Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Things Change

The name Wayne Dehoney is very important to me although he wouldn’t have known me from Adam. Dr. Dehoney, who was the long-time pastor of the Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, died on November 15, just a few days after his wife passed away. He served two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention and he also served on the Executive Committees of the Tennessee and Kentucky Baptist Conventions. He was very involved in the work of the Baptist World Alliance. His name will live on through Dehoney Travel, which he co-founded and which organizes trips to the Holy Land and to many other places.

But none of that explains why Wayne Dehoney is important to me. He is important to me because his name is on one of the two diplomas that I received from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was Chairman of the Board of Trustees when I received my M.Div. in 1982. So, whenever I glance at the diplomas on my wall, my eye often falls on his name.

I don’t reckon that Dr. Dehoney would have been deemed qualified to serve as a trustee in these new days. But he was one back when Southern was a very important institution to me.

Things sure have changed.

I was called to preach when I was in high school. My father, who was a fine man, a deacon and Sunday School teacher in a rural Baptist church, and a textile mill worker, told me, “Son, I can’t give you much advice. But I think that if you’re going to be a Baptist preacher you ought to go to Baptist schools.”

So I did. I attended and graduated from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, which was the flagship institution of the Georgia Baptist Convention. I then attended and earned two degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1859 as the first seminary for Southern Baptist ministers. I not only attended Baptist schools, as my father had advised, I attended two of the most historic, most respected, and, if I do say so myself, most prestigious Baptist schools in the land. I am grateful for the education that I received at those institutions.

But Southern fell in the onslaught that was the fundamentalist takeover/conservative resurgence of the late 20th century. I am sure that the present students at Southern appreciate it for what it is now and that is as it should be; why else would they be going to school there? I am not saying that Southern is not a good school anymore. To the contrary, I am certain that one can receive a solid theological education there. Nonetheless, I reject the premise that Southern needed to be completely changed or radically reformed. I received an education there that was biblically sound, academically rigorous, and thoroughly Baptist.

Southern is a different kind of Baptist school now than it was when I was there. Things have changed.

Mercer University is no longer affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention. A few years ago, leaders in the GBC used the existence of a student organization that dealt with gay issues as an excuse to do what they had long wanted to do: rid themselves of the “Mercer problem.” The problem with Mercer was that it had a charter that insured that the Board of Trustees would never be directly selected by the convention. Therefore, the GBC would never be able to get control of Mercer as they could their other institutions.

In a way, I don’t blame the GBC for initiating the “divorce” with Mercer. The Baptist vision that is nurtured at Mercer is far different than the one nurtured by the GBC. Mercer was in a position to resist the conformity that is so valued in organized Southern Baptist life now and GBC leadership could not abide that. Neither, if you go by the vote taken at the GBC session in which the Mercer matter was dealt with, could rank-and-file Georgia Baptists, although the moderates who would have supported Mercer quit going to those meetings long ago. I was there and I spoke against the motion; I found out what it is like to be a “voice crying in the wilderness.”

I love Mercer. Mercer did much more for me in forming my Christian identity, in nurturing my sense of call, and in coming to grips with what it meant to be a Baptist than Southern did. Does Mercer have its faults? Indeed. But Georgia Baptists impoverished themselves by ending the historic and very fruitful relationship they had with a major university. Now Mercer, under the leadership of President Bill Underwood, is doing everything it can to become a national Baptist university. President Underwood is being very intentional about preserving and developing Mercer’s Baptist identity. Can that be done with no official connection to a sponsoring Baptist body? I think so. I hope so. But it will be hard.

I just find it all so ironic. My good father encouraged me to attend Baptist schools. I not only attended Baptist schools—I attended two of the best Baptist schools. They are still Baptist schools but they are different kinds of Baptist schools than they used to be. One I still feel a strong connection to while the other I feel no connection to at all except in a historical sense.

Yep, things sure do change.


Danny said...

Well said.

Scott said...

This has definitely been an interesting time to be a Baptist in higher education.

Mike Ruffin said...

Danny--thank you.

Scott--I'm sure that's true.

Blessings to you both.

Anonymous said...

It is so comforting to know there are a few traditional Baptists left.