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. 


About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

15 responses

  1. Dylan says:

    I think you and I have already had the conversation about the content of some of the courses, including Bible, that I encountered in the classroom of the Baptist college I attended. You also know what I did, and what the result was. So I’d answer your question yes, and yes. But before we think about making them more affordable to the average Baptist, we also have to make sure the average Baptist will be taught properly, and in accordance with Baptist beliefs.

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  3. Lee says:

    BTW, I wanted to point out that Grand Canyon University’s separation from the state convention was due to the Baptist Foundation of Arizona financial scandal that rocked the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention several years ago. GCU’s board of trustees separated from the convention to avoid having its endowment and assets tapped by creditors, and then, the school was sold to a private owner. It has become a non-denominational Christian university acknowledging ties to its “Baptist heritage.” That probably more accurately represents what it has been for the past 30 years, since it was the only fully accredited, four year liberal arts college in Arizona, Baptists, while composing the largest single group of students on campus, never comprised more than 35% of the student body. GCU has always had a student body representing a diverse, but predominantly evangelical Christian constituency.

    Since the new owners have taken over the school, it has become one of the top on-line degree offering institutions in the country.

  4. marc says:

    FWIW, none of the five NC Baptist colleges in the current discussions (nor Meredith) was founded by the BSCNC. Only Wake Forest was; the others were founded by Baptist folks who saw the need for such a school in their area, and only later did the colleges opt to be affiliated with the BSC.

  5. Frank says:

    I don’t believe close ties to a convention will guarantee anything. Most Baptist schools that have deviated from their convention foundations did so while still closely connected to those conventions. It is only when they have gone a step too far that conventions sever relationships. (Or vice versa) Then, you have to account for schools such as Wheaton, which has remained rock-solidly evangelical while never having any denominational ties of any kind. Why did Wheaton never veer toward the liberal? I think the answer in every situation is this: it all depends on the leadership chosen, both administrative and trustee, whether the school is controlled by a convention or not. Total control over a school will not guarantee the school remaining where it has been. Absence of control does not guarantee a school will head south theologically. It depends on the decisions made by those in charge, whoever put them there.

  6. The problem of making a Baptist education accessible to the average person is quite complex.

    Look at the top academic Baptist colleges and universities (Baylor, Mercer, Samford, etc.). The average person will never again be able to afford to attend such an institution without either boocoodles of scholarships OR taking out many many loans.

    An excellent private education is costly, whether it be Baptist or not. And for most above average students, schools like Baylor and Mercer have much more to offer than the smaller, less expensive Baptist schools.

    Baptist schools and state convention will continue the process of disengagement. I believe such is good for both especially for the cause of academic freedom.

    Even if the theology of Kirby Godsey is outside of “evangelical, orthodoxy Christianity” – what does that matter? He was an administrator not a teacher. I’m very familiar with allegations hurled from the GBC at Mercer during the 90’s – and such lies are as obnoxious as the untruths hurled by Patterson and Pressler at the Tidwell Building at Baylor University during that same period.

    And of course you must remember that being Baptist is not a requirement to gain employment on faculty or as an administrator at these Baptist schools (only in Religion dept at some schools not all).

  7. Aaron says:

    Very timely post. Unfortunately as the universities (that prepare young ministers) goes, so will go the church. Because the more that is allowed into schools of Christianity on university campuses under the shrowd of “academic freedom” (please don’t misuderstand, I don’t think that we should credalize the profs training ministers. But should hold them to an essential doctrinal standard of some sort.) we open up our churches to future danger.

  8. Lee says:

    Kirby Godsey was an administrator at Mercer, and as such, in charge of influencing the hiring of professors for all departments at Mercer. What would keep him from hiring religion professors that held similar views, or views well outside the scope of the perspectives of Baptists who support the school? And from what I’ve read about it, he did, which is one of the reasons Mercer is no longer affiliated with Georgia Baptists.

    Most Baptist colleges and universities were founded for the purpose of training ministers and other church leaders. They were extensions of the discipleship ministries of local churches. As time passed, they expanded their curriculum to include a variety of “liberal arts” majors and minors, again for the purpose of providing a place for students to study in a Christian environment and from a Christian perspective. I doubt that any of the founders envisioned an “academic freedom” that would have held open the door to simply teaching students whatever ideas happen to be in vogue at the time, whether they were consistent with basic Christian principles and teachings or not, and letting them decide on their own, at least, not if they are still claiming to hold to the purposes of evangelistic and discipleship influence. If they are moving away from that purpose, then they shouldn’t expect the support of the churches in terms of finances and recommendations.

    Considering the amounts of money that most Baptist conventions have invested in the schools, including millions of dollars from donors identified as a result of their church affiliation, the Belmont arrangement looks good to me. The schools should pay back at least part of what has been invested in them by Baptists who no longer agree with their mission and purpose.

    Given a choice, I think most Baptist churches would rather call a pastor who has been thoroughly trained in “rightly dividing the word of truth”, understanding the deeper meanings of the text through extensive study of the scriptures, and who, though he may have differing opinions related to their interpretation, considers them to be divinely inspired absolute truth, than someone with a background in various world philosophies who has not yet made up his mind about what he believes.

  9. JMatthews says:

    I’ve attended two Baptist related universities, one of them mentioned in one of the posts as being one of those “top” schools, and a smaller, regional school in Tennessee. The biggest difference was in course offerings and number of majors in various fields. The students at the smaller school I attended actually ranked higher than the “top” school in terms of their admissions status and criterion, and they had a better record in terms of graduate school acceptance as well, which is one of the reasons I transferred. As far as the Bible department was concerned, well, at the smaller school it was called the “Bible” department because that was what they taught. At the “top” school, it was the religion department, aptly named because very little Bible was actually taught.

  10. Ken Coffee says:

    Only one Texas Baptist school has separated from the BGCT. The convention has granted the others the right to elect 25% of their trustees from outside the convention process. They still have to be members of Baptist churches, but in at least one case, a trustee from an adjoining state was elected by the school itself. That school has a significant number of students from that same state, which justified electing a trustee who represented them. I do not know about all schools, but my alma mater, Wayland Baptist University, states that students can attend Wayland as economically as they can attend Texas Tech. More than half the students have significant financial aid. I personally know of one student who has not been asked to contribute anything to her education, as financial aid has covered it all. Adequate course offerings, smaller classes, personal attention from committed professors, not teaching assistants, all make attending a Texas Baptist School still a very attractive prospect.

  11. Lee says:

    Just glancing at websites, the typical cost of attending a Texas Baptist college for a year runs about $20,000 to $24,000 including room and board. At state schools like Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Texas State or U of Houston, that is in the $7,500 to $9,000 range. The percentages of financial aid received by students is about the same. Most of the families in our church with college students struggle with the state university tuition. We have few families who could afford a Baptist college, even with financial aid, which averages about 25% of the total, according to the various college websites. It takes an upper middle class family with a solid savings program to afford that.

    But beyond the cost is the question of what is taught in the classrooms. Is course content and curriculum consistent with a belief in Christ as Lord and savior, and the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of the Living God?

  12. Ken Coffee says:

    I believe I could state unequivocally that course content and teaching at Wayland would make any Baptist proud. Another interesting fact about our Texas schools is that while private schools all over the nation are declining, all ours continue to grow.

  13. Ken Coffee says:

    Lee, I know things have changed since my student days, but I arrived at Wayland with less than a dollar in my pocket, after hitchhiking from my home 150miles away. I received scholarship support to cover room and board and tuition and worked to pay for my books. I sent a penniless girl from our church to Wayland this year and she is experiencing just about the same thing.

  14. Lee says:

    So, I wonder if Wayland would be interested in starting a branch campus in Houston? It sounds like they are still committed to being what a Baptist college should be, and even though it is a good distance away, is worth making a recommendation. It’s tuition and fees are significantly lower than even the other Baptist schools in Texas, less than half in some cases. Someone out there has been keeping an eye on income and outlay.

    So, what’s the Bible department like?

  15. Ken Coffee says:

    The Religion School at Wayland reflects the conservative values of west Texans. It is well regarded by pastors in the region. As for an extension campus in Houston, I suspect Houston Baptist University would not look favorably on it We have one in San Antonio and, in fact, it is the largest of all the thirteen extension campuses, with about 1600 students. The fastest growing section at Wayland is the virtual campus, on-line education. It is competitively pricecd, compared to others.