Christ-Animated Learning could occur in plenty of unexpected domains. Consider student conduct codes. As part of a larger research project, I have spent time looking at 366 student conduct codes from Protestant colleges and universities in America. One would think that these codes would be an ideal place for some Christian moral education to occur. One would be wrong. In fact, it is sometimes hard to find God in the codes at all.
So what do you find? For many largely secularizing institutions with weak church connections, we uncovered a set of legal rules that do not even try to offer a moral vision. Here is one “inspiring” statement: “students are expected and required to obey the law, to comply with the policies of [name omitted] College and with directives issued by an administrative official in the course of their authorized duties.”
Next level institutions that want to provide something more inspiring offer a kind of generalized American moral vision that one would find at any pluralistic university. Students are often encouraged to adhere to a code such as the following: “As a member of the [name omitted] College community, I will uphold the values that ground our institution, and I will not lie, cheat, or steal.” At these institutions, there is no moral reasoning offered for why one should adhere to this rather basic moral vision.
At times, instead of a code of conduct or honor code, institutions will offer a pledge, which sounds a bit more sacred until one reads the pledge and realize it is simply a general bag of American virtues for everyone. (e.g., “I will endeavor to be the following: honest, truthful, dependable, trustworthy, treat everyone in my community with fairness and consideration, tolerant, loyal, reverent, and to respect others and myself”). Again, this moral vision lacks any distinctly Christian rationale.
Perhaps at times, an institution will try the Christianity-added approach that treats the Christian vision a bit like a cherry on an ice cream sundae (although I doubt students see the moral code like ice cream). Here is one campus creed: “As a member of [name omitted] University, I will hold myself to the highest standards of academic, personal and social integrity; respect the dignity of each individual; honor the University’s tradition and commitment to Judeo-Christian values; and serve others in our world community.” Apparently, students are intuitively supposed to know what Judeo-Christian values are.
Here’s another similar appeal:
On my honor, I pledge to abide by the [name omitted] University Honor Code: I understand that students of  are to be honest in words and actions and in particular, not to lie, cheat, plagiarize, or steal. I pledge to conduct myself in a manner based on Christian values and to require the same of fellow students. I understand that a violation of this Honor Code may result in my appearance before the Honor Council.
Somehow an appeal to general Christian values (the vaguest and most useless of moral terms) is to move one to moral action.
The absence of God from these kinds of pledges is particularly noteworthy in light of what studies have found about how these honor codes or pledges work. The main reason they are effective is that they prime students’ conscience (and therefore work best when required to be written on tests or written assignments). Interestingly, religious words prime students to cheat less.1
Now, some may argue that their institution should not be expected to appeal to God, since their institution admits students from all worldviews. The problem with this response is two-old. The study mentioned earlier about the priming effect of religious words applied to both religious and nonreligious students. Second, like the Israelites with foreign wives, institutions that secularize their code of conduct, honor code, etc. for non-Christians are allowing their hospitality to strangers to lead to a secular form of idolatry (i.e., secularization) and unfaithfulness. In the name of hospitality Christian institutions secularize their moral language.
Of course, one does not need to admit non-Christians to secularize. In fact many codes, even at more serious Christian institutions, focus on “A Vision for Our Common Life,” “Community Expectations,” “Community Standards, “Living in Community,” “Community Living,” etc. The moral reasoning offered in many of these lists is that students are expected to be motivated by concern for the Christian community and not necessarily a concern for God or His command to care for the community (e.g., “Students are expected to express their opinions and thoughts in ways which are appropriate in this Christian academic community”). Instead of teaching students to live “Coram Deo” (in the presence of God), they are taught to live “Coram Christian Community,” in which Community substitutes for God as the ultimate direction and being of accountability.
The more sophisticated and God-oriented Christian versions of student conduct codes provide Christian reasons for the various elements of the code using biblical or theological reasoning. Often they use the language of “pledge” or “covenant” and are quite clear about to whom the person agreeing or pledging is responsible. Here is what the Baptist Universities of America sets forth:
The Honor Code is a covenant that students make with one another, with the school, and with God. It is a sacred pledge to hold each other accountable to become a people whom God has transformed to take the transforming word to the world. “Before our Lord Jesus Christ, I, as a student of Baptist University of the Americas, pledge to honor God, my fellow students, and my school, with my mind, body and soul by reflecting Christ-likeness in academics and my relationships, committing to the values of integrity, honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility.”
Later, it includes a refreshing reminder, “We pledge to be a people of responsibility, for everyone must hold oneself accountable to God and to others.” Now that is reminding students to live Coram Deo.
Of course a Quaker institution like George Fox does not use a pledge (based on “let your yes be yes” Mt. 5:37). Still, George Fox provides a clear Christian rationale, “As members of this community, we must remember that our behavior reflects not only ourselves, but also other members of our community and our Lord Jesus. No matter where we are or who we are with, we represent Christ and the university in our words and action.” Although not a covenant or pledge, it points students to Christ.
Yet, making a pledge to or covenant with God, or hearing an admonition to remember that we are Christ’s ambassadors, still lacks something that could be included to help model Christian moral thinking. In every case we found, such admonitions rely on previously acknowledged authority and thus assume no motivation needs to be offered. As written, most moral admonitions to students do not follow the pattern of how God morally motivates His people throughout the biblical metanarrative.
How does God motivate us? The first thing God provides for moral motivation is a reminder that God has saved us. This approach is seen in the account of the Israelites (Ex. 20:2 before the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”), but also—and especially—in the New Testament epistles. The standard form of reasoning basically follows this pattern: Because God has redeemed you and made you a new creature (i.e., saved you from slavery to sin to transform you to a child of God), therefore…. (see the major transitions from telling God’s salvation work to moral admonitions at Rom. 12:1; Gal. 5:1; Eph. 4:1; Col. 2:16; 2 Thes 2:15). In this respect, James K.A. Smith creates a false dichotomy when he claims, “Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming a part of a different community with a different set of practices.” 2 Biblically speaking, it is actually both. The key is that the New Testament writers started discipleship by providing a narrative understanding/reminder of one’s changed identity in order to motivate a community’s moral change and action.
Are there any Christian college or university codes of conduct that actually model this kind of Christian moral reasoning in their code and remind students of these powerful Christian motivations for the moral life? Although there are 46 Christian universities with community covenants, many of them quite sophisticated, they all start by simply assuming students know salvation history and their identity in Christ and skip any motivating preamble (the good news that provides the motivation for Christian ethics).
I would like to hear if you think we missed a university covenant or community code that actually follows this biblical pattern for providing Christian moral motivation. Until one is found or written, I offer the following conclusion: It is a tragedy and distortion of the gospel that—when providing moral instruction to university students entrusted to our care—we have collectively forgotten to remind our students of the compelling reasons why we love God and others, engage in Christian practices, and seek to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1b). New Testament writers certainly did not neglect to provide the reasons!
- Brandon Randolph-Seng & Michael E. Nielsen, “Honesty: One Effect of Primed Religious Representations,” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 17, no. 4 (2007): 303-315. In a previous version of this blog, I mentioned a study by Mazar Amir and Ariely that divided 450 students into two groups. Researchers asked students to recall as many of the Ten Commandments as they could. They asked the other group to write down ten books they read in high school. They then asked the two groups to take a difficult mathematics test in which students were induced to cheat. The group that researchers asked to recall the ten books they read in high school cheated at the usual rate, but the group that they asked to recall the Ten Commandments, cheated at a much lower rate. Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty (New York: Harper, 2012) 39. However, it was pointed out to me that this study has not been replicated. See https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2515245918781032
- James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic 2009), 220.