A theology professor at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, a school affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention, was fired in November of 2018. Media reports about the firing seem to indicate that the professor was fired because he failed to follow the university’s written policy and was engaging in activity aimed at getting other professors in the Courts Redford School of Theology at the university fired.
The professor who was fired was apparently gathering information about what other professors were teaching in their classes and then passing that information along directly to officials of the Missouri Baptist Convention. The allegations contend that he was attempting to prove that other professors in the theology school were not teaching in accord with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 version which both the university and the Missouri Baptist Convention have adopted as a confession of faith. He was fired because the written policy of the university states that the administration of the school, the university president and any provosts who are part of that office, is responsible for handling those kinds of issues and the recourse for grievance beyond that is an appeal to the school’s trustees. And that’s where it must end.
As I look at the convention’s governing documents, the trustees of each of its entities, including its educational institutions, are the final layer of authority when it comes to all matters pertaining to the university. The convention does have a share of control. It can pass a non-binding resolution with recommendations to the trustees about how to handle a problem that comes to their attention and it is the body that elects the university’s trustees on a rotating schedule every year. It does not have the authority or ability to issue directives. By transmitting information uncovered in his classroom investigation directly to state convention officials, the professor was violating university and convention policy. So the university president fired him. The trustees met for five hours in December going over all of the evidence and unanimously approved the president’s actions. And of course, it’s a Southern Baptist organization so while that should have been the end of it, and it is highly likely that it is as far as the professor is concerned, it turns out it is only the beginning of a much bigger controversy.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This is standard operating procedure among Southern Baptists, the geographic location is incidental.
Here’s the problem.
The professor who was fired was fairly popular among a segment of the school’s alumni and current students, mainly conservatives who fully support the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Many of them, in coming to his defense, pointed to some of the same issues the professor was raising and which were the basis for his investigation that caused his firing, that there were things being taught in Biblical studies classes at Southwest Baptist University that were not in agreement with the BFM 2000, in spite of the fact that the whole faculty had attested to their agreement with it. So it appears that this issue was raised initially to assist the professor with his defense to the administration and to the trustees. It continues, outside the proper channels where it should be addressed, because this group of his defenders didn’t get the resolution they wanted, which was to have him restored to his position and to ensure that professors they claimed were not teaching in accord with the BFM 2000 remained under an investigative cloud and fired if possible.
There are social media sources where this group of SBU alumni have listed some of the specific professors whom they claim are not teaching in a way that is consistent with the required support for the BFM 2000 and they have listed some of the things they allege are being taught as proof of this.
The BFM does a good job of defining the doctrinal beliefs Southern Baptists consider essential to ministry and missions cooperation. There isn’t anything in it with which I would disagree enough to require any explanation of my difference of opinion. The fact that a majority of messengers at an annual meeting of Southern Baptists approved it is a testimony to its simplicity. It leaves room for differing interpretation, in some cases a pretty wide latitude of interpretation. The 2000 version removed the statement about Jesus being the :criterion by which all scripture is to be interpreted” and replaced it with a statement that points to Jesus as the focus of all scripture, which gives even more latitude for interpretation. Clearly Calvinists and Non-Calvinists can agree on just about all of the content, and if you tend to be more Charismatic in your practice, you would still find it compatible with your theology. You can agree with it and hold just about any view of eschatology. It avoids doctrinal issues that tend to be divisive, leaving those up to the discretion of the church to decide.
I never attended any classes at Courts Redford School of Theology at SBU, although my wife went there for all four years of college and graduated with a B.S. in psychology. So I can’t comment on the context of the professors’ statements or why some students, now alumni, would come to the conclusion that they were not consistent with the BFM. I’ve seen the blogs and the social media posts from the critics of the professors whose teaching they claim is outside of the parameters of the doctrine defined by the BFM 2000. If what they claim is an accurate description of what was being taught and how it was presented, I would agree that some of what they address, though by no means all, is not consistent with a traditional, relatively strict interpretation of the BFM 2000. But there are other things they say are being taught that I would have difficulty claiming are counter to the BFM. Some of the clarity issues lie with the critics and their explanation of what they claim is being taught at SBU. And there are unanswered questions about the context of the professor’s statements. Were they simply raising issues to prompt critical thinking or were they stating their personal beliefs and convictions? Where do you draw the line on assumptions when you’re reading their claims?
Here’s where I have my doubts. The President of SBU is a Southern Baptist and a theological conservative who is, IMHO, capable of making a determination based on the evidence that is presented to him as to whether a statement is consistent with the BFM 2000 or not. From what I have read about him, I cannot see why he would be willing to allow doubts to be raised about the theological soundness of his university’s theology school that would undermine it in the minds of most Southern Baptists. If he was presented sound, credible evidence that the professors in the Redford school were teaching the things I’ve read from its critics, I believe he would take action and fire those professors.
Many of the trustees on the SBU board are also alumni, covering a wide swath of the university’s recent history. They sat in these classrooms with these professors and with the alumni who are now raising questions about the consistency of their teaching with the BFM 2000. I recognize several of the names, some I know only by reputation, a few I’ve met personally, all are theological conservatives. I find it difficult to believe that they’re serving on this trustee board, aware of these allegations that have been brought to them, but deciding not to do anything about them if they were true. The Missouri Baptist Convention is one of the most conservative state conventions in the SBC and the system for vetting trustees is tight. The nominating committee wouldn’t ever even mention a name if they weren’t sure of the person’s absolute commitment to a literal interpretation and application of the BFM. And anyone who has been Southern Baptist for even a little while knows that the breadth and depth of the good ole boy network that influences committee and board nominations ensures that only those who are well connected and have a lot of influence ever see a trustee meeting as a member of the board.
And as this issue gets more attention, other SBU alumni are stepping up and saying that these charges are inaccurate representations of the Redford school faculty. They claim that while some of these issues were discussed in some classes, none of the professors ever claimed them as compatible with their own position. A good teacher will not always tie up the package with a neat ribbon for their students, they will challenge them to use the scripture as a measuring rod for truth and do some critical thinking and let them figure it out. The BFM 2000 doesn’t always close the box and tie the ribbon either. You can be in complete agreement with it and still find plenty of things to fight over with fellow Southern Baptists.
This is a frequent occurrence among Southern Baptists, almost a standard M.O. Part of the problem is that many Southern Baptists haven’t really figured out whether the role of their institutions of higher learning is to disseminate and teach what the people in the pew, or more accurately, the messengers at the convention, think they ought to be teaching, which is nothing more than indoctrination, or whether the process of education involves teaching students how the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom becomes true wisdom. That involves a process through which they develop critical thinking skills and are able to discern truth for themselves through understanding the process of illumination of the scripture by the Holy Spirit. If they’re just told “this is what you must believe,” they’ll never be able to discern how to come to that conclusion themselves. And in this case, the BFM 2000 is a bigger box in which to think than the one imposed by many of the professor’s critics.