What Happens at Liberty Doesn’t Stay at Liberty
Written by TM of JC on September 3, 2020
The Associated Press recently reported that Liberty University is launching an independent investigation into the conduct of former president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becki. For some evangelicals, the scandal elicits nothing more than a shrug for the isolated actions of a few bad apples. For others, these significant misdeeds will be swept away quickly in the tides of history. Historian Grant Wacker makes this argument in a recent Washington Post piece titled “Jerry Falwell Jr.’s downfall won’t change anything for evangelicals.”
If you take a bird’s eye view of time, then he’s likely right. But for those of us who inhabit space inside Liberty University’s large sphere of influence, the truth is quite the opposite. This scandal and its ensuing investigation have far-reaching consequences, not only for parachurch practice but also for local church polity. Put another way, the cautionary tale of the Falwells carries implications for how believers here and elsewhere think about the intricate bonds between the local body of Christ and adjacent parachurch institutions.
My first glimpse into Liberty’s regional influence happened roughly 20 years ago, when I came to visit the man who would later become my husband. He’d lived his whole life in rural southwest Virginia, where the primary force in his spiritual formation was a small Baptist church that still sits atop a knoll just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Driving through the countryside those years ago, I was entranced by the passing forests and hills dotted with small farms and rock churches. I also remember the moment when I rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a billboard for a local university. One of the few on the route, it advertised a world-class christian education just two hours away in Lynchburg, Virginia.
A decade later, my husband and I moved back to work in local church ministry an hour west of Lynchburg. During the ensuing years, Liberty expanded in both size and prominence. It is by now a powerhouse of online learning that has made christian education accessible not only for young people but for countless working adults. This is especially significant in a region with the lowest college graduation rate in the state.
It’s hard to understate the role that Liberty University plays around here, both because of its institutional sway and because of the shape of local church culture. Churches in this region—including the one that my husband grew up in—tend to eschew denominational hierarchy. They prefer to govern themselves. Because they lack outside infrastructure, these churches form partnerships where and when they can, often led by the relational networks of pastoral staff.
For example, when church members want to pursue christian education, it’s not uncommon for pastors to recommend their own alma maters. And if that school is fairly local, all the better. (You may know Liberty University as one of the world’s largest christian universities, but we know it as the closest.)
These bonds are also reinforced through ministry partnerships, as Liberty offers resources, training, and opportunities that surrounding churches cannot offer themselves. When the church my husband pastored wanted to update its constitution to reflect a belief in traditional marriage, the staff used wording provided by the legal minds at Liberty.
These stories are common. When a church in the region can’t afford full-time staff for music or youth ministry, they look to students from Liberty to step in and fill the gap. Add to that church outings to Flames football games, men and women’s weekend retreats hosted on campus, and free pastors’ conferences offered by the school, and the picture is clear: Liberty University is inexorably tied to the ministry of local churches in the region.
The bond between this independent university and the local church means that when trouble hits the school, it also hits the broader christian community. The impact is deep and wide. In this context, Liberty’s practices as a parachurch organization carry significant weight, and the response of the university’s board of trustees sets precedent far beyond the boardroom and into the pews. The old adage is true: Attitudes are caught, not taught.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Liberty graduate Kaitlyn Schiess describes a similar experience as a student. “At Liberty,” she writes, “our minds may have been receiving correct content, but our hearts were being trained to love wrongly: to love political power, physical security, and economic prosperity as higher goods than they are.”
Schiess is describing the power of culture formation—how small signals and modeling from trusted sources nudge us in certain directions, both as individuals and as communities. (This phenomenon also sheds light on the significance of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during the Republican primary in 2016, when Trump’s support seemed to be flagging among evangelicals.)
For local churches, this formation cuts both ways. As I look around, I am dismayed by how the Falwells’ morally corrupt influence has distorted the health and well-being of the community I love. By contrast, cultural formation at its best, guided by Scripture, gives me hope. For that reason, I am cautiously optimistic about the board’s recent decision to open an independent investigation. The board has decided not only to study the case but also to set up a system of spiritual accountability for those in leadership.
“The school is considering a separate move to reorient it toward its ‘spiritual mission’ by establishing a post in the university leadership dedicated to spiritual guidance for other leaders,” write Sarah Rankin and Elana Schor for the Associated Press, “ensuring they ‘live out the christian walk expected of each and every one of us at Liberty.’”
Arguably, these steps are the very least the board is responsible to do, and thinkers like Wacker might rightly doubt that these actions will have much effect on evangelicalism as a whole. But from where I sit, I see this as a teachable moment—not just for Liberty but for the multitude of churches and ministries under its influence.
Insofar as the investigation is truly independent, the board of Liberty University has the opportunity to do three key things: Normalize standards of accountability and transparency; show local church boards that they too must faithfully protect the Lord’s work from abusive leaders; and remind leaders themselves that the kingdom of God is not their private enterprise.
We see this calling laid out clearly in Scripture. In Luke 12, Jesus tells a parable about an estate manager who begins to abuse those under him while the master is away. But then suddenly, like a “thief in the night,” the master returns and catches the manager unaware. Punishment is swift, decisive, and severe.
When the disciples ask who the parable is meant for, Jesus directs their attention to the relationship between privilege and responsibility, intimating that those who have the benefit of his teaching are the ones most responsible to follow it. The parable is for the disciples themselves. He then justifies the master’s harsh punishment of the unfaithful manager, saying that to “everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).
In this moment, the Liberty University board is shaping cultural norms in local churches and the ministries in their orbit. It is not a question of whether their decisions will influence these ministries but of how. Will they follow through and set standards of transparency and accountability? Will future leaders be chosen on the basis of spiritual maturity, or their ability to dominate others? Will they fulfill their own stewardship to represent the master until he returns?
For the sake of the local church and the cause of Christ, may they be found faithful to the task.