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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 133–142 

Scholars as Servants of the Church

Gerald Gerbrandt

I have for years been intrigued by the question of how—and I speak of “how” rather than “whether”—Christian scholars serve the church and its mission. Yet addressing the question is challenging and risky. It is challenging both because the issue is inherently complex, and because battles that have been fought around it all too frequently have resulted in set positions and language which tend to interfere with good thinking and communication. The tendency is to fairly quickly pigeonhole other people’s views into preconceived categories, often accepted without due reflection, without fully entering into the conversation.

To pit academic freedom against responsibility to serve the church is logically problematic and strategically unhelpful.

The sensitive nature of the issue, combined with the strong and hardened positions on the topic, also makes it somewhat risky to enter the conversation. Take, for example, the passionate debate which erupted after the board of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) decided that all employees were expected to “ ‘affirm and uphold their commitment and support’ of the Confession of Faith and EMU’s ‘Philosophy, Mission Statement, Community Lifestyle Commitment.’ ” 1 The report on the board’s decision in The Mennonite was followed in the subsequent {134} issue by an editorial supporting the board’s action, and then quickly over the next few issues by twenty letters in response, some with multiple signatures. 2 Some understood the action as the appropriate action of the church exercising its responsibility to make sure that its institution and employees taught the faith correctly; others understood it as a violation and undermining of the academic freedom of faculty. The feelings were intense and strong, with limited empathy by most for positions other than their own. Given the depth of the emotion, and the set positions, entering that debate was a risky proposition.

Yet it is a discussion that needs attention. Scholarship has a crucial contribution to make to the church. In order for it to make this contribution, however, its role must be more commonly understood, even as its responsibilities or limitations are recognized. As a contribution to that conversation I will suggest five theses. But first a few words about scholarship in general.


The task of scholarship is one integrally bound up in the nature of the university, even if not necessarily limited to those working in a university. 3 Although the language may vary, it is common to speak of a university as having three tasks: (1) the preservation of knowledge, (2) the dissemination of knowledge, (3) the advancement of knowledge. 4 Scholarship is a contribution to this third task, distinct from the first two.

Scholarship is the task which most sharply distinguishes the university from other educational institutions and programs, such as elementary and secondary schools, vocational institutions, or Sunday school programs. It is the disciplined, systematic and careful examination of any aspect of our world and life in it. The objective of scholarship is learning something new or previously unrecognized about the matter, something which can be shared and tested with others, eventually to become part of the knowledge to be preserved and disseminated. Through scholarship we come to better understand our environment and physical context, how humans and society work, and how to improve our world, with the countless different disciplines each making its own particular and unique contribution.


1. All Christian scholars, regardless of their employment context, have a responsibility to practice their scholarship as Christians.

A Christian faith which is only a Sunday faith does not mean much. Just like the Christian faith must inform how the social worker or the {135} business person approaches their vocation from Monday to Saturday, so it must inform the work of scholarship. The conviction that a loving God created the world and those of us who live in it, and that this God remains interested and active in this world does make a difference in one’s scholarship. Precisely how this conviction affects one’s scholarly work is a knotty question about which sincere Christians can disagree. But the conviction that “the Christian account of life and reality is comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central” 5 compels many Christian scholars, whether mathematicians, biologists, theologians or psychologists, “to perceive their scholarly endeavors as concrete expressions of Christian discipleship.” 6

Having said this, I recognize that the context within which the scholar is employed does make a difference in how explicitly and publicly this connection may be made. Clearly, someone working in a church-related institution where the institution and its owners share this commitment and expect its researchers to reflect this commitment can approach this differently than someone working in a public institution in which a commitment like this may be considered inappropriate. Nevertheless, Christian scholars in both contexts can be expected to have their faith influence how they exercise their scholarly mandate.

2. Scholars at church-related universities have a mandate to do scholarship for the church.

All Christian scholars have a responsibility to practice their scholarship as Christians. But those scholars working at church-related universities should be understood to have a formal mandate to contribute to the church through scholarship. After commending the board of Eastern Mennonite University for its decision referred to above, Everett Thomas, editor of The Mennonite, remarks, “It is a reasonable assumption that those who represent the owners . . . have every right to maintain expectations of their employees.” 7 I fully agree. But are we explicit on what those expectations are? Clearly they include the tasks of remembering (i.e., preservation of knowledge) and passing on the knowledge and wisdom and faith from one generation to the next (i.e., dissemination of knowledge).

But the university has an additional responsibility. Alice Gallin, the Catholic educator, speaks of the research activities of universities as part of their “service to the church,” consistent with the commonly used phrase that the university “is the place where the church does its thinking.” 8 This phrase may be elitist and offensive if it is taken to imply that it is only in the university where the church thinks. As I argue below, {136} thinking not only can but must take place in the church outside of the university. Yet at the same time, those who have had extensive training in a discipline, and who have been appointed by a church-related university to teach and do research, have a clear and public mandate to think carefully and systematically about all of life.

I would encourage the church (any church which has universities, but in this context especially the Mennonite denominations) to follow up on Thomas’s statement by more explicitly and publicly authorizing the faculty at its schools to make a contribution through scholarship. This is needed not first of all so that these schools can with integrity claim to be “universities,” although that is also the case, but because the church needs its schools to play a central and leading role in the communal search for truth and wisdom. Given the complexity of life today, and the need for the Christian church, including the Mennonite church, to think carefully about what it means to be a faithful people in our time, the church desperately needs Christian scholarship—disciplined, systematic and rigorous thinking—in its colleges, universities, and seminaries. In this process all aspects of life—the assumptions and traditions of society, the faith and traditions of the church, as well as the customs and “givens” of the university—must be put under the microscope. Faculty at our church institutions thus must ask difficult and uncomfortable questions, not because they have a right or freedom to do so, but because it is their responsibility and assignment.

It is necessary to be explicit and public about this mandate because all too often the church has been very hesitant and even suspicious about this role. It feels much safer to have the schools focus primarily on the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, rather than on the advancement of knowledge. The personal accounts of Anabaptist scholars in Minding the Church highlight some of the stresses and tensions that can result from attempting to do scholarship for the church. 9 Mark Noll, church historian at Wheaton College, opens a recent book with the provocative statement, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. . . . Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American Evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.” 10

In order for this to change, in order for the church to be prepared to meet the intellectual and practical challenges of the twenty-first century, it is necessary that both the church and its scholars (especially, but not only, those of its own institutions) recognize this responsibility. The church will be the big loser if this does not happen. {137}

3. Responsibility to the church and academic freedom should not be pitted against each other.

I have spoken of the responsibilities of the scholar thus far without using the phrase which has come to represent the protection of scholars to fulfill these responsibilities, namely “academic freedom.” I now introduce it into the conversation. Academic freedom is not an inherent freedom, nor a constitutionally protected freedom (neither in the U.S. or Canada), but a tradition or convention developed to protect scholars from undue interference in their fulfilling the task of advancing knowledge. Unfortunately, it is a frequently misunderstood tradition, especially outside of the university, but sometimes also inside the institution.

Anthony J. Diekema, former president of Calvin College, has done some very helpful thinking about academic freedom in Christian institutions. Academic freedom, he suggests, is “a fundamental principle of the academy designed to protect professors from those forces which tend to prevent them from meeting their obligations in the pursuit of truth.” 11 As such, Christian institutions should work hard to protect it since only then will they be “free to do what they are called to do—to search for truth and advance our knowledge and understanding.” 12 Diekema goes on to nuance in considerable detail what it means to practice academic freedom in a Christian setting. Yet his central point remains that academic freedom is not in tension with serving the church, but rather a necessary convention so that the Christian university can fulfill its responsibility to the church.

To pit academic freedom against responsibility to serve the church is logically problematic and strategically unhelpful. I refer once more to the debate resulting from the decision of the board of EMU that all employees were to “affirm and uphold their commitment and support” of the confession of faith and the school’s official statements. The initial action may not have been about academic freedom, yet quickly that became the issue. Some of the twenty letters which appeared in The Mennonite made some excellent contributions, yet all too often the debate came across as a dispute between those who maintained that it was only logical that the church should expect its employees to uphold the church’s positions, and those who defended academic freedom for faculty. The editorial, for example, was titled “Church Beliefs vs. Academic Freedom.”

When the debate is framed this way, the tendency is to create a “straw person” on the other side. There were those who, through reading the letters in The Mennonite, received new light on the subject. But my fear is that the debate may have contributed to a hardening of {138} positions, or the confirmation of what might be called a “straw person” mentality:

Academics are those people who believe in absolute academic freedom, who defend a right to think and say anything they wish, regardless how unreasonable or irresponsible it may be.

Church leaders are those people who believe in unchanging dogma which cannot be questioned in any way, and which the church’s educators, even in colleges and universities, are expected to pour into the heads of the next generation.

When set up in this way, the debate tends not to produce light, but rather to hide it.

4. The advancement of knowledge is a communal task.

Despite the central and leading role of scholarship in the ongoing search for truth and its practical implications, and the need for academic freedom to protect scholars in fulfilling this responsibility, scholars are not the sole or final arbiters of truth for the church. The Anabaptist emphasis on the hermeneutical community is a helpful reminder here. The debate over the authority of Scripture is often really a debate over who is able to give authoritative interpretation of Scripture. In this debate, the Anabaptist tradition has represented an alternative to the usual models, though how different could be debated. At the risk of oversimplification, authoritative interpretation does not lie simply with the scholars (perhaps the tendency of historic Reformed and Lutheran traditions), nor with the church hierarchy (the historic Roman Catholic tradition), nor with the individual (perhaps at one time the tendency of Evangelical groups, but now prevalent in most contemporary North American congregations). Rather, authoritative interpretation of Scripture, as well as other reflection about God, the world, and how Christians are to live in the world, takes place in the community as it practices faithfulness to God.

This tradition, and these alternatives, also come into play in the relationship of scholarship and the church. The temptation for scholars is to see themselves as the ones who, through their scholarship, determine new insight and knowledge, whether as part of some disciplinary-structured scholarly guild, or as influenced by an individualistic understanding of academic freedom. Ironically, at this point defense of academic {139} freedom sounds very much like defense of the individual’s right to interpret Scripture. The temptation for church structures, even in Mennonite denominations, is to become a kind of magisterium, pronouncing what truth scholarship is to confirm. Both temptations are understandable, but both are problematic. Rather, the Anabaptist tradition would suggest that Christian scholars should do their research in continual dialogue with the larger community in the church.

Scholars in their scholarship serve the church as they fulfill their unique mandate of being the critical thinkers within the hermeneutical community. On the one side, the mandate of scholars should be clear; on the other side, they do it not as those with final say or as individuals but as part of a community. The difficult task then is developing creative and practical models or structures which generate the kind of conversation needed in order for the advancement of knowledge to be a truly communal process. Admittedly, it is easier to say how such conversation should not take place, than how it should. It should, for example, not vitiate the scholarly mandate, nor lead to academic subservience to external structures, whether these be church hierarchy or governors (linking governance and accountability arrangements are less than ideal), nor simple obeisance to dogma even when represented by documents as commendable as the Confession of Faith of the U.S. and Canadian Conferences of the Mennonite Brethren Churches and the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

Some might suggest that the give and take of academic debate might fill this role, but there are problems with this as well. This is both because academics as a group are as susceptible to groupthink and political correctness (even if of its own flavor) as any other group in the church, and because the Anabaptist emphasis on discipleship and practice means that accountability has to incorporate both theoreticians and activist practitioners. A key agenda for both church and church university, therefore, is to try to find more effective ways for scholars in the church to fill their unique role in a manner truly accountable.

In this context it is helpful to note that the advancement of knowledge inevitably is accompanied by many mistakes and dead-end streets. Scholarship inevitably includes the element of testing theories, some of which will over time be confirmed, others of which will be found inadequate or wrong. This is true whether the subject is psychology, theology, or literary theory. In other words, although normally I do not like to speak of “rights,” scholars have a “right to be wrong.” I am confident that if the church’s scholars are never wrong, or allowed to be wrong, they will not contribute helpfully to the wonderful process of the church {140} determining how it must creatively serve as God’s agents in the world.

This recognition should give some humility to all scholars when they promote their positions and conclusions. But it also is a reminder that mistakes and errors are a necessary part of the process of moving forward, and not necessarily evidence of some major problem. The larger church community, both fellow scholars and those not part of the scholarly community, have a vital role to play in this testing of scholarship.

5. Scholarship for the church is a task not limited to those in biblical or theological disciplines or in church-related institutions.

The tendency within the Mennonite community has been for the church, and frequently its scholars, to assume that scholarship for the church came primarily from those in the biblical and theological disciplines (with support from those in historical studies) teaching at one of its own schools. These scholars have made very significant contributions to the church’s task of developing a continuously-evolving response to its situation.

But this circle of scholarship is too small. It must be intentionally enlarged. Christian scholars in institutions not related to the church should be invited to be part of the conversation. As I argued earlier, they also are called to do their scholarship as Christians, and their more secular context will give them a valuable background and perspective as the church discerns how to be faithful in an increasingly secular context.

Further, nontheologians must be included in the conversation and given prime seats at the table. Those at church-related universities are equally “employees of the church” with the mandate to help the church think. 13 This is not a concession but a recognition that these scholars with their different disciplines and styles are necessary partners in the task. Interestingly, of the sixteen Anabaptist scholars who contributed to the volume Minding the Church, only two were theologians employed by Anabaptist schools. And yet, each demonstrated their important role in the task.


The question of scholarship and the church is a relatively new one for Mennonites. Although we have had colleges for over a century, our participation in true scholarship has been relatively limited. With the exception of some careful work on our own story, and some contributions in biblical and theological studies, our colleges have tended to {141} focus on the preservation and dissemination of knowledge rather than the advancement of knowledge. That is changing, as it should. Our relative inexperience in this area, both as a church and as universities, suggests we will experience some tensions as we increase our participation in the scholarly enterprise.

The danger is that these tensions will push the scholar and the church apart. If that happens, both will be the poorer for it. In order to avoid this, authentic, careful conversation is needed in which participants do not hide behind either academic freedom or confessions of faith, even though both have their place. If such conversation happens, scholars have the potential to be servants of the church, helping the church to be more faithful to the God of truth in dynamic times.


  1. Quoted in “EMU Adopts Denominational Positions,” The Mennonite, 7 January 2003, 6.
  2. Everett J. Thomas, “Church Beliefs vs. Academic Freedom,” The Mennonite, 21 January 2003, 32.
  3. The terms “university” and “college” have somewhat different connotations in Canada and the U.S. Although in neither country do the terms have narrowly technical meanings, in Canada the term “college” tends to refer to technical institutions or those emphasizing vocational skills training, where limited if any research is expected of faculty. In the U.S. the term “college” is used more broadly, including institutions which in Canada might be considered “undergraduate universities,” e.g., Tabor College, Bethel College. More recently some Canadian provinces have come to use the phrase “university college” for smaller, undergraduate institutions. In this essay I will use the term “university” for all academically oriented post-secondary institutions, including seminaries, those called “colleges” in the U.S., and “university colleges” in Canada. Although the research expectations of graduate universities may be more intense than those of undergraduate universities or colleges, nevertheless they share along with seminaries the expectation that {142} faculty will contribute to the advancement of knowledge through their research.
  4. I use the term “knowledge” in this essay with as broad a meaning as possible. It thus serves as a summary term for what might in other contexts be distinguished among information, skills, and wisdom.
  5. Robert Benne regularly uses this phrase for the Christian approach to reality as reflected in teaching and scholarship, in Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 57, et al.
  6. David Weaver-Zercher, “Introduction: Scholarship? In the Anabaptist Tradition?” in Minding the Church: Scholarship in the Anabaptist Tradition, ed. David Weaver-Zercher (Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2002), 18-20.
  7. Thomas, 32.
  8. Alice Gallin, Negotiating Identity: Catholic Higher Education Since 1960 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 101.
  9. David Weaver-Zercher, ed., Minding the Church.
  10. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.
  11. Anthony J. Diekema, Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 9. He speaks of it as a freedom which is always limited, a contextualized freedom, a responsible freedom (p. 4). It does not give a faculty the absolute right to say anything they please.
  12. Diekema, 4.
  13. James Harder eloquently makes this case in his article, “The ‘Ana-baptist School’ of Economics: Problems and Proposals,” Minding the Church, 126-39.
Gerald Gerbrandt is President of Canadian Mennonite University. Prior to this position he served Canadian Mennonite Bible College (one of the schools which merged with Concord College and Menno Simons College to form CMU) as Admissions Counsellor, Professor of Bible, Academic Dean, and President. He completed his Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in Old Testament.
This essay is based on a presentation made to Mennonite Scholars and Friends at the annual sessions of the American Academy of Religion and Society Biblical Literature in Atlanta, Georgia, November 22, 2003.

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