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The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom: Truth-Seeking in Community

William C. Ringenberg
Published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016

William C. Ringenberg’s The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom: Truth-Seeking in Community is a helpful read for academics and academic administrators, whether employed at faith-based or secular institutions. The author maps out tensions that arise around academic and religious freedom and, using case studies and historical insights, brings clarity and balance to what can be contentious terrain. The book has been particularly helpful to a task force on academic freedom at Trinity Western University (TWU), in Langley, Canada, where we are living out many of the tensions described by Ringenberg.1 This review begins with a description of the book, followed by a contextual engagement with Ringenberg’s ideas in relation to a much-publicized controversy—including a series of court challenges and a November 2017 Supreme Court of Canada hearing—surrounding TWU’s proposed law school, the freedom of religion, and LGBTQ rights.

Academic Freedom and Christian Higher Education

The preface and epilogue of The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom serve as excellent introduction and conclusion to the book’s main arguments, and reading these draws one into the nuanced middle chapters. In the first section, Ringenberg devotes a chapter each to ten values that inform academic freedom: freedom, seeking, honesty, humility, courage, prudence, love, meaning, harmony and balance, and community. In the second section, he traces the development of academic freedom as influenced by various models: the British model with its Anglican dominance; the German model with its secular dominance; the early American model with its Protestant dominance; and the later American model with its secular hegemony. In the third section, Ringenberg analyzes recent cases that have tested academic freedom in Christian higher education, specifically those related to the origin debate (one of the longest standing debates), the sexual identity debate (the greatest current controversy), and debates about the relationship between church and academia.

Ringenberg rightly establishes that academic freedom is not an end in itself, but rather a vehicle for the truth-seeking that marks the central mandate of a university, and in the case of Christian higher education, the incarnational journey of Christian discipleship. Ringenberg observes that academic freedom is an ideal that is difficult to achieve fully at any institution, whether secular or faith- affiliated. He maps out a continuum whereby indoctrination (as the antithesis of the intellectual engagement required for academic freedom) can occur at religious and secular institutions (in Table 1, xx). At one end is the religious college that sees itself as defender of the faith, is heavily oriented toward study of one faith, and with a teaching ethos of considerable indoctrination. At the other end is the secular university that sees itself as a discourager of the faith, limits or ignores study of religion of any sort, and likewise carries a teaching ethos of considerable indoctrination, even if not recognizing it as such. In the center of the continuum, the more moderate, desirable approaches at religious and secular universities hold openness, discernment, and fairness to multiple views as seekers of truth. Where universities can achieve this open orientation, they are reflective of José Casanova’s view of secularism as pluralism, rather than secularism as neutrality that is free of the influence of religion.2

Ringenberg is clear that at a Christian university the institutional mission is preeminent. A Christian university begins with an institutional commitment to a Christian worldview and then invites into its community of learning those scholars who choose this worldview as the framework through which they can best find truth. Within such an approach to academic freedom, there is a degree of obligation for faculty to “fit” to the university and its mission; that is, academic freedom is balanced with academic responsibility. If the book is also to speak to secular universities, the argument could be made more clearly that academic freedom in such institutions must also be enacted within the institutional mission, with a corresponding fit between faculty and the institution.

Due process is of importance to academic freedom in either secular or Christian context; indeed, Ringenberg sees due process as the most important consideration because it lies at the heart of Christian community (he quotes John 13:35 – “by this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”). Citing failures in academic freedom at ten Christian institutions, Ringenberg concludes, “the most serious violation of academic freedom in a Christian college is to be unjust in the conduct of its personnel procedures” (217). He explains that due process requires (i) a well-developed statement of academic freedom in the creation of which there was broad faculty participation, (ii) an institutional com- mitment to faculty participation in decision-making on major issues, and (iii) a vehicle for hearing faculty and student concerns.

As another strength of the book, Ringenberg does not shy away from the ten- sions that can arise in the context of academic freedom. For the most part, these tensions are presented by Ringenberg as dialectics rather than binaries. Three examples illustrate the importance of avoiding polarizing opposites in any serious attempt at ensuring academic freedom:

Individual academic freedom and institutional religious freedom. Ringenberg notes that, in the secular realm, by far the dominant conversation on academic freedom references that of the individual professor. In contrast, at Christian institutions, discussions on academic freedom typically foreground the religious freedom of the institution, sometimes to the detriment of academic freedom. Quoting the author, “while some Christian institutions have a reputation for emphasizing institutional freedom above and even against individual freedom, this is not desirable” (96). Rather, a common respect for all stakeholders (the institution, faculty, and students) must be evident in the shared enactment of an institutional mission.

Defense of the faith and pursuit of truth. Ringenberg differentiates between church and university, describing this relationship as complementary and conflicted. He describes the church’s role as primarily priestly (defense of the faith) and the university’s as primarily prophetic (pursuit of truth) (173). This dialectic takes various forms, such as the tension between indoctrination and intellectual engagement; an emphasis on inerrancy or interpretation; or focus on the Word of God or Jesus as Logos. Ringenberg dedicates a chapter to explicating how theological nuances can become flashpoints for academic freedom debates. Here his distinction between primary and secondary matters of doctrine, a theme that runs through the book, is vitally important.

Primary and secondary matters of doctrine. By Ringenberg’s characterization, primary matters tend toward “what we promote,” whereas secondary matters tend toward “what we prohibit.” Primary matters emphasize what is at the center of the Christian faith, the incarnation of Jesus. Secondary matters, when used as a basis for membership within the academic community, are by Ringenberg’s measure unnecessary and often “counterproductive to Christian unity, academic collegiality, and an unfettered search for truth” (232). Further, he notes that it is not matters of primary theology (the center) that are currently under threat (that is, secularism is not threatening Christian institutions’ belief in the incarnation), but rather it is the defenses of secondary issues that most detract from the center.

In the remainder of this review, I explore the applicability of The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom, from the particular (Canadian) vantage point of Trinity Western University.

A Canadian Reading: The Case of Trinity Western University

Ringenberg writes from an American perspective with a focus on Protestant Christian higher education, on the one hand making distinctions from “mainline” colleges and drawing few examples from Catholic institutions, and on the other hand extending his discussion beyond those colleges that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. With this positioning, the views he puts forth are for the most part in line with the irenic approach of Canadian Christian universities.3

Many of the tensions described by Ringenberg are being lived out firsthand at Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C. The university was founded more than 50 years ago by the Evangelical Free Churches of Canada and America. TWU currently offers 43 undergraduate majors and 17 graduate programs, with a student body of 4000 students. A decade ago, we worked through the evolution debate and the academic freedom of scientists, with internal discussion (including with community constituents) largely away from the public eye. The university is currently in the center of a much-publicized controversy about whether it can offer a law degree. At the heart of the debate is the matter of same-sex marriage, which is prohibited in the university’s community covenant, a code of conduct that all students and faculty are required to sign. In this context, Ringenberg’s dialectics of religious freedom and academic freedom, and primary and secondary matters of theology, resonate in how academic freedom is being lived out at TWU. His analysis uncovers not only how complex academic freedom can be, but also how to remain faithful to the calling of Christian higher education and to academic freedom even in the face of this complexity.

While TWU is defending its (institutional) religious freedom in a series of court cases, a timely conversation on (individual) academic freedom is underway with a joint task force struck by the University President and University Senate. Ringenberg notes that any time institutional freedom is foregrounded, a chilling effect can occur for individual academic freedom (for example, faculty can be afraid to criticize the university’s position publicly). In our case, the academic freedom task force is providing a vital vehicle for examining academic freedom at the university at the very time when faculty could—by Ringenberg’s observation—experience a suppression of academic freedom.

The question of suppression of academic freedom at faith-based universities has been contentious in Canada. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) argues that statements of faith required as a condition of employment for professors teaching in faith-based universities are a serious violation of academic freedom.4 On this point, Ringenberg (as others; see, for example, Hiebert 20105 and Walz 20176) makes the case that Christian institutions can, paradoxically, allow for greater academic freedom than secular institutions, noting secular blind spots to do with religious ideas (he devotes a chapter to such restrictions at secular universities). In his even-handed manner, Ringenberg does not shy away from equivalent blind spots that may exist at Christian institutions, many of which relate to the dialectic of primary and secondary theological matters.

Ringenberg frames sexual and gender identity as matters of secondary theology, a stance that will not sit well with Christian universities that promote a traditional view of marriage (that is, as between a man and a woman). When same-sex marriage is presented as a secondary matter of theology, the inference is that Christians can easily agree to disagree (although Ringenberg is not dismissive of theological nuance). Theologically, this positioning of sexual identity as a secondary level may be reasonable, but nonetheless working this out in a faith community can be complex and conflictual. With the commitment to biblical faithfulness that characterizes the TWU community, our experience in the earlier origins debate and the current sexual identity debate has highlighted that careful hermeneutic work is paramount, even when a matter is deemed as secondary. Biblical scholars and theologians must be called upon to guide interpretations of relevant scriptures, academic administrators and faculty carry the responsibility to examine critically their biblical interpretations and how the particular matter relates to their discipline and teaching, and a broad constituency should be invited into conversation regarding implications for community life.

Ringenberg goes further to suggest that employment contracts at Christian universities not call for concurrence on secondary issues, for the reason that greater collegiality, fewer academic freedom cases, and an improved learning environment would result (174). This recommendation directly relates to the current law school court case, in which it is TWU’s code of conduct and the statement on “the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman” that is being debated as a matter of (institutional) freedom of religion. In effect, the legal case has shifted the attention away from the hermeneutics of this secondary matter of theology to a case of freedom of religion.

These two points—the messiness of placing sexual identity as a secondary matter of doctrine, and the foregrounding of freedom of religion—are at the heart of how academic freedom is worked out at TWU. Ringenberg offers additional guidance on how to achieve policies that “blend openness, sensitivity, respect, religious liberty, and civil freedom” (170) that serves as further heuristic for our current situation at TWU:

• Ringenberg insists that Christian institutions stop denying the existence and suffering of LGBTQ members among them. TWU students who identify as LGBTQ have become more visible, primarily through the activities of One TWU,7 a network for LGBTQ students and alumni of TWU, as well as allies to such persons; however, more could be done to affirm their place within the university community. At a recent faculty professional development event, attention was given to the creation of hospitable classrooms for all minority students, including LGBTQ students.

• Ringenberg appeals for free exchange of ideas in the context of respect on the social and personal issue of same-sex orientation. Toward this end, TWU’s Gender Studies Institute in particular has been active in facilitating such dialogue. Likewise, a university-wide Faith and Reason Task Force on gender and sexuality (in 2013/2014) created space for exploration of dissenting views with four public lectures.

• Ringenberg holds that rather than positioning sexual identity as a win-lose proposition, governments, churches, and Christian universities need to work together to seek win-win results. Commentators have noted that the movement of the TWU law school application into the court system has left little room for a middle-ground or non-adversarial approach. Faculty have considered their responsibilities to the institutional mission in balance with academic freedom, and have exercised restraint in public critique of the university.

• Ringenberg suggests that Christian universities should enthusiastically support minority rights for same-sex marriage and provide freedom within their institutions for Christians to differ among themselves on this issue. He quotes Richard Cizik (board member of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality) in noting that “the sometimes-abusive language directed at LGBT citizens by our Evangelical Movement has led to a backlash against evangelicals and a diminution of our public witness. This can and must change” (170). This concern for public witness is shared by the TWU community, and there are, as Ringenberg would likely expect, differences of opinion on how this public witness is achieved.

• Ringenberg recommends that governments allow Christian universities space and time to continue their present pattern of becoming more progressive on their own, rather than by force or against their will. In the TWU case, the upcoming Supreme Court ruling will inform next steps. In the meantime, additional options exist for the university to support a recent Universities Canada policy that requires member institutions to implement non-discrimination policies.8

Readers might perceive that the above discussion has more to do with TWU’s religious freedom as an institution than with the academic freedom of TWU’s professors. The intent is to show the dialectical nature of institutional freedom and individual freedom, the tensions that can arise as Christian institutions affirm freedom of religion, and the responsibilities of institutions and individuals alike. Ringenberg astutely points to the need for an integrated view in Christian institutions, where both religious freedom and academic freedom are sought in humility and community. With this observation, the book title itself might more accurately reference both religious freedom and academic freedom.

To conclude, this application of Ringenberg’s book provides a contextualized appraisal of some of academic and religious freedoms at TWU, and Ringenberg is to be commended for the book’s extensiveness and insightfulness that facilitated this reflexive critique. Some of his points (such as the discussion of legislation) are particular to the U.S. context, but the majority of the book is applicable beyond those borders. His principles for academic freedom are especially meaningful for their embodiment of Christian values in the truth-seeking required of the academic enterprise. Ringenberg concludes that all universities do academic freedom imperfectly. Yet, it remains as an ideal to be worked out in each context: “So then, we do well to hold fast to Christ at the center and let that be the basis for fellowship, liberty, unity, harmony, and community in the ongoing quest to know as we are known” (234).

Cite this article
Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham, “The Christian College and the Meaning of Academic Freedom — An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 163–170


  1. This review has been prepared in conjunction with the TWU Academic Freedom Joint Task Force: Dr. Paul Chamberlain, Allan Kotanen, Sara Pasiciel, Dr. Myron Penner, Dr. Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham, Alina Roman, Dr. Arnold Sikkema (Chair), and Dr. Eve Stringham. The author is indebted to the scholarly and generous conversations that occurred within the Task Force, and to the support of the University’s academic administrators.
  2. José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
  3. Evangelicalism in Canada has been characterized as predominantly irenic, with Canadian evangelicals not as clustered into a political party as in the USA. For an expanded discussion, see Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson, A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).
  4. CAUT’s definition of academic freedom (“the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination”) is narrower than that of Universities Canada. CAUT maintains that universities violate academic freedom when they require academic staff to commit to a particular ideology or statement of faith as a condition of em- ployment (see Under procedures adopted by its Council, it investigates cases where universities impose a faith or ideological test, and lists these universities on a public webpage. Five faith-based universities are currently listed, including TWU, which was investigated in 2009.
  5. Al Hiebert, “Academic Freedom in Public and Christian Canadian Universities,” Christian Higher Education 9 (2010): 423-438.
  6. Jerald Walz, The Faculty Perceptions of Academic Freedom at Christian Colleges and Universities (Ph.D. diss., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2017).
  7. For more information on One TWU, see their Facebook page lgbttwu/about.
  8. University Affairs, “Canada’s Universities Approve Bylaw Change Committing Them to Non-discrimination,” October 27, 2016, accessed September 25, 2017. http://www. them-to-non-discrimination/.

Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham

Trinity Western University
Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham is Professor of Nursing and Director of the Master of Science in Nursing program at Trinity Western University.