The Role of Christian Professors in Today’s University and the Church’s Obligation to Them

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Historically, the university has served as the organizer of knowledge and priorities within science and society—training and leading every next generation of leaders, innovators, and changemakers. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, higher education was bound by an understanding that knowledge has a moral dimension, that education involved the study of the created being and theology, and that divine laws operated in ethics as well as nature, serving as a guide to right living.1Reuben, J. (1996). The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Fast forward to the modern university. It is now devoid of God and His Truth. Yet, it still stands as one of the most powerful authority centers in our culture that drives all aspects of society. So, while it used to be balanced by the church, that is no longer the case. 

While it is encouraging that a good number of Christian professors today serve in a multitude of positions throughout any given university, I would contend that, on average, they are ill equipped to face the deluge of strife and contempt against God that is on the rise. Yet, more than ever, the university campus today is a mission field that desperately needs God. Therefore, the university and its Christian professors need to be a focus of discussion and targeted training of every church.

Struggling to Be Bold

If you ask a current Christian who is also a professor, I doubt too many of them will negate their desire to live out their faith in their role. But, most of them, if they have their eyes fixed on Jesus will also state that, within a secular university, this role exists in a hostile environment. How do I define “hostile?” It is one where preferred pronouns and gender identification are more commonplace among conversations than morality and ethics, where elevating and centering the black voice within a taught subject area are more important than the subject itself. It is where efforts of inclusivity ensure the acknowledgement of white privilege ultimately lead to deep guilt, and “safe places” on campus for students are identified with some form of rainbow decal on an office door. 

When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I watched an online discussion unfold among some female professors at my institution discussing their outrage at such an attack on women’s rights. As a result, they rallied agreement on the importance of informing their students that if they (the students) found themselves “in trouble” they (these professors) would be more than happy to help them find an accessible abortion service. Not only was the possibility of such a reality devastating to consider on a multitude of levels, but it made me sick to sit there and not say anything. I prayed to the Lord but was not bold in my faith to those around me, even within that virtual space. 

During that same timeframe, these same faculty, among others, engaged in another online discussion regarding how they were trying to help their “sons” deal with the difficult fluctuations of hormones during their monthly menstrual cycle. It became a self-help session of encouragement and advice on finding the right combination of medications for their children during the transition process. Again, I sat there sick and angry . . . and silent. 

I can’t help but consider what the early university leaders would think if they stepped into higher education today. In the Antebellum era, “educators modeled colleges according to their ideal of the unity of truth . . . [for the purposes of] educating young men to the highest efficiency of their intellectual faculties, and the noblest of their moral and religious nature.”2Reuben, 2016, p. 22 Of course, this was in an era when most colleges were tied to religious denominations, and most boards of trustees were dominated by ministers. This is clearly not the case today. 

When considering this era gone by and thinking about the multitude of committee and research team meetings I regularly attend, I can’t help but hear the voices of my colleagues dismantle and deconstruct such a design with vehement proclamations of colonialism, white supremacy, and oppression of the marginalized and subaltern segments of past and current societies. And, when it comes to funding sources designed to instigate and support research initiatives, the associated request for proposals will elevate or emphasize—sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly—societal aspects of inequality in skin color or gender. What this means is that for a submitted proposal to be considered competitive for the stated funding opportunity, the researchers must factor into some form of DEI into the research design.  

In today’s discourse, it seems the goodness of the university’s heritage doesn’t stand a chance of redemption—where it is once again recognized and lifted up as contributing to a better and sustainable society based on Moral Knowledge. Rather, thanks be to the progressive scholars who have disrupted that enduring status quo to enlighten the duped scholars and students who know no better. 

University missions juxtaposed with Biblical Truth

A quick perusal of university mission statements shows the following: 

  • UC Berkley: “Transform the lives of our students by preparing them to become successful leaders and innovators for positive change. Expand knowledge and create transformative technology through original research to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.”
  • Texas A & M University: “. . . prepares students for leadership, responsibility, and service in a diverse and global society that is experiencing rapid change in technology.”
  • Purdue University: “. . . to be globally recognized and at the forefront of innovation in higher education for empowering students and creating a seamless transition for all.”
  • University of Florida: “. . . to enable our students to lead and influence the next generation and beyond for economic, cultural, and societal benefit.” 

Through these established missions, how does this affect or direct the role of employed faculty members? In short, they are expected to uphold the mission of the university through their teaching, research, and service (or outreach) efforts, which reflects the tripartite structure of the institution. Therefore, to consider the missions of today’s universities, it is not hard to see that the strategic terminology and phrases used can easily operationalize themselves within a biblical application. And, as such, it is worthy to pause and consider what can and should be within this existing framework. For instance, preparing students to become “innovators for positive change” is a good reminder that God is the greatest innovator there ever was or will be (Gen 1:1)—and if we come alongside Jesus, partnering with Him in His expertise, and depending on the Holy Spirit as our Helper, we will allow the goodness of positive change to unfold:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

—John 14:26

Universities endeavor to “tackle the world’s biggest challenges,” which are often couched in phenomena such as global climate change, COVID-19, systemic racism, and the ever-widening economic inequality3Kawa, N.C., Arceño, M.A., Goeckner, R. et al. (2021). Training wicked scientists for a world of wicked problems. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8, 189. … Continue reading and are so complex that they are often identified as wicked problems because no one can fully agree on how to tackle them. But, as Christians we are to remember that we live in a fallen world, where strife and contention permeate all of mankind, and which point to challenges that are often man-centered or created. To live out our lives, we are to remember that God did not give us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound mind (2 Tim 1:7). And, because “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10), we can rest assured that nothing is too grand of a challenge that He has not already overcome.

As students are educated and trained up through their respective majors, there is a collective emphasis on instilling a form of civic “responsibility and service in a diverse global society.” But to whom is this responsibility and service geared toward? If it is for man, it is unsustainable and futile. If it is done heartily for the Lord (Col. 3:23), then we can be assured the result is honest work that can be shared with anyone in need (Eph. 4:28). 

Our universities endeavor to equip students to “lead and influence the next generation.” At face value, this is important, dare I say essential, as it relates to societal and cultural vitality. But, in light of the current and pervasive ideologies produced, transferred, and operationalized in our communities through K-12 education policies and youth development initiatives—all driven by university-backed research—then we have to anticipate the great millstone fastened around the necks of those who promote and advocate such devastating ideologies (Matt 18:6). But, as followers of Christ, we are to know the fear of the Lord, making us more diligent in our service to Him (2 Cor 5:11), and telling the “next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders He has done” (Ps 78:4).

The Universities Are Adrift

The universities today are one of the leading purveyors of societal and cultural shifts and norms. However, based on the centuries’ long separation of church from the university, it is now official that the church receded and is no longer present. Therefore, even though university mission statements can be juxtaposed with biblical truth, they focus on research and teaching that are no longer on the rails of truth anymore. The result is Christian professors who are left to covertly navigate and validate their jobs in an environment that wants nothing to do with their faith and commitment to Jesus. 

As a Christian, who also serves as an associate professor in the social sciences, I have taught in the college classroom, conducted social science research, and advised and guided students in career preparedness and applied research since 2010. Over the years, I have continually worked to place my faith at the forefront of my research, teaching, and overall scholarly influence. However, my strong Christian values and beliefs have often left me confronted with worldly challenges followed by personal hesitancies. 

At the beginning of my faculty career, fellow Christians who had gone before me would often recommend being somewhat reserved about my beliefs until after achieving tenure—“It’s okay and understandable given the environment we work in.” There was no need to allow that “characteristic” of myself to be a stumbling block for anyone voting on my livelihood. That advice never resonated well with me, even though I found myself adhering to it. I’m competitive by nature, and earning tenure and being promoted is a milestone that no faculty member in their right mind wouldn’t strive to achieve. “It’s okay,” I told myself. “Once I hit that milestone, I will be more bold in my faith.” 

But, once I earned promotion and tenure and the opportunity to be bold in my faith presented itself, I found myself hesitating and perhaps more comfortable than I care to admit in flying below the radar, keeping my mouth shut, and working in the subtleties when it came to my faith. Meanwhile, I have watched the waves of progressive ideologies that were once sucked out into the deep waters, mingling and operationalizing within interdisciplinary spheres, come rushing back to shore as a tsunami of social and scholarly destruction. 

It’s Time to Model and Train Salt and Light Amidst the Darkness

In a talk Dallas Willard gave in 2010 at UC Irvine based on his book titled Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, he presented an illustration of Jesus Christ as the most competent human being who has ever lived.4Willard, D. (2010). Disappearance of moral knowledge. As fully God and fully man, he would never be a third-rate economics professor because he owns all human organizations and intellect. Nothing could ever confound him, as he is the owner of every university, which is ultimately why churches began the development and design of the university—a design that He preordained. However, if truth, logic, and reason are no longer tied to the church, what is it tied to? Unfortunately, it is tied to the man-derived theories and ideologies that are adrift, prone to the winds of accident, chance, and popularity.

So, while Christians currently work in secular universities, circumstances and trends raise the question, “Yes, but how much longer will they be there?” Churches need to fight, stand up, and embolden Christian professors, training them and helping them to be bold, and having a strong presence on every campus. How can professors be better equipped to think about Jesus and work alongside him in their respective fields of study?

As I continue to consider and ponder the future of my career, someone recently challenged me to embrace the notion of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and embracing the possibility of being hated and persecuted. It’s frightening. But, it was also a reminder that, as a Christian, that is what I’m called to do. Therefore, when I consider the current and future students who seek guidance and clarity for their future career paths, I can’t help but be emboldened with the proclamation that Christian professors need to be equipped to fight for their disciplines and the students who will ultimately be our next leaders and innovators. The church needs to take a stand in this fight, coming alongside my fellow Christian professors and me to help us, guide us, and even rebuke us as we navigate this hostile environment. 

When I consider the evolution of the university, I can’t help but think of Matthew 5:13: 

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

Christian professors are currently sprinkled throughout today’s modern universities. And, I will be the first of them to stand up and proclaim that the saltiness of the university, in its current quiet undertones, is at risk of being thrown out and trampled.

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1 Reuben, J. (1996). The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2 Reuben, 2016, p. 22
3 Kawa, N.C., Arceño, M.A., Goeckner, R. et al. (2021). Training wicked scientists for a world of wicked problems. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8, 189.
4 Willard, D. (2010). Disappearance of moral knowledge.
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Abigail Borron

Dr. Abigail Borron is an associate professor of agricultural and science communication in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication at the University of Georgia. Her area of expertise focuses on culture-centered communication and engagement, particularly related to university outreach programs through the Cooperative Extension Service. Her associated research projects have included examining engagement efforts of low-income communities around the issues of food insecurity and nutrition education, as well as farmer perceptions and their associated structural/social obstacles to technology adoption.