We Don’t Need More Academic Freedom, We Need More Academic Honesty

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The legend goes, when Rosemary Radford Ruether (the feminist theologian) was asked why she continued teaching at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary when she disagreed with many doctrines of the Methodist faith she replied, “Because this is where the Xerox machines are.”

In case you didn’t know, that’s what we called copiers back in the day. More to the point, I don’t know how this squares with the facts, but I’ve seen this sort of thing elsewhere. A lot of dishonesty goes on in higher education under the guise of  “academic freedom”.

I think it is safe to assume that since Reuther’s day many conservative Methodists seeking a traditional theological education have exercised their academic freedom by going someplace besides Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary to get it.

Evangelical Colleges and Evangelicals

Now, there are many self-identified evangelical colleges out there, but there are only a tiny handful that I recommend when I am asked for recommendations. And that list seems to get shorter every year.

The reason is the people using the Xerox machines at those schools. An increasing number of faculty teaching in them are proving themselves untrustworthy when it comes to orthodox Christian practice, especially when it comes to sexuality and marriage.

Now, if I wanted sexual liberation I can go to any State sponsored school and get it without the Christian gloss, and for less money. At least it would be honest. A student wouldn’t expect a professor to profess Christ.

This brings me to the title of this short essay. We really don’t need more academic freedom at Christian colleges, what we need is more honesty. If a faculty member no longer supports the stated purpose of the institution that pays him, he should resign and go to work someplace else.

You may think that this is easy for me to say. But I’ve actually done what I’m calling for these people to do. About 15 years ago I stepped down from the pulpit of a growing church precisely because my mind had changed when it came to the seminal doctrines of that denomination. When I was ordained I promised that if my mind ever did changed on those doctrines, I would do just that. Since it had changed, I changed denominations. It was four years before I found myself in another pulpit. So I know what I’m talking about. And I have no patience or sympathy for heretical faculty at Christian colleges. They should resign voluntarily. And if they don’t they should be fired.

Let’s think about it this way.

In American the term “academic freedom” is something of a lark. It’s a free country. You’re free to study whatever you please, so  long as it is legal to do so. And people and institutions are free to establish schools that constrain themselves in particular ways.

For example, schools can establish programs for teaching physics. But they are not free to teach poetry under the name of physics. Now, if a physicist is interested in poetry, generally people won’t object to that. But if he wants to read poems during class instead of teaching physics, well, that is a problem. If the school chooses to approve a course in the poetry of physics or the physics of poetry–great. (I’d be interested in either one, actually.) But the difference here is truth in advertising. Truth in advertising gives people the freedom to make informed decisions about whether or not to take such a course. If a professor doesn’t teach what the school says will be taught, the school has the right to fire the professor. But it should never come to that. Professors should be honest and just quit if they cannot teach what is expected in good conscience.

So here’s my coda for all the people out there working in evangelical colleges. The burden is on you to provide what you say you provide.

If you prove yourselves untrustworthy, I have the freedom to send students from my church elsewhere. And right now, I am.


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