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Baptist battles

Some Baptist colleges have not embraced the conservative theology the Southern Baptist Convention adopted almost 20 years ago

Baptist battles

Clint Bass in the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course at Fort Jackson (Renee Ittner-McManu/Genesis)

Clint Bass was thrilled when his alma mater, Southwest Baptist University (SBU), offered him a job. He graduated from the private Christian school in 2000 and nine years later joined the faculty as church history professor. He and his wife (also an SBU graduate) settled in a modest brick house in small-town Bolivar, Mo., and joined the Baptist church across the street from the school.

But Bass grew alarmed when he realized other professors’ teachings didn’t sound Biblical. He began to question whether the school, associated with the Missouri Baptist Convention, was still teaching historic, Christian doctrine. Ten years after his hiring, Bass was no longer instructing in the classroom. After an abrupt firing, he was helping his father-in-law hang Sheetrock part time, unsure whether he’d teach again.

Bass’ story may serve as a warning: Even though the Southern Baptist Convention embraced conservative theology nearly 20 years ago, not all Baptist colleges followed suit.

Bass hadn’t been teaching at SBU long when students and friends brought concerns about other professors to him. Bass said some students graduated embarrassed of evangelism and prioritizing social action over church involvement, and professors nudged graduates toward theologically moderate or liberal seminaries.

Jeremiah Greever, a 2012 alumnus, said that as he prepared to graduate, his academic adviser told him he would never recommend students attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (the denomination’s flagship seminary) because it was a “bastion for Calvinism” and “there won’t be a Calvinist on my street in heaven.”

Hayden Spray, a 2018 graduate, said some SBU students went on to attend liberal seminaries, while others denied the inerrancy of Scripture and were open to theistic evolution and the existence of purgatory: “The students are the fruit of the professorship.”

Bass was surprised. The Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) provided around a million dollars in yearly funding to SBU and elected the school’s 25 trustees. SBU’s charter states that the school must teach in line with the churches of the MBC, which affirmed a doctrinal statement known as the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BF&M 2000). Bass began taking notes about his colleagues, but he decided to stay: “I didn’t want to give up on the university. I’m an alum.”

Over the next few years, he saw more evidence that several colleagues disagreed with the BF&M 2000.

In 2017, Rodney Reeves, then dean of SBU’s College of Theology and Ministry, and theology professor Zach Manis spoke at a school forum about the doctrine of hell (audio of which was heard by WORLD). Reeves spoke about his belief in annihilationism, with Manis saying he was sympathetic to the doctrine. Manis also said Christians who prioritize the Bible over church tradition should take annihilationism and universalism (the belief that all people will eventually be saved) more seriously.

In a 2018 email thread, Reeves asked the theology faculty for responses to a parent questioning whether faculty affirmed Biblical inerrancy and a literal interpretation of Scripture. Professor Kelly Malone wrote that if the parent or student was looking for “strict adherence” to the BF&M 2000, he would likely not be satisfied. Reeves and Malone declined to comment to WORLD and referred all questions to SBU’s administration.

In the fall of 2018, Reeves denied Bass’ application for a routine promotion, saying Bass had spied on SBU for the Missouri Baptist Convention (Bass had answered questions from a concerned Missouri pastor and MBC committee member about his colleagues). Bass met with the provost and SBU President Eric Turner. A month later, they fired him.

A letter of dismissal gave five grounds for Bass’ firing: collecting evidence and ascribing views to his colleagues without personal interaction, using noncredible information to form accusations, failing to discuss his concerns with his colleagues, failure to follow Matthew 18 and address concerns with colleagues, and breaking the school’s lifestyle statement, which speaks to understanding and submitting to Scripture’s authority.

Manis wrote in a blog post, “Clint Bass did not [come] to any of us, ever, to express his concerns about our theological views and to allow us to address his concerns in person. Never. Not one of us.” But Bass had taken notes on multiple discussions he had with colleagues about their differing views. His notes recorded that on Aug. 14, 2013, he and Manis had a “lengthy discussion” in which Manis articulated his belief in purgatory, and on Aug. 27, 2015, Manis told Bass he was no longer prepared to regard universalism as a heresy. Manis referred questions to the administration.

Students created a petition calling for Bass’ reinstatement and providing links to the 2018 email chain and the hell forum audio. In April 2019, a group of 14 alumni published a letter online attesting to the theological concerns Bass raised.

Turner refused to answer specific questions about Bass’ firing, writing in an email: “As an employer, the University has a responsibility to keep the contents of personnel files confidential, and it is policy of SBU not to comment publicly on personnel issues.” 

BETWEEN THE LATE 1970s AND EARLY ’90s, a concerted effort by church leaders transformed the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) from largely theologically liberal—for example, denying the inerrancy of the Bible and a literal interpretation of some of Jesus’ miracles—to conservative. With conservative trustees, the convention’s six seminaries shifted back toward historic Baptist doctrine. In 2000, Southern Baptists adopted a conservative revision of their doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message.

State Baptist conventions followed this national shift only slowly and inconsistently. While the seminaries belong to the national Southern Baptist Convention, colleges are connected to state conventions. John Mark Reynolds, former provost at Houston Baptist University, said for parents of prospective students, knowing a school is “Baptist” is just the start of a conversation—and an investigation. He noted colleges with Baptist roots tend to take one of three paths: leaving the denomination, embracing the denomination, or respecting their roots while shifting to become more broadly Christian.

After the conservative resurgence, many colleges cut ties with the state conventions, trading financial support for self-governance.

In 1990, Baylor University trustees passed a measure to restrict the Baptist General Convention of Texas from selecting more than a quarter of the school’s trustees. Two months after the vote, Michael Bishop, Baylor’s vice president for communications, told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re told the fundamentalists are going to launch an attack against Baylor. … They are enraged because we just outmaneuvered them.” Today, Baylor presents itself as “a private Christian university and a nationally ranked liberal arts institution.” Faculty members don’t sign any statements of faith. In 2018, a little more than a quarter of students identified as Baptist.

The same year Baylor acted, Furman University trustees voted to allow themselves to choose future trustees. But in late 1991, the South Carolina Baptist Convention decided to use funding allocated for Furman to sue the school and regain control. The convention eventually dropped the legal action and distributed the money to the state’s other Baptist institutions. Furman and the SCBC ended their formal relationship in 1992.

But not all schools successfully left. The trustees of Shorter University, a small Baptist college in Georgia with a reputable performing arts program, voted to go independent from Georgia Baptists in 2002, but lost a subsequent legal fight. When Donald Dowless became president in 2011, one of his first actions was to require faculty members to sign a statement of faith he described as “much in concert with the Baptist Faith and Message.” The statement included affirmation of Biblical inerrancy. A lifestyle statement also acknowledged that homosexuality is un-Biblical. Faculty had to sign or risk not getting their contracts renewed. One-third of Shorter’s full-time faculty left, according to an Inside Higher Ed report. Now Dowless says Shorter is doing well: Georgia Baptists provide $2.2 million in funding a year, close to 6 percent of the school’s annual budget.

Some schools chose to celebrate and strengthen their relationship with the state convention that founded them.

In 1995, David Dockery was elected president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and began strengthening ties with the state’s Baptist pastors. Union hosted 40-80 pastors each month for career development meetings, encouraged faculty members to preach at Tennessee churches, and partnered with the state convention on projects. The school hosted conferences about Baptist identity and heritage, started a pastor training program, and offered pastors free “retreats” on campus with a room, meals, and use of the library.

Tennessee Baptists select all of Union’s trustees and contribute $1.8 million a year, about 2 percent of the school’s annual budget. Todd Brady, vice president for university ministries at Union, described the relationship between the university and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board as “long and good.” He said: “We very much like the partnership we have. We’re very much a part of the Tennessee Baptist family.” More than half of Union’s undergraduate students are Baptists.

Other colleges take a third path: While retaining their Baptist affiliation, they emphasize their identity as a more broadly Christian school.

Houston Baptist University (HBU) walked this line, becoming what Todd Bates, dean of HBU’s School of Christian Thought, described as “mere Christian.” Professors must be Christians, affirming a basic confession of faith and Christian lifestyle statement, but they do not need to be Baptists. Though the school does not require professors in its Christian studies or ministry department to be Baptists, the majority of them are. As of fall 2018, only about 22 percent of undergraduate students were Baptist.

HBU is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, so the state convention elects some trustees and provides some financial support. “We do look for people who are Baptist and, all things being equal, we like to hire Baptists because they help us maintain that affiliation,” said President Robert Sloan. Practically, the affiliation also plays out in Baptist history classes and scholarships from the state convention to ministry majors from BGCT churches. “In day-to-day operations, we are Christ-focused first, but are deeply committed and fond of our roots in Baptist life,” said Bates.

Even though many state conventions failed to keep their schools, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and a WORLD board member, said more and more are preserving conservative theological roots: “Forty years ago, none of the state conventions were attempting to exercise this kind of theological influence, and now several are.”

Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn., may be on its way to becoming another example. Amid questions from Baptist churches and pastors about theological liberalism bubbling up, Carson-Newman adopted the BF&M 2000 in 2017. Professors are not required to sign the statement, but it set clear boundaries about the school’s positions. Charles Fowler, a Tennessee pastor and former Union University vice president, recently became Carson-Newman’s president, and Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, said he believes “Dr. Fowler will help right the ship theologically.”

IN MISSOURI, Southwest Baptist University announced in December it would appoint an outside committee to “lead a University-wide dialogue regarding faith and learning.” Led by Dockery, the committee twice visited campus and talked with trustees, professors, staff, and administrators. It also interviewed alumni, Missouri pastors, and MBC leaders. 

A report from the committee in July found that the school’s statement of faith was inadequate and not implemented effectively (“virtually irrelevant” in the hiring, promoting, and tenure process). Dockery said the school’s statement of faith was more than 100 years old and only covered Baptist distinctives, not Christian essentials, like the Trinity and the gospel. The school had not adopted any form of the Baptist Faith and Message. Dockery said it could take two or three years to know if SBU has implemented all the recommended changes, but the MBC demanded the school make two changes in the next few months: adopt the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and name the convention as the “sole member” of the corporation.

Meanwhile, Clint Bass is training to be an Army chaplain. As a tenured professor abruptly fired, his chances of getting another teaching position are slim. But if this is the end of academia for him, so be it: “The academy is not my God.”



Albert Mohler (Handout)

Advice for Parents 

John Mark Reynolds recommends parents and prospective students searching for theologically conservative Baptist colleges focus on the school’s leaders: What kinds of questions do they ask new hires? Which departments are getting full-time professors and resources? Another good indicator can be academic papers that professors in the school’s psychology or sociology departments publish. Finding conservative Christians in those departments is rare, Reynolds said, and their academic publications will reveal their true positions: “Personnel is policy. You can have the longest policy statement in the world, but if you don’t bring in the right people, then you have a problem.”

David Dockery recommends asking five things: Does the school hire only faculty and staff members who are Christians and members of local churches? Are Bible or religion professors members of Baptist churches? Do opportunities for worship and service create a Christian context for students on campus? Are professors in every subject asking how the Christian faith relates to their discipline? Is there a clear statement of faith?

Seminary president Albert Mohler said schools must implement a confession of faith for professors: “I don’t think there’s any way to ensure any form of consistent Christian identity and teaching without it.” —C.K.

Charissa Koh

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.


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  • Hawkdriver
    Posted: Fri, 11/08/2019 11:07 am

    Wolves in among the sheep.  All under  shepherds of the Great Shepherd, USE your rod and clean house.  Be thorough, leave no stone unturned.

    As a parent of college aged young people, my wife and I will do the same with the staff, guiding the best we can with Christs help.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 11/08/2019 09:39 pm

    Conservative Christians own a piece of this problem as well. For whatever reason(s), those of a more liberal viewpoint are more willing to pursue the work and end up with an academic degree that opens doors to teaching in higher education. If conservative Christians wish to have their position represented academically, they must produce candidates to fill the positions. It's not enough to try to "vote the rascals out" once they are entrenched.

    For what it's worth, this is also true in public secondary education. Conservative Christians are vastly outnumbered in that arena, largely because they were busy finding other jobs a generation ago (and still are today).

    I'd love to see an article or two delving into this issue. I have my suspicions, but they're just hunches at this point.


  • Joel
    Posted: Mon, 11/11/2019 12:07 pm

    Good article, but you may want to change the headline's subtitle: The article itself states that the conservative resurgence in the SBC began in the late 1970's--40 yearss ago, not 20!

  • MJ
    Posted: Tue, 11/12/2019 08:57 am

    In this conflict for accurate Christian theology some states have created a conservative state convention. I didn't see that mentioned in the article. I was curious which states have two state conventions. And which colleges in those states are supported by both or just one. It is tragic to see the left gaining any ground among Southern Baptists.