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Separation of church and school

Religion | The struggle over the governance of Erskine College and Seminary continues

The ongoing battle between the board of trustees of Erskine College and Erskine Seminary and their founding denomination, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, over the governance of the schools remains unresolved following the ARPC's annual denominational meeting that ended Thursday. ARPC pastors and ruling elders, who make up the delegates to the denomination's highest court, the General Synod, voted to appoint committees to continue to study the issue and report back at next year's annual meeting.

In making the motion to continue to study the situation, former ARPC Synod moderator Steve Maye said, according to a reporter for The Aquila Report, that if Erskine cannot become a faithful institution between now and next year's Synod meeting, then the two institutions should part ways "so that peace would reign." Maye's motion received overwhelming approval by the delegates.

The controversy centers on the right of the ARPC Synod, which appoints members of the board of trustees, to be able to remove board members with cause. At the 2011 Synod meeting, the denomination requested that the Erskine board study and consider revising its charter and bylaws to clarify the relationship between church and schools and acknowledge that the Synod, which is slated to give the college and seminary $431,000 in funding this coming year, has the power to remove board members when necessary.

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In February, the board decided against making these changes to its charter and bylaws. Among its reasons for declining, the board cited accreditation agencies' demand that the board be autonomous.

Eleven members of Erskine's board submitted a "minority report" in May disputing many of the majority members' objections to the Synod's request. The minority group said that accreditation is not an issue and that several other similar Christian colleges had such relationships with their founding denominations without any consequence to their accreditation status.

During Thursday's debate, according to The Aquila Report, delegate Mark Ross said he had spoken with several accreditation representatives who told him they would be closely monitoring the situation to make sure the Synod did not take any "hostile" action toward the schools, warning against "blackmailing" Erskine by withholding funds.

Delegate Paul Mulner responded that it wasn't blackmail for the church to ask one of its agencies to comply with a request in order to continue to receive funding, but that it was blackmail for accreditation agencies to threaten the Synod in the decisions it makes in order to run its own schools.

William Evans, an ordained minister in the ARPC and chairman of Erskine College's Department of Bible, Religion, and Philosophy, sees a possible split on the horizon.

"A key question for the Synod at this point is whether the Church has a realistic chance of effecting the sort of changes it desires (i.e., similar to the pattern followed at many Southern Baptist-related colleges and seminaries), and the answer to that question is less than clear," he wrote on the Reformation21 blog just prior to this year's Synod meeting. "At the same time, Erskine is still heavily dependent upon the over half-million dollars per year that the General Synod contributes to the schools, and a question to be asked is whether Erskine can survive as an independent entity."

Editor's note: This article has been edited to reflect that the ARPC Synod at its 2011 annual meeting requested that the board of Erskine College and Seminary change its charter and bylaws.

For more, see "Keeping the faith," by Timothy Dalrymple, June 4, 2011; "Reclaiming Erskine," by Joel Belz, March 27, 2010; and "Looking for a miracle" by Joel Belz, July 4, 2009.

Mickey McLean
Mickey McLean

Mickey is executive editor of WORLD Digital. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, teenage daughter, and a dog/administrative assistant named Daisy.

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