**UPDATE: I wrote an important follow-up post for Dr. White and his new administration “25 Questions for Cedarville University’s New President Thomas White by An Alumnus.” I hope it continues this important conversation.
Today my “nourishing mother” (aka alma mater ), Cedarville University, announced that Thomas White, the former Vice President of Student Services at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, will be their new President. Here is a partial bio:
White grew up as a country boy in South Carolina with a great spiritual legacy left by his father and grandfather, who both served as Southern Baptist pastors. Elected at age 33, White is one of the youngest men to serve as an executive administrator at Southwestern Seminary. A systematic theologian by training with a focus on the doctrine of the church, he can relate to seminary students on many levels. At one time or another, White has been a deacon, pastor, itinerant preacher, evangelism pastor, children’s minister, Royal Ambassador director, and even the owner and instructor of four karate schools in South Carolina. White holds a fourth degree black belt in Karate, and was the Middleweight World Amateur Sport Karate international champion in 1993 in addition to two state championships.
White earned Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Divinity degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and Bachelor of Arts and Associate of Arts degrees from Anderson (S.C.) College. He is the editor of a three-volume work titled Selected Articles of James Madison Pendleton, and a contributor and co-editor of First Freedom: The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty published in 2007 by Broadman & Holman Academic.
Over the past few years I have been rather dismayed at the reactionary posture of the Board of Trustees. Several recent campus brouhahas are only outmatched by this obvious turn toward the Southern Baptist Convention. And with a soon-to-be announced Bible Department Chair (UPDATE**The CU Newspaper reports that Chair is going to Jason Lee “who also has been teaching at Southwestern. But White said Patterson, Lee and him all coming to Cedarville this year is purely coincidence.” Coincidence? Who are they kidding?!) going to a person from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary— let’s just say it’s gonna be a real SBC hoedown for the next decade. Or more.
This Is Not an Isolated Incident
Recently a post-graduate student friend of mine was flagged by HR for attending a Wesleyan university and Methodist church. Now mind you, this friend attended Cedarville, graduated with me from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and is firmly evangelical. So not only does he have the academic chops, he’s also got the evangelical creds to go along with them for the academic position he was applying for.
But affiliating with a non-evangelical church created all sorts of problems for the new Cedarville administration, and for my friend.
Not only did this HR gatekeeper insinuate he’d have to leave his church for the sake of the position, he also wanted assurances that he didn’t believe in infant baptism or present-day signs/miracles and didn’t deny eternal security. Apparently his affiliation with a Wesleyan university and Methodist church raised red-flags of liberalism.
Add to this the dismissal of Michal Pahl, a Bible professor who argued in favor of Genesis 1 & 2 and Adam for theological reasons, rather than historical or literal reasons. This is no Peter Enns, here. He affirmed the historical Adam and Eve theologically, just not exegetically—which wasn’t enough to satisfy the Board.
In fact Cedarville said “Dr. Pahl’s orthodoxy and commitment to the gospel are not in question, nor is his commitment to Scripture’s inspiration, authority and infallibility.” Michael Bird correctly wondered and bemoaned, “If Pahl is safely orthodox and a committed evangelical, then what prey-tell is the flipping problem? It seems to me that it is a narrowness defined by institutional power and a quest for absolute conformity on everything.”
Apparently the new administration decided my friend and Pahl would not play nicely in their ever-tightening theological menagerie. Thus, it seem like this SBC pivot with White’s election is endemic of a broader shift away from moderate evangelicalism toward what I would call evangelical sectarianism.
So What Is The Flipping Problem?
The Board of Trustees are narrowcasting around conservative myopia; they are seemingly aligning themselves with hard-right conservativism, á la the Southern Baptist Convention; they’re purging the school of people deemed theological dalits; and, perhaps most importantly, they’ve forgotten who their constituents are: millennial students.
This last one’s an important one. Trustees your constituents aren’t your donors or churches. They’re your millennial students. Maybe you don’t want to deal with issues of human sexuality, the church’s response to immigrants, Adam vs. modern science, and whether one can be a Democratic Christian. But they do. These are their issues.
Running from their issues—and firing leaders who engage them or engage them differently than you (i.e. Brown, Ruby, and Pahl)—pivoting toward one single conservative denomination in order to satisfy wealthy donors and churches, and battening down the hatches in the swirl of cultural tectonic change is not the way to go me thinks.
Now don’t get me wrong. My problem isn’t with Southern Baptists or the SBC, per se; neither is it with White. And personally I’m solidly evangelical and care about its liberal direction. (Check out my work in response to the Emergent church here and here)
My point is that the field of moderation that had been carefully tilled and cultivated over the last decade under the careful leadership of William Brown and Carl Ruby is seemingly being salted by a narrow band of elected-for-life board members. Already there are reports other trustees have left in protest and exasperation at their posture and pivoting moves, leaving a single group with far too much power.
I have fond memories of my Cedarville University experience. In large measure it made me who I am today. And while I couldn’t return to that experience given my own shifts and given its narrowism back then (1998-2002), I had high hopes that I could have sent my children there given the crop of moderate evangelicalism being harvested.
Not any more. And not merely because they’ve selected to elect an SBC President. But because they’ve allowed the Board to be overrun by a faction unrepresentative of the beautiful, diverse Body of Jesus Christ himself.
If you are a Cedarville student or alumni I would love to hear your reaction and response to this new move in the comments. Or if you’ve witnessed similar turns at other evangelical institutions consider join the conversation, as well.