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Current, former Midwestern leaders gather

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)—-Growth in enrollment, a new undergraduate program and the addition of new facilities were cited as signs of encouraging progress at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as the Southern Baptist Convention’s youngest seminary continued to highlight its 50th anniversary during a Jan. 30 chapel.

Midwestern’s progress, however, has been realized in spite of the fact that the seminary is located in an area where Southern Baptists lacked strength and has overcome criticism of several former faculty members for liberal teaching.

Talking about the seminary’s heritage is “an ominous assignment,” Midwestern President R. Philip Roberts said as he welcomed three former administrators to a chapel service commemorating the anniversary, which is being observed during the current academic year. Featured guests for the event included Academic Dean Emeritus John Howell, whom Roberts described as having tenure during “94 percent of Midwestern’s history,” and former presidents Milton Ferguson and Mark Coppenger.

“Experiences are burned into our memory and cause us to weep or cry on occasion,” Roberts added, asking his guests to share the priorities they established as leaders and the lessons they learned during their tenures.

Coppenger noted that he arrived in 1995 amid Southern Baptists’ ongoing interest in the cause of biblical inerrancy.

“As Dr. Ferguson neared retirement, the board was saying, ‘We just want to be sure, with new appointments, that we stand for biblical inerrancy,'” Coppenger recounted.

“All Christian schools have a kind of gravitational pull toward secular compromise,” said Coppenger, who served as president until 1999. “No school ever wakes up and says, ‘How do we become Bob Jones University?’

“We were very explicit about saying biblical inerrancy is the standard we will use in hiring professors. We addressed the notion of complentarianism — we don’t think women should be senior pastors. We put down some stakes concerning homosexuality,” Coppenger said.

Roberts asked Ferguson how he was able to “negotiate some of the more troubling times” as president during the years of the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence.

Ferguson began by underscoring his own appreciation for biblical authority, adding that faith should be placed in the Word of God, rather than any person’s understanding of how it is God’s Word. “I find some will trust their definition of inspiration as the authority, rather than the result of God’s inspiration, which is the Word of God — the actual Scripture itself,” Ferguson said.

As president from 1973-95, Ferguson said he worked hard to maintain openness by asking God to help him love and treat people with respect. “When trustees came who were deeply suspicious about the seminary, I welcomed them as if they were my long lost brothers,” Ferguson said. “I did my best to be open with all the information.

“Eventually, the lines hardened and it got to the point in the controversy where the issues were no longer the issues,” Ferguson said. “The only issue important to both sides was which side you were on.

“It developed to the point of a power struggle of who’s going to win. And of course, some were of the conviction that their side must win because ‘we’re right,’ and the other side was saying, ‘If those folks win, we’ve lost everything.’ That’s the sinful nature in all of us,” Ferguson said.

“I want you to understand that I not only believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but I was willing to trust it to be the Word of God,” Ferguson said.


When Southern Baptist messengers chartered Midwestern in May 1957, they were voting to establish a seminary in an area where Southern Baptist Convention work was less developed. That meant the seminary would face a significant challenge in building the kind of endowments built up at the four SBC seminaries in southern states. Because Cooperative Program budget dollars are allocated according to enrollment, Midwestern’s receipts would be the smallest of the group.

Baptist scholar John Newport resigned as Midwestern’s second president immediately after his election when he learned how dire the seminary’s financial condition was, Ferguson said. Newport sent a telegram to tell trustees he made a mistake.

Ferguson, who subsequently assumed MBTS’ presidency, said he learned “that we had a whole [student] housing development that had been started but stalled midway.” He began “spending all my time burning the midnight oil trying to figure out how to stay solvent financially because we were deeply in debt.”

In the years since, the seminary has been able to make many improvements. A 35,000-square-foot retreat center north of the campus was dedicated in 2005 as the Koehn-Myers Center for World Evangelism, honoring two martyred missionaries. In 2001, the seminary acquired the 6,000-volume library of British pastor C.H. Spurgeon and negotiated a land sale to fund new campus housing, library expansion and a new chapel.

Under Roberts, the current president, Midwestern’s non-duplicating enrollment headcount has grown from 752 to 1,014 students, including those enrolled in the newly established Midwestern College.


Coppenger and Roberts both spoke of their own Midwestern roots — Coppenger having taught at Wheaton College in Illinois, serving as executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana and being reared by a Michigander mother, and Roberts spending his childhood years in Ohio, where his father pastored, led revivals and directed the work of the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio.

Coppenger said he sought to build on the seminary’s missionary heritage with a “prairie fire” theme to claim the Midwest for Christ. “The fire of God’s Spirit would burn through, renew us, recycle us, cause new green to bud and burn out the trash in our lives,” he said. “We prayed that spirit of revival would spring forth from this place and bring awakening to the Midwest, believing the heartland of America is so critical for the health of the world.”


Howell, though he retired from teaching Christian ethics in 1999, stayed on to handle the regular accreditation review and other special projects. His association with Midwestern began in 1960 when the first president, Millard J Berquist, asked him to join the faculty.

“We were small at the time,” Howell recalled. The major thoroughfare now bordering seminary property “was just a little two-lane road going north.”

Howell recalled Berquist’s decision to enlist Lavell Seats, a missionary to Nigeria, to serve as the school’s second professor. “The seminary’s beginnings were organized a great deal in being a missions-sending school. There was a time when Midwestern had the largest percentage of graduates on the foreign mission field of any of the six seminaries — not in numbers, but in the percentage of graduates at that time,” Howell said.

One memorable example of the heart for missions at Midwestern was a campaign to buy a Volkswagen “Bug” for a Nigerian student Seats had sponsored. “They brought it through the back doors of the chapel and drove it down to the front as a gift for the work he was doing,” Howell recounted.

Roberts thanked the panel participants for reflecting on the school’s history. “We know how important it was for you to be a part of the Midwestern family at that time and we honor, value and appreciate all of you.” he said. “We are reminded that we wouldn’t be here” without the “energy and blood, sweat and tears” each one offered in service to God.

“As you take Baptist history class and learn about the Cooperative Program,” Roberts told the chapel audience, “you will understand afresh and anew how sacrificially Southern Baptists gave to help with your theological education and service.”
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is a writer based in Grand Prairie, Texas.

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