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Get on the Right Side of History or Die: An Open Challenge to Christian Higher Education

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
December 9, 2019

Over and over again, the secular age of the 21st century presents Christians with a deadly logic: keep up or die. This requires the refashioning and remaking of Christian doctrine, theology, and convictions all in the name of cultural relevance—either get on the right side of history or you will be history.

These kinds of arguments especially arise over issues of gender and sexuality. Just last week, this threat emerged in the form of an article at Religion News Service by David P. Gushee. The headline of the article read, “Christian Higher Ed Can’t Win the LGBTQ Debate Unless it Transforms.”

Headlines can often tell us quite a bit about the author and his or her argument, and this headline is no different. Apparently, the headline indicates that there is a LGBTQ debate taking place within Christian institutions of higher learning and those institutions are losing the battle. The only hope for victory, according to Gushee, is to undergo theological transformation—or, to put it another way, theological surrender.

Gushee clarifies his headline, writing, “Evangelical colleges, universities, and seminaries have erupted in recent days with LGBTQ related drama.” He goes on to describe three different institutions and says, “In my speaking rounds at Christian schools across the country, I find some version of the same problem pretty much everywhere I go. The school may not have reached a crisis point yet. It may not have made national headlines, but teachers and administrators everywhere tremble in the knowledge that an eruption over its LGBTQ policy may be only a day away.”

The headline reveals the argument and the theme continues throughout the article. Christian higher education, evangelical colleges, confessional universities, and seminaries have no choice in this secular age, according to Gushee. They must depart from the historic Christian understanding of sexuality and gender and accept the new definitions, morality, and agenda of the LGBTQ revolution. Without this capitulation, Christians will lose their public voice and cultural relevance—they will be relegated to the periphery of cultural importance.

Gushee writes, “It’s a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. The irresistible force is generational change. LGBTQ Christians who go to Christian colleges and seminaries today are unwilling to accept some straight guy declaring to them that they can’t be both Christian and gay. They won’t tolerate second-class status on campus and they’re not okay with being permanently closeted.”

Further:  “Increasingly, Christian students, gay and straight, have spent time outside of deeply conservative Christian subcultures. They arrive on campus having been exposed to a message of tolerance, inclusion, and full acceptance of LGBTQ students by school authorities. When Christian college authorities offer a different message, it is not necessarily heard as the voice of God. It might just be someone’s old opinion.” That “old opinion,” according to Gushee, is historical biblical Christianity.

Then, Gushee offers another insightful statement: “LGBTQ equality is also a core value for the entire higher education establishment outside of traditionalist religious schools, which may be reflected in the values of many faculty members who end up in Christian colleges and who chafe semipublicly against rules they don’t necessarily accept. LGBTQ equality has become part of an unquestioned progressive agenda, along with environmentalism and racial equality.”

To summarize Gushee’s point, there is an irresistible force, which represents the larger culture. The trajectory of the culture is very clear, and it will eventually work its way through the entire society—Christian colleges and seminaries included.  The higher education establishment also functions as an irresistible force and the younger generation of students who come to these Christian colleges operate off an entirely divergent moral worldview than traditional Christianity.

As for the immovable objects, these are the administrators, trustees, and faculty members at Christian colleges and universities who refuse to join the LGBTQ revolution. Or, at least some of them.

“Yet it is those traditionalist understandings of sexuality still held in portions of the power structure of many evangelical Christian schools that are the immovable object,” Gushee continues. “Sometimes the center of resistance to change is found in the faculty, but most often, it is trustees, donors, and certain alumni. Where colleges and seminaries are still linked to traditionalist denominations and churches, these institutional often hold considerable sway.”

Here we confront an amazingly honest and straightforward argument. Dr. Gushee writes from his own experience teaching at multiple Christian institutions, and at least two of those schools held to a very clear Christian understanding of marriage, sexuality, and gender.

Gushee implies here what he has made explicit elsewhere—his own conversion, so to speak, from holding the traditional Christian morality towards acceptance of the LGBTQ revolution. His story is now one of the facts of the modern American Christian world. Gushee determined that he would be, as the argument goes, on the right side of history.

Let’s be clear: Dr. Gushee is not wrong about the larger culture and its trajectory, nor is he wrong in depicting the culture as an irresistible force. All the mechanisms of social control and cultural change are doing exactly what he says they are doing. Perceptively, he states candidly that many of the people who teach in some Christian colleges and universities have mentally and attitudinally, if not yet theologically, already bought into the new world order.

Furthermore, the article also rightly captures the makeup of the new waves of students who populate the college campus year after year. Many of those students no longer claim an identity that lines up with historic Christianity or they simply no longer identify as Christian at all.

All that to say that at this point, Gushee offers a culturally persuasive case for the necessary remaking of Christianity. The culture has departed from historic Christian teachings on sexuality, students no longer hold to these historic commitments, and unless Christian colleges and universities update their theology to the modern age, they will perish under the weight of cultural irrelevance.

For biblically committed Christians, however, this is not the most important issue. We have lost cultural traction before. In its early centuries, the Christian church appeared to be on the wrong side of history. The call is now to remake Christianity, starting with a rejection of clear biblical teachings on sexuality, gender, and marriage. The fundamental truth claims of the Christian faith are, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously stated, unchanged and unchanging. To that we can only add unchangeable. Anything that is remade and called Christianity isn’t actually Christianity. It is a new religion, claiming a Christian identity.

This kind of project has existed for nearly 200 years. Liberal Protestantism surfaced as a theological agenda of revision and rescue. Indeed, the intellectual classes of the late 19th century and early 20th century viewed Christianity as hopelessly out of date and fanciful. The demand was simple. Essentially, the theological revisionists promised to rescue Christianity from itself and particularly from its embarrassing doctrines. The project was to remake Christian theology into an intellectually respectable academic discipline. That project is now picked up by the so called “evangelical left,” which attempts to take the arguments of the modernists and liberals of the 20th century and bring them up to date with the new social media energy of the 21st century.

As Dr. Gushee’s article continues, he discusses how the education establishment influences many of the faculty members who teach in these evangelical colleges and schools. He writes, “Many faculty members who end up in Christian colleges chafe semipublicly against rules they don’t necessarily accept.”

This is a direct challenge to the very idea of a genuinely Christian education. Gushee presents a pattern of professors who just happen to end up in Christian colleges and who do not hold to the stated doctrinal commitments of the Christian college or university. This amounts to the failure of administrators to hire responsibly—to hire only professors who believe and teach and cherish the truths espoused by the institution.

Everything eventually comes down to the authority of Scripture. A firm and honest confidence in historic Christian beliefs can come only from a prior commitment to the Bible as the Word of God. And that commitment to the authority of Scripture makes sense only if you are committed to historic Christian orthodox theology—no faculty member should ever just “end up” teaching on any Christian campus.

That means that these faculty members never held with conviction the theological assertions of a Christian college or university—they merely settled for the job. This represents the work of sloppy and irresponsible evangelical academic administrators who hire people on the basis of their resumes and what might be very impressive academic qualifications rather than on their theological convictions. If any evangelical institution has a faculty made up of people who just merely ended up teaching there, you can certainly count on that institution to end up departing from authentic Christianity.

Gushee writes, “Caught between the force and the object are the poor school administrators, Christian college presidents, and provosts who are almost universally conflict averse, often very poorly equipped to deal with the theological, biblical, ethical issues at stake. All they really want to do is keep everyone happy.”

Good luck with that kind of agenda. It is impossible to keep the “irresistible force” and the “immovable object” simultaneously happy (or simultaneously fooled, for long).

How do these institutions, as Gushee writes, get to the point where presidents and provost are not merely conflict averse, but poorly equipped to deal with the theological and biblical issues at stake? The answer comes down to the trustees.

Trustees and search committees who elect biblically and theologically inept administrators have basically decided on the suicide of their own institution. Trustees end up in this predicament much the same way theologically weak applicants end up on the faculty—trustees look for the wrong qualifications. They are impressed primarily with fundraising. That is not irrelevant, but it can never be a first importance for a Christian institution.

Gushee writes: “Navigating their hard paths, administrators tend to offer very, very gradual change in the direction of student safety and a measure of inclusion. Permitting a campus support group for LGBTQ students is a common first step, as is communicating to students that the school is a safe place to wrestle with their sexuality. Next, a school may hire sympathetic student life staff. A bit more difficult is altering campus behavior codes to reduce the comparative stigma of straight versus gay sex. The school may even host campus events or classes to deal honestly with the contemporary LGBTQ conversation.”

Gushee describes the temptation of many evangelical schools seduced by the promise of peace with the LGBTQ revolution. It all begins with small, seemingly harmless steps, like forming a LGBTQ student support group. Here’s the problem: once you do that, you already bought into the identity and moral superstructure of the LGBTQ movement. You just invited a group of your own students to oppose the most deeply held convictions that are supposed to establish the identity and character of the school in the first place.

But, as Gushee understands, that won’t be sufficient. Once you knock over the first domino, there’s no turning back.

Indeed, Gushee writes, “This is all a start, but from the perspective of those committed to inclusion, it is not nearly enough. LGBTQ students eventually demand more than safety, dialogue, and a friendly campus life staff. They want their existence and selfhood de-stigmatized. They want to be fully accepted for who they are. Ultimately, most want Christian colleges and seminaries to abandon traditionalist Christian teaching that harms them deeply.”

Once an institution opens the door to the sexual revolution, the demands will never cease. It will never be enough until you remake Christianity into a completely new, culturally acceptable religion.

Understand clearly that Christian morality as revealed in Scripture remains inextricably tied to the entire structure of the Christian gospel. You cannot undo historic biblical Christian morality without undoing historic biblical Christianity. Period.

Gushee concludes his article by giving an exhortation to those activist students. He says, “Here’s your job: these administrators won’t move without more pressure. Keep it up, young folks. Your leaders need your leadership.” That is exactly the kind of cheerleading you should expect from a man who has utterly departed from historic, biblical Christianity who longs, like liberal Protestants in the 19th and 20th centuries, to make Christianity culturally relevant.

A school that surrenders its commitment to historic biblical Christianity on the issues of sexual morality, gender, and identity, will eventually surrender the gospel and its very existence. Accepting the terms of the sexual revolution will lead to a slow death for any Christian institution.

This means that trustees, administrators, faculty, and even the students, must be on the same page. This means that Christian institutions must make it very clear that serving in the school as an administrator, teaching in the classroom as a faculty member, or attending the school as a student demands acceptance of the biblical and moral worldview of the institution.

If you accept the status of being a student or if you accept, even more, the status of serving as a professor, then you had better state in heart, mind, and soul, “I’m all in on the theological commitments of the institution.”

This also demands that Christian institutions articulate clearly their theological commitments on all matters of doctrine and faith. The school can’t just be clear on gender and sexuality. It must also be clear on the atonement, the authority of Scripture as the inerrant and inspired Word of God. It must be clear on the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Clarity on these issues is essential for any Christian college or university. All of these issues connect—if you begin to surrender one, you undermine the entire foundation.

In a statement of cold calculation, Dr. Gushee actually tells Christian college presidents: “Get together a critical mass of leaders at progressive-leaning schools and make the break collectively and simultaneously.” This is a brazen advisement to break with the Bible in a pack, where there is safety in numbers.

The implication of this, then, is that denominations and boards of trustees must hold institutions accountable to their convictions. The cultural pressures are real, and they bring a daily barrage against any institution that holds to the Christian understanding of sexuality and gender. Colleges, universities, and seminaries need strong networks of accountability in place to keep the school in check, and to ensure that the institution remains faithful to its prime directive: theological fidelity, no matter the cost.

In the late 20th century, the Southern Baptist Convention had to learn this lesson the hard way and it had to undergo a process of denominational change in order to make very clear that the Southern Baptist Convention expects those schools under its control to hold to the comprehensive truth of the Bible without hesitation and to do so eagerly. I’m thankful for the Southern Baptist Convention’s clarity on this issue, especially with the six seminaries under its care.

Yet, this is often not the case—a declining number of institutions hold fast to theological conviction. One example was made clear in a headline article that recently ran in the Los Angeles Times. The headline read, “Expelled Student Sues Seminary.” The subhead of the article indicates that the woman was ousted after the school learned of her same-sex marriage.

Alexandra Reyes Velarde reports, “Joanna Maxon, a 53-year-old Christian mother of two, was searching for ways to advance in her career as a supervisor and began looking into graduate schools. She decided on a seminary, in this case, Fuller Theological Seminary, a religious graduate school based and Pasadena, because it combined things she valued, her faith and her studies.”

She began her studies at first, online and then through an extension center in Texas. But then the article goes on to reveal, “Three years into her program and just a few classes away from graduating, Maxon received a letter notifying her that she had been expelled. The reason: she’s married to a woman. Now, Maxon, who lives with her wife Tanya Minton in Fort Worth, is suing Fuller, alleging the college violated Title IX rules that forbid educational institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating against students on the basis of sex.”

The article indicates that Joanna was married to a man when she enrolled, but sometime in her studies, divorced the man and married a woman. When the school came to that knowledge, it expelled her. She is now suing under the Unruh Act in California, arguing that the school is in violation of Title IX because it receives federal education funding. That again is a major problem in and of itself.

The most interesting part of the article is where the woman who filed the lawsuit against the school says that fellow students and some faculty knew of her sexual identity and of her marriage—and not only knew but supported Maxon and encouraged her in her homosexual identity. That is why, according to the Los Angeles Times, she was shocked when she was expelled.

The article states, “The Fuller Theological Seminary doesn’t prohibit same-sex relationships or require students to adhere to a statement of faith like other Christian schools in California. About the same time that Maxon was expelled, Azusa Pacific University students were incensed when the university announced it had reinstated a ban on same-sex relationships after quietly removing the prohibition from its policies… Though the college does allow same-sex relationships, it does not allow ‘homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct.’ It is made clear that it believes sexual intimacy is reserved for a marriage between a mand and a woman.”

Filings in a legal case present only one side of an argument and an academic institution cannot address individual student situations without legal clearance. But the article describes a pattern which should concern us all.

We can see some institutions say they believe one thing but turn a blind eye to faculty who wink in the other direction. Add to that a student body who are opposed to the convictional theological positions of the school and you end up with, to put the matter bluntly, an untenable situation.

Clarity is a central Christian responsibility and it is particularly the responsibility of a Christian academic institution to state clearly and hold faithfully to its theological convictions.

Calls for the remaking of Christianity leave us with a real dilemma: you can remake something, but you can’t remake Christianity. You are actually creating a new belief system and a new religion. You can call it whatever you want, but it isn’t biblical Christianity.

The believing church must always be ready to receive the correction of Scripture—but we have no right nor authority to correct the Word of God. On the issue of gender and sexuality, the church has not misread the Scriptures for 2,000 years.

If Christian institutions want to endure, they cannot surrender or capitulate. Indeed, it is not enough to read the Scriptures rightly—we must read the Scriptures obediently.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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