Gracious Christianity

Gracious Christianity

Fresno Pacific University is a living experiment as a Christian University. This is both, I suppose, by design and by steady, consistent change over the last 35 years, some of which we could not have predicted. It has made for an interesting and exciting journey, and a few challenges.

Of all of the universities in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) we are one of the most diverse ethnically and denominationally. We have a greater ethnic diversity, with 33 percent Hispanic students, than any of the other CCCU schools. And we are less homogeneous religiously. We have most forms of Protestant Christianity among our students and faculty, as well as Catholic and Orthodox. Catholic students are our largest single group among traditional-aged undergraduates and graduate students. Only in the seminary are Mennonite Brethren students our largest denomination. This is a measure of our complexity as a university. (We update a profile of Quick Facts on our students and enrollment in academic programs each semester.)

In American Christianity individual churches are most often racially homogeneous. Some describe it as a racially segregated church pattern. An African American Baptist church may not worship and center itself theologically the way a white Baptist church might, for example. Racial division is not the best reflection on us as a church, and it makes for further complications for living, working and worshipping together as a university.

We describe ourselves as “Anabaptist, Evangelical and Ecumenical.” It is not an official title—sometimes you will hear a different ordering of the names. It refers to our Anabaptist and Mennonite Brethren heritage and tradition, our evangelical and broadly Protestant character, and our deliberate inclusion of church traditions beyond these two. As the FPU Idea says, the university “welcomes those of different cultural, national, ethnic and religious backgrounds to participate in its educational experience. The university invites those from other church traditions, both as faculty and students, to enter into dialogue and faithful practice with those in the Anabaptist-Mennonite and believers’ church tradition in following Christ and in sharing the university’s mission.”

How do we become a university that is Evangelical, Anabaptist and Ecumenical? After all, we have divisions in the church because of deeply held differences about how Scripture ought to be read, how the Christian life is to be lived, how God’s mission in this world is to be pursued, how to worship and how Christians ought to relate to our larger society. Each of these strands of the church has some uniqueness to its theological tradition, and how it understands knowledge, both in the liberal arts and sciences and in practical ways. The Anabaptist tradition has not always embraced higher learning—it is a newer development. The Evangelical tradition has treated it with suspicion. The more “establishment” churches—Catholic, Presbyterian/Reformed, Methodist—have deep intellectual traditions and have embraced higher learning in all fields of study, but it is safe to say that most of their colleges now have only loose connections to their founding churches, and are not much different than a state-sponsored college.

I know I have been too professorial in this post. It’s an occupational hazard—you’ll have to forgive me. There is a point to all of it. I hope you see the difficulty and challenge we face. We at FPU live with all of this difference purposely, gratefully and expectantly. We believe that God has truly brought us together in this unique experiment. He has brought us together so that we can explore for ourselves, for our communities and for our churches just how we Christians might live together, while recognizing and respecting our differences, finding bonds that unite us and ways of supporting each other, understanding both our common call and the unique ways in which we live, learn and serve in this world, individually and together.

We will open our academic year with an all university forum and in our first faculty meeting we will be exploring Gracious Christianity, the title of a book by former President of Messiah College and Anabaptist theologian Rod Sawatsky and Professor Douglas Jacobsen, also of Messiah. Jacobsen describes himself as a “Pietistic Christian with strong Anabaptist and ecumenical sympathies” (that means something like “Evangelical, Anabaptist and Ecumenical”). Terry Brensinger, seminary president, and Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor of The Meeting House, a unique Brethren in Christ Church in Toronto, have planned the discussion. Each faculty and staff member is receiving a copy of Gracious Christianity this week. (Ask one of us if you can borrow a copy, if you are interested.) Here are the first words of the book, they will tell you what we will be exploring:

We have a gracious gospel. The good news that Jesus proclaimed is that God is graciously disposed toward us. God loves us, and, indeed, God loves everyone and every good thing in this wonderful world in which we live. We are expected to do the same. The gospel invites us to mimic God’s own graciousness in our lives. It calls us to become so enveloped in God’s graciousness that we become conduits of God’s grace and love for others. Graciousness is a nonnegotiable dimension of Christian faith. It goes to the very core of the gospel. It is what makes the gospel good news.

Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis

3 responses to “Gracious Christianity”

  1. Steve,
    Very well expressed. FPU is a unique part of the Kingdom of God. Our diversity and acceptance of this diversity is one of the main reasons I chose to stay here in 2007 when Biola University was interested in having me come back to chair their history department. May our Lord grant you and other leaders wisdom as we continue to work out what it means to live in community in light of such gracious Christianity.

  2. I would like to add to Steve’s comments regarding the complexity of students that intentionally choose to study with us that within Degree Completion Programs things often are so very complex in both understanding of faith and practice within a faith our students could fill a baseball field and everyone would be playing a different position!

    Personally I find delight in being with so many of our students who, especially, feel disconnected from church or even the practice of prayer in their life. These students find amazement in our beginning of class session with devotion and sharing of life and I see shy ones “open” to the thought that somehow they were guided to be with us and that this was intentional perhaps without their understanding of it. My own individual sharing that we don’t need to understand everything or to be formally connected with a church to have God integrated into our lives…what is needed is to ask Him if He will be a part of it with us. I can tell you that so many find both church and those who are a part of church family are reasons that individuals stay apart and away. How ironic that within the sharing of a Cohort within our Early Childhood Development Degree with fellow classmates many openly share that their prayer practice has been established (or reestablished) and that they understand and appreciate that their desire to serve children and families in a career such as Early Childhood Education truly means the opportunity to living out their faith.

    We have so much to be thankful for and to be so proud of in this community of ours that so often struggles BUT we appear to shine in any number of ways that really overshadows our many shortcomings! Let’s continue the process to become even better.

    Peter Kopriva
    Professor of Early Childhood Development & Special Education
    School of Education

  3. “We all need to be loved. We all need, at one point or another, to help someone else or be helped in return. We all want to be treated fairly and respectfully. Thus, we should not be surprised to discover that what Christians see as good, proper, and laudable is often the same as what most other people see as good, proper, and laudable.” Gracious Christianity p. 46

    How does the University square this concept with its chronically low and arguably unfair employee compensation?