On March 11, just a week before we began emptying the campus in response to Covid-19, about 100 of us sat in a circle at Biola’s Calvary Chapel listening to the stories of students from diverse backgrounds. We gathered in response to racial issues on campus. Some shared their hurts and challenges navigating life at Biola. One student, a senior, said he uses a facade to fit in at Biola because he doesn’t feel like he can be himself. Another wondered why worshipping like “normal” at Biola seemed so different from her home black church. Some told stories of faculty and students who stood with them so they didn’t have to walk their journeys alone. Others couldn’t.
It was one of those “good but hard” moments for me, hearing students who are hurt and having a hard time. We wanted them to feel heard and express their pain. We listened. We affirmed each other’s honesty. We extended grace. We did not judge. We showed respect.
March 11 was an example of the ways we live into Christian community at Biola, especially in our increasing ethnic and cultural diversity, as we practiced confession and forgiveness, attempted to live into reconciled relationships and accepted the responsibility for how students have felt welcomed, or not. And we submitted to biblical instruction on living into unity amidst our diversity.
Within three months of that evening, I became even more aware of how we need godly discernment and gospel faithfulness on the issue of race. The serious upsurge of racial unrest around the nation, sparked by the tragic killing of George Floyd, brought to light the need for biblically sound justice movements. It was yet another flashpoint that gave us pause, taking stock on how we are doing as a university that reflects and welcomes the breadth of God’s people. I have said in recent years that when it comes to racial justice, at Biola we will talk about it more, but we will talk about it biblically.
For the past few years, the university’s leadership and Board of Trustees have given increased attention to how we are a community that thinks and acts biblically on race, truly caring about one another, welcoming students from diverse backgrounds and nurturing a climate that is equitable for all. We have come a long way, and we are committed to keep going. As I’ve been thinking about diversity at Biola, especially cultural and ethnic diversity, I have tried to communicate that humbly hearing one another’s concerns is the best way to pursue unity and the peace of the university. There is only one side to what we do, as we are all on the same team. In reality, we are the body of Christ, thus we are bound together as one, and what impacts one group impacts all (1 Cor. 12:26).
It’s what Paul was getting at when he called Jesus’ followers to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3–4). These are words we are called to take to heart as we live in increasingly diverse communities in a world that has always been diverse. In these communities we need to navigate matters of justice and reconciliation in ways that honor the heart of God and are true to his Word.
A Biblical Approach to Thinking About Racial Justice
Whatever the subject — including race — Biola needs to be a hub for providing scriptural guidance on current ideological trends. We need to wrestle through ideas and their complexities, knowing that with the authority of Scripture as our common bond, we can do this in a way that unites us and does not divide us. And this will lead us into truth.
As a Wheaton College professor has written recently about racial theories, we need to avoid “pithy rejections or shallow endorsements.” This is one reason we have Christian universities like Biola. Here we seek to discern what is true from what is false, what is profoundly biblical from what is merely cosmetic. Here we can even say that an idea that does not originate from Scripture may still have valid points, which we know come from God’s common grace. Ultimately, our allegiance is to Christ in service of his church and not to vain philosophies.
The key for teaching any idea at Biola is that our professors are oriented to teach about its origins, its purpose, its philosophical underpinnings and its strengths and flaws from a biblical point of view. At Biola, biblical understanding is the standard and the core of all learning. It is the measuring stick. A truly Christian education should neither fear nor ignore any philosophy or idea, but it should strive to comprehend them and measure them by the tracing of Scripture and the positive witness of the church through time and space.
That means at Biola, when we approach the issue of racial justice we will be diligent on holding high the gospel. As for chapel and Biola’s annual co-curricular conferences, for instance, we will not be inviting speakers to campus who seek a revolutionary, secular form of justice that disregards the gospel and whose social construction of truth does not leave room for God’s eternal truths. At Biola, when we engage in matters of diversity we are talking about grounding our thinking in the truths of Scripture, something so many organizations and movements today are not doing. At Biola, when we investigate ideas, we do so with biblical scrutiny and not by slapping a verse on a godless ideology and calling it sacred. With any ideas introduced at Biola, we have to be able to see their flaws, to debate them thoroughly and to start and end with scrutiny through the lens of God’s truth.
One of the dominant idea platforms for racial discussions is critical race theory (CRT). There is much about CRT I do not fully understand. Many books have been written about it, and it is seen in different ways by different people. Some refer to CRT as a tool. Others a worldview. From what I do know (and I am still learning) CRT seeks to understand power dynamics as they apply to race — among other categories — in our social worlds. Everyone belongs to a group, and according to CRT, some groups have power. Other groups don’t. And those with power seek to oppress those without power. From what I have come to understand, CRT seeks to place people in categories and to make assumptions about them based on these groups.
“Biblically, our primary identity is as human beings made in God’s image. We are secondarily — but not unimportantly — members of different groups.”
The fact that all truth is God’s truth means that there may be concepts in CRT we as Christians can affirm. For instance, some CRT scholars recognize the fact that racial divisions are a social construct. The Bible has long affirmed that humanity is indeed a single race which expresses itself in different ethnicities. CRT developed in part as a reaction against injustices in the nation’s system of education, which explains its focus on systems. In Scripture, Pharaoh’s enslavement of Jews, Darius’s demand for worship and Nebuchadnezzar’s decree to bow to a golden idol were not merely individual sins but were sins embedded in systems and unjust laws. CRT recognizes that people’s personal experiences of oppression matter and should be taken seriously. The Bible commands us to “be quick to listen” (James 1:19) and “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). We ought to imitate our God who saw the affliction of his people and “heard their cry” (Ex. 3:7).
As we discern approaches to race, however, we should do so with scriptural eyes wide open. Christian commentator and Harvard Law School graduate David French, who joined us this fall at Biola, recently wrote about how he as a Christian thinks about critical race theory: “My answer is complicated, but the bottom line is relatively clear — it’s more useful and interesting than many of its critics contend, but it ultimately fails as both a totalizing theory of American life and as a philosophy truly compatible with the Christian gospel.” I think it is fair to ask the following cautionary questions as we engage the foundations of racial justice ideologies that are guiding so many of America’s universities, lawmakers and media enterprises.
1. Should human relationships be viewed primarily through the categories of oppressed and oppressor groups? The Bible speaks out against groups as well as individuals. For example, Jesus protests against the “scribes and Pharisees” as a group. Also, the Bible uses the category of “oppressor” throughout (Ps. 72:4; Isa. 19:20, 58:6; Luke 4:18). Yet treating individuals as mere exemplars of their groups and assigning them virtue or vice, truthfulness or falsehood, praise or blame based on a group identity is far from a biblical approach to relationships. We are to “show no partiality” (James 2:1), “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and celebrate together the fact that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
2. Should our group identity (racial, ethnic, gender, cultural) be elevated as our primary identities in the world? Biblically, our primary identity is as human beings made in God’s image. We are secondarily — but not unimportantly — members of different groups. Our “in Christ” identities should therefore not plunge us into tribal warfare but should bind us together as family within God’s “every tongue, tribe and nation” vision for his kingdom. We are all equal before Christ, equally sinful and equally redeemable.
3. Should we deny the pervasiveness and universality of sin that impacts all individuals and social groups? Remember the famous line from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that the line between good and evil is not between us and them, “but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” No group or social structure is exempt from the biblical verdict that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Oppression is one of many sins, but it is not the only one. Christian repentance, forgiveness, discipleship and worship lead us as individuals and groups toward healing.
4. Should all solutions to social problems be found at the structural/systemic level? Sin originates in the heart, and it can certainly be perpetuated in social structures set up by sinners. There is a need, therefore, for biblically based social justice to correct this. Putting the solutions in one category alone — individual or societal — is too simplistic and can deny the power of the gospel to inspire real change. The extent to which any ideology downplays our need to turn from sin, to trust in Christ’s redemptive work and to lean into the heart-changing work of the Holy Spirit against individual or societal racial sin, is the extent to which it undermines the gospel. Salvation can be found in Jesus alone through repentance of our sin, a place we all need to be.
In recent months, I have said and written the words that “black lives matter.” In saying these three words, I’ve heard from some of Biola’s constituents asking me how I could support the Black Lives Matter organization. As Biola apologetics graduate and pastor Chris Brooks has put it, there is a difference between the affirmation that black lives matter and the organization Black Lives Matter. We can and must support the affirmation that black lives matter. But that should not prevent us from raising questions about the organization by that name and its stated beliefs, many of which are antithetical to the teaching of Jesus. The organization has embraced several goals that are contrary to our understanding of Scripture. At its core, the organization supports “reproductive justice that gives us autonomy over our bodies.” The organization’s strong support for abortion contradicts the Bible’s affirmation of the sanctity of life. We believe wholeheartedly that unborn black lives matter, too. The organization’s positions on marriage, sexuality and the family are at odds with Scripture’s beauty of God-given gender distinctions, biblical marriage and sex. Also, some of the tenets at the core of the organization — according to its founders — make its founding principles incompatible with biblical Christianity, as BLM’s founders have gone on the record identifying as “trained Marxists.”
But this does not invalidate the truth that black lives matter. These are three words I have often said. When I said them I meant them. I wanted to be crystal clear that I passionately believe that black lives matter. No exceptions. No one was created more favored than others, and no groups were created more favored than others. For far too long our nation had laws in place that communicated clearly that black lives didn’t matter. For far too long we had policies that communicated clearly that black lives did not matter through redlining discriminatory hiring practices and housing discrimination. The residue of these unjust laws and cultural prejudices have long lingered in too many places. In light of so much happening in our nation, we must stand together as the people of God and agree that black lives matter. We must stand with black and brown brothers and sisters against the injustices that have been perpetrated against fellow image-bearers of God.
At Biola, as we live within the world of ideas, we will continue to be careful to discern what is true from what is untrue, what is scriptural from what is not, what is noble from what is ignoble. Ideas matter and have consequences, so when it comes to these matters of societal significance, let’s avoid “pithy rejections or shallow endorsements” as we think biblically and deeply.
A Biblical Approach to Action on Racial Justice
But I come back to March 11 when I sat and listened to students share their experiences at Biola. Sometimes we as Christians are seen as being more about ideas and arguments in and of themselves than allowing those ideas to influence our actions. We cannot simply linger in the realm of ideas when so many people are feeling the injustices that racial sins have wrought on individuals and systems. I have often said that at Biola, we must be more consumed with what we are for than what we are against. Ideas must lead us to action: to do justly and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
We are doing just this.
Long before this summer’s unrest and racial tensions, we at Biola set in place a process to develop and activate plans for strengthening our unity at Biola while also understanding how to live into the beauty of our diversity. Biola’s plans are reflected in our Institutional Diversity Strategic Plan grounded in our board-approved Theological Statement on Diversity. This work involved those from across the university, spearheaded by our Chief Diversity Officer Tamra Malone and widely represented by a university task force. Our Board of Trustees has engaged in honest conversations about how we are not simply dabbling around the edges of diversity but getting serious, counting the costs and taking the risks to be all in. Our Institutional Diversity Strategic Plan includes appointing a faculty leader who will work across all schools on critical topics on how healthy diversity and cultural humility components are woven into course pedagogy, curriculum and advising. I am happy to say that Dr. Leon Harris, assistant professor of theology, stepped into this new role earlier this fall. We will continue to host times of student lament. We will continue to educate students to think and live biblically on issues of racial justice. We will continue to lead our community into hard and healthy conversations to equip ourselves to serve all students equitably. We will continue to listen and we will continue to pray, trusting in the reconciling work of the gospel vertically and horizontally.
“I have often said that at Biola, we must be more consumed with what we are for than what we are against. Ideas must lead us to action: to do justly and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”
We have much farther to go. As stated in our Theological Statement on Diversity, “We recognize that the pervasiveness of sin impacts both individuals and institutions. We confess to being a broken community in constant need of healing in relation to our past and present.” As long as we stay thoroughly grounded biblically and don’t depart from keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, we will do the right thing. Our commitment to God includes our commitment to each other.
This summer has been a painful reminder that racism and other forms of sinful discrimination continue to wreak havoc on our world. As Christians who take seriously God’s commands to “truly execute justice” (Jer. 7:5), we must show the world how biblical Christianity offers far more hopeful and unifying answers to the injustices of our day. My prayer for Biola is that we live into the beauty of our diversity in a way that elevates the unity we have in Christ. We need to hold each other mutually accountable to God-honoring approaches to the world’s pressing needs and do so in a way that is central and not tangential to the gospel.
So we will work through ideas, but with as much fervency we need to be gospel people who live out our love for one another and our love for the world. I hope we discuss and wrestle with ideas, but I hope even more that as resurrection people we stay rooted in the ethics of justice Christ taught and that it is evident in what we say and what we do.
More than ever we need unity in this era of polarization. And we often have more common ground with one another than we believe. We tend to discover it when we spend time with one another. Social media and petitions can inflate perceived differences, and that kind of discourse is a poor substitute for deep, personal, nuanced conversations. We need to be the university where gracious and humble conversations take place, and yet still be passionate about the ideas we hold. Our students need us as models for how to do winsome conviction, especially in this election season. Ideas rooted in biblical truth should emerge at Biola as prevailing ideas — even if they are countercultural. And conversations on these ideas should be seasoned with gentleness and respect.
BARRY H. COREY is the eighth president of Biola University. Visit his office online at biola.edu/president.
Visit biola.edu/diversity to learn more about Biola’s vision for diversity and inclusion, and read the university’s theological statement on diversity, “Unity Amidst Diversity.”