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#ChurchToo Church Colleges & Universities Culture Opinion

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: The SBC, SPU, and a Rocky Mountain High

Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be. 

SBC On Probation.  Messengers to the 2022 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting overwhelmingly approved a set of recommendations to address sexual abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.  Those reforms included setting up a “Ministry Check” website to track abusive pastors, church employees, and volunteers and appointing a task force dedicated to implementing systems to address abuse and serving as a resource to Southern Baptists in responding to abuse allegations and caring for abuse survivors.

That Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force will also look into creating a fund to assist survivors and setting up a “permanent committee or entity” to address abuse.

But will it be enough to put the issue of sexual abuse behind them?  I doubt it.  For one thing, the task force recommendations were met with spirited resistance by a small group of Rip Van Winkles who fell asleep in the 1970s, woke up recently, and have utterly failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem.

For example, Mark Coppenger is a messenger from Redemption City Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and a leader in the Founder’s Group, a group of fundamentalist Southern Baptists.  He dismissed the findings of the Guidepost investigation and said the SBC did not have a major problem with abuse. He dismissed a major investigation on abuse in the SBC by the Houston Chronicle — an investigation that was published in 2019 and has stood the test of time.

So there are definitely still people in the SBC who are not able to look in the mirror and be honest about what they see, but the events of this week were steps in the right direction.  However, we should note that the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest evangelical denomination, so the world is watching.  And it is unfortunately has reason to doubt that the SBC’s actions will match its words.  

The bottom line?  The SBC’s credibility has taken a major hit.  It will take time for it to recover – if it recovers at all.

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The World Through A Keyhole.  If you want to take a peek into the world of Christian higher education, a look at Seattle Pacific University is a good place to start.

It’s a Christian college that has been struggling with the question of human sexuality for years, and its student body, board, and administrators are, to put it plainly, not on the same page.  

On May 23, the board of trustees of SPU issued a statement that “[a]fter careful consideration of multiple and complex concerns, the Board of Trustees has reached the decision to retain Seattle Pacific University’s current employee lifestyle expectations regarding sexual conduct.”

It continues by saying, “The decision means SPU’s employee conduct expectations continue to reflect a traditional view on Biblical marriage and sexuality, as an expression of long-held church teaching and biblical interpretation.”

That statement sounds pretty clear.  The problem is that the school has issued other statements in the past that have caused many in the SPU community to believe that it had changed its views when in fact it had not.

For example:  The university’s admissions webpage welcomes LGBTQ students: “Seattle Pacific University is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion for our undergraduate and graduate students, welcoming and supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students in all academic pursuits, faith practices, and life together in community.”

Of course, there is a difference between faculty and student, and the admissions statement is aimed at students, while the recently re-affirmed “lifestyle expectations” statement was aimed at faculty and staff.  Many – probably most — Christian colleges require faculty to sign a statement of faith but not the students.  These “missional” schools hope to influence the non-Christian students in a positive way.  So-called “covenantal” schools require the students, too, to affirm a statement of faith.  (For a helpful discussion about the distinctions of covenantal and missional approaches, click here.)

So I’m not pretending that these questions are easy.  But they are important.  And they are playing out in Christian colleges around the country.  We have seen similar recent controversies at Calvin College, for example.  (Read more about that here.)

The problem at both Calvin and SPU (and at other colleges) will likely not go away.  A part-time faculty member in SPU’s nursing program sued the school claiming it rejected his application as a full-time associate professor because he is homosexual.  In March it was also named in a lawsuit, along with two dozen other Christian colleges, claiming the colleges unconstitutionally discriminate against LGBTQ students while receiving federal funding.  

SPU’s 10th president, Daniel Martin, resigned in April 2021 amid the controversy to take a position with a health care system, although the university’s announcement of his departure did not mention the controversy as a motivation.

But my sources tell me it was. Later in April 2021, the faculty held a vote of “no confidence” in the board of trustees, approved by over 70% of those who voted.  So the recent steps by the board at SPU to re-affirm biblical standards is a welcome one, but this step is not the end of the controversy.  It is likely just taking the controversy – and the school – into a new era.

This One Is Not Hard.  Gregory Tucker worked at Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colorado, for nearly two decades before he was fired in 2018. Tucker is white, but he had adopted a Black child. That experience, in part, led to Tucker organizing a chapel service on combating racism that drew some praise and many complaints.  Tucker was fired just one month after he organized the chapel.

Tucker sued Faith Bible Chapel International, which runs the school, alleging a violation of Title VII, the federal civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, and other characteristics.  And last week a panel of judges from the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado decided that the discrimination lawsuit can proceed. 

But the decision is generating a lot of interest in part because other court cases have been pretty clear on this point.  Faith Bible is defended by Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which argued that the “ministerial exception” shields the school from Tucker’s claim that his firing was discriminatory.  The school has the support of more than a dozen high profile religious groups, including the Association of Christian Schools International, which has tens of thousands of member schools.  ACSI issued a statement that said:  “Without the protection of immunity, religious schools are forced into choices with no acceptable outcome: retain religiously antagonistic personnel to avoid the cost of litigation, or preserve religious identity but risk bankrupting the school with legal fees.” 

The school argued that Tucker’s duties were ministerial in nature and pointed to language in the school’s handbook describing employees as “ministers.” Two of the three judges said the school went too far.  But dissenting Judge Robert E. Bacharach disagreed, writing, “I would conclude that the undisputed facts show that Mr. Tucker acted as a minister in his capacity as a Director of Student Life/Chaplain.”

I think Judge Bacharach is right.  This one is not hard.  But this is Colorado, where the Jack Phillips case went all the way to the Supreme Court.  Only there did reason prevail.  I guess the lesson here is that the t-shirt I see when I go to Rocky Mountain state is accurate: “Dude, I think the whole state is high.”

Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.