Bart Barber is the pastor of First Baptist Church, Farmersville, TX, and one of the mainstays of Baptist blogging through the years (Praisegod Barebones).
Few things are as controversial among Southern Baptists as the employment status of a teacher or missionary. Counting the topics that have, each in their respective moment, sucked all of the oxygen out of the Southern Baptist blogosphere since 2006, the most populous category involves professorial employment. I’d like to take a few moments of your time to put forward some ideas I’ve come to embrace about how things ought to be in our educational institutions.
People are going to get fired. I find it almost impossible to fire anyone. I have done it only rarely. I just do not have the personality for it. And yet, that’s probably a weakness of mine rather than a strength. I grew up in a family business. I’ve seen family members come and go in the business, and I can tell you, no matter how much you love one another and no matter how much character everyone involved may possess, sometimes the needs of a business or organization are going to dictate that someone’s employment is going to come to an end. Our tendency to root for the underdog means that, on the whole, we tend to side with the dismissee rather than with the dismisser, but I think we ought to approach this kind of situation with compassion for everyone involved and with the recognition of how difficult it is to know all of the factors involved in any kind of employment decision.
Trustees are supposed to hold administrations responsible for the overall health of institutions. It is indicative of poor health at an institution for trustees to micromanage every individual personnel decision. Certainly an individual personnel decision can be indicative of or important to the overall health of the institution, but appeals to boards to intervene in such matters ought to be developed along those lines—by showing why the health of the institution is at stake—and not by appeals based upon personal preferences or relational concern for an individual. A good trustee watches his brother-in-law get sacked and says not a word. You were put there to keep an eye on the relationship between the convention as a whole and the institution as a whole.
Confessional obligations are among the most important aspects of institutional health in the SBC. The “contract” among Southern Baptists is that we support financially those institutions that maintain confessional compatibility with the convention. This was true even before we had a written statement of faith—there is a reason why Baptists, seeing the landscape dotted with Congregationalist or Presbyterian institutions, nonetheless believed that it was imperative to sow the field with Baptist institutions. They were determined to patronize and support institutions that agreed with them confessionally.Confessional infidelity, therefore, is a major matter that can call the entire relationship into question. Conventions must respond to any appearance of confessional infidelity. Trustees must pursue aggressively any scintilla of confessional infidelity. To fail to do so is—as a Southern Baptist trustee—to fail.
Institutions are free, within the bounds of the Baptist Faith and Message to differentiate themselves further. In Kentucky, as Adam Harwood has ably demonstrated (and as should be apparent to all), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary follows another statement of faith in addition to the BF&M. That other statement, the Abstract of Principles, is more restrictive
soteriologically than is the BF&M. There are people who affirm the BF&M who are not eligible for faculty service at Southern. SEBTS does the same.I’m fine with that.
But, if that’s going to be the way things operate within the SBC, it has to be something that cuts both ways if it will be fair. If an institution desires to do so, it must have the freedom, within the bounds of the Baptist Faith and Message to determine that people who affirm the BF&M might not be eligible for service there because they are Calvinists, just as at Southern one would not be eligible because one is not enough of a Calvinist.
I believe that this fact is germane, at least partially, with regard to the controversies at Louisiana College and Campbellsville. I’m not saying that this is the only factor involved (and, indeed, I’m about to mention some others), but I’m prepared to say that these institutions, if they wish to dismiss faculty simply for being Calvinists, are within their rights to do so and to accept whatever consequences (or benefits) might lie down the road as a result of that decision.
The effect of this approach is, I believe, for the overall betterment of the convention. We are able to have a statement of faith that is solid on essential matters of our faith while being broad enough to accommodate different perspectives within our commonality. A statement of faith that nailed down every last item to ultimate specificity would be too confining—such a statement tailored to my own beliefs would likely be too narrow for even my own family to join me in it, much less my entire church or an entire convention of churches! And yet, we must have a core of commonality on issues like the nature of the Bible and the distinctive beliefs of Southern Baptists in order to craft our identity and to make us comfortable in our participation in cooperative ministries. Within this commonality, we can have a multiplicity of ministries and institutions that scratch different itches, if you will, within our overall family. This includes, in my opinion, the freedom to have institutions that mark out their own niche with regard to soteriology.
There is also the freedom, I believe, to have institutions like SWBTS in our convention—institutions that gladly retain on faculty both those who are more monergistic and less so in their soteriology while maintaining its own flavor and remaining clearly within the bounds of the BF&M.
Institutions need to be honest and transparent about their doctrinal convictions. I do not know that the recent strife at Campbellsville is about Calvinism, and none of us will know until they make a clear statement on the matter. At Louisiana College, some of the dialogue seems to indicate that soteriology was indeed a factor. Southern and Southeastern require that faculty be more Reformed than the Baptist Faith and Message requires. Liberty University requires faculty to take a specific position on the timing of the Great Tribulation in their views of eschatology. Other universities and seminaries have their own distinctive emphases. But the doctrinal character of any institution should be communicated clearly in that institution’s own documents and should be made plainly known to faculty as a part of the process of hiring them. That’s not to say that an institution can’t change its position—it certainly can—but is simply to insist that any institution’s de facto statement of faith should be identical to its de jure statement of faith.
This pertains most of all, of course, to whether a Southern Baptist institution is maintaining fidelity with the Baptist Faith and Message. it is a dishonest and insidious thing for an institution to assert to the world its fidelity to the BF&M while internally disregarding it. A friend once told me of his experience with professors in Great Britain required to affirm the Thirty-Nine Articles in order to teach. A number of them were hardly even Christian, yet they affirmed the Thirty-Nine Articles. When asked how they could do such a thing, one replied, “Well, I looked at it and said to myself, ‘Yes, those are indeed the Thirty-Nine Articles. I’m happy to affirm that they are what they are.” Of course, there is nothing clever about this kind of subterfuge. We all knew what it was in the toddler’s nursery—this amounts to nothing more than lying.
This need for honesty and transparency applies both to Calvinistic candidates for pastoral offices in our local churches (a topic and need frequently mentioned) and to our churches and institutions in the hiring of candidates (a topic receiving perhaps less attention). Are churches always clear to pastoral candidates that it will be a problem if they turn out to be too Calvinistic in their theology? If not, we ought to be. Are our more Calvinistically-flavored seminaries always clear in their interaction with students, faculty, administration, and the convention as a whole that their doctrinal statements require them to be more Calvinistic than the Baptist Faith and Message requires them to be? If not, they ought to be (and they probably are). We should all seek transparency and clarity in our communication and our actions about these matters.
In all of this, of course, I write as someone admittedly ignorant in every way about the particulars of these employment scenarios that are ongoing at the moment. I hope you won’t take my little essay as any sort of an attempt to weigh in on “what ought to happen” in either case. I don’t know. Rather than dictating an outcome here, as one who has seen these sorts of questions arise and go away time after time, it just seemed to me that it might be helpful to ruminate just a little bit on some of the underlying issues and guiding principles that seem right and honorable to me in helping us all to sort out these sometimes perplexing questions.