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An Open Letter to Les Ollila


Dear Les,

Somewhere C. S. Lewis notes that friends are people who look at the same things. I first noticed what you were looking at during the mid-1990s when I read your preface to Doug McLachlan’s Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism. I was surprised that a fundamentalist insider—the president of a prominent fundamentalist college—would take the risks you did:

There is a dangerous trend in ministries today to overlook the foundation of doctrine to speed up the building of the superstructure. When a doctrinal foundation is overlooked for a focus on growth, pragmatism becomes the controlling philosophy. Ministries move from theism to practical atheism through the vehicle of pragmatism. The problem with pragmatism is that it does work. However, a greater consequence is that a ministry’s dependence on God wanes, resulting in a loss of God’s presence and a compromise of truth.

You wrote these words to a version of fundamentalism that had emphasized the fundamentals (i.e., the gospel) at the expense of the complete system of faith and morals (i.e., the whole counsel of God), that had substituted coercion and political pressure for spiritual vitality, and that had elevated methodology over its clear biblical message. At least some parts of fundamentalism needed reclaiming, but it was not yet stylish to try to reclaim them. You and McLachlan were pioneers. When I read your words, I knew we would be friends.

During the succeeding years, I watched you shape your own ministry around the values that you advocated. Without ever laying aside your wit and good humor, you found ways to model a legitimate version of expositional preaching. While managing to survive in the world of fundamentalist institutionalism, you evidenced a sincere commitment to both principles and people. At a time when fundamentalist leaders often placed themselves on display, you advocated transparency and laid yourself open to public examination.

You combined your transparency with stability. Your yes meant yes and your no meant no. We never had to guess what you were doing or where you were going. Your distinctives and your mission were clear, and you led in straight lines.

When I came to teach at Central Seminary, our school was home to many graduates of Northland Baptist Bible College. I admit that I held certain misgivings. In particular, I was concerned about the level of academic instruction that these students had received. What I discovered, however, was that some of our brightest students came from Northland. They had received a decent education. I learned that one of your ongoing concerns was improving the academic level of the college.

Furthermore, the graduates of Northland almost universally displayed a unique heart. They had been trained to love Christ and to see themselves as servants for His sake. They had learned to humble themselves before others. They had little wish for recognition or adulation. They would accept thankless tasks and pursue ministries that would never earn them earthly recognition. For them, the expression servant-leader was not just a slogan. They had seen servant leadership in action. Eventually, I perceived that they were simply emulating your philosophy of ministry.

Your graduates had been taught the importance of rigorous personal discipline. They understood that leadership was incompatible with self-indulgence, and they were willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Nevertheless, they clearly understood the difference between personal disciplines and biblical morals. You had taught them that institutional rules were not the same thing as spiritual exercises, and they did not judge spirituality by conformity to external disciplines and regulations. Somehow, you had found a way to make them effective without turning them into legalists.

Early on I was concerned by the presence of a demerit system at Northland. I had always viewed demerit systems as injurious to spiritual vitality. What I learned, however, is that Northland under your leadership did not use demerits as a substitute for discipleship. Rather than imposing arbitrary penalties for accumulated infractions of policies, Northland employed its demerit system to alert the institutional staff to potential spiritual problems. It showed counselors where to intervene personally in the lives of students, offering them the help that they needed in order to become better followers of Jesus. At Northland, discipline was genuinely about discipleship.

Outside of Northland, you played a significant role in bringing institutional leaders together to pray for one another: not to argue or harangue or posture, but to pray. In those meetings we were able to let our guard down and to talk to one another about our real fears and discouragements as well as our victories. Leaders of institutions that had been rivals began to view each other as colleagues, friends, and brothers.

In all of your work, you modeled personal sacrifice. You gave of yourself and your resources. You often used your honoraria to allow other Northland teachers or administrators to travel with you, and you used those times for fellowship and discipleship. You surrendered whatever fortune you might have had for the wellbeing of the institution you served. You spent yourself in labors night and day. You did this all with no recognition and hardly any thanks. Few people have glimpsed what you gave in order that Northland might prosper.

You did all of these things side-by-side with the school’s founder. To all appearances, you faithfully implemented his wishes for the college. From all public interactions, it appears that he honored you for it, as well he might. It took your vision, humility, and energy to bring Northland Baptist Bible College to the height of its prosperity and influence.

When you left the presidency of Northland, you managed to succeed where many have failed. You stayed within the institution and became an asset to your successor. You supported his ministry and leveraged your influence to open doors for him. If there was any disagreement with the direction of Northland under his leadership, we outsiders never heard about it. You have shown yourself to be an ethical follower as well as a godly leader. In all of this you are above reproach.

Les, I have never attended Northland. I have never served on its faculty or staff. Nevertheless, because of your ministry the school and its alumni have been a source of refreshment to me. You and they have ministered in my life. Furthermore, I do not believe that I am alone in this. Because self-denying servants are not typically the sort of people who harangue the masses or start silly Internet petitions, you may not be aware of how much some Northland graduates respect and appreciate you.

Of course, I cannot speak for them. And I do not mean to embarrass you by speaking as if you are not a fallen human. Nevertheless, it would be wrong not to express to you my own love and esteem in the cause of Christ. Dr. Ollila, my voice does not count for much, and the true judgment will come from someone much higher than me. For what it is worth, however, I wish to thank you publicly for the institution that you built and for the personal price that you paid. May the character of Christ shine as clearly throughout the remainder of your ministry.

With every good wish,
Kevin T. Bauder


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.


O God, we praise thee; and confess
from A Supplement to the New Version of Psalms by Dr. Brady and Mr. Tate, 1703

O God, we praise thee; and confess
That thou the only Lord
And Everlasting Father art,
By all the earth adored.

To thee all angels cry aloud;
To thee the pow’rs on high,
Both cherubim and seraphim,
Continually do cry:

O holy, holy, holy Lord,
Whom heavenly hosts obey,
The world is with the glory filled
Of thy majestic ray.

The apostles’ glorious company,
And prophets crowned with light,
With all the martyrs’ noble host,
Thy constant praise recite.

The holy church throughout the world,
O Lord, confesses thee,
That thou eternal Father art,
Of boundless majesty;

Thine honored, true, and only Son;
And Holy Ghost, the Spring
Of never-ceasing joy: O Christ,
Of glory thou art King.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is 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 this post expresses.

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