Is it Possible for Christian Institutions to be Followers of Jesus? (Don’t rush me, I’m thinking)

This past Friday, Dr. Harold Heie (pronounced “high”) spoke to the Eastern University community on “Creating a Welcoming Space for Respectful Conversation about Controversial Issues” (part of the Windows on the World series).

The auditorium was overflowing.

Heie is known for finding ways for Christians to talk about difficult topics. In fact he has an entire website dedicated to the effort, He has also written about the subject, most profoundly in Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking.

Heie is particularly interested in how all of this work in Christian Colleges, and he’s got the chops to back it up. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College (Wenham, MA), where he served as Founding Director from 1994 to 2003. He previously served as Vice President for Academic Affairs at Messiah College (1988-1993) and Northwestern College in Iowa (1980-1988). Prior to that, he taught mathematics at Gordon College (1975-1980) and The King’s College (1963-1975).

Heie has also held a number of leadership positions at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), primarily focusing on leading national and regional faculty development workshops. He has spoken or consulted at over 50 CCCU instututions, and now serves the CCCU as a Senior Fellow. He is also a member of the Board of Fellows for the Ph.D. Program in Organizational Leadership at Eastern University. He has been active for many years with the Center for Public Justice (Annapolis, MD), including service as a trustee for 9 years.

Throw in an MA and PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University (1961, 1965) and you’ve got a pretty smart guy whose been around the block a few times and has learned some things worth passing on.

I was personally quite taken by his demeanor, tone, and context (not to mention his Brooklyn accent). He is genuine and sincere, the kind of person you want to bottle and call upon when you feel yourself losing your temper. I left the lecture pondering how I and many others have been affected by the anti-Heies of the Christian world.

Much more importantly, I was reminded yet again that it is my responsibility to be an agent of peace in the little village of ideas I inhabit.

Heie made four points–easy to write, easy to talk about, excruciatingly difficult to pull off. But, whoever said this Jesus thing was going to be easy, given that the precondition for being a follower of Jesus is death to oneself (Luke 9:24).

Humility–You know, that word we toss around, what we think we’re pulling off when we put ourselves on the back burner for a minute or two.

Humility is a death word, what Paul calls being “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). I am willing to guess (I never counted), that humility is one of the most common, if not the most common, descriptor of what a follower of Christ is supposed to look like.

The hard part is that it starts with us. Our job isn’t to make sure others are being humble. It doesn’t matter what people around us are doing.

Courage–In this context, Heie is referring to institutional courage to seek truth regardless of constituency pressure. For all of you laughing or rolling your eyes out there at Heie’s naivete about the financial realities schools face, re-read his credentials above.

He also mentioned the courage needed by individual faculty members to pursue truth, and with that, an administration that supports faculty in doing so (yes, yes, and yes). And no that doesn’t mean anything goes (can we drop that comeback already?) Academic freedom is an open, community discussion. Not the stuff of back room politicking.

To seek truth–I mean really to seek truth, wherever it goes–takes courage.

Patience–We should not jump the gun with each other as we talk about hard things. We should not hold on to our truth as if it is the Truth, since we are all seeking Truth. Having patience means accepting the possibility of needing to hear the other out and that you may need to think things through as a result. Despite what a lot of Christians (on the internet) seem to think, not every disagreement is a “Galatians moment” where the Gospel is at stake. This process of self-evaluation, respect of the other, and resulting change is a proces that takes time and patience.

Patience seems to be the flip side of humility.

Love–Love covers all of these terms and then some. Love is patient and kind; it does not boast or dishonor the other; it is not easily angered; it rejoices with the truth. (1 Corinthians 13)

Whenever I think about trying to live like this I break out into a dripping sweat like I’ve been doing yoga for an hour.

A profound talk by Heie, but, to tell you the truth, I was also a bit discouraged.  I mean, can we really pull this off? I have to tell you, I don’t see it.

Generally speaking the kind of character traits we are called to work toward as individual followers of Jesus are difficult to translate into institutional life, where defending tradition and raising funds (both important tasks) become the daily object of devotion and fervor.

I really don’t know where all this is going. But then again, seeing into the future is not by job. My job is far less complicated, but far more difficult: controlling what I say, think, and do

Who knows. If we all did that–faculty, administrators, and donors–the institutional problems might take care of themselves.

  • Derek

    Good word from Dr. Heie, thanks Pete.

    Although, I would just like to pick up on being courageous in our pursuit of truth by quoting John 17:17: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth”…your word is truth…

    You see, I tend to see a danger once we step outside the revelation of God (Biblical presuppositionalism) in exchange for a “quest of truth” that takes place within a sort of vacuum or different presuppositional framework, namely, rational autonomy.

    I think once we fail to ground our operating assumptions, we will come to very different conclusions on a wide variety of issues and perhaps realize we have rejected the presuppositions that hold up the Christian worldview.

    I’m still working through this issue myself, but I tend to see the Reformed worldview as making a significant contribution in this conversation. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.


    • peteenns

      Thanks, Derek. I definitely understand where you are coming from. In my opinion, the problem I see with “starting with the Bible” as some would put it, is that it circumnavigates the hermeneutical process of what Scripture means and what it has to do with problem x that is before us. For example, I would probably take issue with what you are drawing out of John 17:17 for what Heie is saying. I would also probably want to challenge what you mean by “hold up the Christian worldview.” More likely you mean “a version of the Christian worldview that I accept as valid.”

      Where I think we might see some common ground is that a quest for truth operates in the context of relying on God and each other. What Heie is arguing for is not a quest for truth in a vacuum.

      • Derek

        Thank-you for a thoughtful reply Pete.

        You make some great points. I am just wondering what roles election, predestination, the regenerating power and illumination of the Holy Spirit play in our quest for the truth and even if we incorporate them enough into the equation? Perhaps we might tend to neglect the fact that, for example, the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing in our push to make the Christian message relevant…? I think that is partly why it is important to operate from a presupposition of Biblical revelation instead of rational autonomy.

        I too hope we can rely upon God, each other, and humbly submit to the Scriptures when it is warranted.

        • Dan F.

          Not to be to trollish but isn’t your wondering already begging the question? Your understanding of election, predestination and the regenerating power and illumination of the Holy Spirit are grounded in your pre-existing worldview and interpretation of Scripture within your own tradition (which I assume from your comments is broadly reformed).

          I think that the historical context of the Scriptures (particularly the New Testament) is important to the question – namely that the Gospel and epistle writers had a purpose in their writing which was to provide written confirmation of the teachings they had already passed on to the early Christian communities. In other words, the teaching came first, then the Scripture. If you understand Christianity as primarily about the Book (Bible) you’ve missed the underlying ground of that Book – the Authority of Jesus Christ (the Word Incarnate) given to the apostles.

          Thus, grounding the search for Truth in Scripture still isn’t a firm ground because Scripture never just is it is always interpreted.

  • Dan F.

    It seems to me that this call to humility, courage, patience and love impossible in much the same way that Christ’s command “Be holy” is impossible. Actually living a holy life is not possible in our own strength but rather “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9).

    On a slightly related topic, Dr. Enns, I would be grateful for any feedback you might have about my recent blog post “A Meditation on Faith and Works” connecting Romans 4:1-5 with James 2:20-24.

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