When we talk about Baptist colleges, trustees, sex…let’s be honest
Don HinklePathway Editor
September 15, 2002
Missouri Baptists who do not understand what is at stake in the debate over trustees at Missouri Baptist College and their decision to give themselves sole authority in picking their successors would do well to examine the shenanigans at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Once a bastion of conservative Southern Baptist theology, Mercer is now controlled by moderate trustees disgruntled with the conservative direction of the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Mercer was founded in 1833 by Silas Mercer and his eldest son, the famous Elder Jesse Mercer. One would be hard-pressed to find a more eloquent explanation of the Doctrine of Grace than that offered by Jesse Mercer.
It is like reading a Who’s Who in Southern Baptist history when scanning the names of those who have served as presidents and faculty at Mercer. Among the notables: theologian J.L. Dagg, whose Manuel of Theology and Manuel of Church Order are still studied by Southern Baptist seminarians and who served as Mercer’s president from 1844-1854. Another was the colorful J.B. Gambrell, a former Confederate Army scout for General Robert E. Lee who became editor of The Baptist Standard newspaper in Texas and then president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the dawn of the 20th century.
All were Calvinist in their theology and staunchly conservative, the type that would make today’s moderates wake up in a cold sweat. It would be a hoot if Elder Jesse Mercer, Professor Dagg and Captain Gambrell could see their university now. They can’t, but Missouri Baptists can.
It’s not enough that Mercer’s president since 1979, Kirby Godsey, served on the coordinating council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) from 1991 until 1993. As you recall, the CBF is the new organization – that will not call itself a denomination unless it wants to join the Baptist World Alliance – formed by disgruntled moderates miffed over the conservative direction of the Southern Baptist Convention.
So that’s why the CBF is housed in the new Mercer School of Theology building in Atlanta!
Godsey is the one you may recall who made headlines a few years ago with his book, When We Talk About God…Let’s Be Honest. Among his assertions: "To ascribe infallibility to the written words of the Bible is wrong." He went on to argue that Jesus is not God; Jesus did not have to die; and dismisses the virgin birth as "unimportant."
While the rest of us were picking ourselves up off the floor, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded accordingly in the appropriately titled essay, "When We Talk About Heresy … Let’s Be Honest." Godsey’s book and Mohler’s nuclear response may well go down as one of the defining moments in contemporary Southern Baptist history. If you have not read Mohler’s essay, I encourage you to do so because it captures the essence of the whole battle between conservatives and so-called moderates in the SBC over the past four decades. And yes, the fight was — and is — theological (other issues have since piled on).
Mohler held nothing back in critiquing Godsey’s book: "For Dr. Godsey has not merely joined the ranks of liberal revisionists of the last two hundred years; he has placed himself squarely with the heretics of Christianity’s first centuries." The Georgia Baptist Convention agreed with Mohler, passing a relatively powerless resolution censoring Godsey. Of course the torrent of criticism did not matter, especially to the moderate trustees who could have cared less what Mohler or the Georgia Baptist Convention thought. That was apparent by their brazen seizure of the institution despite cries by Georgia Baptists who, along with their forbearers, have given millions of dollars to the school for decades and by the fact that Godsey kept his scalp.
When We Talk About God…Let’s Be Honest was not the first controversy to hit Mercer during the moderate’s rise to power at the school. In 1987 Mercer was recognized by Playboy magazine as "the country’s ninth best party school."
So the most recent controversy to hit the school should come as no surprise.
Mercer and Godsey, of all people, are at the center of a firestorm over academic freedom for the faculty – a faculty that hailed Godsey’s book at its debut and are now, ironically, screaming bloody murder because he nixed a questionnaire composed by a faculty researcher. What was the subject of the ill-fated survey? Believe it or not, sex among Mercer’s student body.
Even Godsey recognized the pitfalls of allowing such a research project. Among the proposed research questions: "How often have you performed any of these sexual acts?" I will leave it to your imagination as to what the choices were, although you may read them for yourself in the latest edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which thought the issue so important that it devoted an extensive expose on the simmering controversy.
The Chronicle of Higher Education article is instructive for it also casts some light on the utter contempt that moderate/liberal elites have for conservative Southern Baptists. It explains how Mercer’s 45-member board makes its own nominations, forcing the Georgia Baptist Convention to choose from it’s, no doubt, "moderate" list. Such a process, one professor told The Chronicle, keeps the convention from installing "a bunch of redneck Joes."
Not everyone at Mercer has abandoned the faith "which was once for all handed down to the saints." Linda R. Adkinson, professor of genetics and head of the institutional review board that approved the sex survey had a different take on the controversy. "There are some things that are not appropriate for a small, Baptist institution to be doing," she reasoned.
I agree. So also is trustees snubbing the churches of the Missouri Baptist Convention by giving themselves the sole authority in naming their successors, thereby seizing control of a historic Missouri Baptist Convention institution.
What the trustees at Missouri Baptist College did was wrong. The time for biblical reconciliation and restoration is now. Missouri Baptists should seek out the trustees and encourage them to rescind their illegal action. And, as in all things, pray.