It has established itself in American higher education by virtue of its unique contributions to the church.

When a certain kind of college has produced 75 percent of all evangelical missionaries on the field today, we are compelled to take notice.

And when we learn that that college movement is now facing major decisions about programs and majors, about its relation to advanced education and to public education, and about its commitment to “whole man” education through Christocentric general education courses, we become all the more intrigued.

These facts about today’s Bible colleges call us to consider why this movement arose, what claim it can lay to contributing significantly, and where it plans to go.

But first, a couple of definitions. The Bible colleges of North America differ from secular schools in taking evangelical doctrine seriously. As a result they offer three things: classes in Bible and Christian ministry, a Christian philosophy and life, and a concern for deep spiritual life on campus. In this they are like the Christian liberal arts colleges.

They differ from these sister colleges, however, in having a more focused interest in training their students for vocational Christian ministry. The extent to which they do this depends on the Bible college. Perhaps these distinctions will become clearer as we glance at how the movement came into being.

In 1882, reconstruction after the Civil War was well under way. Chester Arthur had just become president when James Garfield was assassinated. Dwight L. Moody looked back on his first decade of evangelistic work, and Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute was in its first year.

The federal government had been giving public higher education substantial financial grants since the Morrill Act in 1862, and, with the second Morrill Act in 1890, would do even more. These two acts may be the nineteenth century’s most important federal legislation involving schools. The public state university was now an established fact.

Meanwhile, a weakening of theology in established seminaries and the concerns of practical and biblical Christianity emerging from recent revivals gave birth to the early stages of the Bible college movement. In 1880, Dr. A. B. Simpson of the Christian and Missionary Alliance wrote an editorial arguing for a college to train missionaries. In 1882 Nyack Missionary College opened its doors in New York City with 12 students and two teachers. One year later, Emma Dryer inaugurated what were known as the “May Institutes” as a part of D. L. Moody’s Chicago Bible Work. And in 1886 the Moody Bible Institute was formed (though that name was not assumed until 14 years later).

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Today there are well over 200 Bible colleges and Bible institutes in North America. They are represented in the arena of American higher education by the American Association of Bible Colleges with a membership of 68 accredited, 15 candidate, and several applicant schools. Dr. S. A. Witmer defines the Bible college as “an educational institution whose principal purpose is to prepare students for church vocation or Christian ministries through a program of biblical and practical education.” All the schools in the AABC adhere to this commitment, though with varying levels of tenacity.


Before examining the two alternatives on educational policy presently facing these schools, it is important to take a frank look at what they have accomplished in the first century of their existence.

First, they have maintained their distinctives. Some think a Bible college is merely a Bible institute on its way to becoming a liberal arts college, and that is accurate for a few. But important differences separate Bible colleges from Christian liberal arts colleges. They center in curriculum, size, and objectives. (1) While the Bible college focuses primarily on majors leading to various kinds of Christian ministry, the Christian liberal arts college offers majors in a variety of vocations. (2) The average Bible college is probably only half the size of the Christian liberal arts college. (3) But primarily, the difference lies in objectives, since the primary goal of the Bible college is preparation for Christian service vocations, while the Christian liberal arts college offers general education for all vocations with heavy emphasis on arts and sciences.

Second, we need to consider the academic standing of Bible colleges. Since the founding of the American Association of Bible Colleges in 1947, the quality of their faculties has steadily increased. Statistics for 1979 show that faculty in member schools have studied an average of almost eight years beyond the secondary level. Further, library holdings in accredited schools reflect an average of about thirty-six thousand volumes per institution with even the small schools (250 students and under) showing holdings of over twenty-five thousand volumes.

In addition, an increasing number of Bible college graduates are going on to graduate school, especially seminary. In recent research by Richard Patterson at Winnipeg Theological Seminary, 70 percent of the AABC schools answered yes to the question “Do you have a preseminary major?” Sixty percent of the respondents invited seminary representatives to recruit on campus, and over 50 percent felt positive about the openness of seminaries to Bible college graduates.

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These graduates do well in seminary. In the early 1970s I analyzed the graduates of 10 evangelical seminaries, comparing type of undergraduate education with graduate grade point averages. Bible college graduates did better than the graduates of secular universities and as well as the graduates of Christian liberal arts colleges.

Third, and most important, the Bible college movement has an astonishing record in producing men and women who are now serving as pastors, Christian teachers, and leaders in other forms of ministry. To see the significance of this, we must recall that although there are 11.4 million college and university students in the United States, there are only 30,308 enrolled in all institutions accredited by the AABC. Neither the size of this movement nor its public recognition prepares one for the evidence of its effect, especially concerning world evangelization.

Wesley A. Olsen is quoted in the fall 1967 Evangelical Missions Quarterly as noting that statistically “even today the majority of missionaries on the field had some of their training at Bible institutes and Bible colleges.” He adds that these men and women fought and won their battles not in the technical scholastic arena, but “in the fields of pulpit and pen, and in the primitive mission wilderness.”

The same holds true today. Missiologist Herbert Kane has written that “the lion’s share” of evangelical missionaries now on the field has been produced by the Bible college movement. He estimates that the figure may be over 75 percent.

As early as 1951 Frank Gaebelein stated that Bible colleges have been exercising a vital, and in fact, in foreign missions, a “crucial significance.” In 1974 present CHRISTIANITY TODAY editor Kenneth Kantzer concluded of Bible colleges, “In the twentieth century they have taken the place, for many evangelicals, of the state university system of higher education. I think it is right that anyone who is evangelical and who believes in higher education, should look with a clear, hard, careful eye at the schools which have assumed this role.…”

Clearly Bible colleges have become a substantial, effective movement.

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Growing Edge

What issues are in ferment in today’s Bible colleges as they gear up for the future? To examine the most crucial discussion we can start with a comment by Karen D’Arezzo in her article last fall in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (Nov. 2, 1979). She noted that “the primary distinctive of the Christian college is its integration of faith and learning. It is based on the principle that the God of the Bible is a God of truth; therefore, ‘all truth is dependent on God’s truth.’ ” I agree. In any school the strength of biblical studies and the theological sophistication of the entire faculty are foundational to achieving that “primary distinctive.” Without doubt Bible colleges, in contrast to Christian liberal arts colleges, tend to be weakest in the area of general education. Discussions not only with Christian colleges, but also between Bible colleges, are dealing with this weakness extensively today.

Can Bible colleges therefore provide the integrative process necessary to whole-man education? S. A. Witmer, writing chapter 7 in Gaebelein’s book, Christian Education in a Democracy, thought so in 1951; the holistic thrust of Bible colleges has strengthened considerably since then. He says, “Bound neither by the graveclothes of classicism nor the chains of empirical science, Bible-college education makes use of the abiding elements of both while providing an integrated education for the whole man.”

The reverse problem exists in many Christian liberal arts colleges, where faculty brilliantly schooled in some specialization such as psychology or chemistry may have little understanding of the theistic implications of their subjects. As for the student making the integration on his own, six or eight hours of Bible survey courses scattered across four years will probably not equip him sufficiently to serve the church or function theologically in contemporary culture.

It is most difficult, of course, to generalize on quality. Practice among Christian liberal arts colleges varies widely concerning required Bible content in the curriculum. The same is true of Bible college commitment to the liberating necessity of general education and an openness to change. Accreditation of colleges (whichever category) by a regional association tells us little since the standards of the associations still vary greatly.

One can detect, however, a less than subtle difference among AABC member schools between what I wish to call “progressive Bible colleges” and “traditional Bible colleges.” I spelled out this difference in detail in an article in Communicare, Fall 1976, but here is a brief description: The traditional Bible college is marked by an exclusive commitment to vocational Christian ministry; a single and simple curriculum; an emphasis on terminal training; and complete separation from secular education.

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The progressive Bible college, by contrast, retains a primary commitment to vocational Christian ministry without exclusively restricting itself to professional ministerial programs. It defines “ministry” more broadly, offering a wider range of majors under that umbrella. The progressive school emphasizes preparatory training (an approach that is gaining growing support, but one still affirmed by fewer than 50 percent of the AABC institutions). Progressive Bible colleges offer a serious commitment to “whole man” education, attempting to reflect a Christocentric and bibliocentric world view in all aspects of institutional life. Finally, progressive institutions pursue relationships with public education. Many Bible college educators are actively involved in interinstitutional cooperation, state and regional projects, and local joint ventures such as lecture series or fine arts festivals.

Progressive Bible college leaders push their institutions to join consortia; seek licensing where applicable; move on to the highest possible levels of accreditation; join state and national professional organizations at professorial and administrative levels; and through it all affirm that the fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom.

Future of Bible Colleges

We all know the statistics are gloomy for small private colleges: half of the 113 colleges that closed between spring 1970 and fall 1976 were church related. Since the smaller the size of the student body and endowment the greater the likelihood of the institution’s closing, the Bible college must recognize its vulnerability. An AABC report on student recruitment offers mixed data: “Fortunately, the Bible college is not linked to national trends as strongly as the conventional liberal arts college or university. Their enrollments depend less on the decline of the World War II baby boom than on the growth of the evangelical church. Even so, the current situation does not allow for complacency.”

Furthermore, an AABC survey in 1974–75 showed that entering students are not so settled on distinctives traditional in Bible colleges. They are less likely to be committed in the early stages of their education to full-time Christian ministry, less excited over the specialized ministry programs, less certain that when they graduate they will find opportunities for appropriate ministry available, and less certain about God’s specific call and the gifts he has given them.

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Perhaps the most determinative answer to the question about the future of the Bible college movement has to do with the future of the AABC’s leadership. The present executive director will be retiring and the board of the association must make some decisions about its direction over the next two decades. The association has grown significantly in membership recently, and has been recognized by the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation. Yet the division in philosophy is apparent. Will the movement continue to expand on the gains of the last 33 years?

In 1957 Enoch Dyrness said, “The Bible school movement has really come of age and achieved its rightful place in American higher education.” I’m not so sure. The battle goes on and as society changes, educational institutions change. In the Bible college the history is glorious. But the decade of the eighties presents its own pressures; the image of an updated progressive Bible college must be communicated much more clearly than in the past. Ten years ago in this magazine Everett Cattell spelled out the options: “We must face the facts. If we evangelicals are to have youth prepared to live in a society in which Christians are increasingly a minority and are surrounded with increasing paganism, they must, in addition to a personal experience of Christ, which is basic, have an intellectual understanding of their faith and its relation to the arts and sciences.… Keeping the evangelical colleges alive and relevant is a life-and-death matter.”

He is even more right today than he was then—about both the Christian liberal arts college and the Bible college. Neither should be sacrificed on the altar of the other, for the church needs the leaders both provide.

Who Forgot The Oil?

Tailor made, perfectly manicured,

He was beamed into a thousand homes

At the flick of a switch.

A polished presentation

And flawless eloquence;

But the glistening on his brow

Was only sweat.

Tell me:

Is the reflection of studio lights

Any substitute for the shekinah?

Has charisma replaced the charismata?


Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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