I don’t know Pastor Travis Smith, but I like and respect him. For one thing, he has ministered at the same church for thirty years—an exceptional achievement, and one that I believe glorifies God. For another, he has a pretty decent blog, “From the Heart of a Shepherd,” in which he specializes in applying principles from the book of Proverbs. Though I’m sure we could find points to dispute, Pastor Smith and I agree on most things.
Pastor Smith recently wrote about the closing of Clearwater Christian College. He argues that the school closed mainly because “CCC appeared to have lost her way.” While Pastor Smith admits that a dwindling base, shrinking enrollment, and competition from other schools all played a role, he insists that “the leadership of the college over the past 10 years steered the college away from its founder’s purpose, philosophy and vision.” This departure included “a pragmatic philosophy of accommodation lowering her standards, adopting CCM music in her chapels and athletic events and most recently featuring an activity night of rap and rock music.”
What I am about to say must not be taken as disagreement with Pastor Smith. I share his concerns over things like pragmatic philosophies and lowering standards. I even join him in his disdain for CCM, though I admit that my exposure to rap consists mainly of brief sessions at stop lights. I am not in a position to comment about any shift in standards at Clearwater, but like Pastor Smith I have seen institutions (and churches!) that I cared about abandon discerning applications of biblical standards.
Still, I’m left wondering. Pastor Smith is relying upon a narrative that one hears more and more frequently within fundamentalism. That narrative is, “They changed, so they died.” This narrative resembles the truth enough to make it plausible to a certain kind of person, but it really does an injustice to the current situation involving fundamentalist educational institutions.
The narrative is repeated as a cautionary tale. It says that if institutions change, they are bound to die. For evidence, it looks to institutions that have failed, then points out how they changed. Implicitly, it draws a lesson for the remaining institutions: “If you change, you’ll die, too.” Furthermore, it could include the insinuation, “Since we didn’t approve your change, we’re glad you died.” From that point, it is a small step to “If you change, we hope you’ll die,” and from there to “If you change, we’ll make sure you’ll die.” I don’t think that’s where Pastor Smith wants to go, but it seems that some people are never happy without a grave to dance on.
The narrative has a certain facile plausibility, but it also has its problems. The most obvious is that change does not uniformly kill institutions—not even when they abandon their historic position. Master’s College, Cornerstone University, and Cedarville University were all established to promote the ideals of separatist, Baptist fundamentalism. Each of them has moved away from that position in its own way. Each of them is more prosperous than it ever was while identified with separatist, Baptist fundamentalism. The same could be said of other schools that have broadened their appeal. For example, Liberty University is certainly less narrow than it once was, but it is now the world’s largest Christian university and the seventh largest of any kind.
Separatist fundamentalism also includes schools that have changed markedly but are still prospering. Faith Baptist Bible College and Maranatha Baptist University joined Clearwater Christian College to lead the rest of fundamentalism toward accreditation—even regional accreditation. At the time, they were cruelly reviled by certain who are reckoned to be pillars among us. Now, the vast majority of fundamentalist schools are following them in those important changes.
In fact, Maranatha experienced marked change (for example,) under the administrations of both Arno Weniger and Dave Jaspers. These include relaxing some standards, demanding greater academic accountability, and moving away from a level of friendliness toward some Landmark and King-James-Only sensibilities. Nevertheless, Maranatha did not die, but grew and prospered. The school subsequently experienced a downturn, but only when a new president seemed likely to take it in a more rigid direction. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the current administration is that the president has not attempted to undo the changes of the Weniger-Jaspers era. Yet Maranatha is presently one of the more prosperous school within fundamentalism.
Even Pensacola Christian College has changed—and quite deliberately. During the late 1990s it moved away from its roots and toward an aggressive King-James-Only posture. The change was deliberate and very public. If the change-and-you’ll-die narrative is true, then Pensacola ought to be closed today.
So change does not necessarily lead to failure. Nor does the closing of a school necessarily stem from change. Tempting as it is, the change-and-you’ll-die narrative doesn’t quite explain what happened at Clearwater. In fact, the apparent conservatism of President Stratton’s administration actually alienated some students during the early years. I remember being on the campus and hearing repeatedly that “we don’t want to be BJ on the bay.”
There is another factor, however, and it is one that Pastor Smith overlooks. Clearwater is closing with somewhere around ten million dollars (give or take a million) in debt. President Klem did not run up that debt during his short tenure. President Stratton was too good a businessman to accumulate such an enormous liability. No, the debt was left to them by their predecessor who, as Pastor Smith notes, indulged in “renovations to existing buildings and constructing new dorms and classrooms.” You can do a lot of building with other people’s money, but eventually you have to pay it back.
Ten million. Think of it. The college had to pay about half a million every year simply to service the debt. That’s enough money to hire five or six full-time teachers or staff members. And it had to be paid every year, year after year.
For a small college like CCC, ten million dollars is a nearly insurmountable obstacle. Clearwater had no endowment to speak of. It was almost entirely tuition-driven. With those thin financial margins, even a relatively small dip in enrollment would spell disaster. Virtually every fundamentalist school has experienced that kind of dip at some point since the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Whether or not Clearwater changed its position, some decline in enrollment was likely. Whenever it occurred, it had the potential to close the school.
I’m fully sympathetic to Pastor Smith’s concerns, but they do not really explain the situation at Clearwater Christian College. However the school changed, and to whatever extent those changes played a role in its demise, the bulk of the responsibility must be placed with the debt—and with the leader who borrowed it. Furthermore, the explanation for its closing has to include those factors that Pastor Smith relegates to secondary status. These include matters like increasing competition for students and a shrinking fundamentalism. For Clearwater, all of these made a toxic combination.
The change-and-you’ll-die narrative has other implications, however. Those implications are relevant to the situation faced by almost all fundamentalist institutions at this very moment. Perhaps a further word about its dangers is in order—but that will have to wait for another conversation.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
The Kings of Earth Are in the Hands
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892)
The kings of earth are in the hands
Of God who reigns on high;
He in their council-chamber stands,
And sees with watchful eye.
Though foolish princes tyrants prove,
And tread the godly down;
Though earth’s foundations all remove;
He weareth still the crown.
They proudly boast a godlike birth,
In death like men they fall;
Arise, O God, and judge the earth,
And rule the nations all.
When shall Thy Son, the Prince of Peace,
Descend with glorious power?
Then only shall oppression cease:
Oh haste the welcome hour!