Above are links to two stories involving the departure of Baptist colleges and universities from the state conventions that have financially supported them and provided a significant portion of their constituency. Belmont University in Nashville has agreed to pay back a significant portion of the money given to them by the Tennessee Baptist Convention over the years in order to free itself from having its trustee board elected by the convention. The remaining five schools associated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina are joining previously departed Wake Forest University and Meredith College in separating from the control of the state convention. The list of Baptist-related institutions of higher education operating independent of the state conventions that, in many cases, birthed and supported them is growing. In addition to Belmont, and the North Carolina schools including Chowan University, Campbell University and Divinity School, Gardner Webb University, Mars Hill College and Wingate University, and the previously departed Wake Forest and Meredith, other Baptist related schools have separated themselves to a greater or lesser degree from the state convention electing their trustees, including Baylor University in Texas, Grand Canyon University in Arizona, Missouri Baptist College and William Jewel College in Missouri, Stetson University in Florida, Mercer University in Georgia, and Furman University in South Carolina. There may be others.
The issue seems to be initiated by the schools themselves. Since most of these schools were started to train ministers and servants of the church, the fact that they now want to separate from a constituency that has, at least in the past, been their bread and butter in terms of enrollment potential and financial support, tells me there has been a serious disconnect somewhere. My undergraduate and graduate degrees were earned in Baptist institutions of higher education. I can certainly speak endlessly of their value to my life, faith, and ministry career. So what has caused them to back away, willingly in most cases, from their sustaining relationship with the state convention?
The Conservative Resurgence
It is clear that the conservative resurgence in the SBC has had an effect on the relationships between Baptist colleges and their state conventions. It is also clear that this movement was largely responsible for the distancing of relationships between state conventions and schools like Baylor, Mercer and Wake Forest in particular. Wake Forest was drifting away from convention control even before the actual resurgence movement began in 1979. The schools cited the “creeping fundamentalism” and fear that their academic freedom would be violated if they fell under control of fundamentalist trustees who would seek to fire faculty members and replace them with those who held fundamentalist views. Conservatives claimed that the schools were teaching things that were contrary to historic and traditional Baptist belief in the authority of scripture and the nature of Christ, among other things.
I must say that there are things I have read, regarding the beliefs and views of leadership and faculty at several of these schools, Wake Forest and Mercer in particular, that I would have to say fall outside what I would consider both evangelical, orthodox Christianity, and the traditional and historic Baptist view. If the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message is the guide to Baptist cooperation, then several things I have read about certain professors and administrators at some of the Baptist universities are not consistent with the parameters of Baptist cooperation, even if the BFM is considered confessional and not creedal.
“Creeping” Fundamentalism or the “Slippery Slope” of Liberalism
The faculty at Grand Canyon University, where I began attending in 1975, was as solidly evangelical, conservative Baptist as they came. The Bible was taught as divinely inspired, completely authoritative truth, without any mixture of error. Jesus was the virgin born, sinless, fully human son of man, fully divine Son of God whose death was the sacrifice for our sins, and whose resurrection is our only hope for eternity. I believed that then, and I believe it now. The thought that anyone would teach otherwise in a Baptist institution of higher learning never crossed my mind. I could not imagine that accusations of professors ridiculing students who believed the Bible, creation, or the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ made in Baptist college classrooms would be even close to the truth.
When I attended Southwestern Seminary, I expected to experience clashes between students and professors over these things. I never encountered a professor there who came even remotely close to denying any of those things, nor did I ever witness any ridicule of students for anything, especially belief in the authority of scripture, the virgin birth, the resurrection, or creation. I had some trouble grasping the preterist view of Revelation, having come from a church that was premillenial dispensationalist, and a college where historical premillenialism was the prevailing view, but never experienced “liberalism.”
So I have to wonder, at this point, with universities seeming somewhat anxious to depart from the state conventions, what they think they might have to fear regarding what they are teaching, and if there is good reason for their fear. Are there professors who are going well outside the views expressed in the BFM, either the ’63 or 2000 version, that they would be concerned for their job? And if so, what views are they teaching? Is it “creeping” fundamentalism that they fear, or is it the fact that they are teaching views that are not in accordance with what Baptist churches, conventions, and their entities, have agreed is the basis for cooperation? If they are not, then perhaps agreeing to part ways and not receive any more Cooperative Program money is the right thing for them to do.
The Student Constituency
I also have to wonder how many students from Baptist churches are now attending colleges and universities related to the state convention, especially if schools seem willing to depart from convention affiliation. Tuition and fees at most private, Baptist colleges have soared astronomically, and are well out of the range of affordability for most students from Baptist families. Students do not want to accumulate massive college loan debt to attend a smaller school with fewer course offerings than the state university system schools. And it may also be that, like many churches, colleges and universities known as Baptist affiliated may be trying to dodge that tag. They may think that they will still be able to attract their traditional constituency without directly affiliating with the state convention.
The Value of a Baptist University and Seminary Education
I am afraid that, in times where each succeeding generation is becoming more and more secular, the value of a Baptist higher education may be lost to the future. For me, it was a dramatic spiritual formation, a discipleship and encouragement ministry to me personally that had a tremendous impact on shaping who I am and what I have done with my life. I know I would be a very different person, doing very different things, had I not had the blessing of a Baptist higher education. I certainly would not be in full time vocational ministry, and I am not sure what direction my spiritual life would have taken, since I was a college student when I made the decision to become a Christ follower.
These are also vital relationships for our state conventions. They provide ministerial staff and leadership for the churches. It is imperative that they be accessible to the average Baptist college student, teaching doctrine and principles consistent with Baptist beliefs, or we will begin to struggle with securing pastors, church staff and missionaries. Personally, I would be reluctant to recommend a Baptist college to a student if I had doubts about its doctrinal integrity. I think our schools are gems, and I believe we need to work hard to make sure they are affordable, accessible and doctrinally sound.