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Jarvis Williams
Courtesy The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Jarvis Williams

Campbellsville outcast

Religion | Southern Baptist school’s dismissal of conservative outrages Southern Baptist leaders

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

To some observers, Jarvis Williams would seem to be the ideal tenure-track professor. In 2010 he won a teaching award from the Campbellsville University student government; in 2011 he received a university commendation for his work on racial reconciliation and theology; and in 2012 administrators promoted him to associate professor. Williams has been a prolific writer, publishing three books in three years. But suddenly this spring, Southern Baptist-affiliated Campbellsville told him that he should not apply for tenure, and that they would only offer him a terminal one-year contract for the 2013-14 school year.

Williams’ dismissal has outraged a number of evangelical and Baptist leaders. Russell Moore, president-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told me that he is “very disturbed” by Williams’ case, as he considers Williams (who was unable to comment on this story) one of the only theological conservatives teaching at the school. Patrick Schreiner, a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Williams’ alma mater) who first blogged about the case, asserts that, even as Campbellsville dismissed Williams, the school employs other “professors in the school of theology who reject biblical authority and biblical inerrancy.”

The Campbellsville case follows a number of similar ones at Christian colleges, such as Cedarville University’s decision last year to release theology professor Michael Pahl because Pahl does not hold to a literal Adam and Eve. More recently, the Southern Baptist-affiliated Louisiana College did not renew the contracts of three professors, reportedly because of the professors’ Calvinist theology.

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The Louisiana College controversy has become part of a broader one about the leadership of college president Joe Aguillard, who has survived two Board of Trustees motions this year to remove him from office. A special committee tasked with investigating Aguillard for misleading the board about expenditures and other improprieties recently voted 4-3 to exonerate him. Committee member Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, was one of the dissenting votes.

Pahl’s case at Cedarville might appear unsurprising: a conservative Christian school dismissing a more moderate professor. But the Jarvis Williams scenario, to critics, represents the reverse, with a liberal-leaning school targeting a theologically conservative professor.

Paul Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention (KBC), indicated that leaders of the state convention would initiate a dialogue to determine whether Campbellsville’s guiding “convictions are still compatible with the mission our Lord has given the churches of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.” A meeting between Campbellsville and KBC officials took place in late April, and afterward Chitwood announced that the KBC and Campbellsville were “re-affirming their partnership,” and that the KBC had “received the assurance that those who believe the literal truthfulness of every word of the Bible are welcomed as students and as faculty members of the university.”

Campbellsville president Michael Carter posted a “Position Statement” about the situation on the front page of Campbellsville’s website, never using Williams’ name but alluding to the “unfounded charges that have been thrown at Campbellsville University.” (He noted that the university does not comment publicly on personnel decisions.) Carter insisted that the university has not departed from its biblical, Baptist roots. The school’s goal for all students, Carter said, “is that they will come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and that they will be world changers and servant leaders for Christ.”

Russell Moore, however, says that the college’s response to Williams’ situation spouts “vague pieties about wholesome Christian education,” while they force out “even the most token representation of conservative evangelical scholarship.” He is concerned that Campbellsville may want a “liberal faculty but conservative students and dollars.”

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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