Whew! Quite a saga at Azusa Pacific University over the last 6 months. You can read about the previous events here, but the latest development is that APU has, again, removed a ban on same-sex romantic relationships; the latest in a series of flip flops for the self-proclaimed Evangelical Christian university. This is what activists, like Brave Commons, a group dedicated to pressuring Christian universities to approve of homosexual and transgendered lifestyles, had been pushing for since last year.

Some, like university Provost, Mark Stanton, point to the re-removal of the ban as a commitment to “uniform standards of behavior for all students”. I suppose that’s because if a heterosexual couple can hold hands on campus, a homosexual couple should be able as well. Still others, like Franklin Graham and Brett Kunkle, have questioned APU’s commitment to Biblical truth, and have advised that Christians “steer clear of Azusa Pacific University“.

What to make of the turmoil?

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a current employee and Seminary graduate of APU. Having grown up in the area, and now that my family is growing, having the privilege of getting to know many new families and friends in the community, I see that APU has a big impact on the Christian community of the San Gabriel Valley and southern California. There are a lot of ties, dependence, and hope in this academic community. So I am certain that I am not alone in caring for the direction of Azusa Pacific University.

What the flip flopping of APU tells me is that this is an institution experiencing an identity crisis of sorts. The history of APU is one of shifting and repositioning itself within Christendom. The simple Training School for Christian Workers, which was a Bible school training missionaries, has become a liberal arts university with over 100 types of degrees that does not require its students to profess a belief in Christianity.

As living expectations and campus policies have evolved, this fork in the road has been approaching. What I mean is that APU’s ethos may be inherently susceptible to polarization. Its service to its Christian student body may be compromised by its service to its non-Christian student body; or vice versa. It all depends on what APU ultimately seeks to foster.

What is a Christian Liberal Arts University?

In other words, how can a university be open to all, yet foster the Christian faith more than any other non-Christian school. In APU’s words, they promote “curriculum across academic disciplines (that) explores topics infused by faith”. I’m not sure what the means, but I can only see two options:

Does APU want to foster an unabashedly Christian community whose goal is to build the faith of its Christian students through community and scholarship, while allowing non-Christian students to taste the beauty and goodness of God and the Gospel?

Or does APU want to be a prestigious academic institution that draws students of all religious backgrounds, yet somehow expects to force aspects of Christianity into its curriculum and community activity?

The former appears to be the most faithful to APU’s commitment to Evangelicalism. The latter appears to be one that would only call for more and more aspects of the Christian faith to be compromised or trivialized for the sake of “inclusivity” and “fair treatment” of its students. For example, I could imagine a student who is not Christian argue that chapel attendance (a current requirement) is unfair or oppressive, then see the requirement be removed.

While its possible that a Christian community dedicated to fostering disciples of Christ can be a prestigious academic institution, this is becoming increasingly difficult with academia requiring Christians to leave more and more aspects of their faith at home before arriving at school. The identity of APU must be made clear and must be decided soon.

The Growing Plea for Traditional Evangelical Christianity

Since this saga began, there have been plenty of external critics of APU’s changes. What I hope people understand is that there are a large number of current staff and faculty, as well as alumni, who are pleading for APU to make firm their commitment, in policy and practice, to traditional, orthodox Christianity, in more than just student policies on holding hands.

When the first major student policy change was made public, a leaked email of professor Barbara Harrington to the board was made public. In it, she states:

More and more, it seems clear that various spirits of the age are being raised up at APU, such that the God of traditional Biblical understanding, and what He asks of us, is being redefined. As Christian scholars – historians, theologians, philosophers, scientists – we know where this path leads. The loss of “God First” means APU stops progressing and loses itself and its defining character in a wave of change. It becomes a university indistinguishable from so many others who are sinking in the “messy middle” of post-modern confusion.

Professor Harrington laments that “that something very beautiful could be lost here at APU if something is not done soon to reconnect the university to its essential identity”

More recently, Brave Commons published another leaked email from professor Ryan Montague, who details some anecdotal, yet credible details of how the university has allowed its faculty and staff members to let APU drift from its mission of fidelity to the Biblical truth and Christian teachings. In it, he asks the question:

Do I work for a Christian, God First, university that stands for all that the Bible states and all that God instructs or do I work for a university that compromises with culture?

Do I work for a God First university that holds tightly to the Word of God or do I work for a liberal arts university that allows for Christianity?

Do I work for a university that fears the Lord or do I work for a university that fears people?

Because at this point, it seems like the latter. On paper, on the website, and on the trolley’s it’s God First. But in the midst of decision making it’s compromise after compromise with culture and fearing backlash from students or public.

Professor Montague expresses hope that, “hard times prime people for change”. And I am similarly hopeful.

I have also heard about communication within the Free Methodist Church to APU staff and faculty to encourage them to stand with the university in charity and love through these changes, but to advocate for the commitment to orthodox Christianity.

The more I talk to colleagues and alumni, I hear the same hopes: that APU would stop cowering away from taking strong stances on Christian orthodoxy and not allow the activist pressures to sway the direction of the university and its community.

All this to say that there are large numbers of Christians with attachments and commitments to the APU community who are not supportive of the deterioration of basic Christian principles within the university. Alumni who hope their time at APU was not in vain, current staff and faculty members who hope their work builds the Kingdom of God, and even parents who consider APU a potential college for their students, have all expressed and pleaded their desire for a university that will not shy away from fostering a faithful Christian academic community.

This is really the most that we could hope for; that anyone affiliated with APU would let the Board of Trustees know that this is not what the community wants. This is not what is good for the future of a university who seeks to put “God First”, and presumably, also His work and His will.

As always, I urge you to join me in emailing the Board of Trustees ([email protected]) and let them know your thoughts regarding the direction of APU. In the very near future (next couple of months), it is believed that the next president of APU will be selected. You can also email the Presidential Search Committee ([email protected]) and let them know your thoughts on the next president. A president who understands faithfulness to traditional Christianity as essential to the mission of APU can go a long way in working with the board to right this ship. Please pray for this community in this time. As the waves of modernity continue to hit different communities at different times, ask God to keep us afloat.

Chris Saenz
Chris Saenz is the founder of Post-Christian Era. He has a Master's Degree in Biblical Studies and more than a decade of church work in teaching, worship, and discipleship across many church settings and denominations. He and his wife and three children live in the Los Angeles area (Covina, CA).