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.

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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.

4 responses

  1. K Gray says:

    “two groups of Christians who have a history of hostility and animosity toward each other,..two elements of the Christian faith that usually loathe each other….”

    If this is true, it has very little to do with Ken Starr.

    Last year Pepperdine ranked 55 and Baylor 65 in US News & World reports. For what it’s worth.

  2. Colby Evans says:

    As one who has spent some time enrolled at Baylor within this decade, let me correct a couple of minor misconceptions here. You’re probably close to the right track on most of this. If you plot Baylor’s enrollment on a graph, you will definitely notice that the increases have “flatlined” since 2000, though the number of entering freshmen is up the past few years, and the total number of students has also increased. The full time equivalent, related to total number of students and total number of semester hours accounted for, has dropped in the past few years, though it is a very small amount. Baylor does lose a lot of students between semesters. Grades are one issue, finances another. When I was there, a lot of students were on financial aid, and their continued enrollment depended on their ability to keep drawing those checks. I lost two roomates who didn’t keep their grades up and had to leave because they were no longer eligible for academic scholarships. My own time there was shortened by a year and a half because a grant that I depended on was first reduced, and then eliminated, and tuition increased substantially during that same period of time.
    As far as Baylor’s Baptist roots and its consistency with the theology of most Baptist churches today, my pastor, and most of the staff of my home church were right on target with regard to the content of classes and what they called “liberal” theology. I knew I would encounter that going in, and I did, and was prepared for it. I only had six hours of courses in the religion department, because I wasn’t majoring in it, but I think it is pretty clear to most students there that the university isn’t a reflection of what the vast majority of Baptist churches preach and teach. I don’t know what difference, if any, Kenneth Starr will make as President. Dr. Sloan was a known conservative, and he didn’t have the chance to change much.

  3. JCM says:

    You can’t win on an issue like this. If you celebrate the fact that a denominational boundary line has been crossed and that professing Christians may be just a bit closer together you will be charged as either a heretic or liberal by those within both groups who are absolutely convinced of their own righteousness. Baptists believe that the Church of Christ cannot be true believers, nor experience redemption because if they believe in baptismal regeneration, they’ve missed true salvation. Church of Christ believes that Baptists, or anyone else for that matter, cannot be true Christians because when they are baptized, they only accept the act itself as symbolic not salvific, and they call their churches “Baptist” instead of the Church of Christ. There is even more hostility, btw, between the Church of Christ folks and the church in which I was raised, the Disciples of Christ, which refers to its churches as Christian churches. Don’t you think Jesus just loves that?

    Limiting the search to the alumni pool, or to alumni with a Baptist background prevents the university from getting the best possible candidate for the job. Whether Kenneth Starr, considering his age and background, is the best possible choice Baylor could have come up with, is a legitimate question, but at least they were looking everywhere.

    We’ve discussed Baylor’s Christian influences and philosophy of education before. My youngest brother turned down a chance to go to both my alma mater, Vanderbilt, and Baylor, because of what we discovered about their religion courses, and their doctrinal approach, and he’s at Cedarville.

  4. Jerry says:

    You’re assuming a lot here. Baylor has a theological seminary and a religion department, and requires its president to be a member of a Baptist church. None of that makes it a “Christian” university, especially when much of what is taught in its classrooms isn’t consistent with Biblical theology, and many of its professors are not individuals who have experienced a personal relationship with Christ, by their own verbal testimony. I don’t know whether Ken Starr can fix that, or if he even wants to.