What’s that you hear? Crickets. As in, no sound at all. As in “no comment.” The sounds of silence — emanating from the normally loquacious, but apparently public relations challenged leaders at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas — are positively deafening. And, perhaps defining.
Since the news of Southwestern’s legal “threat” to take back property that the seminary had previously leased — and then deeded — to Tarrant Baptist Association, officials at Southwestern have been quiet. Mum’s apparently the word. Perhaps on the advice of legal counsel, no one at this SBC entity has given any public comments regarding the tug-of-war going on between the Seminary and the local Ft. Worth area association of Baptist churches. Not even a gracious, “We’re working to resolve this matter in a way that advances the Kingdom and that ultimately brings honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. We covet your prayers during this time.”
That shouldn’t be so hard to say. Unless, that is not your intent. Unless, you do not care if you are perceived — rightly or wrongly — as not acting in a way that is above reproach. After all, “above reproach” should be the standard that Southwestern is held to, shouldn’t it?
If 1 Timothy 3 (and other Scripture — as codified by the BF&M2000) prohibits women from serving as pastors and, said Scripture has been applied in such a way as to bar female Hebrew professors from teaching at SWBTS, then I think that Paul’s admonition to Timothy that a pastor “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil,” should likewise apply to the spiritual leaders of the Seminary.
Whether we like it or not, we are often defined by our actions and words — and sometimes by our inactions and silence. In the property dispute involving SWBTS and Tarrant Baptist Association, Southwestern and her leaders — most visibly Dr. Paige Patterson, because he is President of the seminary — are being defined by their actions and by their silence. Likewise, the leaders of TBA — most notably Moderator Al Meredith, Pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church (a cooperating Southern Baptist church affiliated with both the BGCT and the SBTC) — are being defined by their actions and words.
Regardless of how this plays in court (or in arbitration), the actions and words of the two parties involved also play simultaneously in the court of public opinion. The members of this court include Southern Baptists, Texas Baptists, other Evangelicals, and even unbelievers. Each of these will inevitably weigh in on the present controversy and render a verdict as to how each of the parties has handled this situation.
As this latest legal mess involving Southwestern has come to light, there have been some who have been quick to defend the Seminary’s actions using the fallacious argument, “Two Wrongs Make a Right.” The argument goes something like this:
“Because Tarrant has allowed Broadway Baptist Church — a church that supports or endorses homosexuality — to remain as a member in good standing in the Association, then SWBTS can take whatever actions it needs to get back the property from Tarrant, even if those actions are themselves not (morally) right.”
From a theological (as well as philosophical) standpoint, I’m pretty sure this is not a strong Biblical argument (Shiphrah and Puah not being on point). Southwestern’s argument for invoking the reversionary clause to take back the property apparently will hinge on the issue of “theological harmony.”
Associated Baptist Press’ most recent reporting on this issue included the following pertinent information:
“In 1982, the seminary provided Tarrant Baptist Association land and the funds to build its office building, granting a 99-year lease on the property, Meredith explained. At that time, the seminary and association entered into an affiliation agreement stipulating the property would not be used for commercial activity, and the association and seminary would commit to remaining in theological harmony.” (emphasis added) (Baptist Press, finally did a story on the controversy, omitting this information)
From reading what Al Meredith did not say, it seems two of the Seminary’s reasons for taking back the property — the Association’s alleged lack of placement help and the Seminary’s wanting the property for use as a future “Welcome Center” — may not have even been included in the Affiliation Agreement and are therefore insufficient reasons to invoke the reversionary clause. In any event, either of these two reasons — particularly the “Welcome Center” one — would be unusual circumstances to include in a reversion clause between two “friendly” parties (as was the case in 1997 when the property was deeded to TBA).
However, SWBTS may get the property back after all — just not for “free.”
“Tarrant Baptist Association’s executive board met Jan. 24 and unanimously approved a motion asking Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary either to purchase a disputed piece of property from the association at fair market value or submit the matter to arbitration.” (full article here)
Will Southwestern decide to resolve this messy situation by purchasing the property at fair market value? Or, will the leaders of SWBTS be forced to enter into arbitration, where they cannot be certain of victory. Because Southwestern has never moved to sever ties with the Tarrant Baptist Association over the issue that has caused theological disharmony and because Southwestern has continued to allow its students (and perhaps faculty and staff) to serve in the “theologically suspect” churches of this Association since 2009 (the date of Broadway Baptist’s removal from the SBC), it would appear that SWBTS has a difficult burden to prove that Tarrant has in fact violated the terms of the Affiliation Agreement.
The Seminary has the next move. What Southwestern’s leaders do or don’t do and what they say or don’t say will — for better or worse — further define who the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and her leaders are today and yes, even tomorrow. What has been viewed as an assault on autonomy by some and as just plain, old-fashioned “bullying, pressure, or strong-arm tactics” by others is not necessarily the way that Southwestern — or any of us — should want to be defined.
Sometimes, silence is golden. Actions do speak louder than words. It is past time for the leaders of Southwestern to act and communicate in such a way that they are viewed — by believers and unbelievers — as above reproach. If they do not, then no one at SWBTS should be surprised by the verdict that is handed down by the court of public opinion.