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SBC, CBF seminaries differ in educational approach, profs say

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–There was a time when Russell Moore thought the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship would succeed as a denomination by carving out a “unique niche among the religious bodies in the South,” but today the senior vice president and theology dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says his previous thoughts about the group’s future were wrong.

The reason the CBF is not likely to survive, Moore said, is because of “the disaster of the CBF’s seminaries and divinity schools.”

“Unlike SBC seminaries, which are held accountable by the congregations of the Southern Baptist Convention, the CBF seminaries and divinity schools are accountable only to a donor base of nostalgic Baptist liberals,” Moore said during a recent interview. “The schools have become a haunt for every liberal fad imaginable: pluralism, inclusivism, feminism, process theology, liberation theologies and so forth.”

When the CBF was founded by Daniel Vestal and other moderate Baptists 15 years ago, CBF leaders largely rejected the six Southern Baptist seminaries as “fundamentalist” institutions or centers of “indoctrination.” The group instead began a network of partnerships with schools that would offer likeminded ministers a “traditional Baptist education,” as they understood it.

In 2002, for example, Baptist General Convention of Texas President Bob Campbell, a vocal CBF supporter, said Texas students would not be encouraged to attend seminaries like Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, which he described as “no longer Baptist.” The six SBC seminaries, he said, did not allow for critique of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the faith statement approved by the majority of SBC messengers. Students were instead encouraged to attend CBF-supported schools in Texas and elsewhere.

Today, the CBF’s network of partnering theological education institutions, those the group encourages students to attend and to whom funding is given by the Fellowship, includes 14 seminaries and divinity schools. At some schools, the CBF supports only a “Baptist studies” program because the divinity schools are not Baptist.

Two of the CBF-supported schools are affiliated with the United Methodist Church, one with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and one with the American Baptist Churches (USA), a denomination beset by recent controversy over the presence of gay-friendly churches in some of its associations. The South Carolina and Oklahoma CBF state organizations also partner individually with Lutheran- and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-affiliated seminaries in their states, respectively.

Some schools, such as the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., allow students to earn a significant portion of their academic credits through “cross-registration” in classes at local Presbyterian, Nazarene, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and even Catholic seminaries and divinity schools. This support for “diverse” Baptist education betrays the CBF’s “naive ecumenical commitments,” one scholar at Southwestern Seminary said.

Malcolm Yarnell III, assistant dean for theological studies and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern, said the CBF’s goal in partnering with theologically diverse -– and often non-Baptist -– schools may also be more about providing competition for the SBC seminaries than offering a broad Baptist education to future ministers.

“That is why the CBF is willing to support a hodgepodge of theological institutions representing multiple traditions and denominations, including many non-Baptist traditions,” Yarnell said. “It is interesting, one might argue hypocritical, that in the name of Baptist distinctives, the CBF encourages Baptist students to attend non-Baptist institutions.”

The schools supported by the CBF, in addition to having loose ties to Baptist life, also approach instruction from a different perspective, according to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary provost Steve Lemke. Many of the schools, he said, follow a divinity school model rather than a seminary model, even though some have “seminary” in their name.

“The primary focus of divinity schools is the academic study of theology apart from doctrinal commitments, particularly to prepare teachers for an academic vocation. The primary focus of seminaries is the study of theology and the Bible from a confessional perspective, for the purpose of training ministers for local churches,” Lemke said. “Obviously, some ministers are trained at divinity schools and numerous teachers are prepared for an academic vocation at SBC seminaries, but the focus of the institutions is different.”

Adherence to that confessional perspective has led many CBF leaders to charge that SBC seminaries are more concerned with indoctrinating than educating. But Moore, Yarnell and Lemke all agree that “indoctrination” is a term they do not find offensive. At the same time, they say SBC seminaries offer students a broader path to education than CBF-supported schools.

“Everyone teaches from a point of view,” Moore said. “The SBC seminaries are honest about their vantage point. If one wants to know what our faculty members believe, look at our confession of faith.”

Yarnell said students at Southwestern Seminary, as an example, first engage “with all the major theological responses to a particular issue. We then proceed to tell them the strengths and weaknesses of each response. Afterwards, we inform the students why we think the Southern Baptist confessional stance is the superior position.

“Second, Jesus called us to make disciples, not computers. Discipleship involves the teaching of doctrine, or ‘in-doctrination.’ If the CBF is not indoctrinating, then they are not teaching doctrine,” Yarnell said. Failing to teach doctrine, he said, is failing to fulfill the Great Commission where Christians are commanded to teach “all things whatsoever” Christ commanded.

“The claim that SBC institutions ‘indoctrinate’ while the CBF institutions ‘educate’ is a red herring,” Lemke said. “In fact, the larger faculties of the SBC seminaries afford students greater breadth of perspective than is available at small CBF institutions.”

Lemke said he is familiar with a student who initially chose not to attend a Southern Baptist seminary, opting instead for what he regarded as freedom of inquiry at a CBF school. But the student found no broader perspective.

“In fact, what he found at the CBF institution was that all his faculty members endorsed the same position, and that they were very intolerant of other perspectives. After a year, he enrolled at an SBC seminary and found there the more diverse perspective that he desired. All six SBC seminaries are unapologetically confessional, conservative seminaries committed to doctrinal integrity, but their faculties are made up of excellent scholars who afford students a careful examination of all perspectives,” Lemke said.

Today, Lemke said it is difficult to discern the number of students enrolled in CBF seminaries and divinity schools. The CBF claims that the 14 schools it supports provide education to some 2,000 students. The largest of the CBF supported schools is George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, with nearly 400 students, according to the latest figures from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).

Lemke said the low numbers of students in the CBF-supported schools is something of note. He said the smallest SBC seminary has roughly twice the enrollment of the largest CBF-supported school, “despite the fact that the CBF school offers virtually free tuition to many students.”

“Although there are twice as many CBF institutions than SBC seminaries, there are more than five times the graduate students at SBC seminaries than at the 14 CBF institutions. The students are obviously voting with their feet about the institutions that are providing the ministerial training that meets their needs,” Lemke said.

According to fall 2005 ATS enrollment figures, 11,250 students were enrolled in the six SBC seminaries. Those students will serve in a variety of ministries, Moore noted.

“The SBC seminaries train men and women for all kinds of ministries, as diverse as the Ephesians 4 description of the work of the ministry. We train counselors and music ministers, hospital chaplains and university professors. But we understand that our first priority is to train pastors for the churches, both here and abroad,” Moore said.

CBF spokesman Ben McDade said the CBF did not wish to respond to inquiries about the differences in Southern Baptist and CBF-supported seminaries and divinity schools. Seminaries, Baptist studies programs and divinity schools supported by the CBF include:

–- Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C. (Methodist).

-– Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Lexington.

-– Baptist Studies Program of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth (Christian Church).

-– Baptist Studies Program of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta (Methodist).

-– Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va.

-– Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas.

–- Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.

–- Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan. (American Baptist Churches USA).

-– George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

-– International Baptist Theological Seminary of the European Baptist Federation in Prague, Czech Republic.

-– Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.

-– McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta.

–- M. Christopher White Divinity School at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C.

–- Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C.

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin