An Open Letter from Dr. Matt Olson of Northland International University
Dear Friends in Ministry,
Thank you for your demonstration of true friendship over these past few months. So many of you have called, emailed, and written me. Yes, God has been doing great things. Yet, when He does, the pot gets stirred. Conflict often follows.
What God has been doing among us…
I thought it would be helpful for me to share a few thoughts concerning recent events at Northland as well as our process of thought. My prayer each day is that God would give us grace to work through our present opportunities and challenges in ways that fulfill His purposes for us and that please Him most. Never has there been a more exciting day to prepare this next generation for Great Commission living or to advance kingdom causes!
January 2008: I began praying for God to do “greater things” here at Northland. It seemed to me that the church as a whole had grown cold with the works of men and was crying out for the works of God to be manifest. I prayed to that end:
- For God to give us vision and clarity for what He wanted at Northland.
- For wisdom in navigating from where we were to where we needed to be.
- For boldness and grace—as we knew the process would be difficult.
- For abundant provision.
- For His name alone to be magnified.
In many ways God has been answering those prayers and has blessed Northland beyond our expectations. We felt, however, that this was only the beginning.
August 15, 2010: I began a forty day journey of fasting and prayer for the works of God to be manifested and for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. I took this step of faith with some uncertainty—not really knowing how I would do or what God would do. I was certain that I was not content to coast through this final stretch of life and ministry without seeing God do something much more. I have been longing for “greater things.” Dr. Ollila, the administration, faculty, and staff joined me in this. I wish I could share all that has taken place. It has been an incredible time!
What I did not expect was the testing that would follow. Yet, now I realize this to be a familiar pattern in scripture and in history. So, we take it from the Lord and respond with strength and grace that He gives. Sometimes our motives and actions can be misunderstood and miscommunicated. I know that happens. I have always felt that the best response would be to communicate in a positive way. The following are a few points of clarification on what is happening at Northland:
1. The Way of Discipleship
We have superseded our demerit system with what we feel is a biblical model of discipleship. In reality, it is a re-commitment to a means of discipleship that has already been present at Northland. We just took away an artificial demerit system that was awkwardly laid on top of our student system of governance. Our standards and expectations remain the same. But, the way we confront and encourage is relational and the consequences practical. Quite honestly, it is a lot more work with this new way. But, it’s more biblical. And it already appears to be yielding better results. We see “The Way of Discipleship” in the spirit of Matthew 5 where Jesus “raised the bar” from the Old Testament law. We believe grace expects more—and deepens more. While we see our system as a “work in progress,” we have been very pleased with the responses of our students, faculty, and staff.
2. Our Music Philosophy
Philosophically, it is unchanged. Let me say it again…unchanged. What we have always been trying to do, and will continue to do into the future, is to make sure Northland’s practice of music (as with every aspect of the Christian life) is built principally on clear teachings from the Bible rather than on reactionary, extra-biblical reasoning that has proven to be troublingly insufficient when exported to cultures beyond American borders. We believe the Bible is sufficient to bring us to right and God-honoring positions regardless of time and culture. Even though we haven’t changed our music at a philosophical level, we are changing our music on a missional level. Where you will see changes is in our intent to expand our training to prepare students for worship and music globally. This only makes sense because, as you may have noticed, Northland International University has become more and more an international, global ministry with a passion to take the gospel where it is not proclaimed. Over 41% of the world’s population is still without a Gospel witness. This has become our students’ burden. Our Director of Fine Arts, Kevin Suiter, has recently informed us he does not believe he can take us forward in this way and thus has announced his plans to move on. We wish Kevin and Grace the best and thank them for the investments they have made here.
3. Our Guest Speakers
We invited two speakers that have generated some questions.
a. Rick Holland. Dr. Holland is the Executive Pastor at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, where John MacArthur is senior pastor. Since we get many questions concerning John MacArthur and where he is in regard to fundamentalism, we decided that the best way to address this was to meet him face to face. In April of this year, Les Ollila, Doug McLachlan, Sam Horn, and I went to California and sat down with Dr. MacArthur, Rick Holland, and Phil Johnson (Executive Director of Grace to You). We had an excellent visit and found that while we did not agree on everything, we did agree on the most substantive issues of life and ministry. While we realize we function in different circles and with different constituencies, we appreciated what they were doing. I invited Rick to visit our campus to see what we were doing at Northland, meet with our Bible faculty, and speak in chapel. This was an opportunity to get to know one another and discuss significant issues of our day.
b. Bruce Ware. Dr. Ware is a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. He is a well-recognized teacher and author. We have invited him to teach half of an advanced-degree seminar on a specialty subject our leading pastors need to be fully versed in. Why? Because Dr. Ware has written so skillfully and authoritatively on this particular topic. This seminar is for experienced, mature pastors who are presently in ministry. We see this as appropriate in the academic context and the type of thing we have done in the past for the very same reasons. In fact, most seminaries bring adjunct professors in to address key issues that they believe helpful. Never has this been intended as a move to align with any other group.
We did not see that having these speakers would be a significant problem. Biblically, we worked through a process of decision making and felt these choices and the context in which they were made were consistent with what we have always believed. Knowing now that these decisions might be confusing, misunderstood, or miscommunicated, we would likely have planned differently. We have no desire to distract from our focus here or on the field of ministry.
We affirm that Northland stands in the historic tradition of Fundamentalism and is committed to remain as an independent, Baptist, separatist institution. We will do our best to serve the local church, which we believe is the primary institution ordained of God to carry out the Great Commission. We respect the autonomy of the local church, the priesthood of the believer, and individual soul liberty. We know that other Fundamentalists will develop different applications based on biblical authority and the principles that flow from it. We will do our best to defer to our brothers in Christ but refuse to be swayed by party politics, threats, and pressures. While deference brings unity, the fear of man paralyzes our ability to serve Christ. In the spirit of Galatians 1, we will serve Christ.
Sometimes I have to smile when I think about the politics in college ministry. Early on I found that I had to just keep it simple: do the right thing, keep a right spirit, communicate the best I can, and leave the results to God. That is all I can do. That’s what I will do. I am not disappointed with differing views and opinions or even challenges that come from healthy critics. These help me grow. What I do think needs to be confronted in our movement is the lack of biblical process in responding to one another when we have questions or disagreements.
We must keep our focus. A friend of mine shared this with me, and I found it to be a great encouragement:
Stick with your work. Do not flinch because the lion roars; do not stop to stone the devil’s dogs; do not fool away your time chasing the devil’s rabbits. Do your work. Let liars lie, let sectarians quarrel, let critics malign, let enemies accuse, let the devil do his worst; but see to it nothing hinders you from fulfilling with joy the work God has given you. He has not commanded you to be admired or esteemed. He has never bidden you to defend your character. He has not set you at work to contradict falsehood about yourself which Satan’s or God’s servants may start to peddle, or to track down every rumor that threatens your reputation. If you do these things, you will do nothing else; you will be at work for yourself and not for the Lord. Keep at your work. Let your aim be as steady as a star. You may be assaulted, wronged, insulted, slandered, wounded and rejected, misunderstood, or assigned impure motives; you may be abused by foes, forsaken by friends, and despised and rejected of men. But see to it with steadfast determination, with unfaltering zeal, that you pursue the great purpose of your life and object of your being until at last you can say, “I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do.”
If you have further questions or comments, please feel free to write or call me. I welcome that. We have never been more excited about our future than we are now. Doc O and I believe that God is moving in a very special way and that the evidence is seen in both the abundant blessing of God and in the attacks of the Devil. We have the greatest and most exciting opportunity in the world—preparing this next generation of servant leaders for Great Commission living. Pray with us as we move boldly forward for the cause of Christ.
Your friend and fellow servant,
- 7 views
Hearing from the best and brightest is part of what you pay for when you plunk down that big chunk of change called college tuition. This should include having the opportunity to learn from world-class speakers who — even though they may have some disagreement with a particular school — nevertheless have enough expertise on a certain subject to merit their appearance to address that topic.
On the flip side, how many horror stories could we pull together regarding speakers who we heard in college chapel who were borderline heretics, but were considered “safe” because they were “fundamental.” :Sp :Sp :Sp :Sp (I once heard one mock the hypostatic union.)
BTW — in January Northland will host three speakers from Answers in Genesis on its campus: Terry Mortenson, Jason Lisle and Ken Ham. I think it’s great — great for the students and a good sign that fundamentalism is maturing. :D
Church Ministries Representative, serving in the Midwest, for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry
Kudos to Matt Olsen and Northland for refusing to genuflect before petty critics and instead seem to be renewing a commitment to giving their charges a well-rounded education by teaching them how to think Biblically, not what to think politically.
Matt — you don’t need to worry about explaining yourself or responding to heel-nippers. Carry on and watch the Lord bless and students come to the great White North. I’m sure there are days when it feels like you are getting nibbled to death by ducks, but in the end, the institution you lead will produce strong grads because you are giving them a broader educational experience.
Dan Burrell Cornelius, NC Visit my Blog "Whirled Views" @ www.danburrell.com
As parents, this hypercritical environment does not help when it comes to leading our children in decisions as to which college they should attend. The only way parents and children will ever be able to make wise choices is to make visiting these campuses a high priority. By visiting the campuses and meeting their leaders, you will be able to filter out truth from the falsehoods out there in blogdom.
As pastors, I believe it is imperative to not jump to conclusions. The pressure for party loyalty, even in fundamentalism, can compete with our loyalty to the Lord and His Word.
Of course some things like the removal of the demerit system are new, but the attempt at heart change(discipleship) was always there. I know because I frequented the dean of men’s office on many occasion, of my own accord and not. :)
Only thing I could wish was that this happened while I was still there. And again, keep up the great work there.
A shared pulpit communicates substantial affinity. Eighteen-year-olds who inevitably tend toward hero-worship will never navigate the nuances that distinguish the position of the institution from that of the speaker. Consequently, these are the first steps on the path of rapprochement with conservative evangelicalism. I do not suggest that this is Matt’s intention, but it certainly will be the result. To deny this, in my opinion, exhibits a degree of tone deafness to the lessons of history.
Some hastily applaud and justify these moves by pointing out the shameful fact that our institutions have used chapel sessions to expose our students to the worst that fundamentalism has to offer (poor theology and worse exegesis). Such an obvious fallacy carries no weight. The solution is relational consistency that clarifies and supports our biblical commitments rather than broadening the inconsistency so that confusion multiplies.
I am certain that these decisions will eventually prove unwise, prayer and fasting notwithstanding.
I am excited about the change with demerits and the desire to offer a quality education. The strong arm politics that is involved in the administration of Bible colleges on both spectrums of fundamentalism — I’ve seen first hand. It’s not pretty.
I applaud from a distance and appreciate their trajectory, and humility. May God raise up other courageous leaders who will serve within fundamentalism in ways faithful to God and not be afraid to pursue Christian unity when possible with other likeminded believers.
Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.
[Steven Thomas] I am certain that these decisions will eventually prove unwise, prayer and fasting notwithstanding.Hi Steve,
How will you be able to “eventually prove” that Northland’s decisions were unwise? IOW, what measure will you use to show that their changes were unbiblical?
[ Matt Olson] We did not see that having these speakers would be a significant problem. Biblically, we worked through a process of decision making and felt these choices and the context in which they were made were consistent with what we have always believed. Knowing now that these decisions might be confusing, misunderstood, or miscommunicated, we would likely have planned differently. We have no desire to distract from our focus here or on the field of ministry.
[Don Johnson] It is simply unbelievable that you didn’t see a huge negative reaction coming.I think Don is right in this statement. Whether or not you agree with what Olson is doing at Northland, it seems incredibly naive at best to think that this would not evoke a response from Northland’s established constituency, who were used to previously established practices that (for whatever reason) did not include practices or invitations such as have recently occurred. Even if you agree with these changes Olson has implemented, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that a better job could have been done at explaining the rationale prior to the events, or at least acknowledging that some will differ and disagree with the choices made. Appealing to “oh, we didn’t know” strikes me as incredibly lame.
[Steven Thomas]Perhaps Mr. Thomas missed the part where Matt Olson said:
A shared pulpit communicates substantial affinity. Eighteen-year-olds who inevitably tend toward hero-worship will never navigate the nuances that distinguish the position of the institution from that of the speaker.
[Matt Olson]On top of this, the letter did not mention the fact that when Bruce Ware will be teaching at NIU is in the summer, when students are not here. The reality is most students when they have heard about this have responded “who is Bruce Ware?”
This seminar is for experienced, mature pastors who are presently in ministry. We see this as appropriate in the academic context and the type of thing we have done in the past for the very same reasons.
NIU is not a church and Bruce Ware is not preaching in a chapel so there is no shared pulpit. He is sharing his academic expertise to mature pastors in a doctoral program.
In our every day lives, we use materials and study from resources authored by unregenerate men and women who are considered experts, and who is going to question the validity of that? Why shouldn’t an educational institution avail itself of people who have earned their stripes in their field? Christian universities are not churches, and although they should be guided by Biblical principles, they are not founded for the same purpose as a church, and thus their operational methods will not be the same in every area.
I believe that thinking of 18+ young people as being little more than large children is wrong-headed. And if these young people are attending college without two brain cells to rub together or the ability to adequately discern truth from heresy, it’s the parents who need to be paid a visit. Where is the discipling, mentoring, and training before these kids turn 18? And if, angels forfend, young men and women are into “hero worshipping’ at the expense of truth, then they are idolaters at heart, and that’s a problem that a university isn’t responsible for nor is it really equipped to handle at the institutional level.
Ditto on getting rid of demerits. I graduated (not from Northland, btw) with 99 demerits (100 earned automatic expulsion) for things like walking through the dorm with my tennis shoes untied. Apparently loose laces were a sign of loose morals. http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys.php] http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys/smiley-confused002.gif
[gadietrich]I did not miss anything. I dealt with Northland’s invitation to Bruce Ware in the first paragraph. This quote is from my second paragraph in which I moved on to another, but related subject, namely the use of conservative evangelicals in the chapel pulpit. I did not refer to Rick Holland by name, but that portion of the letter was my point of reference.
Perhaps Mr. Thomas missed the part where Matt Olson said:[Matt Olson]
This seminar is for experienced, mature pastors who are presently in ministry. We see this as appropriate in the academic context and the type of thing we have done in the past for the very same reasons.
[gray] [size=10] Edited to fix quote tags- AB[/size]
[WilliamD] I wonder that if schools like Northland get to cozy with Southern Baptist and Non-Denominational colleges - will they lose students to those schools and end up dying due to lack of enough of a fundamentalist distinction? This is what I think some might fear who disagree with Northland on this.I think this is an angle that many who appear to be “blurring the old lines” might be overlooking.
And it speaks to the question that has been on my mind for a while: even without the reaction factors, why is it worth the trouble to get a group together and fly out to CA to get to know the folks at Grace and then invite one of them to preach? I can’t believe that the chapel pulpit schedule was running out of competent expositors (nobody asked me to preach there yet… and I’m not nearly so far away or so controversial :) ).
You can find out everything you need to know about these folks by listening to their preaching and reading their writings (and what you find out as that, as the letter says, there is substantial agreement yet important differences). So after the visit and the chapel event, what do we know that we didn’t know before? “Finding out…” doesn’t seem to be an adequate motivation.
So I don’t mean to be cynical, but I wonder, are the fundamentalist institutions that are forming closer ties to evangelicals simply unwilling to remain small and focused on their core constituency?
Maybe, since that constituency is shrinking, holding on to the niche is a losing proposition. But if that’s the case, I’d love to see NIU (and the folks in PA who have Dever coming to speak in a few months) just come out and say: “Hey, we want to keep growing and we just can’t find enough students among dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalists anymore, so we’re reaching across the old boundaries.”
But as William suggested, I think this will not work as a growth strategy.
So you can probably see that the burning question for me remains “Why bother?”
As for Bruce Ware, that one actually makes complete sense to me. Sure, bring in an expert on a topic. But the chapel at Northland and other fundamentalist institutions has generally not been a venue for diversity—not a place to sample the thinking of “people who are not us.” It hasn’t been that kind of forum. Rather, I think the chapel pulpit has generally been seen as a place where you highlight examples—showcase the finest (or at least those deemed “safe”), so to speak.
Perhaps I’m way off on that. I didn’t attend NBBC. But we certainly got that impression at BJU.
Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.
You can sit and be safe by avoiding all kinds of controversy, or you can do what you think is best by exposing your students and staff to viewpoints that differ from yours. Holland and MacArthur aren’t the same kind of Fundy that we are, but I’d rather have been challenged and come to the right decisions than spend my life parroting lines that I know I can’t believe or support (which is something that I have already gone through personally). Ware is supposedly a world class scholar in his field (Open Theism?), but since I don’t know what he taught on at NIU I really can’t comment on that. I’d support his speaking to the D.Min as well.
"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells