It has become an evangelical substitute for a four-year liberal arts education.

This year we celebrate the one hundredth year of the Bible school movement in North America. From its tiny and unpromising beginning at Nyack (N.Y.) in 1882, it grew by 1960 to 248 schools and today numbers over 400. Its accrediting body, the American Association of Bible Colleges, includes 89 schools with 37,000 students.

As late as 1948, few granted degrees—only 3 of 43 schools accepted by the Bible College Association offered any degree work. A decade later (by 1960), 40 out of 49 schools offered degrees; by 1965, only three of the schools affiliated with the Bible college accrediting association did not offer degrees.

No one can deny the immense contribution made to evangelical higher education by the Bible colleges of the United States and Canada during the last quarter century. Their potential contribution for the future is even more impressive. Many have pointed out weaknesses or dangers in Bible college education of the past. But these weaknesses are being overcome, and the growing national importance and educational sophistication of the Bible college movement creates confidence that its schools will assume a greater and more significant role with each passing year.

Alongside growth in quality, size, and length of program has also come a change in purpose. The original purpose was largely to train lay people through evening courses and short-term programs. Across the years, the nature of the student body has gradually shifted until now (if we define a full-time Christian worker as one whose salary is paid by churches and their agencies) the majority of current Bible college students are enrolled in courses preparing for full-time Christian service. Certainly the appeal of Bible colleges for students is directly based on such a professional goal. And young people who come to our Bible colleges define their own vocational goals in terms of commitment to full-time Christian service.

For better or for worse, the Bible college has taken over post-high school Christian education for a vast segment of evangelical young people. It has become an evangelical substitute for a four-year liberal arts college education. Almost certainly, this role will only grow larger in the decade ahead. Before the end of the century, the Bible college movement may well prove to have been the wave of the future.

As concerned evangelicals, this leads us to ask two questions that I believe every responsible church leader, especially those who counsel young people, must ask and must seek to answer: (1) What are our Bible college students actually preparing for? (2) What kind of education best prepares such students for these tasks?

Article continues below
Identifying Goals

Approximately one-third of all Bible college graduates become pastors or missionaries. For many of them, Bible college serves as a preseminary course in preparation for their ministry. Either before they arrive, or more likely during the course of Bible college, they decide to complete their Bible college work with seminary training, usually a full three-year seminary program. Even more, with similar occupational goals, hope to secure an adequate training for their life’s work all within the Bible school curriculum of from three to five years. Others plan to be teachers in Christian elementary or high schools, or Bible teachers for released-time classes, or for home Bible studies. Some aspire to become church secretaries or assistant youth pastors or Christian education directors or ministers of music.

Many more expect to remain lay Christians. They want a four-year course that will prepare them to be effective church members. Still others are preprofessional students in all possible callings, who hope to move later into more formal preparation for their life’s profession but wish first to get a college education with solid training in Bible and related areas. These professional fields may vary from medicine to law to business to engineering to dentistry to chemistry, and so on.

A Danger

With such wide variations in the type of student seeking admission, the temptation for any school is to be all things to all students. This leads us to a preliminary exhortation to Bible schools and Bible school administrators.

1. Be honest. Do not merely refrain from lying, but rather provide straightforward, thoroughly honest advice to prospective students. If a student wishes to go to medical school and the Bible school has no premedical course and no record of getting its graduates into medical schools, say so frankly. Don’t say, “Well, you don’t have to have a premedical course to get into medical school,” or “We placed a premedical student five years ago” (both of which may be true). Give to every 17- or 18-year-old who inquires about where he should invest his educational years the kind of advice you would give to your own son or daughter. By refusing to hedge on this matter of basic, forthright honesty, an admissions officer may lose an occasional student here and there, but he and his school will gain immense credibility in the evangelical and academic community.

Article continues below

2. Do what you do well. The church of Jesus Christ requires the best-trained individuals for whatever employment our Lord calls them to. If we are engaged in the educational business, we are answerable to God for the quality of education we provide and advertise to students. To provide below-average or moderate-quality education for a student is not to do him a little service and to bring to him a modest benefit: it is to do both that student and the church of Jesus Christ an immense harm. The church needs the best, and it will only secure that if we provide for our students the best quality of education available.

Unfortunately, the high school graduate looking toward college counts the courses and programs rather than weighs them. But in the long run, only quality offerings in course work and programs really bring credit to a school. Bible colleges must resist the temptation to do everything. They must carefully and wisely choose their educational role, admit only students whose educational needs they can meet, and then do a superbly excellent job in the role to which God has called them.

How Can These Goals Be Met?

But what does all this mean for the educational process itself? What kind of education best meets the needs of students actually enrolling in our Bible colleges?

Bible colleges admit many students who plan to become pastors. Eventually they need professional seminary training. For them, Bible college should not provide a short-cut seminary program, but a preseminary college education. The student needs a general education in the liberal arts and sciences. If he does not get such a liberal education in college, he will never get it in seminary, and so the evangelical pastor will never get it at all. An educated evangelical ministry demands training in the arts and sciences, including six to eight hours in biological sciences and six to eight hours in physical sciences. These should not be courses in antievolution theory, but in the methodology of modern science. They should explore the nature of the world about us and be carried on at a mature level under Christian instructors. A liberally educated minister also needs courses in world literature, not just religious literature. He needs world history, not just church history; psychology, not just a biblical doctrine of man; introduction to philosophy, not just apologetics or Christian evidences. Fifty-four hours in the liberal arts and sciences are not enough for a Bible college preparing students heading for seminary and eventually for the ministry; 60 hours are barely enough.

Article continues below

The fact is, more and more the actual role of the Bible college is to provide preseminary instruction for students for the ministry who will continue their education at seminary. For many students, the Bible college presents them with their only opportunity to secure an integrated understanding of modern human culture—an understanding absolutely necessary for an effective ministry of leadership in today’s world. If the Bible colleges are taking responsibility for this portion of a pastor’s education, they must offer a high quality of basic instruction in the liberal arts and sciences. If they fail us here, our evangelical ministry will be culturally illiterate and the church of Jesus Christ will suffer accordingly.

A second large segment of students in Bible colleges today is composed of those who are preparing for Christian work for which a first-rate professional preparation can be given within a four- or five-year program. Many of these students are hoping to become youth workers or Christian education directors or ministers of music, or they plan to minister in our multiplying parachurch organizations both inside and outside the local church. Here again we must honestly ask the question: What sort of preparation is most needed for these individuals so that they will be best prepared to carry on their ministry in and for the church? Surely a basic core of the liberal arts and sciences is just as necessary for them as it is for preseminary students.

But they can also secure an adequate professional training with a four-, or at the most, five-year course through majors in the undergraduate department. The Bible school offering such a program must maintain rigorous professional standards, however. And if a fifth year is added, it must not be tacked on to elementary Bible courses because teachers would like to teach a few advanced courses. It must be added because it is needed for the effectiveness of the program, and then only if it can be offered on a graduate level comparable in quality to solid master’s programs at better university campuses.

A third group of students on our Bible college campuses is represented by those who wish a general college education with no professional training demanded. Their goal is to be effective Christians in the church. They are not going to a seminary. They are not going to be full-time paid workers in the church. They are not preparing for any specific profession. They want a Christian education because they want to prepare for life. They want to be effective servants of the church and effective witnesses for Jesus Christ as unpaid workers in the church.

Article continues below

Unfortunately, many students who really have precisely this sort of personal goal for their education will not admit it—sometimes not even to themselves. To many, it seems proper to say that they are going to Bible college to prepare for full-time Christian work, but it sounds irresponsible to say they are going there just to get an education to fit themselves for useful Christian lives. But a majority in some of our Bible colleges do not end up in a full-time, paid Christian ministry. Nor will they practice a profession that demands specialized academic training. What they need is a Christian education for life.

That is a worthy goal for any college. And let us make it a good Christian education—the best that can be had in preparation for the most useful life possible. Though no majors are necessary for this beyond Bible and Christian education, a broad, integrated program in which the teaching of the Bible impregnates every area of Christian thought and understanding of our world is essential, and it will give unity to an entire education. Strange as it may seem, a small Bible college committed to biblical Christian faith and dedicated to hard-headed, intellectually persistent integration of all truth is nearer the idea of a true university than the mammoth multi-versities that we have falsely come to call universities in our modern times.

A fourth group of students on our Bible college campuses have professional goals (law, medicine, business, etc.) for which they need professional training. As we look forward to the next two decades, it is inevitable that more and more students will find themselves in this position. Does that mean the Bible school has no ministry for them and must turn them over to pagan universities or to the limited number of Christian liberal arts colleges? Not at all. The Bible college can function as a junior college for purely professional students.

Many of these students are not prepared to go on to secular universities and do not wish to do so. They know they have been inadequately prepared by their local churches to meet head-on the unbelief they will encounter in a modern, secular university dominated by a philosophy of secular humanism. They need first of all a grounding in Bible, Christian doctrine, and Christian apologetics. For such students, the only formal biblical and theological instruction they will ever get is what they will be able to secure in a year or two at Bible college. For them, a school must pour into its curriculum all of the Bible, doctrine, church history, apologetics, and practical courses in teaching and evangelism a student can take.

Article continues below

All, or almost all, of these courses can be transferred from any accredited Bible college to universities or four-year liberal arts colleges. Incoming students, however, must be warned honestly as to what a Bible college can do well and what it cannot do well. Bible colleges should not be tempted to keep a student for a second or third or fourth year if his goals demand a preprofessional course not available there. The Bible college has a unique possibility of directing such students into ministries of great usefulness in the kingdom and preparing them for immensely effective service for human society. If wisely constructed, this role of the Bible college will surely assume greater and greater significance for the future.

Some Bible colleges offer a few four-year programs for professions other than church-related ministries. Most commonly available are courses to prepare teachers for elementary or secondary schools. Unfortunately, the quality of these programs varies greatly. Youth counselors should investigate the placement records of students graduating from such programs. For really adequate professional training, their education frequently must be supplemented by a fifth year at a university or college of education.

Unfortunately, even educators assume that a really good Bible college will grow up to be more and more like a general liberal arts college or an undergraduate university. Nothing is further from the truth. The important thing is not how wide (and thinly) education is spread, but what quality of education is offered to individual students. It is better by far (even at the risk of turning away some students) for a Bible college to do a few things well than many things poorly. And there are some things a Bible college can do superbly. It can do a first-class job of preparing Christian ministers through a preseminary course. It can provide an excellent, four-year professional program for various church ministries. It can also furnish a general educational program for those who do not need professional training in view of their vocational goal. And it can offer preprofessional junior college with one- or two-year programs of quality.

Article continues below

A proliferation of majors and courses is definitely not necessary for a truly great school. But what is offered must be of the highest quality. Leaders of tomorrow will stampede the school that provides the best education available in our culture. What a school with a conscience must not do is spread its resources thinly over many areas, trying to be all things to all men, when in reality it is offering only poor quality education to everybody. It is easy to add cheap courses and shoddy programs. It is easy to find a stray teacher with a master’s degree who is willing to teach advanced courses for which he is not really qualified. A minimum of two faculty with regionally accredited doctorates in each major is essential. But faculty is not the only need. Bible colleges must avoid introducing programs unless, in addition to faculty adequately and highly qualified, they can also provide excellent resources and equipment and library—all of which are immensely important and also immensely expensive.

Bible colleges must be centers for the practice of Christian faith, and that is good. As Augustine taught us many centuries ago, the best thinking is not done in an armchair. Bible colleges must also be centers of Christian learning—or they are not colleges.

If all this sounds as though a good Bible college is very much like a good liberal arts college with majors restricted to Bible, Christian education, and related areas, that is no accident.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.