Letter From Dr. Sloan

The News Magazine of HBU

Letter From Dr. Sloan

We are diverse in many different ways. We live in what some people call the most diverse city in America, and HBU benefits from that rich and thrilling kind of diversity. It’s economic, ethnic, and religious. It’s even social and national and language diversity. So here we are in a great city, and the University benefits from that. We also have an intentional historic practice of having faculty and staff who are unapologetically committed to the Christian faith, and yet with respect to students, our doors are open wide to people of all kinds of faith, or frankly, no faith at all. They know they’re coming to a Christian university. So it’s a wonderful kind of atmosphere here on campus, a dynamic tension of maintaining who we are as a Christian institution, not ashamed to say, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and also unafraid to ask questions and thus benefit from a variety of human experiences.

The earliest controversies in the Christian church have to do with the makeup, the diversity, of the church. It was understandable that Jews would believe in their Messiah, the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. The surprising thing was that many didn’t. In fact, the majority didn’t, but there was this large minority – Paul calls them a remnant – of Jews in his day who did believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and Paul counted himself as a member of that remnant (Romans 11). Another surprising thing was, though, that the Spirit began to move through the preaching of the gospel, and Gentiles and Samaritans believed even though many Jews didn’t. This turn of events generated some of the earliest controversies in the church. One, can the Gentiles and the Samaritans believe, without the Jews first believing? And two, if Gentiles do believe, shouldn’t they keep the laws of Moses, which had to do with food, circumcision, Jewish calendar, and other things like that? But Paul surprisingly argued that those kinds of things – the food laws, circumcision, the calendar, or Sabbath keeping – were matters of indifference, that they are not “loadbearing.” But what was loadbearing, what did matter to him, was the gospel message that the long-awaited Messiah had come in keeping with the Scriptures. He had been crucified for the sins of the world and He was verifiably raised from the dead, and all Jews and Gentiles who would embrace him become part of the people of God. And though it seems so obvious to Christians now, that unifying conviction was very controversial early on.

So the church starts with controversies over diversity, but very quickly, within the New Testament period, the leaders of the church come to a stunning conclusion: God has done a new thing and this new creation is both Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, men and women alike. These stratifications don’t hold when it comes to the church. That’s why James says to his readers, “Shame on you. When you see a rich man come into your congregation, into your worship, and you say ‘here, you get to sit over here in this high and lofty place.’ And to the poor man, you say ‘oh, go sit in the corner’ or ‘here, you can sit at my feet.’” James is clearly outraged (James 2:1-9). That’s not the nature of the church. Faith in Christ is the only substantial dividing line between those within the family and those outside the family. So there were in New Testament times the usual stress lines of human tension based on the typical social barriers of life. These had to be, and were, overcome by the gospel and the unity of the church (Ephesians 4:1-6).

But there are certain very important moral and physical distinctions that are still made. For example, even though men and women are one in Christ, Paul still appreciates and deals with the differences between women and men, Jews and Gentiles, etc. And he forcefully maintains that the laws of God still matter. Certain laws are still “loadbearing,” especially those that have to do with family, sexual relations, and things like idolatry or the Ten Commandments. So diversity does not come to mean a kind of libertarianism that says that moral distinctions are merely matters of human construction. Moral and theological distinctions still matter. When Paul, for example, in one of his diversity passages (1 Corinthians 9) talks about his own adaptability, he writes, “To the Jews, I became as a Jew. To the Gentiles as a Gentile.” He is arguing paradoxically regarding the Law. He is maintaining that he adapted to the non-loadbearing features of the Law (diet, calendar, etc.) when he says, he became “as under the law, though I’m not really under the sphere of the Torah’s judgment.” Then, regarding Gentiles, he says, “I became like one outside the Law, though I’m never outside the commandments of God.” So the diversity that the New Testament reflects is a diversity of ethnicity, of race, of gender, economic diversity, etc., but in all these things, there is nonetheless a homogeneity of confession and of commitment to the one God of the Scriptures, the true creator, and to the one Lord, Jesus. And there was a consistent body of moral teaching about church unity and sexual purity (and moral basics like the Ten Commandments) that continued to apply to all. So the diversity we have and celebrate does not open the door for idolatry or the moral practices that destroy individuals, families, biblical marriage, and the oneness of the family of God in Christ.

At HBU, we reflect the great diversity of Houston and the world, while maintaining our core commitments to Christ and the Scriptures. We declare our faith and seek to practice it consistently, knowing that you can’t force faith on anybody, that’s a contradiction in terms. Faith always has a voluntaristic feature to it. You couldn’t possibly force faith, authentic faith, on anyone. So to students who come here of, say, no faith or weak faith or a different kind of faith, we’re clear about who we are while also welcoming questions, conversation, and engagement, as we do the work of Christian higher education.