RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–With Southern Baptists in three state conventions providing funding for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond through their Cooperative Program gifts, several former students believe donors and their churches should be aware of what they’re financing. A former student’s journal describing BTSR as a home for liberal theological and political convictions is praised by several other fellow students for challenging what is regularly portrayed as a “mainstream” Baptist school.
“A lot of people in these little churches in Virginia want to be supportive of the entities” of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, “but they don’t know exactly what’s going on,” stated John Ippolito, the former BTSR student whose journal was published in the Baptist Banner, a newsletter for conservative Southern Baptists in Virginia. Ippolito believes budgeted support for BTSR through state conventions in Virginia, North Carolina and the District of Columbia would diminish if church members knew “what was going on there.”
Unlike Ippolito who was unfamiliar with controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention, John Bohannon was aware of the liberal convictions of some BTSR students he had encountered in his local church. He and Ippolito would talk in the parking lot after attending BTSR classes at night, uncomfortable with “negative comments and jokes about Southern Baptists, the convention as a whole and its leadership,” Bohannon said.
While older students seemed to know the context for the conservative resurgence, Bohannon observed that younger students were “encouraged by the whole concept of freedom to be who you want to be with no restrictions.” He described the BTSR environment as having “a kind of floating free spiritual mentality without roots — just whatever you want to pick up as floating along versus understanding different theological viewpoints and what God’s Word teaches.”
Bohannon never heard professors discuss issues relating to homosexuality, but heard his church’s youth pastor describe a new understanding of homosexuality as an appropriate lifestyle that he discovered while attending BTSR. “He said this was based on the mentoring he had received from BTSR,” Bohannon said. “I already knew going into the seminary that there were some fundamental beliefs that did not match up to God’s Word. John [Ippolito] saw it firsthand.”
As BTSR faculty speak in area churches, Bohannon finds them presenting a more moderate image than they represent in the classroom. “The way most churches viewed BTSR is that we have a new Baptist seminary in our city and since all Baptists believe the same thing, there are no differences. They’ve done a good job of penetrating inside Baptist life in Virginia and are looked at as a mainstream Baptist seminary. The majority of our churches would not have any understanding or insight as to what’s been taking place.”
Bohannon withdrew from BTSR and continued his studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., as Ippolito subsequently did. “I was told if I went to Southeastern I’ll be told how to believe, what to believe, and have no individual freedom. It’s going to be shoved down my throat,” Bohannon recalled. “What I found at Southeastern is a school very willing to be forthright about their convictions of how they’re going to lead and teach students.” While presented with information on a variety of perspectives, Bohannon said professors draw conclusions based on God’s Word. “I have the ability as a student to decide if I agree or disagree.”
In his entire time at Southeastern, Bohannon said he had never heard “one innuendo or mocking of BTSR or these breakaway folks that left the SBC.” In contrast, he said, “The first night at BTSR it was assumed that I knew about the things that had taken place and should join in to laugh and mock preachers or pastors who teach at Southern Baptist seminaries whether I agree or disagree with them.”
BTSR President Thomas Graves responded to concerns Ippolito penned in his journal in a May 3 open letter in the Religious Herald, the state paper of Baptist General Association of Virginia. “If we have offended any student with ridicule, we were wrong,” Graves wrote. “If we have made some feel less than a full member of our seminary community, we have been wrong. We need to grow in many ways and appreciate the help and guidance others may offer.”
Instead of launching angry attacks or demonizing fellow Christians, Graves called for learning from those with whom students or faculty disagree. He dismissed Ippolito’s concerns that the school encourages respect for a homosexual lifestyle or fails to “believe in the sure and certain truth of Scripture.”
Bohannon recalled a class presentation in which “old-time Baptist preachers” were mocked and class members responded by “chuckling and laughing.” He added, “It’s heartbreaking to know these students aren’t being pointed toward the truth of God’s Word to see how God wants to change us through his Word.”
Virginian Freddie Marshall was told BTSR would be a place where the politics of one’s theological convictions would not be important and the practical application of ministry would be emphasized. Having left Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., during a time of upheaval over its transition to conservative leadership, Marshall admits that BTSR provided healing for him personally. He found affirmation from certain professors, but eventually became disenchanted by the teaching he received.
“Most people see it as just another seminary,” Marshall said. “Maybe there’s some wacky stuff, but you’re not going to get a church without a master of divinity degree,” he heard others rationalize. “It can’t be too liberal because they’re Baptist. I don’t think most churches question it.”
As a part of the first class to enter BTSR, Marshall found students to be more blatant in their liberalism than professors. He recalled students advancing the cause of feminists and acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle compatible with faith in Christ. When he questioned a professor’s view regarding biblical hermeneutics, Marshall said his comments were mischaracterized and ridiculed. When he requested permission to withdraw from the class, he recalled the professor accusing him of “having a problem with women in positions of authority.”
Marshall doesn’t believe he learned much at BTSR that prepared him to pastor. “I learned how to use inclusive language, that if you were intolerant to liberal views you can’t be a loving person and are just full of hate. I learned what buffoons conservative leaders are and that it’s important not to be a Southern Baptist, but a free Baptist like Virginia Baptists are who don’t have to abide by creeds.”
His resume refers to the year and a half of studies he completed at BTSR, but Marshall said he has been told by pastoral search committees of conservative churches “we [eliminate] it as soon as we see that.” If he ever completes his theological education, it will be at a Southern Baptist seminary, Marshall added.
Ippolito’s journal can be viewed on the Internet at www.thebaptistbanner.com.