What Happens at Liberty Doesn’t Stay at Liberty

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The Falwell investigation has far-reaching consequences for local churches in Virginia and beyond.

The Associated Press recently reported that Liberty University is launching an independent investigation into the conduct of former president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becki. For some evangelicals, the scandal elicits nothing more than a shrug for the isolated actions of a few bad apples. For others, these significant misdeeds will be swept away quickly in the tides of history. Historian Grant Wacker makes this argument in a recent Washington Post piece titled “Jerry Falwell Jr.’s downfall won’t change anything for evangelicals.”

If you take a bird’s eye view of time, then he’s likely right. But for those of us who inhabit space inside Liberty University’s large sphere of influence, the truth is quite the opposite. This scandal and its ensuing investigation have far-reaching consequences, not only for parachurch practice but also for local church polity. Put another way, the cautionary tale of the Falwells carries implications for how believers here and elsewhere think about the intricate bonds between the local body of Christ and adjacent parachurch institutions.

My first glimpse into Liberty’s regional influence happened roughly 20 years ago, when I came to visit the man who would later become my husband. He’d lived his whole life in rural southwest Virginia, where the primary force in his spiritual formation was a small Baptist church that still sits atop a knoll just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Driving through the countryside those years ago, I was entranced by the passing forests and hills dotted with small farms and rock churches. I also remember the moment when I rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a billboard for a local university. One of the few …

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