Friday, February 15, 2013

What Might We Call a Baptist College that Undermines Baptist Principles?

Recent decisions and discussions raised some questions in my mind related to Baptist colleges and Baptist polity. Let's start here:

How might we expect a Baptist Bible College to relate to Baptist churches in its sphere of relationships? By that I mean, if a Baptist college professes allegiance to Baptist principles, the autonomy of local churches among them, what are some rudimentary ways that college might demonstrate deference to autonomous churches?

From my familiarity with Baptist college admission procedures, I understand that they inquire about the prospective student's church membership, typically requiring a letter of recommendation from the church's pastor. Obviously, Baptist colleges admit scores of students each year whom they don't know, contingent largely on their trust in the prospective students' pastors.

I'd like to suggest that when a college admits one of those students, that student remains under the pastoral oversight of his home church as long as he maintains his membership there. I'm not sure why a college would object. The school trusted the church's leadership enough to admit the student. Why should it not trust the church enough to care for and counsel the student so long as his membership commitment to the church remains? For that matter, which is more fundamental—dare I say, more Baptist—the student's commitment to his church, or his commitment to his college?

Here's where the rubber meets the road: Baptist colleges regularly screen local churches and pass judgment on which churches their students may attend. This screening process may even delve into such "vital issues" of Baptist identity as pretribulational rapture, Sunday school, and midweek prayer meeting. (One wonders where the slippery slope might take a church that uses its Sunday evening service as a prayer meeting instead.) And yes, these are verbatim examples (right down to the designation "vital issues") from a real local church partnering agreement from two school years ago. I'm unaware whether these vital convictions have been maintained to the present.

This sort of school reserves the right to override the counsel of their students' pastors (and parents) and may even threaten dismissal if a student follows his pastor's counsel in opposition to the school's administration. And this is where the recent controversy related to an Iowa school and church isn't precisely equivalent. So even though I've disagreed with Faith's decision, I understand the piece of the decision that applies to college staff to be a bit different from what applies to college students who maintain membership in their home church. Their case is a bit more complex.

I find this latter policy to be utterly indefensible and contradictory to the very distinctives of Baptist polity that such an institution proclaim (market?) that it believes. Ironic, no? And yet I wonder if it might not be characteristic of some streams in the Baptist world, which happily abandon principles in exchange for control, under the guise of maintaining principles.

So I guess my question is, what might we call a school that functions this way? Maybe, "Barely Baptist College"?


d4v34x said...

I think there're scads of Baptist church members who could learn quite a lot about what it means to be both a Baptist and a church member.

I'd normally hate to link it, but a recent discussion at IDOTG reveals the desire (of at least one congregant of an area church) for NIU to regulate the church attire of its students so the church doesn't have to mess with it--sort of the flip side of the problem you address in this post.

Witness what "anonymous" said in response to the suggestion that a Church bears the primary responsibility and authority in dealing with such thing as what their members/regular attendees wear to service:

Do you really think a local church would create rules for students because the university dropped the ball? That can become a very awkward thing to do. Yes, the local churches need to have guidelines, and some do. But keep in mind also that many of these students come and don't join—they aren't members, so you can't treat them as such. So what's a church to do? Have ushers at the door and turn students away? If the university hadn't dropped the ball, local churches wouldn't be put in this awkward situation.


This is the height to which the culture of comprehensive college authority has raised us.

d4v34x said...

I'll hasten to add I had not suggested the church make rules for student dress--something else "anonymous" failed to recognize.

Ben said...

All sorts of problems with that mindset, no doubt. But shouldn't we expect more of Baptist college leadership? Shouldn't we expect more of trustee boards and administrative teams made up largely of current and former Baptist pastors?

d4v34x said...

Maybe, but perhaps they are young enough to have been largely reared in that mindset, and this is the ecclesiology/Christiany being passed on in certain segments.

Or, how would a fish find out it is wet?

Also, this captcha thing is tedious. And/or my eyes aren't what they used to be.

Ben said...

I think the main difference between you and me is that you think this problem is primarily a matter of ignorance.

Paul said...

Great post; I couldn't agree more. Baptist Colleges that place their authority over local churches in these ways need to stop preaching the autonomy of the local church. They resemble Rome more than Armitage.

paulv said...

If a young person were moving to another city for some purpose other than Bible college, say to begin a career, would you suggest that his home church still has the responsibility of overseeing his discipleship? Or would he be expected to join a "local" church, whose pastor could provide accountability and oversight?
The argument in this post fails to explain just how the student's home pastor would accomplish this.
No church's autonomy is compromised, either, because it is the student's autonomy which is voluntarily surrendered when he enrolls.

Ben said...


I'll answer your questions directly, then explain: 1) Yes. 2) Yes.

The young person you describe is moving permanently, I presume. In that case I would encourage him to act in accordance with our church covenant that he's already committed to—when he moves, as soon as possible, to unite with some other church where he can carry out the spirit of the covenant and the principles of God’s Word.

Until that time, he remains under the authority and discipline of our congregation—under the commitments he's made.

A college student is a bit different, since he may spend several months back home in our church every year. It might be better for him to maintain his membership back home. It might also be better for him to join a church near his college, particularly if he's fairly certain he doesn't intend to return to his hometown. In that case, he would remain under our congregation's authority and discipline until he joined a church in keeping with our covenant and our congregation acted to release him from membership.

The case I've described is the former—where a student maintains his membership back home. In that case, a "Baptist" college is acting in contradiction to Baptist principles when it refuses to allow a student to attend a church that the student's pastors believe would be most profitable for his discipleship. The college is denying that church's authority and autonomy, and the great irony is that the college acknowledged the church's authority and autonomy when it admitted the student contingent on his pastor's recommendation.

Chapman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
paulv said...

I think you illustrate my point. What percentage of time must one spend away from your church to be considered a resident of a different localle? I understand the difference between permanent residence and student residence, but if a young person will spend 75% of their time away from your church for 4-5 years, and possibly never return, it seems unlikely that you are in a position to truly serve him as shepherd during those years.
Of course, we might imagine a situation in which a Bible college infringes on the autonomy of the local church, but that doesn't mean it is based in reality. Other than colleges which require attendance at a campus church, I am not aware of any actual situations where a Bible college is keeping students from attending a good, Bible-preaching church. They may restrict students from attending some churches, but that is not the same as denying the autonomy of the home church.

Ben said...


If you think percentage of residence time is relevant to my argument, then I've communicated quite poorly. My argument is not a pragmatic one about which church is in the best position to care for the student. It's about whether the parachurch institution he now attends possesses the right (under Baptist principles) to forbid his attendance at a church where his pastors think he ought to attend while he's in school. I'm suggesting that it does not.

David Stertz said...

Somewhere Baptist Church sends Student Joe to Someplace Baptist Bible College many miles away. Student Joe, instead of either joining or attending a Baptist Church in the town of Someplace, decides to sit in his dorm room every Sunday morning. He never attends a church at all while at school. The Dean of Someplace Baptist Bible College calls Student Joe into his office and asks him why he does not attend a church? Student Joe says, “I just don’t feel that any of the area churches meet my needs or agree with my theology.” The good Dean calls up Student Joe’s pastor and informs him of Student Joe’s actions. The pastor of Somewhere Baptist Church says, “well, he is under our care and we feel that this is fine for him right now.” Is Someplace Baptist Bible College obligated to simply let Student Joe sit in his dorm room each Sunday? After all, Someplace College states openly that they require students to attend church each week while enrolled as a student. Furthermore, Someplace College feels that they cannot adequately train students for effective Christian ministry without them being active in local church life. So, can they say to Student Joe, “you should find a College where your beliefs and practices would be more in tune with your local church because the beliefs and actions of your church run contrary to what we are seeking to accomplish?”

I am not in any way defending Faith’s actions. I am still thinking through those actions quite seriously and am not sure that they are going to be helpful for them. However, it seems to be a false charge to question Faith’s deference to local church autonomy. The church doesn’t have to send student Joe to Someplace College. They are many other places to go.

Ben said...


This isn't actually a post about Faith, though the principles obviously apply. The specific examples, and the real life scenarios I've heard of, are all related to another Baptist Bible College.

As for the hypothetical you refer to, I don't think the school is obligated to let the kid hang out alone on campus at all. They have jurisdiction over who's in the dorms. Your hypothetical raises lots of rabbit trails I could chase. I'm going to pass. I will say that this should be a one-time issue, since the school should have learned all it needed to know about that pastor's reliability in offering recommendations. One might wonder how well the school communicated with that pastor about the mission of the school during the application process.

In any case, yours is an extreme hypothetical that I've never heard of in reality. I suspect there are lots of conversations and approaches that could head off that scenario before it ever came to that point. I'm actually writing about multiple real-life scenarios in which a pastor's attempts have been thwarted to see a student attend what he believed to be the best church for him to attend while he was in school.

David Stertz said...


My response was not intended to only focus on the question of Faith. The questions of local church autonomy would, as you say, equally apply to other Baptist Bible Colleges. Furthermore, I will grant that the hypothetical I gave is extreme. However, the variables of the hypothetical could be made somewhat normative and yet have the questions I am posing still stand.

We could, for example, take the issue of a pretribulational rapture. Suppose Someplace College had in their doctrinal statement their view on a pretribulational rapture. Furthermore, out of the 100 supporting churches of the college, all 100 had the same statement in their doctrinal statement. In addition, 90 out of the 100 churches believed that a strong belief in a pretribulational rapture was vital to the kind of church culture they wished to perpetuate. One lone ranger church sent four students to the College and encouraged them to go to a local church that did not teach a pretribulational rapture. Both the college and the vast majority of its supporting churches did not think that effective church ministry will be perpetuated outside of the teaching of a pretribulational rapture so the College asked the student’s pastor to reconsider. He would not and therefore they asked the students not to return to the College.

Now, I don’t know of a college who has has asked students not to return to the college over such issues. I am sure that there are some (I have, after all, grown up in a fundamentalist context!!!). However, the belief that a pretribulational rapture is vital to effective church ministry is held by a great many baptist churches. If you don’t think this is true, you should revisit the vast majority of the supporting baptist churches of your Alma Mater.

All Christian institutions, by their nature, restrict the autonomy of those who choose to partner with them. At some level, any Baptist Bible College will restrict both students and churches who partner with them. If a College choses not to restrict, the character of the college will surely change. I think you would be better served in your argument to say that the restrictions mentioned in your examples (i.e. Sunday School, rapture, ect. . .) are to restrictive because they are based on ignorance, foolishness, or are even sinful. As a fellow graduate of your Alma Mater, I believe I could point to various examples of their actions that would fit all three categories. I am well aware of the kinds of concerns you have in mind. However, their choices do not restrict the autonomy of my local church. A church may choose to not send students to any particular College. There might be other ministries to partner with who share the same values a given church does.

Ben said...


Your comment reminds me of the congregation that fired Jonathan Edwards. Did the congregation possess the biblical authority to dismiss him? Yes. Was that dismissal a biblically defensible exercise of that authority? As I understand the facts, almost certainly not.

In this case, poor exercise of authority does not justify a parachurch ministry infringing on that authority.

Some time ago I heard a college leader use a chapel service to explain some issues related to the use of various translations of the Bible. He did an admirable job in that context. Afterward I asked him, given what he'd said, why the school prohibited students from teaching from any translation other than the KJV, even when serving in churches that used other translations.

His reply: "No pastor has ever asked me for permission to let our students use another translation."

So while I think you can create extraordinary hypotheticals that generate some sympathy for institutional policies, I think we know what sort of mindset tends to prevail when local church autonomy collides with institutional standards/policies/PR. And I blame the pastors who facilitate as much as or more than the administrators who dominate. Perhaps it's some sort of codependency.

paulv said...

It seems you still don't see the flaw in your argument. A Bible college is simply not infringing on the autonomy of a local church by restricting the churches it's students may attend. The pastor in question has the right to recommend any college he would choose, but he has no right to demand that the institution in question submit to his authority.

The hypothetical situation you described in your original post assumed that a church's authority extends beyond it's membership. If a pastor really feels that the unapproved church is the only good choice for his congregant, he should recommend a different school.

Ben said...


I assume we're at an impasse because we hold different presuppositions. You may disagree with my presuppositions, but that does not make a flawed argument.

And by the way, I'm not arguing that a pastor has the right to demand that the institution in question submit to his authority. I'm arguing that a college that really believes the Baptist principles it professes would never give a pastor any reason to make that demand.