A College with the Soul of a Church
This material was shared at Academic Convocation on September 2, 2020 at Northwest University, via Zoom.
I often say that Northwest University is a college with the soul of a church. In some ways, that is a slogan, but even as such it carries deep meaning with an 86-year heritage. Recently, someone challenged me to defend the statement, and I agree that such a striking identity declaration deserves a clear definition.
When I say that Northwest has the “soul of a church,” I certainly don’t mean to say that Northwest is a church. Although our mother is the Church—we were founded by churches to carry out particular aspects of the Church’s mission—we are, in fact, and were intended by our founders to become, a Christian university. I also do not mean that the university literally has a soul in the sense in which people do. Colleges do not have immortal souls that can be saved or lost. As human-built institutions, they come and go, in some cases lasting hundreds of years and in others much less. One of the dictionary definitions of soul is “the animating principle, the essential element or part of something.” This is the sense of the word I intend when I say Northwest University is a college with the soul of a church. Our essential element is the Christian faith. Our animating principle is the Great Commission, especially in terms of “making disciples of all nations.” Northwest University exists to form disciples of Jesus Christ through the vehicle of higher education.
It is worth pointing out that all universities are daughters or at least direct descendants of the institutional church, which founded the first universities about a thousand years ago. Even the most secular universities bear a family resemblance to churches, even if some have been founded on a purely secular basis. It always amazes me to visit universities in China that have been founded on an atheistic basis by the communist government, yet the family resemblance to churches remains. While the great majority of universities founded by churches have ultimately chosen to abandon the Christian family, Northwest University continues to walk in close relationship to the churches.
Denominations and local churches constitute the primary visible manifestation of what theologians call the Church Invisible, but other Christian institutions—such as Christian magazines, Christian disaster relief or development agencies, Christian evangelistic associations, missions boards, Christian schools and universities, and other “parachurch” organizations—carry out important aspects of the Church’s mission—the Great Commission—and therefore embody or make manifest the Church Invisible. As a Christian university, our allegiance to the Kingdom of God exceeds all other loyalties. The churches remain our closest institutional partners. While our primary sphere of activity focuses on higher education as it impacts the world, we do it in service to the Great Commission task to “make disciples of all nations and teach them all things” Jesus has commanded. We hold membership in the community of universities, but we do so as members of the Family of God.
Northwest University bears a strong “family resemblance” to local churches and we do almost everything a local church does, and often at a more intense level—passionate corporate worship, the deep inculcation of the Scriptures and Biblical principles, disciplined pursuit of a moral community, a live-in community of fellowship that looks more like a monastery than a local church, sustained corporate prayer, evangelization of the lost, generous aid for the needy, a robust program of local and global missionary travel that exceeds that of virtually any local church, and even marriages and burials and other sacerdotal functions of a church. The kind of ecclesial intensity that we pursue at Northwest University may not be sustainable in a local church, which is one of the reasons we were founded—to provide a temporary, intense experience of discipleship and learning that goes beyond what a local church can provide. But we hope the Northwest experience establishes an ideal of Christian community in our students that only local churches can satisfy once they have left our ivory tower of faith.
At the same time, we differ from local churches in our function as a university. For example, we differ in terms of the basis for membership in our endeavor. (Here, you have to pay tuition to be part of the community.) More importantly, our primary focus fixes us on the task of discovering and teaching God’s truth wherever it is found and preparing people for academic and professional work in service to the Kingdom of God and humanity. As the Wheaton philosophy professor Arthur Holmes famously wrote, we exist on the premise that “all truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found.” We come to our task of learning and discovery as the freest of all seekers, confident that when we discern truth across the whole realm of knowledge, it will ultimately lead us to greater knowledge of God. If it challenges the insufficient understandings we have brought to the task of achieving a higher education, if it contradicts the some of the understandings we memorized as children in Sunday School or stood on so adamantly as teens “sold-out” for Jesus, we press on until truth swallows up error or until greater comprehension corrects less-perfect conceptions.
As a Bible major in a Christian college 40 years ago, I remember the weeks and months and even years of discomfort that I experienced as I strove to reconcile truths I had learned in the arts and sciences with sometimes childlike readings of the Scriptures. In the end—on every issue—I always found that the Scriptures and their truth stood high above the untutored musings about them that I brought with me to the university. Part of our task is to stand on the Word of God in the light of truths we detect in the rest of God’s work. In the process of our critical thinking and bold exploration, the Truth will correct our misreading of the Scriptures, even as they will defy and correct what the World speciously thrusts in our faces as “undeniable” truth. As St. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 10:3:
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
As we carry out this warfare at this College with the Soul of a Church, I pray that you will never stop striving to know the truth until you have discerned how it glorifies God and accords with God’s Word. Very few churches, if any, challenge their people to think as deeply about the Bible or about the world as we do. Nor do churches prepare people for professional work the way a Christian university does. We believe we have a glorious mission, but we would be foolish to pride ourselves as superior to the church in any way. Both churches and Christian universities carry out distinct and vital aspects of the Great Commission.
Our identity as a College with the Soul of a Church finds its roots deep in the culture of our parent organization, the Assemblies of God (A/G). Never conceived to operate as a “denomination,” the A/G sees itself as a cooperative fellowship of sovereign local churches. Like the A/G, Northwest University sees local churches as the irreplaceable centers of Christian faith expression in the world. One of the reasons why the university opens itself so broadly to Christians of all ecclesial backgrounds stems from our humble respect for local church bodies that take communion together, baptize new believers, teach the Word of God, gather together in Christian fellowship, care for the oppressed and needy, and propagate the faith to all the world in the form of new churches. Our commitment to Christian faith depends not so much on “Christianity” as a system of thought or doctrine, but rather on concrete communities defined by Biblical revelation and touched by the real presence of Christ as mediated in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The tension between universities and their church parent organizations goes back as far as the university itself. Even state universities struggle to individuate themselves from their governmental parents. It is not unlike the tension between teenagers and parents in real life, as identity formation involves a process of individuation and self-definition vis-à-vis parental identities. Those of us who are parents always pray that the process of identity development in our children will not end in estrangement, and successful individuation in a mutually healthy relationship will always lead to continuing relationship. At this stage in our development, I am proud to say that Northwest University has developed a strong identity as a regional, master’s-level university while remaining in strong relationship to the Assemblies of God as well as other churches. At the same time, such a relationship must always be nurtured and maintained to remain healthy.
We are well aware of the perennial disdain that some intellectuals feel toward the churches, criticizing them for their human failings as if individuals were more perfect or as if other social institutions somehow managed to rise above the human condition. Some reject the church out of more pedestrian concerns, including real and regrettable experiences of personal hurt. Unfortunately, we live in a time of faith crisis for many. The internet is full of spaces where Christians and even former ministers vent their pain and doubt and even apostasy, calling others to join their campaign against the church. But it would be ahistorical and ignorant to believe that such campaigns are anything new. The books of Hebrews and Revelation—as well as other New Testament passages—bear painful witness to the spiritual war that apostates have waged against the church from the very beginning.
The history of Western philosophy bears enduring testimony to the faith of some thinkers and the doubts of many, some of whom would fit into the group of those whom Schleiermacher called “the cultured despisers of religion.” We will certainly not be intimidated by the latter. Rather we will stand humbly with local churches and other Christian institutions, however fallible they may be as expressions of the Church Invisible, recognizing our own fallibility. Together with them, we imperfectly but effectively evidence the Church Invisible—instituted by Christ himself and loved as His Bride. Jesus will present the Church as glorious, without spot or wrinkle on that day in which all of us will be made perfect as he is perfect. Local churches remain the fullest earthly expression of the Church, and with all their weaknesses, we affirm our solidarity with them as a college with the soul of a church.