Taxonomies for Church-Related Schools

How Christian Colleges and Their Denominations Relate

Michael Shane Garrison

One might ask a series of questions as to the need for an alternative to the secular academy. Is there is a need for Christian students to learn and develop in a holistic Christian environment? Is there is a need for Christian scholarship and research in forming a clearly-defined integration of faith and science? Is there is a need for Christian professionals who have been trained adequately for careers in the arts and sciences, but who have also been grounded in biblical and spiritual truth? The answer to these questions is unequivocally yes. There is a significant need for the church- related college.  This has been the case in the United States since the founding of the first institutions of higher learning in the 1600’s. The need is still present today in the twenty-first century.

Yet there is a reason for caution. Questions arise from the secular academy in how denominational and church affiliation influence Christian institutions of higher learning. How can academic freedom be held intact when outside influencers have sway in policy and decision making? Issues arise over trustee selection and the hiring practices of faculty and staff. How can a church-related institution requiring courses in the Bible be accredited by a secular agency? These matters, among others, place the Christian college in a peculiar position between denominational affiliation and institutional autonomy.

The purpose of this paper is to outline five taxonomies for church-related colleges or universities. Each taxonomy sheds light into how a school aligns itself with its particular denomination, while remaining independent. As each taxonomy builds upon another, the result is a more comprehensive understanding of college and denominational influence.

Taxonomies of Church Relatedness

Scholars know that in order for a field of research to be properly studied and debated, definitions must be agreed upon by the majority of their colleagues and peers. This is true in the task of defining any model, structure or paradigm. A working taxonomy is simply one of those models. The relationship between a Christian college and its founding or supporting denomination can be placed in these taxonomies. The following taxonomies for church-related schools have been developed by multiple sources. It is difficult to simplify these relationships and even more difficult to fully define them, therefore five taxonomies will present each while highlighting a different aspect of the relationship between a church-related institution and its sponsoring denomination. The progression will be formatted chronologically to demonstrate how one author’s contributions were used by future authors.

Pattillo and Mackenzie (1966)

The first taxonomy was created by Manning Pattillo and Donald Mackenzie in 1966. These men were commissioned by the Danforth Foundation to evaluate over 800 institutions of higher learning with some level of religious affiliation and/or historical religious ties. Their research focused on specifying and categorizing the relative strength of denominational affiliation and the general ways in which the affiliation was manifested in the day-to-day activities of the institution. The research produced a four-tiered model.

Pattillo and Mackenzie’s first tier was called Defenders of the Faith colleges.1 Defender colleges have their basis in arts and science education for students who will become leaders within the denomination. The curriculum is complete with religion and theological courses, which are both elective and required. Students, faculty, and administrators are all active members of the particular denomination. In essence, the campus is an extension of the local church complete with religious worship services, interaction with denominational leaders, and obedience to the ethical guidelines of the denomination. These schools are often stalwarts of the denomination and garner much pride by prominent denominational voices.

Pattillo and MacKenzie’s second tier was called Non- Affirming colleges.2 These institutions are affiliated with the denomination but downplay their religious identity. Their main emphasis is to provide liberal arts education with moral implications within a caring Christian campus environment. The learning environment upholds religious living, but not specific theological and moral teachings of a particular denomination. Religion courses are offered but not required. Membership in the denomination has no bearing on the faculty or student body. These schools strive to reflect values of contemporary culture within a moralistic framework.

The third tier was called Free Christian colleges.3 The name implies two descriptors: Free because the institution would not attempt to control thoughts; Christian because they had an open and honest commitment to basic Christian principles. Free Christian colleges see the relationship between religious faith and a liberal arts education as entirely complementary. The institution is loosely guided by a religious framework. Christian leaders and professors are regularly hired which sets a course for the campus direction. However, non-Christian professionals are not completely excluded. As long as these men and women hold a level of respect for Christian principles and morals and demonstrate excellence in academic pursuits, they are deemed as suitable candidates. Denominational affiliation is relatively free, but still existent.

Pattillo and MacKenzie’s fourth tier was called Church-Related universities.4 Church-related universities are mostly found in the Methodist and Catholic traditions. These schools are much larger than the other three categories. Additionally, they have a longstanding history in the United States. The student populations are broad and diverse, incorporating a wide spectrum of geographic regions and countries. These universities have a variety of degree programs, many of which lead to masters and post-graduate studies.

The church-related university has a pluralistic worldview by design and denominational involvement is limited, even barely evident. Usually these universities have a divinity school as one of many different schools and departments. There is no religious precedent or expectation of leadership on campus nor any religious test for faculty and administrators. These schools have historical ties to their founding Christian denominations, but have left those ties long ago.

Pattillo and MacKenzie’s study began the conversation on denominational affiliation, but many others would soon follow.

Robert Pace (1972)

The second taxonomy of church relatedness was created by Robert Pace in 1972. Pace chose to limit his study to Protestant colleges and universities, excluding the Roman Catholic tradition. He evaluated 88 schools and developed a taxonomy based on four definitive statements, rather than categorical identifications.

Pace’s four definitive statements are as follows5:

1. Institutions that had Protestant roots but were no longer Protestant in any legal sense.
2. Institutions that remained nominally related to Protestantism but were probably on the verge of disengagement.
3. Institutions that were established by major Protestant denominations and retained a connection with the church.
4. Institutions that are presently governed by the evangelical, fundamentalist, and/or inter-denominational Christian churches.

In Pace’s taxonomy, the issue of governance and ownership is easily seen. Statement one states, “no longer Protestant in any legal sense.” Statement 2 notates that a school is on the verge of “disengagement” from their denominational roots. Statement 4 actually uses the phrase “presently governed by . . . inter-denominational Christian churches” to indicate ownership and rule by a particular denominational entity.

Additionally, Pace found that institutional success is linked to the strength of denominational affiliation. He concluded that the most distinctive church-related institutions are the ones most likely to survive and prosper. In other words, the schools that retained the strongest ties to their respective denominations survived longer than those who did not remained connected.6

Merrimon Cunniggim (1978)

A third taxonomy was developed by Merrimon Cunniggim in 1978 which places more emphasis on the desires of the evangelical churches rather than the mission of the college.Cunniggim thought Pattillo and Mackenzie’s taxonomy was too pejorative and lacked a neutral position. He observed schools that did not choose to be fully supportive or fully separated. Cunniggim also felt Pattillo and Mackenzie created a “ladder of ascending worth” where Free Christian colleges are recommended, Defender of the Faith colleges are respected, yet Church-Related universities and Non-Affirming colleges were not really church- related at all. Cunniggim’s continuum helps one visualize the spectrum.8

Cunniggim created three descriptive institutional groupings placed along a continuum of religious affiliation (see diagram below).

Cunniggim’s Continuum

Consonant Colleges       Proclaiming Colleges       Embodying Colleges


The first group on the far left of the continuum was called Consonant Colleges. Consonant colleges ally with the denomination, or a certain faction within the denomination, but speak infrequently of its church relationship. These schools are independent with little concern for creating or following any religious criteria. There is minimal representation of the denomination in the student and faculty base. Policies and governance have little to do with denominational life or movements.

The middle group on the continuum was called Proclaiming Colleges. These colleges give “witness” or “proclamation” to its denomination as an affiliated partner. The expression of witness can vary depending on the presidency, political strife within the denomination, or outside influences within the college environment. These institutions define themselves first as a college, then as a Christian college, and finally as a denominationally-affiliated college. They openly admit their connection to the church and its religious beliefs.

The third grouping farthest to the right of the continuum was called Embodying Colleges. Cunniggim thought that Embodying colleges were the purist reflection of the sponsoring denomination or church. These schools often include the denominational name within its title (e.g., Missouri Baptist College, Eastern Mennonite University). They strive to demonstrate denominational faith and values in every facet of institutional operations.9 Faculty and staff selections are made with denominational membership in mind, and representatives from the denomination have input into trustee selection, policies and institutional mission. Cunniggim’s taxonomy simplified the previous taxonomies by moving from four categories to three. Still other researchers wanted to place their insights into the discussion.

Robert Sandin (1990)

A fourth taxonomy was created by Robert Sandin in 1990, but is often overlooked in the literature because it was developed for a vastly difference reason. Sandin sought to clarify the effect of religious preference in employment practices. He wanted to discern how denominational adherence was present in the hiring of new faculty and administrators. His taxonomy includes four categories of religious affiliation and their implications for employee relations.

First, Sandin identified Pervasively Religious schools. The mark of these institutions was the adoption of primary Christian convictions into the totality of college life.10 Pervasively religious schools would monitor and negotiate social mores concerning sexual activity, alcohol, dancing, and cheating based on the denomination’s doctrinal beliefs. Spiritual fervency, as seen in worship attendance and the practicing of spiritual disciplines, was encouraged by campus leadership. In hiring faculty and staff, the candidate’s personal and spiritual lives must be totally devoted to the principles of faith held by the denomination.

Sandin’s second category was called Religiously Supportive schools. These schools do not aspire to the centralization of religious values in all institutional activities.11 Still the school is largely shaped by its religious affiliation and its constitution as a Christian college. The hiring practices, enrollment patterns, and institutional leadership are strongly influenced by the denomination, but not completely determined by it. Sandin saw these schools as a middle option, but still closer aligned to the denomination in many ways. Thirdly, Sandin identified Nominally ChurchRelated institutions. This category mimics Cunniggim’s consonant colleges.12 Nominally church-related schools view their church- relatedness as an important symbol of its historic association, but they find themselves under no obligation to follow any institutional directive or theological conviction held by the denomination. There is no controlling value or governance shared between the two entities. Independence is the key identity of the college but it retains certain values intertwined with the denominational heritage it was founded upon. No human resources or personnel issues are determined by religious connotations.

Sandin’s final category was called Independent with Historical Religious Ties. These schools at one time were closely identified with the denomination but have long since dropped any such ties. They currently stand, and most definitely continue to be, non-related to any religious sponsorship. Any vestige of denominational ties has been severed and no potential ties will be formed. Many Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are included in this category. Even with the historical ties, personnel issues have no religious implications.13 An atheist, agnostic, Wiccan, or Muslim could be hired at these historic Christian institutions without adverse reactions.

Robert Benne (2001)

The most recent taxonomy to appear in the literature has been offered by Robert Benne in Quality with Soul.14 Benne’s intention was to create a simplified approach to classifying church-orrelated colleges. His research tracked the journey of six church- related schools: Calvin College (Reformed), Wheaton College (Evangelical), St. Olaf and Valparaiso (Lutheran), Notre Dame (Roman Catholic) and Baylor University (Southern Baptist). His goal was to describe how they have remained religiously affiliated with the secularization of the academy. His taxonomy, therefore, is representative of this research and uses four descriptors as benchmarks of church-relatedness. Those benchmarks are presented here in sequential order.

  1. Orthodox. Orthodox institutions want to assure that the Christian account of life and reality are publicly and comprehensively relevant to the life of the school.15 This occurs by requiring that all adult members of the campus community subscribe to a statement of belief. These schools offer an unabashed invitation to an intentionally Christian enterprise for students looking for a highly religious institution. Overt piety, religious practice, and denominational loyalty are foundational to the orthodox college. Because of this, indispensable financial support is provided by the denominational entity, along with ownership and governance by church representatives and officials.
  2. Critical Mass. A critical mass institution has the majority of its students, faculty, board and administrators as members of the denomination. The percentage of denominational membership versus non-affiliated is not completely submerged, but at an extremely high majority, or critical mass.16 Regardless of the minority opinion, critical mass schools have a defined identity and mission which highly reflects the denomination. There is a straight- forward presentation to the public that the school is overtly Christian. While the college is autonomously owned and governed, a majority of board members are from the sponsoring denomination.
  3. Intentionally Pluralistic. Benne noted a third category in which the schools are primarily liberal arts colleges with a Christian heritage. The dominant atmosphere on campus is secular, yet there is an open minority of students and faculty who support the sponsoring tradition. Usually there is one religious course offered in the general education requirements but it can be opted out. There is a minority representation on the board from the sponsoring denomination by “unofficial agreement” only. By all necessary means, the intentionally pluralistic school has removed all religious expression from their campus.17
  4. Accidentally Pluralistic. Accidentally pluralistic schools are basically secular schools with little or no allusion to their Christian heritage. An inexpressibly small and reclusive minority of denominationally-affilliated administrators and faculty may still exist, but they are unorganized and unrecognized. Board representation from the sponsoring tradition is entirely accidental or coincidental.18 These schools are secular and pluralistic through and through. There is no remembrance or reference to the sponsoring denomination in any manner.

Benne’s taxonomy is currently the model most commonly used by all parties of the Christian academy in determining where a school is placed along the four benchmarks. His contributions seem to be most in line with current trends in church-related higher education.


What can be gleaned from this overview of church-related taxonomies? Three major themes emerge:

First, a Christian institution must continually monitor its denominational affiliation. Tides swing and the culture constantly shifts. Leaders of Christian academic institutions, therefore, must regularly discuss their denominational affiliation and determine what course will be set for the impending future. Lack of awareness is not an option in this current postmodern age of education.

Second, denominational leaders who have responsibilities over a Christian institution must keep aware of the natural flux in the academy. Academic freedom is the great temptress in higher education. A Christian school can slowly move away from its denomination without notice. Leaders and trustees must do their part to keep a school grounded if they intend for it to retain its mission and principles.

Finally, all future presidents, vice presidents, and deans of Christian academic institutions must be educated in how their school relates to its denomination. The academy becomes more and more split down the lines of religion and secularization. Many educators from the secular world have little to no training in understanding the delicate balance in Christian institutions. Proper guidance in this balance will become a mandatory requirement for effective leadership Christian higher education in relating the institution to its denomination for future development.


1 Manning M. Pattillo and Donald M. Mackenzie, Church-Sponsored Higher Education in the United States: Report from the Danforth Commission (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 1966) 66-75.

2 Ibid., 80-97.

3 Ibid., 119-31.

4 Ibid., 132-45.

5 Robert Pace, Education and Evangelism: A Profile of Protestant Colleges (Hightstown, NJ: McGraw-Hill, 1972) 21.

6 Ibid., 23-24.

7 Merrimon Cunniggim, “Categories of Church-Relatedness,” in Church-Related Higher Education: Perceptions and Perspectives, ed. Ronald Parsonage (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1978) 32.

8 Ibid., 35.

9 Ibid., 35-52.

10 Robert T. Sandin, Autonomy and Faith: Religious Preference in Employment Decisions in Religiously Affiliated Higher Education (Atlanta, GA: Center for Constitutional Studies, Mercer University, 1990) 14.

11 Ibid., 15.

12 Ibid., 16-17.

13 Ibid., 18-20.

14 Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2001) xi.

15 Ibid., 50.

16 Ibid., 50-51.

17 Ibid., 51.

18 Ibid., 51-52.

Chat with us x