Beliefnet
When Brandy Allen left for college in the fall of 1996, she said good-bye to a small, dusty town in California's central valley and a public high school where she felt conspicuous for her firm religious beliefs. But at Biola University, a nondenominational evangelical Christian school in suburban Los Angeles County, she encountered something many college freshmen assume they've left behind: rules. Lots of them.

Codes of conduct are standard at Christian colleges, and Biola's is one of the toughest. The university's 2,100 undergraduates can't drink, smoke, gamble, or have premarital sex. Doors must be wide open during the brief, and heavily supervised, hours when men and women may visit each other's dorms. "Social dancing," everything from the waltz to the salsa, is forbidden on campus. Students can't watch racy movies or TV shows, and parental-control software keeps internet pornography off limits to curious eyes.

This is college?

Allen, who graduated in May after four years towing the line, said she wasn't fazed by the strict requirements. Not all Christian college students agree. Behind their squeaky-clean image, Christian campuses are a place where students often struggle with the rules, question them and--more and more, according to some administrators--break them.

In recent years, many Christian colleges have relaxed certain rules in response to student demands, often regarding the right to dance on or off campus. Other rules have been tightened in response to new temptations.

Disciplinary problems, usually involving drinking, arise weekly at Abilene Christian University in Texas, said Wayne Barnard, dean of campus life at the 4,700-student school, where alcohol is not permitted on campus. Students are also forbidden to attend local "honky tonk" bars, and school officials recently made a decision to discipline students who serve alcohol at private parties off campus, Barnard said. "We're talking about the kind that spill into the backyard, and you've got 50 to 100 people."

Such parties are infrequent, he said, but in his 10 years on campus he has seen student behavior steadily worsen.

"I would say students are much more comfortable to misbehave, even in classes," Barnard said. Students are "at times obnoxious, pretty bold. We have a chapel time every day, you're talking about 3,000 people, and we've noticed that the noise level, the lack of respect has increased."

Yet enrollment at Christian colleges has surged in the past decade, and Abilene is no exception. Barnard's analysis is that students are growing up without guidelines, and they--or their parents--are "crying out" for rules that will prepare them for life after college.

"Our role and our goal is to help students develop and be responsible Christian leaders in the world," he said. "Anywhere you go, even large corporations, there are certain guidelines you have to follow. Sometimes it's dress codes; sometimes it's conduct. I think it's important for students to learn that there has to be a certain level of guideline."

Consequences of breaking the rules, or even challenging them openly, vary widely among Christian schools. Just as no two denominations interpret Scripture in the same way, no two colleges set the same standards for Christian community life. And while evangelical Protestants adhere to a literal reading of the Bible, school officials acknowledge that many of their prohibitions have no direct scriptural source. Smoking, dancing, and moderate drinking, for example, are not forbidden by Christian Scripture.

"There's a huge spectrum of behavioral codes," says Julie Peterson, spokeswoman for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. More than 177,000 students attended its 95 member schools last year, Peterson said, a jump of more than 24% since 1990.

At one end of the council's spectrum stands Biola, where all students must be born-again Christians (a pastor's letter must be included with the application), and everyone from the janitorial staff to the chairman of the trustee board must follow the same code of conduct as the students.

Nyack College, near New York City, affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, also expects its students to be Christian believers and sets similar standards regarding alcohol, smoking, and sex. Its community- standards document also includes a detailed list of other forbidden fruit: MTV, VH-1, soap operas, and computer games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

Do the codes work? Phil Dehaan, spokesman for Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., isn't so sure.

"Anecdotally, I've talked to colleagues at Christian colleges that have codes, and they know that students are going to bars on weekends, going to dances," Dehaan says. "Having a code doesn't mean that that sort of thing is not going to happen."

Calvin, with its roots in the Reformed tradition, takes a more liberal approach. Students may smoke and dance on campus, and students over 21 may drink alcohol off campus. Dorm visitation policies are also looser: Students may close their doors while visiting someone of the opposite sex, as long as the deadbolt is open and the door doesn't latch.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus