How Open Should You Be About Your Faith…at a Christian College?

Touchdown Jesus!

Do newly hired Notre Dame faculty strike this pose when they arrive on campus? Perhaps they should.

For the most part, the Emerging Scholars Network serves students and faculty at secular universities, and the majority of our posts and articles are written for that audience. When we’ve touched on the subject of “being open about your faith,” it’s generally dealt with the idea of evangelism — such as Rick Mattson on witness in the academy or myself on “thresholds of evangelism” — or with the ability to speak and work as an explicitly Christian scholar on the secular campus. A few weeks ago, we published a talk by Nicholas Wolterstorff on this topic, and at the 2008 ESN gathering, Ken Elzinga spoke on “Being Open About My Faith Without Turning People Off.” The Related Posts section below has a few more suggestions on this same topic.

Working and studying as a faithful Christian on a secular campus can be a challenge, but it’s not the only one that ESN members face. For many of us, we live with one foot in two worlds — the academy and the church — without belonging fully to either. Because of our commitment to Christ and our (in most cases) evangelical theology, we are a distinct minority in the academy. Our academic perspectives, meanwhile, often mean that we don’t fit perfectly with our fellow evangelicals. James Bielo touched on this tension, which takes different forms depending on your own church and theology.

Most of our discussion of these issues has centered on secular universities, but what about Christian colleges? How open should you be about your theological commitments at a Christian college?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from an ESN member seeking advice about applying for jobs at religious colleges:

I’d love to know your thoughts on how to delicately share your religious faith when applying to teach at religious colleges not exactly the same as your faith tradition. For example, I was raised Catholic, attend an evangelical church, but still believe much Catholic doctrine…. and I’m applying to a few more traditionally conservative evangelical colleges. Is it better to share less? What are others’ thoughts on the ethics of this?

I have a few thoughts, but I’d like to see what others say first. What’s your advice to younger scholars applying to Christians schools whose theology doesn’t exactly fit their own?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    JTGJTG commented on August 29, 2012 Reply

    I would. Unlike a public university, you can be fired for your beliefs at a religious school. You don’t have to put everything on the line in your letter of application, but don’t take the job if you don’t fit in. Some places are more ecumenical. Some aren’t. If you go some place hoping that no one will find out your true beliefs, you’re just asking for trouble.

    James Sire commented on August 29, 2012 Reply

    While I was teaching a short course at a well-known evangelical seminary, the dean asked if I would consider becoming a “permanent” adjunct and listed as one of their professors. I replied that I was not sure I could sign the belief statement since the word inerrant appeared in their position on the Bible. While I said I was sure that my take on the subject was held by some of the permanent faculty, and that, in fact, I had no reservation in signing the IVCF statement of faith, I wanted him to know my position. He said that he was strongly in favor of the propriety of this term. I never heard from him again. I was not asked to teach there again. No skin off my teeth. It cost me nothing to be open. I didn’t seek the position, though I probably would have accepted the invitation. I still have a high regard of this institution. I honor them for their honesty. I just think they use a term that is inappropriate, suggesting a much too “modern rationalist” approach to hermeneutics.

    I also know that a very popular teacher and highly competent scholar lost his job because while he was at Wheaton he became a Catholic. Even reasonable change comes slowly in evangelical institutions, not necessarily a bad thing.

    General principle: Be honest and open, especially with highly charged issues on which you take a specific view. Be sure your heresy will be found out. Lots of anguish and embarrassment will result.

    Jim Sire
    Safely retired and living on the gumment

    Alan Young commented on August 30, 2012 Reply

    I’ve taught for about 20 years at colleges in the CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities). Over the years, I’ve interviewed and (usually) been offered positions at even more. I’ve also sat on my share of search committees. In my experience, there is a wide variation in the attitudes of schools on this subject. Some schools cared about a few core beliefs, and as long as you fit in with those, you were fine. Some schools had a long “laundry list” that you had to fit. At some skills, they almost don’t care (though that is pretty rare in the CCCU). In one case, I went to an interview prepared for a serious discussion about a place where I didn’t quite fit a key distinctive (I thought) of their denomination. I was told (and I quote): “Nobody is going to ask you what you believe; they just want to know you’ll attend a church from our denomination.”

    But my overall advice would be to honest in the interview. Don’t “major in the minors” by making a big deal about something they don’t care about. If you can both live with the disagreement, then fine. A variety of perspectives from within the Christian tradition can be good for the students. But the LAST thing you want is to hide something. Sooner or later, it will backfire on you (let alone the integrity issues). Better to be upfront, let the chips fall where they may, and if you don’t get the job over that issue, then so be it.

    Of course, I have the blessing (or curse) of being a seminary graduate who teaches in the social sciences. As a result, most interviews I’ve been on has assumed a more theological bent than I suspect is the norm. I think people think they can throw more controversial questions at me than they would at the typical candidate. I’ve also self-selected to not apply for schools where I thought I was too far from their doctrinal stance.

    Alan Young

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