Friday, March 30, 2012

Save OBU Outreach: Good Non-denominational Colleges

This week, we've made efforts to reach out to people other than our core constituency of students, parents, faculty, and alumni.  We brought attention to how OBU's devolution into a fundamentalist Bible academy would hurt the Shawnee community.  And we looked beyond OBU to the tragic story of how the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC so dramatically degraded the quality and rigor of Baptist higher education.  Though every school's story is a little different, other Baptist colleges are going through different versions of the same problems that we've seen at our beloved OBU.

Today we want to speak to another group: non-denominational Christian colleges.  in a very real sense, these institutions have benefitted from the decline of Baptist higher education.  Take the seminaries, for example.  There was a time not to long ago when some of the SBC seminaries were recognized throughout American Protestantism as quite good.  Today, the SBC seminaries have been purged of what few liberals ever existed there, as well as all moderates.  Some of them are led by loud-mouthed fundamentalist culture warriors.  As mainline Protestant seminaries have continued to occupy the moderate-to-liberal end of the spectrum, the decline of SBC seminaries has left a huge gap in evangelical theological education.  Seminaries like Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Asbury have stepped into that gap and picked up where Southern Baptists abandoned ideologically diverse, intellectually rigorous graduate theological education.

At the undergraduate level, the decline has been just as spectacular.  As I looked at the SBC's list of affiliated colleges yesterday, it occurred to me just how dramatically the Southern Baptists have fallen when it comes to colleges an universities.  Barely over 20 years ago, that list would have included many of the finest private universities in the South.  Today, it's actually pretty embarrassing.    Thankfully, OBU is one of the best Baptist schools by any objective measure.  But perhaps the most tragic consequence of the Fundamentalist Takeover has been the absolute degradation of Baptist academia.

As with the SBC seminaries' decline, independent colleges have stepped in to fill the massive vacuum in Baptist higher education left by the exodus of Furman, Wake Forest, Mercer, Stetson, etc. and the fundamentalists' attack on on the remaining educational institutions.  Schools like Wheaton, Biola, Whitworth, and Gordon have emerged as the standard bearers in evangelical higher education as more and more Baptist colleges have descended into outright fundamentalism.

A few weeks ago, we talked about a recent op-ed piece by two Gordon College professors about a "renaissance" in evangelical higher education.  Though they do not take up this distinction in their essay, the comparison between non-denominational colleges' renaissance and Baptist colleges' decline is stark.

Why has one subset of conservative Protestant schools flourished while another has floundered?  The answer is complicated.  But it's undeniable that the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC in the 1980s and the state conventions in the 1990s is a big part of the story.  The SBC seminaries fell quickly, and many of the better SBC colleges left their state conventions.  Those that remained, like OBU, endured varying degrees of Baptist battles in the 1990s and 2000s.  Fortunately, OBU Presidents Agee and Brister generally protected OBU from fundamentalism.  The current administration seems much more accommodating.

While Baptist universities have had to deal with fundamentalist convention-elected trustees (particularly in the seminaries) and appease fundamentalist convention leaders, the non-denominational colleges have been able to pursue excellence in Christian higher education without such distractions.

We applaud our brothers and sisters at these schools for the very fine work they've done.  Admittedly they have outpaced us, given the retrenchment toward fundamentalism in many Baptist colleges.  We envy their freedom and independence.  We hope they realize that our students, faculty, and alumni long for academic freedom and fearless inquiry.

Denominationalism is dying in American Christianity.  While some media and scholarly commentators believe this dynamic is limited to Mainline Protestantism, we see it in evangelicalism as well.  Southern Baptist leaders are well aware that their "brand" has become irrevocably associated with fundamentalist theology, partisan politics, and anti-intellectualism.  At the same time, evangelical institutions without denominational shackles have flourished, from local churches all the way to universities.

Rather than trying to shed its Baptist identity, we want OBU to embrace it -- but in a classical sense, not in the narrow way today's fundamentalist SBC and BGCO leaders have defined it.  But given the past 20-30 years in Baptist life, we can't help but envy evangelical institutions' progress in evangelical theological education and look forward to joining that top tier as soon as we are free from our burdensome imprisonment to the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

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