Monday, December 19, 2011

Voices from the Past: Provocative Perspectives on Accreditation (Part 2) [or] How BJU "Turned to Egypt"

"We ought not to survive." "We ought to just close."

That's what BJU's representative at a 1995 conference said should happen rather than pursuing regional accreditation.

Part 1 drew our attention to BJU's decision to pursue regional accreditation–a more widely-regarded and secular alternative to its present accreditation with TRACS. We looked at a short quote from the leader of a sister institution. Now we'll see at what the BJU president had to say:
Bob Jones University refuses regional accreditation because we can't take our counsel from two masters. If indeed the Scriptures and the God of the Scriptures is the God we bow our knee to, we cannot bow before a dual authority. We cannot bow in educational matters to the secular world that knows nothing of our God and the purposes of our institution. Those who are accredited—if we were accredited at Bob Jones University we would always have to turn one ear toward the accrediting agency, and that means we only have one ear turned to God. And when God is speaking in one ear, and the accrediting agency is speaking in the other ear, I wonder which authority we would yield to when the two were in conflict.

I believe with all my heart the Bible has a great deal to say that precludes our being able to be accredited. Second Corinthians 6:14 makes it very clear that we are not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. With all my heart I believe this is unequal yoking.

I remember twenty-six years ago this summer [1969] some 25 men assembled themselves together at Bob Jones University—Christian college men who said, "We know accreditation is wrong. It's not for Christians. We know it's bowing to an authority that's going to make us cease to bow our knee to the Lord's authority and to the authority of his Word. [Explanation of how those men considered forming their own accrediting association and discarded it. Then names a bunch of the men who were there at that meeting.] I was there in that meeting 26 years ago. Some very wise and godly men who understood the horrific dangers of being regionally accredited and said, "We cannot do this."

Were they wrong? Did they misunderstand the Scriptures? Is their advice to be thrown aside and stepped underfoot and trampled and considered old-fashioned and no longer valid for our day? Bob Jones University cannot be accredited because of the abundant present evidence that accreditation does change the purpose of the school—does impose upon schools things that their Christian conscience would not allow them to do. [Lists several examples.]

We're not accredited because of the inconsistency of being accredited as a Christian college. You know, ladies and gentlemen, I don't think anybody here would have a debate at this conference that fundamental independent churches should join a liberal denomination for whatever perceived benefits there might be in doing so. We would say, "That's not a talking point for fundamentalism." Why? Because they give up their autonomy when they do this, and they get into a political arena when they do this, that eventually affects their pulpits, destroys and degrades their pulpits. Now why should we that the educational institutions doing the same thing with a counterpart—a hierarchal [sic] control, if you will, of the accrediting agency—why should we be immune from those political pressures and the degradation that will take place?

If the accrediting agencies praised us—if they thought Bob Jones University was a great school, and if we had to have their endorsement that we were doing a good job and that we were a great school, I think something would be drastically wrong with Bob Jones University. The endorsement we want is from above. The endorsement we want is from the people of God who stand by the Word of God, and the endorsement because we stand by the Word of God, and if we don't they ought not to endorse it. We're not looking for the endorsement of the world. We don't want them to praise us. If they were praising us, something would be wrong with what we were doing. This is why Bob Jones University is not accredited. We would be scared to be accredited. We would feel that we had failed God if we were accredited.

[Discussion of graduates' access to grad schools.]

If we were going to get accredited, what would be our motive? I can tell you what the motive would be. And I have to guess—I don't know the motive of anybody else—but I can tell you what our motive . . . It would have to be survival. We don't need the accrediting agency unless we think they would make our job easier, and it'd be better for our graduates, unless we were in financial difficulty.

Why would we turn to Egypt? You'd turn to Egypt because you're in trouble and Egypt has something you think you need. I believe with all my heart that regional accreditation is not essential to survival, and if it is then we ought not to survive. The survival of our institutions is not the issue. The faithfulness to God is the issue!

And if we have to do what I would say is absolutely wrong and unscriptural in order to survive—if God wants us to close, let him close us. We may close one day. We too, Dr. [speaker in first set of quotes], may be greatly smaller one day. That's ok! Survival is not the name of our game. Trying to please God and be faithful and do right is the name of our game.

So as far as I'm concerned, the bottom line in discussing accreditation is, "Is it right?" If it is let's do it. If the argument is, "Well, it's essential for the sake of financial or academic survival," and we have to go down to Egypt to survive, we better not go. We ought to just close. There are worse things than being dead and buried. Far worse is to live without the approval of God. [emphasis mine]
Four observations, at least a couple of them brief:

1. I have no quarrel with BJU pursuing regional accreditation. I suspect it'll be quite helpful in the short term.

2. Whether the perspective in the above quote about deleterious long-term effects is correct, I do not know. I suspect no one really does, though it does seem plausible.

3. This extended quotation offers a vivid argument for why institutional leaders in the BJU wing of a [former?] movement are unpersuasive when they try to claim that there's no change taking place in how they apply long-held principles. They're moving their "ancient landmarks," as some folks used to say. Maybe they were dumb landmarks to use in the first place, but they were landmarks nonetheless.

4. I wonder if we shouldn't learn something about our rhetoric as we read that quote and look at BJU's recent choices. Was the speaker right? Is this decision really about survival? Is BJU now refusing the counsel of God? Is it "unequally yoked" with unbelievers? Has it surrendered its autonomy to an accrediting agency? Does BJU now think that they've "failed God" because they're pursuing accreditation? Should the school shut its doors? And didn't we alumni pledge to make happen? (Maybe Christmas vaca will be busier than we expected.)

So has BJU turned to Egypt?

Fact is, I don't know and don't intend to spend a great deal of time thinking about it. But it seems that there must be at least one person who either thinks so, or perhaps has reconsidered his judgments of 1995.

Maybe this sort of rhetoric worked back in the day. Maybe it's the sort of authoritarian leadership that, as I heard someone recently suggest, was necessary for its time. I'm not so sure. I'd like to think not.

In any case, my judgment—and you can make up your own mind whether it's good or not—is that the sort of culture reflected in that quote is unworthy of emulation. It's bankrupt of principles. Bankrupt of morals. What else could we say about a culture that produces this sort of manipulation and implicit criticism of sister institutions, and then turns on a dime to serve its own interests? Are some hoping that we'll all forget the bold promises of the past?

Don't miss this: a champion of morality and principalled stands has abandoned on both. And come to think of it, I'm not the one saying it; it's the former president. (Just take another look at the bold text above.)

Like I said, I don't care if BJU gets regional accreditation. It really might be a good thing—short term and long term. I hope it is, for the kids' sakes. Frankly, I think people can and have made good cases both for and against regional accreditation. But you can't have it both ways. When you're the general and you tell the troops "with all my heart" that a hill's worth dying on, you lose a bit of credibility when you surrender that hill to save your skin. We all make mistakes. We all change our minds. But at some point, this sort of rhetoric has to remind us of Matthew 23:1-4.

Folks, friends, pastors, men, may I make a few suggestions?

1. Study God's Word relentlessly so that you may know him as he's revealed himself to us.
2. Learn to discern foundational, unchanging principles and how to distinguish them from relatively peripheral issues.
3. Declare your allegiance to those principles and hold on for dear life.
4. Don't stop listening to people you disagree with strongly.
5. If you become convinced from the Word and the work of the Spirit that you were wrong about one of those principles—either about the substance or about just how fundamental to the faith you thought it was—repent, admit you were wrong, and seek forgiveness from any that you hurt in your previous zeal for your misjudged principles.
6. Maintain your allegiance to the rest of those principles.
7. Don't confuse allegiance to institutions with allegiance to principles. Drench yourself in the truth of the Word rather than loyalty to a cabal. Don't fear man; be a man.

Well, I better stop there.

But just one more thing: I believe some folks might owe an apology to Arno Weniger.


David Stertz said...

This whole discussion has made me sad in the past and it still saddens me. I think your brief discussion of the godless rhetoric that has taken place is what saddens me the most: little grace, little charity, and much demonizing. Unfortunately, if history is any guide at all, your Jobsian “one more thing” will likely never happen.

On a brighter note I was recently sitting in a chapel session of an institution where the speaker sat in front of us all for a brief chat of exhortation. He was a former leader of that institution who surely had some significant issues with the new leadership. In the chat he talked about preserving unity. Thankfully his exhortation and rhetoric was sweet while never compromising his principles. Sometimes flickers of hope remain.

Michael C said...

Heh. The rhetorical lessons really are unavoidable, aren't they? The leaders of that era were rarely nuanced on controversial issues, and BJU will have years of living down that kind of hyperbolic rhetoric.

I disagree that BJU has turned on a dime on this particular issue, though. BJU administrators did investigate pursuing regional accreditation periodically. In the 60s, a group including Phil Smith and Marshall Neal met with SACS representatives and decided regional accreditation was still untenable. If I recall correctly, another trip was made in the 80s (?) with a group including Walter Fremont.

When I inquired with BJU administrators about this issue five years ago, they were watching the changes SACS made in 2001, to see whether they would be significant enough to allow BJU to join the association. So, BJU had been investigating membership in SACS for years before finally making a move.

There are several legitimate arguments for BJU's positions on accreditation:
(1) The founder of SACS, James Kirkland, was an avowed enemy of fundamentalism, and BJC would have been taking a significant risk to join SACS while he still had influence in the organization.
(2) Accreditation was not a standard practice when BJU was founded, and even into the 50s only about half of American colleges belonged to an association.
(3) The nature of accreditation, at least SACS, has changed in the last 10-20 years.
(4) The proliferation of diploma mills has made regional accreditation a far more important factor in higher education than it was even 10-15 years ago. Colleges and organizations increasingly depend on accreditation to verify the legitimacy of degrees.

Unfortunately, BJ3 did his best to cut off or weaken several of these defenses. I agree that there is some risk with accreditation, but I think the current education climate necessitates taking those risks up until some governing body asks a Christian institution to do something it really cannot do in good conscience. The good news is that there are more Christian colleges in the associations than ever, so hopefully they will have some sway in how they are run.

Jim Peet said...


Yes, you as a parent should be concerned about the accreditation of the Christian college your child plans to attend. Has the institution surrendered itself into the hands of unsaved men and women who will attempt to dictate the manner in which its program is to be carried out? Bob Jones University can justly lay claim to what other educators have termed it, "The World's Most Unusual University."

Mark said...

Remember, though, that everything they said about regional accreditation applied to TRACS accreditation as well. They were just as opposed to accreditation from a Christian organization as they were from a secular one. So this double standard has been in place since they announced TRACS accreditation.

Shayne McAllister said...

"Learn to discern foundational, unchanging principles and how to distinguish them from relatively peripheral issues."


Great article BTW, I've read it several times. My two cents: Fundamentalism began as a defensive operation against rapid (negative) change. It seems that change became the enemy over time without thought of what the change was, or what context had changed. Biblical faithfulness looks different from generation to generation, and the faster things change in the culture, the harder it's going to be to discern how to main faithfulness thats both faithful in a current sense, and not be shaken from foundational moorings of truth. If there is a New Fundamentalism, whatever it's called, the focus has to be on the gospel as fundamental.

Ben said...

Michael, I have no desire to go to war with you over "turned on a dime." But I don't think what happened in the 60s or 80s supports your disagreement. These comments came in the mid-90s, then re-trenched the same position about regional accreditation a few years ago in explaining the TRACS choice.

IOW, they turned on a dime because their consistently articulated public position has been that regional accreditation is compromise. Now, you may believe that they've been talking out of both sides of their mouths all along. You wouldn't be the first to suggest that, but I'm taking their public statements (like this one) as an honest expression of deeply-held convictions.

As far as SACS goes, I believe everything you and others have said about SACS and its particular antagonism towards schools like BJU. But you have to see that the two quotes I cited from the 1995 conference don't remotely make an argument that the problem is with SACS. (The speaker from the Bible College represented a school that's not even under SACS jurisdiction.) They're making a broader argument about seeking secular accreditation in any form. (It's "going to Egypt.")

In fact, the BJU president specifically your point #4 about the increasing necessity of accreditation quite clearly. He said if we have to go down to Egypt to survive, we be better off closing our doors.

Ben said...

Mark, I don't think everything they said in the past applied equally to TRACS and SACS (this quote being a case in point). Nevertheless, you're certainly right that TRACS violated principles of separation from ecumenical compromise that they'd previously articulate. I argued that point here on at least a couple occasions several years ago. It's in the archives if you want to search on "accreditation."

Ben said...

Shayne, when you look at what the old volumes "The Fundamentals" did (and didn't!) address, your point about a reaction against change becomes very clear. Fundamentalism held the line on the gospel concerning the points that were initially under assault, but I'd argue that the movement as a whole did not maintain gospel fidelity on at least a couple points that modernists didn't initially attack.

Michael C. said...

Ben, I understand what you are saying. I don't think the speaker was being intentionally duplicitous in this debate, although I do think that he may have been indulging a tendency towards hyperbole.

There was a time when BJU's public position on accreditation was much more modest, even supportive of the idea of regional accreditation (in other, more friendly regions). Unfortunately, the rhetoric escalated as the school became increasingly embattled in other conflicts. By the late 70s, BJU was making arguments that were inconsistent with its earlier statements on the subject.

BJU might successfully argue that SACS accreditation today is not the same beast as it was before the changes in 2001 (more of an audit, than another layer of oversight). But by the same token, Clearwater and MBBC show that regional accreditation has not proven to be as destructive as argued in this debate and elsewhere.

I think that the current president of BJU has taken some of these rhetorical lessons to heart, but that doesn't make the kind of questions you raise just go away.

Thanks for the discussion. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Anonymous said...

I know I'm a bit late to the conversation but i spoke recently with a BJ Faculty member about this. One thing you didn't really consider in your post is that SACS has significantly changed its position so that it endeavors to help institutions accomplish their purpose (even if it be a Christian one).

So the dramatic change "on a dime" here is not so much BJ's as it is the accrediting agency's. If the objectionable aspects of accredidation have been removed and the benefits are still there then why shouldn't the school attemt to get it?

Of course that doesn't make for a good rant.


Ben said...

Whoops, posted under my wife's account. Hope she doesn't find out. Here's what I wrote:


I have to assume that you didn't read part 1 or the above comments in this post. If you had, I assume that you'd have seen that I already addressed the changes in SACS, and wasn't merely out for a good rant.

The simple fact is that the extended quotation above is crystal clear that the reason regional accreditation was anathema in 1995 (and previously, and reaffirmed a few years ago when BJU pursued TRACS) is that the leadership believed it was wrong to pursue endorsement and affirmation from secular authorities (=Egypt). At no point in those comments or any of the presentation in 1995 or, to my knowledge, in any official public explanation prior to 2011 was the rationale offered that "other regional accrediting bodies might work for other schools, but SACS is just too invasive and doesn't work for us." If you read it in the above statement, please point it out to me.

Quite to the contrary, this is what I read:

"We're not looking for the endorsement of the world. We don't want them to praise us. If they were praising us, something would be wrong with what we were doing. This is why Bob Jones University is not accredited. We would be scared to be accredited. We would feel that we had failed God if we were accredited."

Regional accreditation. Wrong. Period. Not because of SACS peculiarities. In principle.

If I may, let me request that you attempt to follow the argument if you care to comment here, and particularly if you want to accuse me of going off on a misinformed rant.