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SBC seminary presidents optimistic for a ‘golden age’ in theological education

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–A renewal of “missionary zeal” among seminary students, unprecedented strength in professors’ credentials and an unparalleled growth in the number of women’s programs and women students were noted by the presidents of the six Southern Baptist seminaries in an exclusive interview with Florida Baptist Witness.

If the Southern Baptist Convention is to grow and remain a vital denomination, however, the presidents, with a combined total enrollment of nearly 14,000 students in their schools, said they will need greater financial support for their professors and students, and a greater partnership with the churches of the convention for those who are “called” to pursue theological education in preparation for ministry.

Each of the presidents, in Jacksonville for the Council of Seminary Presidents (CSP) annual work meeting in November, spoke about the state of the SBC seminaries both collectively and individually in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview. The presidents are: William O. Crews, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Mill Valley, Calif.; Phil Roberts, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo.; Chuck Kelley., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Paige Patterson, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.; R. Albert Mohler Jr., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.; and Kenneth S. Hemphill, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.

A “confessional” direction for the seminaries

Nearly three decades ago, the seminaries were the primary focus of growing concern among many Southern Baptists who believed the convention was becoming liberal and the seminaries were not teaching what most grassroots Baptists believed, especially about the inspiration and nature of Scripture. The “conservative resurgence” within the SBC sought to bring a more conservative direction to the convention by electing SBC presidents whose appointments would result in change in the SBC entities, including the seminaries. Each of the current seminary presidents came to office during the course of the conservative resurgence.

Mohler, Southern’s president and the current council chairman, reflected on the implications of what he called a “confessional recovery” in the SBC.

“The biggest change to the culture and to the seminaries has been a recovery of confessionalism,” Mohler said. “Because if you go back to where we were before the controversy in the SBC, it was not that the seminaries were out of line merely on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, they were basically rejecting any model of confessional accountability that meant that a professor was expected to teach certain doctrines and to teach them without hesitation or mental reservation.”

Midwestern’s Roberts, the most junior member of the CSP, lauded the others, calling them “among the giants of Southern Baptists in their commitment and in their convictions.” The seminaries are in “very good hands,” he said. “Apart from us entering a ‘dark age,’ as it’s been referred to by some of our detractors in other circles, …we are entering a golden age of theological education.”

Kelley agreed, saying, “It’s a glorious day on our seminary campuses.” In reference to a comment he said was made recently by a former seminary president about the “state of ruin” in Southern Baptist theological education, the New Orleans president quipped that his reaction “was to just pray to God to ruin us some more if this is what it’s like to be in ruins.”

Southeastern’s Patterson said in the past 10 years he has seen the seminaries move from being “educational appendages [of] the denomination to being partners with the churches and the world mission enterprise.”

How fare the faculties?

Changes at the seminaries have not led to a difficulty in recruiting faculty, the presidents said. To the contrary, Hemphill said at Southwestern “the faculty is probably stronger today than it’s ever been.” Citing a “diversity of degrees,” he said there has been an intentional move to “find a more diversified faculty in terms of their credentials, not in terms of their theological integrity.”

“The Baptist Faith and Message is a given for us,” Hemphill said. “What I found most interesting is when you put that parameter up, when you put that fence up, it actually provides a real sense of security, of protection. It’s not as if it is an onerous sort of thing. There’s almost a greater freedom to … teach in the context of that.”

Roberts agreed. “There is a bumper crop of excellent young scholars out there,” he said. “As far as Midwestern is concerned, if you look at the credentials of our faculty, over and against 20 years ago, by an objective standard, you would have to say that this faculty is far better credentialed in many ways, if not most ways.”

Calling the seminaries’ faculty members “the envy of the evangelical world,” Mohler said the schools’ respective catalogs bear witness to the faculties’ strength. “I think the seriousness with which the SBC set its course is attracting scholars who would not want to teach in an institution that lacks the kind of accountability the SBC demands. What other system of seminaries share the kind of commitments we share?” he asked.

Kelley said the professors are “doing wonderful work, not only in the classroom, but in their scholarly areas, in spite of salaries that fall under the national averages.”

“It’s really clear to me the contribution the SBC is making to conservative evangelical scholarship on all fronts,” Roberts said, citing Southern Baptist scholars’ efforts in clarifying the role of women in the church and opposing the “openness of God” theology that some evangelicals have started to embrace. Southern Baptist scholarly contributions create “a sort of a think tank of the denomination,” said Patterson, who believes the production of “significant theological literature” is a measure of whether the seminaries are succeeding in their mission. “That, in fact, is happening,” Patterson said.

How fare the students?

“There’s good news there, very good news,” Mohler said, in tracking whether graduates actually go into the ministry or to the mission fields. Another question to ask is, “Are they faithful and effective in their ministries?” he said.

“I would argue that the only way to know that is to know their churches,” Mohler said. “Are they not only committed to exposition, but is biblical knowledge being rooted and grounded in the congregation? These are questions that will take time, but I can’t imagine a more important question faced by our denomination than the question of whether these things are going to happen in our local churches.”

Golden Gate’s Crews said the question to ask is, “Are customers buying the product you are producing?” The answer is “yes,” he said. Citing an increase of more than a thousand students in a five-year period at New Orleans, Kelley said it is “a good indication … customers are buying the product.” Kelly noted the 2+2 program in which students study two years on campus and two years on the mission field, an increased interest in church planting and a “sense of excitement.”

“This is a chapter in the story of Southern Baptist seminaries when there is, I think, an unprecedented flowering of missionary zeal on all our campuses,” Kelley said. A generation ago, he said the “best and brightest” came to seminary to secure a position at “a red brick church in a county seat town until the pulpit came open at First Baptist Church, Dallas, or Bellevue,” two of the most prominent SBC churches.

Now “our best and brightest are coming to start churches in places that don’t have a church, and the most popular mission trips are to the most dangerous places,” Kelley said. “There’s just a generation of students showing up on our campuses who have a tremendous zeal to spread the gospel across the world and to pay whatever price has to be paid to make Jesus known.”

Crews agreed. “Absolutely. You know our people, many of them feel like even living in seminary housing, as bad as it is — they are probably living better today than they will the rest of their lives. They want to go to the hard places. It’s amazing.”

At Southwestern, Hemphill pointed to a phenomenon he said could be repeated on any of the campuses. During a recent missions emphasis week, Jerry Rankin, president of the SBC International Mission Board, in chapel gave an invitation for students to respond to a call to missions. After only 30-40 students came to the altar, Hemphill said Rankin looked a little disappointed before finally asking: “‘Would those of you who have already made these commitments join us at the altar?’ [Rankin] just started weeping because they couldn’t get to the altar,” said Hemphill of 540 who had already made a missionary commitment. “There’s no question that this generation has a passion and a vision to reach the world. They really do want to go to the hard places. That’s the heart desire of a lot of our students.”

Kelley said the “single biggest change” he’s seen in seminary students is an “awareness” of the need to start churches in order to reach the nation and the world. About today’s students, Kelley also said many come from non-Baptist backgrounds and were most likely saved in college or as young adults.

Hemphill said he addresses this change at graduation ceremonies each year when he makes sure to present the gospel at the request of students who have said they have parents and grandparents in the audience who are not Christians. Consequently, a lot of “first-generation Christians” go to seminary, Hemphill said. “We certainly still have some of those folks who have come up through the system, and we thank God for them,” but the seminaries also have those who “were saved in college and they’re committed to go to the ends of the world. … This could be the generation that fulfills the Great Commission.”

Within the context of students who are from non-Baptist backgrounds, Kelley also said this has implications for denominational life and work. “They don’t have a strong sense of Baptist identity,” Kelley said. “[Seminary] is where students learn, this is what it means to be a Southern Baptist and carry that sense of denominational identity for the rest of the years of their ministry.” This may be through the local church, association, mission board or in other ministries. Courses offered at the seminaries related to Baptist history, doctrine and polity are developed with this new demographic in mind, said Hemphill of the role of the seminaries in denominationalizing its students. “We’re all structuring our institutions so that [students] clearly understand how Baptists function as well as what Baptists believe.”

In addition, Roberts said the courses, whether in theology or church history, are taught by “hopefully a good churchman who is faithful to [the] denomination.”

About the age of students, Crews said his student body is “younger” in some cases and “older” in others than in the past, but it is “more diverse” than ever before at the main California campus where nearly half are non-Anglo.

A determination of demographics “may be institution-specific,” Mohler said, commenting instead on the students’ cultural context. “This generation is stripped of the illusions of cultural Christianity that previous generations may have known,” he said. “They have grown up in post-Christian secular America. They have been in institutions steeped in postmodernist philosophies. They have grown up in a culture of moral relativism. They were not led by their peers to come to the seminary. They have fought against the stream. Sometimes even within their own families, they have had to go against their family expectation for the cause of Christ and the service of the church. They are not doing something that leads the average person on the street to give them congratulations.”

How fare the women?

The six presidents spoke strongly about the expansion of women’s programs on all six campuses and an affirmation they said was either misleading or lacking in the past.

“They’re being trained to do something that they are going to be able to do,” Crews said. “The problem before is that they were training them for things that [weren’t] going to happen, and the frustration that built up was directed toward the seminary, not toward the church that called them, but toward the seminary who made a promise that ‘if you’ll do this, you’ll be qualified and then you’ll pastor a church,’ and that wasn’t going to happen.”

Kelley said 15-20 years ago there was no Southern Baptist doctrinal statement that even addressed women. He said the BF&M 2000 “affirmed the significance and value and dignity and respect of women.”

“One of the great lines in [the BF&M] is it is as good to be a woman as it is to be a man,” Kelley said. He added that he has “the distinction of having built more women’s bathrooms than any other president in the history of New Orleans” due to the increase in the number of women on campus.

Patterson spoke of several new programs aimed toward women at Southeastern and cited the example of two women who are currently working on Ph.Ds in women’s studies who will earn “doctorates in the field without the usual accompanying feminism” found in other educational institutions.

All of the seminary campuses have been significantly affected by a change in the approach towards preparing women for ministry, Mohler said. In the past, he said “the churches didn’t call them and yet they came, and this came also with the influence of feminist theology in several of our institutions.”

In recovering the whole picture of the church and biblical truth in this area, Mohler said “Southern Baptists were bold enough not only through our seminaries but the 2000 BF&M to say the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Mohler recounted there were predictions that “the curtains will come down on this denomination,” causing the women to leave the seminaries. “We have as many women studying and as much as a percentage of women studying on our campuses as ever before,” he said. “But they’re coming knowing where we stand, appreciating where we stand, sharing our beliefs as based in the Scripture, understanding the importance of those beliefs and ready to go out and do what God has called them to do as directed by Scripture. And that is a beautiful thing. And you know the women on our campus are just as strong and just as smart and just as determined to do what God’s called them to do as women who came before. But they do have a clear biblical understanding.

“Not only has that not brought the curtains down on our enrollment, it has led to the creation of specialized programs for women, for women students and for ministry for women,” Mohler continued. “Our seminaries are based upon some assumptions that are counter-intuitive in the modern world, and one of them is that there are differences between men and women and God just intended it to be that way. And so, insofar as Scripture speaks to those issues, our institutions must align with them.”

Challenges on the campuses and beyond

Saying he is “more gratified” than he ever thought he would be in his “lifetime,” Patterson said a very real problem he sees convention-wide is a lack of emphasis in the churches on steering young people toward the seminaries.

“The calling out of the called in the local churches is very sporadic,” Patterson said. “The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches have apparently, as far as we can see, neglected the emphasis on the possibility … that God may, in fact, be calling [individuals] to the Lord’s work.”

Patterson also said he is concerned about seminary professors’ pay. “We re … attempting to compete with other evangelical institutions and more especially with pastorates. And on the one hand we are extremely grateful that our churches are tending to pay better salaries to pastors; we are very grateful for that. But on the other hand, when the seminary comes so far behind, it means that our professors have to make major sacrifices to come and teach on our campuses. And thank God they do,” Patterson said.

The shortfall in funding should not be remedied through the redistribution of SBC Cooperative Program funds, however, Patterson said. To do so, he said, would be to take resources from one entity to give to another.

“One thing we have believed we achieved in Southern Baptist life right now is a real spiritual unity based on the world mission enterprise,” Patterson said, “[meaning] that we’re all together in this as one and we’re not trying to do turf protecting, including for money.”

Not only seminary professors, but students as well, are financially challenged at seminary, Hemphill said. It’s important for students to graduate within a reasonable time period and without accumulating a lot of educational debt to be able to serve in the ministry, he said.

There are specific reasons students should not graduate from the seminaries with accumulated indebtedness, Patterson pointed out. First, they cannot serve as missionaries to the IMB with outstanding debt. Second, many of the graduates will want to plant churches and won’t be able to afford to pay off a seminary debt in addition to debt incurred as an undergraduate.

Calling funding “the biggest challenge” the seminaries face, Kelley also noted that half of all SBC churches have 94 or fewer people present on a Sunday morning. It is necessary for graduates to be able to serve those churches without being loaded with debt.

“Theological education is just under-funded in Southern Baptist life,” Kelley said.

Citing the three ways seminaries receive income, through the Cooperative Program, student fees and endowments, Hemphill said the only method that can be impacted fairly quickly is student fees — meaning a hike in tuition. “Tuition is probably at a point where we have to be very careful not to keep some of the people God calls from our institutions,” he said.

Mohler added, “You really find out what a denomination believes in by what it supports.” Saying it is the same for a local church or anything else, Mohler spoke of what he called the “total undergirding of theological education in the SBC.”

“It’s probably the lowest it’s been in generations,” Mohler said of the current funding. He said there has been a rapid rise in the cost of education versus a more moderate increase in Cooperative Program resources.

Though the majority of CP funds are “rightly” given directly to missions, Mohler said “there is a danger, over time, that it will continue to shrink to such a point that our relationship, in terms of denominational funding, will be reduced to a point that the relationship between the seminaries and the convention is not what it should be, because we are more financially dependent upon other sources of income.”

Roberts agreed. “The danger is that you can have the pattern written large across denominational education where schools are distanced from the denomination because the denomination reduces the funding,” he said. “The school becomes financially independent and thus the relationship is just not vibrant or marked by the accountability.”

Tying the success of the seminaries together with the future of the SBC, Hemphill said he believes this is a problem Southern Baptists just don’t understand.

“I think that [Southern Baptists] don’t know the situation, they don’t see the fact that if the six of us do not succeed, the IMB [and the] North American Mission Board are not going to succeed either, nor the local church, nor the denomination,” Hemphill said. In the same way the conservative or “confessional” resurgence revolved around the issue of the seminaries, “so the vibrancy of the future is going to be at the door of the seminaries.”

Using a metaphor of finding a doctor in the street, or using the want ads to find a preacher, Mohler said, “Just imagine life without the seminaries.” He asked rhetorically, “Where are you going to get your preachers? Where are they going to get trained to preach, rightly divide the Word of Truth? Where are you going to find the missionaries? Where are the people who are going to lead the next generation of Southern Baptists?”

Kelley said to some degree the health of the seminaries contributes to the health of the denomination, but the opposite is true as well. Summarizing the effect of the decline of missionary influence on the jettisoning of mainline denominational influence, he said the churches are “probably 20-25 years behind what’s happening on the seminary campuses.”

Mohler said “young Southern Baptists called to missions and ministry” would find theological education even if SBC seminaries no longer existed. “They’ll just find it outside the SBC,” he said. “There are other institutions ready to take them. What they will not receive is an education directed to the needs of Southern Baptist churches and the vision for the SBC in the mission fields of the world.” Rather than taking their place in Southern Baptist life, he said, “they may not come back Southern Baptist in terms of their theology, their doctrine, their appreciation for our polity, and their understanding of who we are as a people.”

Theological concerns

The presidents collectively and individually spoke about theological issues that are a cause for concern.

“I would say the greatest issue for evangelicals in this generation is the exclusivity of the gospel,” Mohler said. “Our seminaries are sending a very clear signal of biblical conviction on this issue, and yet we are fighting a stream of the culture … a force of compromise among many denominations.

“One of the most important things we can do is arm our students to be ready to defend the faith, whatever the challenge,” Mohler continued. “The seductiveness of it will lead Southern Baptists, if we are not careful, into a form of inclusivism or pluralism that will sound good in terms of accommodating to the culture, until we realize there is no gospel left.”

Patterson said “a major issue today is the question of the purpose and nature of the family and gender-related issues in terms of God-given assignments and in terms of sexuality and the whole general direction of the home.”

Expressing concern also about “open theism,” a doctrine which has become a major issue within the evangelical community in recent years, and a topic of discussion at meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Patterson said the teaching “is, strangely enough, being found in Southern Baptist life in some places.”

Patterson also noted a difference in the “insistence” in the church on believer’s baptism. “Who would ever believe that we would come to a day that that unique ecclesiological perspective of a believer’s church, witnessed by baptism, would begin to weaken in our midst?”

Hemphill pointed to the “seeker-sensitivity movement” as aiding in a practice that has resulted in individuals joining the church by statement and individuals who really don’t understand the rationale for believer’s baptism. Kelley said the problem stems from, in part, people who have left mainline denominations and who have “no sense of theological identity.”

“We have a lot of influx of people like that from non-Baptist backgrounds,” Kelley said. “What happens is that you pay less and less attention to someone’s baptism as a believer, by immersion, as a confession of faith [and] gradually over time you lose a sense” of the importance of it.

Patterson predicted: “There will be more and more church members who have not been saved, and my whole concern with it is we are moving away from a church of the redeemed, a regenerate church membership. That seems to me that’s the old Anabaptist emphasis that was right on target, that our churches must be made up of people that have been born again.”

Noting some of his colleagues would “vehemently disagree,” Kelley, who referred to himself as “the evangelist of the group,” said he also had a personal concern “about the effects of the resurgence of Calvinism in Southern Baptist life in terms of how it will affect, long-term, the effectiveness of our evangelism.”

The future of the seminaries

As far as whether the churches affect the seminaries or vice versa, Patterson said, “God’s not going to leave himself without a witness,” citing Matthew 16. “There will always be, no matter what happens to seminaries, … great churches that will be growing,” he said. “But there is a demonstrable connection across much more than 100 years that shows a particular denomination’s teachings, once they veer to the left, then that denomination becomes ineffective in its evangelism and in missions.

“One of the things that has not gotten much [attention],” Patterson continued, “is that … the whole basis of the confessional resurgence in Southern Baptist life … was not anything other than the sense on the part of many of us that we did not want to look like the other mainline denominations in our missionary, evangelistic and church planting enterprise. And the way to keep that from happening was to salvage the institutions for the glory of God. And that’s what we attempted to do,” Patterson said.

Hemphill noted that the presidents “really appreciate” the support of Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program and in sending students to the seminaries. “We feel like it’s an incredible privilege and honor and it’s a sacred trust,” he said. “We want to send them back better prepared, more baptistic and hopefully more conservative in their understanding.” Mohler said, “Our seminaries are only as strong as your churches. The only students we have, in general, are the students that come out of your churches. And your future is dependent as churches on the fact that you call out the called. The missions and service fields of the world are dependent upon churches taking responsibility to say, ‘We need to raise up the next generation of pastors, preachers, evangelists and missionaries for the glory of God.’ If those people aren’t coming out of your church, there’s something wrong.”

To Southern Baptists in general, Patterson concluded: “You have faithfully fought to salvage our seminaries for biblical truth; now faithfully enable us to continue to do what you want us to do.”
Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan