadership and agenda.

On the other hand, presidents and faculty—let the churches in your region and beyond operate without your advice, unless they ask for it. And when your students graduate, let them graduate! Allow them to serve unencumbered in their ministries world-wide. Yes, encourage life-long relationships, but not life-long loyalty or accountability to the agenda and perspective of their alma mater.


Sounds wonderful, but somehow I doubt that people will ever be able to get their fingers out of other people's pies. Everyone claims to have a necessary purpose and reason for the requirements of their church or school, and so it follows that it should be necessary for everyone else on the planet. It would be so nice if schools and churches could restrict their regulations/policies to matters of doctrine and conduct clearly stated Scripturally or that have direct impact on their operations. This attitude of making Romans 14 issues into 'deal-breakers' affects more than just the leadership of churches and educational institutions, but the relationships in families and the fellowship of the brethren, because the behavior that the leadership models, the followship will also adopt into practice- and by then it has usually managed to mutate.

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