Thursday, June 11, may not go down as an especially noteworthy date in the overall history of Christian higher education. But then again, before it's all over, maybe it should.
On that morning a couple of weeks ago, 300 churchmen representing one of the oldest and smallest denominations in America decided that enough was enough-and that it was time to end the doctrinal drift they sensed at the church's two educational institutions.
Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary, you must understand, are no bastions of free-thinking liberalism. Located in Due West, S.C. (population 1,208), both schools have since their founding in the 1830s competently filled their role as solid and respectable citizens of the educational world. A radical philosopher like Peter Singer from Princeton or a wild-eyed Ward Churchill of University of Colorado fame would hardly be at home here.
But neither does Erskine's leadership seem inclined to call the school anything like "evangelical." On the Erskine website, under "Quick Facts," you'll read about academic standing-but not about Christian commitment. Even under the heading of "Curriculum," there's no reference to Erskine's Christian mission. That tension has long been a thorn in the flesh of many in Erskine's parent denomination, the 30,000-member Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP).
It's true, of course, that such a prickly relationship between a denomination and its colleges and seminaries is hardly a new thing or a newsworthy matter. But this may be different. There is, for example, no mountain of evidence that the two ARP schools have lurched noticeably leftward in recent years. What's happened instead is that the sponsoring denomination has itself moved decidedly to the right-and now wants to take firm steps to bring its college and seminary with it. That's a rarity in the ecclesiastical and educational history of America.
The big complaint is that in classroom after classroom, an Erskine education is not demonstrably different from that offered in a typical private secular college-or even a state university. "There's no integration of faith and learning going on by too many professors," ARP pastor Bill Marsh told me. Out of 250 congregations (mostly in the Southeast), he's pastor of one of the ARP's biggest, in Greensboro, N.C. "The challenge is huge," he said. "If half the faculty don't get it, and the other half are hostile to it, we're well on the road to becoming another Furman or another Davidson. We'll have a Christian heritage, but not much more than a chapel and a chaplain to show for our effort."
Although the ARP directly elects Erskine's board at its annual synod meeting, the church is saying now that it's tired of waiting for the board to make things better. Instead, the synod authorized a high-powered commission to investigate the state of things at both Erskine schools, and to report back its findings-and its recommendations-a year from now.
"Now we have momentum," said John Basie, a 1996 Erskine graduate, one of the younger members of the Erskine board, and a lively Erskine critic. "The problem starts with the board-but I hope the board will see this less as a threat and more as an opportunity. Erskine has the potential to be the premier Christian liberal arts college in the South."
But the reformers have their work cut out for them--especially with faculty and students. Faculty issues include sticky wickets like tenure obligations and accrediting agencies that look askance at any pressure by church bodies on academic institutions. Student issues go to the core of tradition and college culture-and the school's ability to recruit students interested in serious academics in an evangelical context, when that hasn't been Erskine's profile for a number of years.
Of Erskine's 600 students, 144 signed a passionate petition to the ARP synod this spring to wade in and steer the college back toward its biblical roots. One of those 144 told me he thinks evangelicals comprise about a third of the student body, while liberals make up a much smaller group-and the remaining students are uninterested in the whole discussion.
That, one veteran of the ARP told me, isn't all that different from the denomination at large just 30 years ago. "Then the ARP rediscovered a high view of Scripture," he said. "We rediscovered a high view of the gospel. A miracle happened with the church at large. Is there anything about academic institutions that makes them impervious to miracles?"
If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to email@example.com.