Southeastern University at Celebration Church: Why? And Why Now?

Every institution has a history. Numerical growth and operational expansion of any institution begins somewhere with someone. Southeastern University[1] began in 1935[2] through J.C. Thames and had seventeen students in its first graduating class. The University relocated five times with six name changes before receiving accreditation with the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges in 1986.[3] Today, Southeastern University has over 5,500[4] students and continues to grow numerically and expand operationally across the United States under the leadership of Dr. Kent Ingle. Celebration Church[5] began in 2000 under the leadership of Pastors Joe and Lori Champion. What began with seventy people meeting in a library has since progressed through seven locations and today has an average weekend attendance of 6,000[6] people flourishing under the continued leadership of the Champions.

Though universities and churches are separate institutions, both have common origins. In short, both are personified in Jesus. For those who follow Jesus, it is no surprise that He is the foundation, head, and substance of the Church.[7] Even atheists, agnostics, and nones,[8] who do not follow Jesus, acknowledge the founding connection between Jesus and the Church. However, it may be surprising to those who follow Jesus and to those who do not that the origin of the university is also personified in Jesus.       

Whether people follow Jesus or not, most would argue that the concept of the university[9] came from the Greco-Roman era. After all, the ancient Greeks had their philosophers: Aristotle (384-322 BC),[10] Plato (428-328 BC), Democritus (460-370 BC), Socrates (470-399 BC), Zeno (490-430 BC), Parmenides (551-unknown BC), Xenophanes (570-475 BC), Pythagoras (570-490 BC), and Thales (624-546 BC), to name a few. The Greeks also had their poets: Aristophanes (446-386 BC), Euripides (480-406 BC), Sophocles (496-405 BC), and Aeschylus (523-465 BC). The Romans also had their great thinkers: Plautus (254-184 BC), Cicero (106-43 BC), Lucretius (99-55 BC), Seneca (4-65), Pliny the Elder (23-79), and Tacitus (56-120). In many ways, these Greco-Roman philosophers, poets, and thinkers can be referred to as very learned men, and if they were alive today, they would certainly function in higher education. However, historian Charles Haskins (1923, 3) correctly points out that none of these philosophers, poets, and thinkers developed a single library, methodology, guild of scholars or students, or more importantly, any permanent institution. By rejecting the inductive method,[11] they did not engage in research, test any theory for its truth claims, or validate a methodology. British scholar of the medieval era, Alfred Cobban (1975, 22), is not wrong to state that these philosophers, poets, and thinkers influenced the concept of the university. Though Cobban (1975, 22) may be correct regarding their influence, he is blatantly wrong in suggesting the university originated with them. He is no more correct to suggest this than I am to suggest the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was King George’s idea. Nevertheless, fertile ground for the origins of the university can be traced back to the medieval era. More specifically, the origins can be traced to medieval monasteries.

Medieval monasteries produced hermitlike religious people. However, followers of Jesus were never meant to be separate from society to the point of being hermits. In Jesus’ priestly prayer before His crucifixion, He said, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15, NIV). Therefore, religious hermits like Anthony the Great (251-356), Gerasimus of Jordan (unknown-475), Pope Celestine (1210-1296), Julian of Norwich (1342-1423), William Wilson (1774-1821), James Lucas (1831-1974), and the contemporary hermit, Mary Diana,[12] were inconsistent in their interpretation of what Jesus meant in His prayer for those who would follow Him. Nevertheless, throughout the history of religious efforts,[13] good things emerged. The concept of a university began to emerge from medieval monasteries.

For example, St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543), who founded the Benedictine order, established the first monastery at Monte Cassino in 528. More monasteries followed in many locations. These Benedictine monasteries preserved the antiquity of Christianity in their libraries. Such libraries are what American historian Daniel Boorstin (1983, 491) refers to as the godfather of all other libraries. Within these libraries, Benedictine monks devoted their lives to copying the written works of Christianity[14] in the Scriptorium (a place for writing). Consequently, the monks often referred to their libraries as an armory of books, similar to the armory of a fortified castle (Boorstin 1983, 492-493). Such was the value placed on preserving Christian antiquity. Even so, Benedictine monasteries and their libraries in the sixth and seventh-century were not considered universities just yet. These would emerge in the twelfth century. What Benedict provided was the original foundation, or the fertile ground, for the modern university.

French scholar Gabriel Compayre (1899, 42), points out that most academics cite the University of Bologna in Italy, founded in 1158, as the first university. Compayre (1899, 56) also argues that the University of Bologna can be traced back to a school founded in 425 in Constantinople. American historian L. Millar (1946, 125) notes that thirty-one professors taught Latin, philosophy, law, and Greek in this school. Though the evidence is not convincing, there is some evidence that Bologna’s school may have begun in the tenth-century (Millar 1946, 110). Despite the lack of evidence that convincingly supports the beginning of the University in Bologna prior to 1158, academics not only cite that Bologna was the first university, but also that it specialized in the study of canon law.[15] Following the educational model of Bologna, the University of Paris began in 1200 by specializing in theology (Millar 1946, 14).

American Scholar Ellwood P. Cubberley (1920, 218) highlights that the University of Bologna was the academic model of education for more universities later established in Italy, Spain, Scotland, Sweden, and Poland; and the University of Paris was the academic model for universities that later followed in England, Portugal, Germany, and Austria. Furthermore, Cubberley (1920, 218) highlights that the University of Cambridge in England was the model of education for Harvard University in the United States. In each case, the academic model included solid theological studies as the basis for all other studies. In short, theology was inseparable from all academic study as higher education became institutionalized. Haskins (1923, 5) concludes that all universities in the twentieth-century can trace their academic lineage back to the universities in Bologna and Paris which were both profoundly theological.

Whether a university taught law, medicine, or the sciences, each was founded as a Christian institution, and as American historian George M. Marsden (1997, 15) notes, everything taught operated within theological boundaries. Further evidence of theological boundaries can be found in the names given to universities. In the United States and England, universities were named after Christian saints. For example, St. Edward’s, St. Mary’s, St. Bernard’s, St. Anne’s, St. Anthony’s and so on. General Christian names were also given: Trinity, King’s, Christ’s, Magdalene’s, and so forth.  

Arguably, the rise of secularism has been a significant and influential force in the United States and England that has removed theological boundaries from many, if not all, academic studies in higher education. However, the research of American educator Paul Lee Tan (1984, 157) serves as a reminder in the history of higher education that “every collegiate institution founded in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War—except for the University of Pennsylvania—was established by some branch of the Christian Church.” Adding to Tan’s historical reminder is the research of American historian Donald Tewksbury (1932), specifically in the United States. By the time Tewksbury published in 1932, ninety-two percent of the 182 colleges and universities in the United States had been founded by the mainstream denominations of the church. For example, Harvard University was founded by the Congregational Church in 1636 as a theological institution. Likewise, Yale University was largely established in 1701 by the Congregational Church to educate students who wanted to become clergy. In 1851 the Methodists founded the Northwest University in Evanston, Illinois. It was first known as The King’s College and was an Episcopalian initiative. Princeton University began in 1746 with the Presbyterian Church; Brown University began in 1764 with the Baptists.  

With the predominant influence of secularism in higher education today, it is surprising to realize that some state universities were also founded by the Church. For example, the Universities of Tennessee (1794), Kentucky (1865), and California (1868) can locate their foundations in the church. The European Universities of Oxford (1096),[16] Cambridge (1209), Heidelberg (1386), and Basel (1460) were equally founded by the church. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe (1994, 40) concluded, “Every school you see—public or private, religious or secular—is a visible reminder of the religion of Jesus Christ. So is every college and university.”     

Therefore, contrary to what may be a common understanding that the university came from Greco-Roman philosophers, poets, and thinkers, a brief history of the university clearly shows that many schools would not be in existence today if it was not for the church. Sadly, by the twentieth-century, the concept of the university had largely departed from its Christian founding charters.[17] Nevertheless, the twenty-first century unavoidably reunites the university and the church towards graduating students who want to study law, medicine, and the sciences within theological boundaries.

Having established that the concept of the university came from the church, in turn, the concept of the church undoubtedly came from Jesus who said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18, NIV). American historian Gary Macy (2005, 9) argues, “Roman Catholic historians are tempted to rummage through past documents looking for support for the contention that Thomas Aquinas, Trent, and, more recently, Vatican II or the Medellin Conference, fully embody the teachings implicit in earlier centuries. Anglicans are tempted to look for precursors to the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Book of Prayer. The Lutherans are tempted to search the Middle Ages for the Lutherans before Luther.” Despite mainstream church denominations arguing over who owns the history of the church, ultimately the church is Jesus’ Church.

The ideas that Jesus taught regarding His Church were not an end in themselves. He gave specific direction that what He taught others would also teach to those who followed Him. Before His ascension, Jesus said to those who followed Him, “Teach them to do all the things I have told you” (Matthew 28:20, NLV). After Luke thoroughly investigated the story of Jesus,[18] he wrote, “they never stopped teaching” (Acts 5:24, NIV). What they were teaching was, in fact, in the same vein that Jesus taught. Further evidence is plainly found in the epistles of Paul and his consistent emphasis on teaching others about Jesus, that in turn, they may teach others. In fact, a primary qualification of a pastor in Paul’s epistle to Timothy was an “ability to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). This ability was to teach the very things that Jesus had taught.

It could be argued that the act of teaching was deeply embedded in Jewish culture; therefore, it was nothing new that followers of a particular teacher would continue to teach in the same vein.[19] However, the epistles of the New Testament are rich with cross-cultural teaching in the same vein as the teachings of Jesus. Prior to this cross-cultural approach, Greeks may have taught other Greeks, Romans may have taught other Romans, and in a general sense, Gentiles may have taught other Gentiles. But what Jesus taught, and how He taught, extended beyond Jewish cultural boundaries, perpetuating His life, death, and resurrection. An example of cross-cultural teaching is found in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians in response to disputes over certain cultural practices. Paul clarified what mattered as the substance of teaching. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provided theological boundaries for everything cultural in the New Testament simply because “He died for all” (2 Cor. 5:15).

In approximately 80-110 the Didache (teaching of the apostles) was compiled as an instructional textbook written for people who had just begun to follow Jesus. In the editorial work of historians Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (1999, 1:81), Ignatius[20] insisted that what students learn towards employment in the marketplace must be Christ-centered. In short, carrying out any trade would glorify God in keeping with the teachings of Jesus and matters of first importance: His life, death, and resurrection. Again, it can be argued that teaching a trade and studying Scripture was deeply embedded in Jewish culture; therefore, it was nothing new. But again, the epistle of Ignatius highlights the cross-cultural emphasis in the teachings of Jesus.

New followers of Jesus became known as catechumens. They were taught through the method of questions-and-answers over a period of two to three years (Roberts and Donaldson 1999, 1:39). Interestingly, two years is the same duration a current Associate Degree takes to complete. As the Church grew in numbers, its members required catechetical schools with a strong literary emphasis.

In approximately 150, Justin Martyr[21] established the first catechetical schools in Rome and Ephesus. Such schools spread as the church continued to grow. The catechetical schools in Alexandria and Egypt were widely recognized for their libraries under the leadership of Pantaenus (unknown-200). Clement of Alexandria[22] (150-215) followed Pantaenus, building the reputation of catechetical schools lasting for over a century.

Catechetical schools succeeded in their goals, providing theological boundaries for trades, mathematics, medicine, and Christian leadership. For example, Origen[23] (185-254) and Athanasius[24] (297-373) attributed their own education and leadership to catechetical schools. In fact, it was Origen who added grammar classes to the catechetical schools with theological boundaries. Even the use of language, written or spoken, was taught within boundaries that glorified God. Regarding the Early Church fathers, Scottish novelist and screenwriter William Boyd (1965, 84) wrote, “Christianity became for the first time a definite factor in the culture of the world.”

It is not difficult to understand that the importance the Early Church placed on education extended to the founding of the University in Bologna and then Paris in the twelfth-century, spreading across Europe and the United States. According to King Solomon, “What has been will be again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV). As it was, the church and the university were never opposed to each other, and despite the current influence of secularism, so it shall be again.

In partnership with Southeastern University, Celebration Church will launch a University campus in the Fall of 2018. Students will have the opportunity to re-live what Ignatius (Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe 1999, 1:81) believed: all study should be Christ-centered towards employment in the marketplace in order to glorify God in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. Why Southeastern University at Celebration Church? Though Dr. Ingle and Pastors Joe and Lori Champion are leading these flourishing institutions, both institutions naturally and historically have Jesus Christ as their foundation and originator.  

To learn more about Southeastern University at Celebration Church, visit

References Cited
Boorstin, Daniel. 1983. The Discovery. New York: Vintage Books.
Boyd, William. 1965. The History of Western Education. New York: Barnes and Noble.
Cobban, A. B. 1975. The Medieval Universities: Their Development and Organization. Chatham, England: Methuen.
Compayre, Gasbriel. 1899. Abelard and the Origin of the Early History of Universities. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.  
Cubberley, P. Ellwood. 1920. History of Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Haskins, Charles H. 1923. The Rise of Universities. New York: Henry Holt.
Kennedy, James and Jerry Newcome. 1994. What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Macy, Gary. 2005. The Banquets Wisdom: A Short History of the Theologies of the Lords Supper. New York: Paulist Press.
Marsden, George M. 1997. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lipka, Michael. 2015. “Millennials Increasingly Are Driving Growth of ‘Nones.’” Pew Research Center. Accessed date.
Millar, L. 1946. Christian Education in the First Four Centuries. London: Faith Press.
Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. 1981. Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, 10 vols. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Schmidt, Alvin. 2001. How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Tan, Paul Lee. 1984. Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times. Rockville, MD: Assurance Publishers.
Tewksbury, Donald. 1932. The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War. New York. Columbia University.

[2] First founded in New Brockton Alabama, as Alabama Shield Faith Institute.
[4] Projected numbers for the Fall 2017 on campus in Lakeland, Florida and extension/regional sites.
[6] Attendance includes 5,000 on campus and 1,000 online in the United States. This figure does not include campuses in Mozambique or Italy.   
[7] Colossians 1:16-18, NIV.
[8] Michael Lipka (2015) notes that nones are a fast-growing group of millennials with a larger retention rate than any church denomination or non-denomination. Nones believe in God but eschew the idea of the church and Jesus as Savior. 
[9] I use the term university with slight ambiguity in that I mean it to also include colleges and seminaries.
[10] All dates AD unless otherwise stated.
[11] The inductive approach begins with observations and ends with the proposal of theories developed as a result of observations.
[12] Sister Mary Diana, of Springfield, Oregon, became a consecrated hermit almost forty years ago. She was among the first in the US.
[13]I am including Catholicism, Protestantism, Lutheranism, and other church denominations, ancient and recent, including non-denominational congregations.
[14] Holy Bible, writings of the Early Church fathers, and biblical commentaries, among other works from Greek and Roman writers. 
[15] Laws concerning the church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church.
[16] A precise date of when Oxford University officially commenced is unknown, but there is evidence that teaching took place in 1096. 
[17] Quite often a university will cite that its origins were Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist, or some other religious affiliation.
[18] In the opening verses of Luke chapter 1, he clearly states the background as a thorough investigation into the life and teachings of Jesus.
[19] For example, the House (school) of Hillel and the House of Shammai taught on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology that shaped Judaism as it is today.
[20] Early Church father and Bishop of Antioch in his letter to the Philadelphians.  
[21] Early Church father and often cited as the first scholar of the church.
[22] Early Church father.
[23] Early Church father often cited as the prince of Christian learning.
[24] Early Church father.

Dr. Andrew K. Fox