By Tommy Smith, President
The Christian University as the Servant of the Church
The teaching ministry of the church is grounded in the three imperatives of the Great Commission of Jesus (Matt. 28-18-20): Go! Make Disciples! Teach! As followers of Jesus bear witness to their Lord in their homes and communities, they lead others to saving faith in Christ. The church then has the awesome responsibility of “teaching them to observe all things” as converts learn how to live out their commitment to Christ with integrity, love, faithfulness, and service. This teaching ministry became central to the life of the early church as one of the four characteristics of the first Christian community in Jerusalem: “they continued in the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42).
Following the example of Jesus, whose ministry was described as “preaching, teaching, and healing” (Matt. 4:23; 9:35), and the Apostle Paul, who devoted himself to teaching (Acts 15:35; 18:11; 20:20; 28:31), teachers emerged as one of the foundations of the leadership of the church. Paul listed teachers along with apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors in his description of those appointed by God “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11-12). He exhorted Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13) and reminded him that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). Teachers will be judged with greater strictness because of the great priority and responsibility of their ministry (James 3:1). The church of Jesus Christ, therefore, must obey Christ’s imperative and fulfill its commitment to the teaching ministry.
There are a variety of ways in which the church accomplishes its teaching ministry. In the local congregation, the elders have the responsibility to ensure that the teaching of the Scriptures is accomplished and do so through the corporate experience of the congregation in worship services, various classes, small groups, and individual mentoring. Cultivating strong leaders, including effective teachers, is one of the priorities of local church leadership. As J.I. Packer wrote in his foreword to Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful: “The Christian church is presented in the New Testament as a multi-congregational community that is called to a life of worship, work, and witness according to God’s will, and of constant teaching and learning as a means to these ends. As trainers impress upon athletes that they must never stop training, so Jesus and his apostles make it clear that the church must never stop learning, for only so will it move generation by generation into true maturity in Christ. So the teaching of the church must be continuous.”
This is where the Christian university finds its place as the servant of the church. Our mission at Johnson University is framed by the Great Commission because we understand our calling from God to assist the church in “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” The university is not the church, but rather has a specific context and calling from God to support the teaching ministry of the church. At Johnson University, we believe that we are called to serve the church by: 1) cultivating biblical knowledge and theological depth; 2) helping the church effectively understand and engage their communities for Christ; and 3) developing strong servant-leaders for various roles within the church and the community. The goal of all three of these strategic priorities is to “equip for every good work” and “extend the kingdom of God among all nations.”
Cultivating a Strong Biblical Foundation
Johnson’s curriculum is structured to accomplish these goals. Every undergraduate bachelor’s program contains the equivalent of a major (30+ credits) in Bible and theology. First and foremost, students must be equipped to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). From its inception, Johnson has placed the study of Scripture at the center of its educational philosophy and practice. Regardless of professional discipline, one who desires to extend the kingdom of God among all nations must be equipped to understand and apply the Bible in her or his individual life and work. As professors lead students through a comprehensive and systematic study of the Bible, students learn the content of their faith, are shaped by a biblical worldview, and practice the integration of their faith convictions in every area of their studies. The Christian university supplements what students learn in their local churches by providing a historical and theological depth of understanding of the Scriptures that the local church is often not equipped to reach. The Christian university can also help the student explore significant biblical and theological questions, theories, and perspectives in an academic climate while providing a “safety net”–professors and other students who are committed to Christ and the spiritual welfare of each student.
The second aspect of Johnson’s curriculum focuses on cultural engagement. The substantial (50+ credits) Arts and Sciences core helps students understand culture (their own and others), communicate across cultural divides, and impact individuals and communities for Christ through their witness and service “among all nations.” Courses such as history, philosophy, the natural and social sciences, languages, and communication equip students to integrate their biblical worldview with a study of their world. Churches need to cultivate the ability to analyze their communities–the place in which God has planted them. The failure of a local congregation to understand its context, the people in its orbit, and the issues, obstacles, and struggles of its neighbors will lead to isolation and decline of that congregation. It will fail in its mission to make disciples of all nations. The Christian college and university serves the church by equipping students to engage human communities in meaningful ways, to reveal blind spots, and to create new opportunities to reach others for Christ. It also provides sound scholarship to help churches face the inevitable challenges within contemporary society.
The third way the Christian university serves the church is through leadership development. Johnson does this in a general way through intentional formation opportunities such as chapel, small groups, mentoring, and spiritual direction. All of the courses of study emphasize the core Christian actions of faith, prayer, and work. The curriculum supports leadership development through its varied professional programs (30+ credits). Whether preparing students for congregational ministries or strategic vocations, the emphasis is upon cultivating the qualities and skills of servant-leadership. Congregations not only are supplied with well-educated vocational ministers for a diversity of roles, but also with well-equipped elders, deacons, teachers, youth workers, and ministry leaders. These servant-leaders are also engaged within their workplaces and communities to be salt and light, and to attract others to Jesus through their personal example, faithful work, and loving service.
It is important to note that as the Christian university fulfills its ministry as a servant of the church in biblical teaching, cultural engagement, and leadership development, it does not replace or supplant the church as God’s primary instrument of the work of evangelism and discipleship. Each Christian university is unique in its context, calling, and mission, and supports the church with its skills, resources, and expertise using a variety of approaches and educational philosophies. It holds a very important place in God’s economy and, as it fulfills its calling and mission, becomes a genuine “partner in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5) with local congregations.