It appears that Baylor University, in selecting Ken Starr as its next president, has taken a step that seems intended to please as few people as possible. Starr, the Dean of the law school at Pepperdine University in California, and former Whitewater prosecutor during the Clinton administration, comes from a Church of Christ background, and announcement of his selection has been greeted with verbal cannon shots of a war of words from both that constituency and from moderate Baptists who are irate that Starr is a conservative Christian, political conservative, and has neither a Baylor nor a moderate to liberal Baptist background.
One of the few favorable remarks I’ve read about Starr’s selection came from Robert Jeffress, pastor of the conservative First Baptist Church of Dallas, who remarked that he’d rather see a conservative from the Church of Christ serve as Baylor’s next president than a “nominal” Baptist. There is plenty of irony in the fact that at least one of those who views Starr’s selection favorably comes from the more conservative side of the Baptist perspective.
There are those in the Campbellite denomination, also known as the “churches of Christ,” who have taken the opportunity to fire off a verbal barrage of criticism based on the fact that Starr has declared he will join a Baptist church in Waco, in apparent compliance with a university policy requiring such.
“If you are of the opinion that what one believes about baptism and the Church is inconsequential, then Starr’s ambivalent attitude toward both will not be a big deal. On the other hand, if you believe baptism matters, Starr’s position becomes disappointing to say the least. But there it is. The best thing the rest of us can do is continue preaching and teaching and trying to reach the lost and not be side-tracked. The real question will be whether the Baptists will accept Starr without him being re-baptized. If they do, they will have likewise compromised their own doctrinal position,” says one commentor in the Christian Chronicle, a Church of Christ publication that carried the news of Starr’s appointment in an on-line version.
Another, judging Baptists to be “unbelievers”, writes, “It is indeed sad news to hear bro. Starr is choosing to “join” a Baptist church. One can be added only to the Lord’s church and no other. (Acts 2:47) Please, bro. Starr, reconsider the inspired words of Paul of “becoming unequally yoked with un-believers.” (II Corinthians 5:20 – 6:16 in context) No one has been, or ever will be, saved by the so-called “sinner’s prayer.”
“How tragic and sad that Mr. Starr will “join” a Baptist church for this job,” says another commentor. “I can’t imagine a job worth leaving The Church.”
Considering the sources of those comments, they are not terribly surprising. I was exposed to the narrow view of the Campbellites regarding baptismal regeneration when I was in school, during a Vacation Bible School I attended at the local Church of Christ in my home town. I was told that I was not saved because I was not a member of a church that called itself the Church of Christ, and because the church I attended did not believe that the act of water baptism was essential to the salvation experience. At the time, it bothered me, as does the arrogance of some members of that group related to their views, but I have since learned that the original languages and a contextual interpretation of the scripture doesn’t support either of those contentions, and that there are many within the churches of Christ today who do not accept either the exclusivity of their church membership or baptismal regeneration. In all fairness, some of the comments in the Christian Chronicle also reflect that view.
Also not surprising are the verbal cannon shots from what many people would see as Baylor’s main constituency, moderate, mainstream Baptists. Bruce Prescott’s blog reflects this perspective (http://mainstreambaptist.blogspot.com/). Their main objections include the fact that Starr pushed for the impeachment of President Clinton, himself a darling of the moderate Baptist movement as a result of his lip service declaring his loyalty and his lending of his name and influence to the sputtering “New Baptist Covenant” movement of Jimmy Carter, as well as Starr’s lack of Baylor connections and Baptist, particularly moderate Baptist, background.
I suspect that there is also a fear among moderate Baptists that Starr’s presence will push Baylor to the right from a Christian perspective. Many of Baylor’s supporters have insisted that, in order to have a “Tier 1” university, and a stellar academic reputation, the school has had to shed some of the more troublesome aspects of its Baptist history and heritage, particularly a belief in the authority and historical reliability of the Bible, belief in literal creation (and as a result must now teach evolution as fact in the science department). But here comes Starr, from Pepperdine, a school that has, during the past decade or so, not only improved its own academic standing, particularly in the law school where Starr has served as dean, but has also done this while at the same time maintaining and even strengthening its conservative theological perspective. Pepperdine’s academic reputation and “tier” status is at least equal to Baylor, perhaps better when the law schools are compared, proving that a conservative, distinctively Christian institution can be academic without bending to the standards of the secular academic world. A move to the theological right might disturb some moderate Baptists, but it positions the university to attract students from a core constituency of Evangelical Conservatives that is substantially larger than either the ecumenical main line Protestants or moderate Baptists and their like minded brethren. Whether that’s what the search committee was thinking is anyone’s guess, but considering the looming debt from the 2012 initiative, and an enrollment that has flatlined, and even declined in the past few years, it might be a smart move.
The war of words that has been unleashed is unfortunate, and unproductive. Starr is headed to Baylor. The fact that he can cross a bridge over a gap between two groups of Christians who have a history of hostility and animosity toward each other, and that there are some Christians in both groups who obviously feel that such a move is long overdue, is encouraging. Why not wish this move some success? God is apparently transcending both Church of Christ exclusiveness and Baptist arrogance in bringing together two elements of the Christian faith that usually loathe each other. Something positive, and with his blessing, may actually come out of this. Some people in the churches of Christ will realize that they do not have a corner on Biblical truth, and they are not going to be the only ones in heaven. Some of Baylor’s leadership, and perhaps some of its constituents, will realize that a commitment to Biblical fidelity and a belief that the Bible is “truth without any mixture of error” isn’t a hindrance to academic excellence. More than the individuals and institutions involved, people from different parts of American Christianity are going to set aside some pettiness and silliness in order to get serious about following the leadership of God’s Holy Spirit, and there will be a positive example for others to follow.
God is so much bigger than our petty preferences and our personal biases.