This week brings fascinating news from two colleges. The two institutions are facing almost opposite situations, and the contrast between them is both remarkable and illustrative. Because change occurs constantly, Christian organizations are constantly required to apply their principles to new situations. Cedarville University and Faith Baptist Bible College provide a clear contrast in terms of how new applications might take place.
The school that is now Cedarville University started out as a Bible institute in Cleveland. During the early 1950s it acquired the name and campus of Cedarville College, formerly a Presbyterian school. For many years, Cedarville College staked out its identity as a fundamentalist, Baptist institution. Under the leadership of James T. Jeremiah, it was one of the flagship schools identified with the Regular Baptist movement.
In 1978, Paul Dixon became president of the college. He brought with him a vision to make Cedarville into a world-class university. Regular Baptists, however, had neither the numerical nor the economic strength to fulfill his dream. Dixon needed a larger constituency and broader appeal, and in pursuit of these goals he began to downplay some of the distinctives that Regular Baptists thought important. There was a softening of ecclesiastical separation as the platform featured a broader variety of evangelicals. There was an increasing openness and even friendliness toward the more current trends in popular culture. There was even a shifting of the criteria for faculty selection. By the early 1990s, Cedarville professors were putting themselves publicly on record for their (belated) support of the Equal Rights Amendment—legislation that was almost universally opposed by conservative Christians of all sorts.
As Cedarville broadened its appeal, it experienced growing tensions with Regular Baptists. These tensions came to a head when, at the end of Dixon’s tenure, Cedarville formally identified with the Southern Baptist state convention in Ohio. Under the new president, William Brown, the university refused to endorse the Statement of Purpose of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, a requirement for partnering institutions. For both these reasons, the GARBC terminated its partnership with Cedarville in 2006.
The divorce was ugly, at least on the Cedarville side. Since the GARBC national conference was held in Michigan that year, Cedarville supporters were transported by busloads to try to overwhelm the vote. At one point some threatened to rush the platform if a particular parliamentary ruling did not go their way. In the end, however, the association had the votes to remove Cedarville from partnership.
Shortly thereafter, scandal erupted on campus as a couple of the most conservative tenured professors were terminated suddenly. Alarmed constituents formed watchdog groups and began to spread word of theological aberrations. Most Cedarville constituents found these charges difficult to believe, but the university continued to show signs of movement away from its fundamentalist roots. In an attempt to reassure conservatives, in 2011 the university adopted white papers dealing with creation, with justification, and with divine omniscience.
The situation, however, continued to deteriorate. In 2012, a professor was fired for teaching that the opening chapters of Genesis were non-historical. Then two philosophy professors published that they could not vote Republican since they supported universal health care, decreased defense spending, increased spending on social programs, and economic redistribution. Consequently, the question was no longer whether Cedarville should be considered a fundamentalist institution, but whether it should even be considered a conservative one.
In response, the board placed the philosophy major under review and indicated its intention to end the program. In October, President Brown tendered his resignation, followed by a key vice president in January 2013—many believed under pressure from the board. In response to concerns that Cedarville might be moving in a fundamentalist direction, board chairman Lorne Sharnberg was quoted as saying that Cedarville “isn’t moving anywhere. We’re staying right where we’ve always been.” Ironically, these are the very words that the Cedarville leadership used to say when it was moving away from fundamentalism.
While these events have been taking place at Cedarville, Faith Baptist Bible College has been facing a difficult decision of its own. The school long ago staked out a position that was traditionally dispensationalist, strongly Baptist, and conservative in its appropriation of contemporary popular culture. It has required its students to become members in churches that share these commitments.
Through the years, one of the congregations that allied itself with Faith was Saylorville Baptist Church. Dozens of students and several staff are members at Saylorville, and in many ways (for example, its commitment to evangelism) Saylorville models values that Faith shares. Over the years, however, Saylorville has adopted an increasingly contemporary ministry, and it has recently dropped the word Baptist from its name. As Saylorville has made these moves, Faith has felt considerable pressure to soften its commitment to its principles and to broaden its appeal.
Decades ago, one of the presidents of Faith Baptist Bible College (David Nettleton) argued that when Christians disagree, they must either limit their message or limit their fellowship. This past week, Faith’s board made the decision to stand by its message and allow its fellowship to shrink. Students and staff will no longer be permitted to join Saylorville Church.
This may represent the hardest decision that the administration and board at Faith has ever made. They are not angry with Saylorville. They love its pastor and its staff, and they believe that Saylorville is in some ways a good model. They are not denouncing the church, but they are separating from it at one level. They are making this move because, if they do not, their principles will be obscured. They are aware that the decision will be costly.
Cedarville and Faith represent opposite approaches to the application of principles in changing situations. Cedarville committed itself to wider influence and was willing to sacrifice principles in order to obtain it. Faith has committed itself to maintain its principles, and it is willing to accept narrower influence in order to uphold them. Both have responded to change, but they have responded in opposite directions.
Granted, sometimes Christians hold mistaken principles that they ought to revise. Simply to abandon principles in favor of increased influence, however, is a devil’s bargain. Once principles have been obscured, they become very difficult to clarify. Both Faith and Cedarville will face some unhappy constituents. Cedarville’s will be unhappy because their school’s position is not clear. Faith’s will be unhappy because their school’s is. The difference is this: no one is attracted to obscurity and uncertainty, but some may be attracted to a clearly stated position when it is consistently maintained.
Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands
Martin Luther (1483-1546), translated by Richard Massie (1800-1887)
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands,
For our offenses given;
But now at God’s right hand he stands
And brings us life from heaven;
Therefore let us joyful be
And sing to God right thankfully
Loud songs of hallelujah. Hallelujah!
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
The reign of death was ended;
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death,
His sting is lost for ever. Hallelujah!
Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
So strong his love!—to save us.
See, his blood doth mark our door;
Faith points to it, death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us. Hallelujah!
So let us keep the festival
Whereto the Lord invites us;
Christ is himself the Joy of all,
The Sun that warms and lights us.
By his grace he doth impart
Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended. Hallelujah!
Then let us feast this joyful day
On Christ, the Bread of heaven;
The Word of grace hath purged away
The old and evil leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed,
He is our meat and drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other. Hallelujah!