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Union to add master’s-level Christian studies degrees

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Three new graduate degrees in Christian studies have been approved by Union University trustees as part of its “Union 2010: A Vision for Excellence” goals for the next five years.

Trustees also have adopted a process to handle questions and inquiries related to the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s doctrinal investigation of the three Baptist colleges in Tennessee.

Trustees named a 10-member committee to work with the Tennessee convention’s education committee. Jerry Tidwell, a pastor from Bartlett, Tenn., and a former TBC president, will serve as chairman. The Union committee also includes two other former TBC presidents -– Ray Newcomb and Kevin Shrum — and seven other trustees.

As part of the Union 2010 long-range plan, the Christian studies department will launch a Master of Arts in biblical studies, a Master of Arts in ethics and a master of Christian studies.

While the 48-credit-hour master’s degrees in biblical studies and Christian ethics are specifically designed for fulltime students on Union’s campus, Guthrie said the 42-hour master of Christian studies degree is geared more to staff and church members in the region.

“It gives us a presence in broader Baptist life in terms of graduate education in Christian studies,” George Guthrie, chair of Union’s Christian studies department, said about the new degree programs. “It takes the quality of what we’ve been doing at the undergraduate level and moves it up a notch.”

Union’s Christian studies department has grown considerably over the past decade, with the number of majors increasing from 70 to 230 and faculty increasing from six to 13.

“With the rising levels of our undergraduate programs, we’ve had students who wanted to be pushed to the next level here, and that’s where the Master of Arts degrees come from,” Guthrie said.

Union, located in Jackson in west Tennessee, currently offers graduate programs in education, intercultural studies, business administration and nursing.

Beyond the Christian studies degrees, the Union 2010 plan also calls for new construction on campus and projects a fall enrollment of 3,500 by 2010, up from the current 2,919. Union enrollment has increased from 1,975 to 2,919 since 1996.

“I believe Union University is on the verge of a major breakthrough,” Union President David Dockery said after the trustees’ Dec. 3 vote for the Union 2010 initiative. “This plan for 2010 will keep us focused on the future, and will keep before us a vision of what we expect Union to be.”

Concerning the Tennessee convention’s theological inquiry, Dockery said that Union “has had no charges leveled against it. Nevertheless, we recognize our responsibility and accountability to the churches of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. We will be glad to cooperate and participate in the study that was called for at this year’s convention. We believe our trustees will be happy to lead this process and as a result we should be a better institution with better relationships with the churches in days ahead.”

The motion for the study, approved during the Tennessee convention’s Nov. 9-10 annual meeting in Sevierville, arose on the floor of the convention after a Carson-Newman College student, who also was a local church messenger, stated that his professors had told him the Bible has errors and contradictions. “Why is that happening at Carson-Newman, a Baptist college?” the student, Brady Tarr, asked.

In addition to Union and Carson-Newman in Jefferson City, the Tennessee convention study also will include Belmont University in Nashville.

The Union trustee action in response to the convention doctrinal study establishes Dockery and the trustees as the formal spokespeople for the university. Union faculty members who are questioned by the media about the study will defer to Tidwell and Dockery.

Dockery said Union trustees “went on record [Dec. 3] affirming the faculty, wanting to assure them that in the midst of the TBC study that no additional concerns or anxiety should develop. The board strongly supports the serious academic work in which they are involved.”

In addition, the trustee committee will prepare a report for the convention’s executive board about the university’s doctrinal commitments. Tidwell said the report will likely begin with the evangelical doctrinal statement of faith the university has developed over the past year and that trustees unanimously have approved.

“There has not been a single question that I can find that has been raised relative to Union’s teachings,” Tidwell said. “We see this as an opportunity. We don’t see it as an inquisition. This just gives us a chance to share our further convictions and tell the people of the Tennessee Baptist Convention who Union is.”

Dockery said the committee “will respond regarding Union’s commitment to the authority of Scripture, to the uniqueness of the Gospel, to the place of a Christian worldview in liberal arts education and to the importance of reclaiming the Christian intellectual tradition in a secular, postmodern culture.”

“Union’s commitment to being historically Baptist, evangelical by conviction and Christ-centered provides the framework for carrying out the mission of the university,” Dockery said.
Based on reporting by Tim Ellsworth & Kristen Hiller.

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