Or is it another example of conservative forces launching a shock-and-awe action to gain total control of an institution – the “talibanization” of Erskine, as some are calling it.
Last week’s move by the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church — dismissing 14 trustees of a 30-member board and naming 14 interim trustees to serve until a more permanent restructuring of the board in June – has drawn these and other responses.
A special meeting of the ARP Synod was called March 2-3 to consider a report from a special commission, whose purpose was to determine whether or not the school’s board of trustees and administration “is in faithful accordance with the standards of the ARP Church and the synod’s previously issued directives.” The full text of the moderator’s commission report is available at “The Aquila Report” Web site. The Aquila Report identifies itself as an independent Web magazine for news and information for, of, and about the Presbyterian Church in America and other churches in the Reformed community. The editor, Dominic Aquila, is a PCA minister and president of New Geneva Theological Seminary in Colorado Springs, Colo. Don Clements, also a PCA minister of Narrows, Va., is overseeing the business and marketing functions of The Aquila Report.
The trustees voted to revise the bylaws of the trustee board through a five-member committee, reducing the number of trustees to 16; propose more effective policies to “prevent further failures regarding financial integrity, conflicts of interest, integration of faith and learning, board training, and other issues; 2) establish the interim board; 3) revise bylaws guidelines; 4) adopt criteria for board members, including the statement: “All trustees must subscribe to Synod’s definition of an evangelical Christian.”
Events of more than a year on Erskine’s campus have raised questions about the school’s historic past and future, it’s tradition of academic excellence living in tension with the conservative theological stance of the ARP; its varied student body, with approximately 10 percent being members of ARP churches, juxtaposed against expectations that Erskine will educate and equip for ministry new pastors for ARP churches.
The Synod action last week has set a course for completion at the regular ARP Synod meeting scheduled June 8-10 in Flat Rock, N.C.
Among the issues around which proponents supporting the Synod actions and those questioning the Synod’s actions, are:
The Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church founded Erskine College in 1839. It was the first four-year, church-related college in South Carolina. Its theological school became the affiliated Erskine Theological Seminary in 1837. It has an enrollment of approximately 600 students with an estimated 10 percent being members of ARP churches.
Providing pastors for ARP churches with a conservative theological education in line with the denomination as a whole is one of the standards ARP church leaders have cited as a goal for Erskine.
Some claim that Erskine now produces few pastors of ARP churches, and the graduates are not of the theological conservatism the denomination’s congregations seek. Dean Turbeville, an ARP pastor and former Erskine trustee, told the Evangelical Press News Service, “I wouldn’t send a young man from my church to Erskine Seminary. It is no longer, theologically speaking, a safe place to learn the truths of the Christian faith and the Reformed tradition.”
Richard E. Burnett, professor of systematic theology for the past eight years, and PC(USA) pastor, says the seminary is providing numbers of new pastors. “We have produced more pastors in the last three years than ever before in ARP history. In fact, we’re producing more pastors than the ARP has churches,” he points out.
The level and kind of theological education at Erskine has changed over the years as well — for the better, he adds. “Forty years ago Erskine Seminary had about 40 students [mostly white males from the ARP and PCUS (Presbyterian Church of the United States).] Since then we have grown to almost 400 students. Erskine Seminary is still quite Reformed and evangelical yet we are more ecumenically and racially diverse than any PC(USA) – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — seminary. I love teaching here. I love the diversity because it forces students to think through what they believe. We’ve got genuine diversity and not the truncated, politically-correct sort, and I think students come out much stronger as a result,” Burnett stated.
He sees the current hard-line positions as based on faulty information and Internet innuendo.
“I grew up in Charlotte where my father was pastor of the Williams Memorial Presbyterian Church. He had several friends who were ARP pastors. They were theologically conservative but irenic, modest men of integrity. They were true Christian gentlemen. I’m not exactly sure what has happened, but things are not the same,” Burnett told the Outlook.
“I think many have been deeply misinformed about the situation here at Erskine. One ARP pastor in particular and his friends has been on a vicious blogging campaign attacking the faculty and administration unabated for more than two years. Unfortunately, the administration has done a very poor job in responding to accusations,” Burnett added. “The attitude has been, Who would believe these bloggers? Well, obviously, many have and I’ve been astonished at the degree to which some have misrepresented and mischaracterized the positions of others.”
The Synod’s action raises questions about the legality of the move, and whether or not the procedures followed might trigger a reassessment of Erskine’s accreditation.
Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges told “Inside Higher Ed” that normally SACS reviews colleges periodically for compliance with all rules. But when there is a major change in governance, colleges are required to report to SACS about the change, and Erskine President Randall T. Ruble did so the day after the church replaced the board members. Based on that discussion, Wheelan said that SACS was about to send Erskine a letter asking how the college is complying with the accreditor’s rules, and that Erskine will probably have 30 days to respond. Based on those answers, SACS may consider investigating further and taking action.
Asked if he thinks the church violated SACS rules, Ruble said, “I do.”
Erskine’s president raised this issue during the special Synod meeting, indicating he thought the action replacing certain trustees was “a mistake” — it might affect accreditation with the SACS and the Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada, Ruble indicated.
Ken Wingate, an attorney and member of the moderator’s commission, responded to issues raised on accreditation during the called Synod meeting. He indicated the bylaws of the institution say the board may remove a trustee for cause. The bylaw clause did not take away the fact that “the Synod has ultimate authority over appointing and/or removing trustee board members without clause,” according to The Aquila Report.
Wheelan said two rules in particular may have been violated. One states that a governing board must be “free from undue influence from political, religious or other external bodies” and that the board “protects the institution from such influence.” The other states that governing boards must have rules whereby “members can be dismissed only for appropriate reasons and by a fair process.”
If the changes in the board lead to faculty/curriculum changes, accreditation agencies might consider those actions a reason to re-open Erskine’s accreditation.
Staff and faculty members might also reassess their situations. Erskine English professor, William Crenshaw, told The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. that he predicted a turnover in the faculty if academic freedom is “taken away.” He added: “I’m frankly not sure the college could survive the transition.”
Erskine students reflecting varied opinions on what is going on have voiced their opinions at least for the past year. At least one group of students, called “Students Aligned for a Faithful Erskine” (SAFE), has been very supportive of the conservative side of discussions.
A group of students (not affiliated formally with SAFE, according to its Web site) sent a petition to the ARP General Synod last summer, signed by 144 current and alumni students, who asked to remain anonymous because of possible “… retribution or adverse treatment on campus.” Their statement said in part, “We know that you have heard different things about whether the trajectory of Erskine as an institution is toward its fulfilling its Christ-centered mission. … We know that because of these concerns many of you question whether Erskine is becoming the academic community under the Lordship of Christ that its mission calls it to be. … And each of us have deep and urgent concerns that Erskine is not accomplishing the mission that you call it to, and that the tithes of your congregations support financially.” The student document cited no specific examples of their concerns.
But it does reflect the terminology used by trustees, denominational officials, and others. Both expressions of concern before the Synod action, the reports out of the meetings held, and reactions to them center on the “mission” of the school and its fulfillment as expressed in the A.R.P. Philosophy of Christian Education and Institutional Mission and Commitment documents.
Since the Synod action, students’ reactions have varied from support for the Synod action to opposition.
“I am hopeful that the changes will help Erskine to fulfill its mission better than it has in the past,” Laura Griffin, a senior from Greenville, S.C., told The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. on March 6. “I’ve been in classes where the Bible was not held up as the final authority.”
Tessa Bigham, a history major from Columbia, S.C., told The State that she appreciated the school’s academic stance before the decisions last week. “We’re not there to be indoctrinated. We’re there to learn and to think and to be challenged.”
David Dangerfield, an alumnus and student body president 2004-05 is moderator of a new online group, “Alumni for an Independent Erskine.” He told The State, “I think they’ve taken things out of the realm of Christianity and into the realm of politics. And those kind of church politics are ugly, and they’re not conducive to good education.”
Looking ahead, the period between now and the June meeting will give all sides a chance to gather together, hone their arguments and tactics to achieve what they are convinced is theologically sound, within the Reformed tradition, and the ARP principles.
Richard Burnett says many are praying “that things will work out better than they seem at the moment. If not, I think it will lead to an intellectual “ghetto-ization,” cut us off from mainstream Christian scholarship, and isolate us from the majority of Christians and Christian churches in our area.”
Others see the same potential changes as positive for students and the ARP.
Charles “Chuck” Wilson of North Carolina edits an independent online newsletter about the ARP. He has been a longtime critic of the Erskine administration.
He described the situation last year to the Evangelical Press News Service: “This is a war for the soul of the church. Are we going to be a church that holds to the inerrancy of Scripture, or are we going to be something else? That is the question.”