Could Jesus teach social work at Southern Seminary?
“Christian” no longer stands as the dominant modifier for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As events of the past few weeks confirm, “orthodox” fits much better. President Al Mohler has coerced conformity to the expectations of the majority of seminary trustees— who supposedly reflect ultimate Southern Baptist orthodoxy.
The most recent crisis at the Louisville seminary has orbited around the Carver School of Church Social Work. Here’s what has happened: A couple of months ago, Timothy Johnson, a contract professor at the Carver School, resigned, citing racism and broken promises that he would be offered a tenuretrack professorship. Johnson’s departure meant the school would not have enough fulltime faculty to maintain accreditation. So, Mohler declared a faculty vacancy, and Carver School Dean Diana Garland directed the search for a professor.
That search led to David Sherwood, an eminently respected evangelical Christian social worker, active Baptist and head of the social work program at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. Sherwood impressed faculty and student committees, and a top administrator said his face-to-face interview with Mohler went very well. But then Mohler asked Sherwood to provide written answers to questions regarding the seminary’s Abstract of Principles, its “covenant renewal” document, key Baptist distinctives and four ‘’specified issues” selected by Mohler—abortion, homosexuality, the uniqueness of the gospel in a pluralistic world, and the role of women in ministry. Regarding the latter, Sherwood wrote, “God’s Spirit blows where it wills and certain (but not all) women may be called to any role in the ministry of the church…” Mohler determined Sherwood’s personal belief— not his intention to teach this view, but his own private belief—to be outside the realm of Southern Baptist orthodoxy. So, he declared Sherwood unfit for the faculty.
Then Garland reported the results of the process to social worker students, expressing her fear that the Carver School might die. Later that morning, Mohler fired her for “preemption of official administrative structures.”
Now, the Carver School is without a dean and a professor. Its accreditation is imperiled. Students are worried their degrees—necessary for obtaining required licenses and getting social work jobs—will be worthless. Faculty and student morale throughout the seminary is shot. Candidates for vacancies in other seminary schools are having second thoughts, if not backing out altogether. Alumni are recoiling in horror. And agencies which accredit the entire seminary are likely to take a close look.
These sad developments prompt several observations:
By implementing his own litmus test for faculty election, Mohler violates the basic operational integrity of the seminary. This is a major concern to all accrediting agencies. His questions regarding abortion, homosexuality, the uniqueness of the gospel and women in ministry are not part of any official seminary principles or policies. Implementation of unofficial criteria for faculty election violates due process and the moral guidelines of the institution. Accrediting agencies aren’t so concerned about the specific criteria for election as they are the fair implementation of the election process. To a certain degree, this is what got Southeastern Seminary put on probation, and the same fate—or worse—could befall Southern.
By his treatment of Garland, Mohler ups the ante on his own adherence to due process. Ironically, he fired her for violating due process, while he systematically violates due process. His implementation of unofficial faculty election criteria violates due process. His direct involvement with students in faculty discipline— by-passing the deans and academic vice president—violates due process. Accrediting agencies care about due process. They frown on presidents who violate due process.
(Don’t chase a couple of red herrings here. First, don’t buy the “accrediting agencies just don’t understand the nature of a confessional institution” line. Most members of the Association of Theological Schools are confessional institutions. The association doesn’t quibble with their doctrinal beliefs; it does care about due process, or the fair and ethical implementation of a school’s guidelines. Second, don’t get lost on the specifics of Mohler’s questions. The fact they are unofficial and private means they could change; maybe next year they’ll be the professor’s views on gun control and political party affiliation. The fact they are applied to a professor’s thoughts—not teaching positions or public stances—means they deny basic freedom.)
Even Mohler’s critics agree the president is doing what he believes a majority of Southern Baptists and trustees want done. The trustee officers, who met last week, reportedly backed him up. But if, or when, accreditation is threatened, enrollment falls and contributions dry up, trustees will forget their endorsements of his ideology. The issues will be maturity and administration. And if trustees perceive the seminary to be in shambles, they’ll point fingers at their young president. Doubters need look no further than Southeastern Seminary. That school went through similar transition, lost half its students, ran off many faculty, fell into financial distress and got put on probation. And new President Lewis Drummond—who so recently heard the applause of his trustees too—was out of there.
Jesus Christ hung out with known sinners, worked on the Sabbath, threw a fit in church and generally offended the honchos of status quo religion. One day, while talking about the down-and-outers of his day, the hungry, the thirsty, the illegal immigrants, the naked, the sick and the prisoners, he told his followers, “To the extent that you served one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”
That story, from Matthew 25, is the watchword of church social workers. It’s their vision for ministry to a broken and hurting world. And yet Mohler told Southern Seminary’s social work students that the social work ethic is “not congruent” with theological education.
No, Jesus couldn’t teach church social work at Southern Seminary. He isn’t orthodox enough.