Tuesday, November 1, 2022

by Jack Carson

This article was originally published as the first article in the Fall 2020 edition of Faith and the Academy, the journal published by the Center for Apologetics every year.

Training Champions for Christ is the mission of Liberty University, and by extension, the task of every faculty member at this institution. Throughout the past two issues of Faith and the Academy, we have explored pieces of that mission. We began discussing what it meant to be “for Christ” within an academic discipline. The central question of that issue was, “How can we, as educators, bring about genuine Christian formation in the way we train students in their academic disciplines?” We then moved into a discussion about how to form students who will be distinctly “for Christ” within their professional lives.

This journal will bring the series to an end, discussing the formation of Liberty students as “champions.” This editorial will compare two visions of the champion, and it will suggest an overarching telos that should guide our conception of leadership and its purpose. Rather than suggesting how one is to lead, this editorial will reflect on why we lead.

We the Champions

Words matter, and when an institution builds its ethos on a series of words. it is essential for the faculty of that institution to reflect on the exact meaning and spirit behind those words. What does it mean to be a “champion?” And how does this fit with the qualifier to be “for Christ?” Do we simply mean that we train students to be at the top of their disciplines and professions to be the most successful, lucrative, and famous all the while maintaining their personal Christian faith and identity?

Throughout the university’s recent We the Champions marketing campaign, our institutional definition of a “champion” was explored. In the launch video, the narrator explains, “While the world sees “champions” as only victors, we will reclaim the word and its meaning.” It goes on to affirm that our students, the “champions,” will “be the voice for the voiceless, bring healing to the hurting, and fight for the oppressed.” This others-oriented vision of Training Champions for Christ is admirable, and it can help us reflect on competing conceptions of leadership, stewardship, and success.

I want to suggest that, in contrast to this others-oriented vision, there is a human predilection for defining “champions” primarily in terms of power and oppression, leadership and success, or achievement and influence. This predilection is found in the heart of Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit to gain power, influence, and significance—to be like God. As a result of the fall, humanity’s natural inclination to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” has been twisted into a quest for self-elevation (Genesis 1:28, ESV).

Each of us are tempted by this competing vision of flourishing – one where fruitfulness, stewardship, and self-sacrifice have been transformed into selfish alternatives. This demonstrates something significant about how we can be tempted to view leadership. Consider, as an illustration, two competing views of the “champion.”

The Champion As Victor

We can recognize how some outside our institution might see Training Champions for Christ as something primarily triumphalistic, envisioning generations of students who rise to the top of their professions to “champion” Christ, ensuring Christian dominance within the culture. This picture of a “champion,” what we may call the “Champion as Victor,” is centered on winning within one’s professional life. Deep within Liberty University’s DNA is the conviction, “If it is Christian, it ought to be better.” The vision of the “Victorious Champion” interprets this conviction as a justification for unbridled competitive training. Since we are Christian, we have a mandate to be superior. Therefore, Christians should be the better doctors, the better lawyers, and the better politicians—better than their non-Christian peers.

In this vision, “better” is used to suggest an absolute superiority of skill within professional life.

The vision of a “Champion as Victor” sees the concept of “champion” as separable from the modifier “for Christ.” This view sees many “champions” in the world already; there are champions for nearly every cause. The political left has leaders, and the pro-choice movement has heroes. We need our champions. This distorted view of a Liberty champion then adds a couple of courses from Divinity, sprinkles on Convocation, and thus forms a “Champion (Victor) for Christ.” This “champion” is not substantively different than other “champions” throughout the culture, save that they champion Christian issues.

In no way does this “Victor” mentality actively seek to create immoral students; quite the opposite. This vision prides itself on forming students who are profoundly moral and convictionally Christian in their personal lives. However, such a foundation, with theology sprinkled on top as a garnish, often creates carnal victors for whom “business is business.” Theological constructs can simply become indulgences we buy to disguise our hearts’ desire for power and influence – what Martin Luther calls a “theology of glory.”

This vision uses theology and the riches of the Christian tradition to justify, or even sacralize, self-aggrandizement.

The Need for Something Better

The “Champion as Victor” is not the vision of the faculty and administration of Liberty, nor of its founder. In one sermon, Jerry Falwell Sr. explained that being a “champion” meant more than just achieving success. It meant being a leader, a visionary, and significantly, a faithful follower of Christ. In fact, in one sermon he gave, he listed five qualifications of a “champion.”

  1. Champions are visionaries.
  2. Champions are prayer warriors.
  3. Champions have convictions.
  4. Champions stay morally pure.
  5. Champions are soul winners.

In Dr. Falwell’s vision, deep-seated convictions and a desire to create something good were both necessary to be a “champion.” A sincere devotion to the Gospel and a drive to share it with others are also pivotal.

From Liberty’s inception, our vision for success has relied on the Gospel and its ethics.

Although the “Champion as Victor” is not the goal of Liberty University, it is worth reflecting on this possible interpretation of Liberty’s mission, if for no other reason than understanding how many might view the language with which we describe our charge. James Davison Hunter, in his influential work To Change the World, has explored various perceptions of Christian engagement in the public square. He explains that, for some, “the justifications we create are of no real [account]; no matter how you dress it up, every aspect of social life comes down to power and domination. It has always been thus.”

Nietzsche saw all of life through the lens of the will to power, and in many ways public life and civic discourse in the western world has followed suit. Western society has begun to imagine culture as a collection of groups vying for dominance. Since power in the modern world is not measured by brute strength but by professional expertise, it is easy to see how interpreters of Liberty’s mission could see it as a primarily combative enterprise.

A Quest for Power

The onset of secularism has transformed the western social imaginary to see moral claims as tools for social and political machinations. Everyone claims to have a vision of the good that deserves dominance. Women have a right to choose, babies have a right to live, each person has a right to pursue the American dream, and the government should distribute wealth to create an equitable and poverty-free society. This constant and contradictory weaponization of moral claims could cause some to view our mission as one centered on creating students in our image, with our ideologies, who are on a quest for glory, backed by a “theology of glory.” In his work, Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen explores the development of today’s social framework. He explains,

“The classical and Christian effort to foster virtue was rejected as both paternalistic and ineffectual. … It was Machiavelli who broke with the classical and Christian aspiration to temper the tyrannical temptation through an education in virtue … (instead] Machiavelli proposed grounding a political philosophy upon readily observable human behaviors of pride, selfishness, greed, and the quest for glory.”

In subtle ways, it could be quite tempting for us to follow Machiavelli on this. If the rest of the world is on a quest for power, why shouldn’t we train students to go out and pursue control, promote our values, and defend our way of life?

The motive for training “Victorious Champions” fits perfectly within the current context of western liberalism. For Christians to maintain influence, there need to be institutions of higher learning that train leaders to rise to the tops of their fields and promote Christian values. The “Champion as Victor” vision offers this path to influence, but it transforms the intuition to “be fruitful and multiply” into a will to power.

Leadership in this model is seen as tool of self-aggrandizement.

The Champion of the Other

If society has abandoned the call to cultivation and stewardship in exchange for a contest of power and dominance, how do we model a better call? Since positions of leadership are is common tool used to gather power and dominance, our vision of leadership can serve as an excellent example of our overall goals in student formation. Shaping our students to be leaders who are “Champions of the Other” will serve as a radical witness to a world that does not understand selflessness, sacrifice, and service. I would like to suggest an underlying ethic to the Christian life that should transform and define our understanding of leadership, an ethic that undergirds our claim to form champions who will “be the voice for the voiceless, bring healing to the hurting, and fight for the oppressed.”

This ethic takes seriously the admonition of Christ in Mark 9 when the disciples were arguing among themselves over which of them was the greatest – perhaps, the victor? “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

This ethic takes seriously the nature of the Gospel, which our students will be championing—a Gospel that is self-sacrificial, others-focused, and centered on a world to come.

This ethic takes seriously the example of Christ, who emptied himself, took the form of a servant, and was humble, even to the point of death (Phil 2:7-8).

And importantly for the vision of a “champion,” this ethic takes seriously Christ’s explicit command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, ESV).

There is no higher apex of virtue than this command.” The culmination of all of the law and the prophets are the dual commands to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Who is harder to love than your enemy? No one. That is why Christ culminates His “greater ethics” discourse of Matthew 5:17-47 with this teaching. It is radically otherworldly, and it rejects the drive for self-aggrandizement that subtly whispers, “If you eat of the fruit, you will be like God.”

Reimagining Champions

While the “Victorious Champion” approaches life in terms of victory and defeat, power and subjugation, “The Champion of the Other” approaches the role of a “champion” in terms of service, sacrifice, and love. Reimagining what education should look like, training “The Champion of the Other” involves inculcating virtue within students. “If it is Christian, it ought to be better.” Our students should be the better doctors, the better lawyers, and the better politicians—better than their non-Christian peers. In this vision, “better” is used to suggest living with a higher ethic and a truer vision of human flourishing.

Winning isn’t enough for the “Champion of the Other”; in fact, this champion internalizes the reality that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” since “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Leadership based on these principles goes beyond dispositions and strategies; instead, the “Champion of the Other” has a radically different orientation to life as a whole.

We are all well aware of leaders who utilize the “appearance” of service to engender sympathy and support, and we have all seen people utilize a “servant leadership” strategy to achieve success in life or ministry. Many of us have seen “manipulative leaders [who] have learned to fake vulnerability … [and] use their ostensible vulnerability to shore up unbalanced authority. These are leaders who can produce tears on command, who share carefully chosen heartfelt anecdotes of personal failure, who seem empathetic and kind … while secretly consolidating their ability to control.”

However, these approaches still operate on a fallen paradigm, one that seeks personal and professional success as the end goal; service of the other is simply a useful means of achieving that success.

Reshaping Power

“The Champion of the Other” rejects Machiavelli completely. Instead of seeing leadership as a means of consolidating power, he or she sees leadership and success as a means of restoring good in the world for those around and under a leader. Leadership is a tool, not a goal in-and-of-itself. As a leader is given more power, that leader is able to do more to serve others. The temptation for self-service becomes greater as a leader gains influence, and the Christian ethic seems more radical the greater one’s power becomes. As the quintessential example of this, Jesus Christ, the greatest of us all, served us all in the most extreme of ways.

The “good” of leadership is found in what it multiplies; as a consequence, leadership is itself an evil when it is used for evil purposes. This is why we must teach students to pursue leadership as a way to de-emphasize one’s own significance, emphasizing instead the significance of those they lead. Leadership is a tool that allows true Champions for Christ to do just that—champion Christ, His mission, and His glory.

When leadership for leadership’s sake (or, in Liberty terminology, being a “champion” for the sake of being a champion) drives decisions and education, we have bought into a Machiavellian mentality of power baptized with a theology of glory. When, on the other hand, we educate students to reject the primacy of power, we can invite them to live a cruciform life.

Why Lead?

So why should we lead?

We should lead for the good of others, considering them to be more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Using this telos for leadership, the articles in this journal will explore what it actually looks like for our students to lead Christianly as they enter into their professions; what does it mean for them to be Champions for Christ?

This will look different in every job and in every field, but without a doubt, for the believer, “leadership is always servanthood—it is always about others’ flourishing, not our own, and it is always directed toward others’ authority, not our own.” [14] We will propose that the call to be a “champion” looks much like Paul envisioned for the church; believers are to be Christ’s body on earth (Ephesians 1:22-23).

Christ’s mission when He came was to restore what was broken, to serve those who despised Him, and to love a world that didn’t deserve it.

Champions for Christ carry forward that mission.