The Campbellsville Case and the Crisis of Presbyterian Ecclesiology

The apparent refusal of Southern Baptist-affiliated Campbellsville University in Kentucky to renew the contract of a popular, theologically conservative professor continues to create ripples.  According to Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood, there will soon be a meeting between representatives of the University and the Kentucky Baptist Convention in order “to better understand the theological convictions that chart CU’s course and whether or not those convictions are still compatible with the mission our Lord has given the churches of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.”  The speed with which this story is unfolding is remarkable, as is the ecclesiology that informs the SBC approach to its educational institutions.

This robust Southern Baptist ecclesiology is strikingly evident in some recent comments by Dr. Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  In a blog post worth quoting at length Allen wrote that

if the refusal to renew the contract proves indicative of broader doctrinal dissonance between Campbellsville and the churches of the KBC, at least five considerations must be kept in mind:

First, when representatives of the KBC meet with representatives of Campbellsville University, they do not come to the table as negotiating equals. The former has funded, governs, and holds accountable the latter by approving their trustees. The posture of both should be one of openness and respect, but the KBC is not the supplicant. Rather, Campbellsville should eschew any inclination toward recalcitrance or obfuscation toward the churches of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, and treat their representatives with openness, cordiality, and deference.

Second, when representatives of the KBC enter the room, their Baptist forebears enter with them. This generation of Kentucky Baptists owes it to each generation prior to honor their stewardship and sacrifice for Campbellsville University. May deliberations honor not only present Kentucky Baptists, but may they honor those who throughout the decades have given their blood, toil, tears, sweat—and, yes, money—to Campbellsville. In a very real sense, this generation of Kentucky Baptists bears a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to “guard that which has been entrusted to them.”

Third, representatives of the KBC represent not only preceding generations, but also their posterity. Typically, when a conflagration occurs between an institution and their governing denomination, attention immediately goes to valuations of bricks and mortar and the size of the endowment. These concerns are not irrelevant, but neither are they paramount. The stewardship is about worldview, about the Word of God, about the gospel, about doctrinal faithfulness, about the Great Commission, and about how these beliefs and values will be instilled in succeeding generations.

Fourth, when Baptist colleges reference the relatively small amount the Cooperative Program currently contributes to their budget (in the case of Campbellsville, approximately 2%), they state an irrelevant fact and make a potentially misleading insinuation. The issue is not merely present funding, but past funding and, more importantly, present operational accountability. This operational accountability is principle and perennial, not seasonal or conditional, based upon the institution’s current need of those funds.

Fifth, every institution that in one way or another serves or is accountable to the church, be it a seminary or a state college, should assume a posture of deference and welcomed accountability. Kentucky Baptists are not morally obligated to investigate and demonstrate the doctrinal faithfulness of Campbellsville University. Rather, Campbellsville, and any other church-governed entity, bears the moral responsibility to demonstrate, prima facie, they are operating in good faith with those churches. If cleavage has occurred between Campbellsville and the KBC, it is Campbellsville’s moral responsibility to adjust accordingly.

Here we find a strong affirmation of accountability by agencies and institutions to the church, and one that is grounded theologically in a recognition of the communion of saints—past, present and future.   We also see here a keen sense of the church’s sacred stewardship of the gospel.  All this should warm the cockles of a conservative Presbyterian’s heart and send him or her straight to WCF chaps. 30-31.  But does it?  I’ve observed for some time that Southern Baptists demonstrate a higher ecclesiology in their dealings with their church’s educational institutions than do many conservative Presbyterians.  In fact, as I’ve noted elsewhere, conservative Presbyterians have largely turned theological education over to parachurch organizations.

But this pattern defies conventional wisdom and turns it on its head.  According to the standard conservative Presbyterian narrative, Baptists—with their individualistic conversionist soteriology (“I come to the garden alone”), their congregational polity (“every tub on its own bottom”), their denial of sacramental efficacy (after all, they are called “ordinances” rather than sacraments), and their stress on private judgment—are supposed to be the ones with the low ecclesiology and sectarian bent.    What’s going on here?

While I make no claim to be an historian of the Baptist tradition, I can think of at least two historical reasons that help to account for this.  The first is that a sort of “high-church” Baptist impulse goes way back in SBC history.  I’m referring to the nineteenth-century Landmark Baptist movement, and while the stranger aspects of Landmarkism (its exaggerated conception of the rights of the local Baptist church, closed communion, etc.) have largely faded in SBC circles, the tendency to take the church as an institution with great seriousness remains and seems to be part of the SBC’s DNA.

The second is that SBC identity has not, in large measure, been shaped by the experience of schism (unless one goes all the way back to the formation of the SBC in 1845 that was precipitated by the national debates over slavery).  On the other hand, the conservative American Presbyterian sense of denominational identity was forged in the fires of bitter twentieth-century denominational conflict and separation, and a parachurch impulse was directly connected to this.  Here we think of the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929, and of the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936, which was precipitated in part by the discipline of those who had formed the parachurch Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  Likewise, the formation of the PCA in 1973 was anticipated by the founding of an independent seminary (RTS) and various other parachurch groups.

As we survey the current state of the conservative Reformed community—with its constellation of relatively small (albeit very similar) denominations and penchant for parachurch mechanisms—it is at least worthwhile to ask whether the twentieth-century history of these groups has taken a toll on their ecclesiology.

I have to admit that this ecclesial Calvinist finds much to admire in the functional ecclesiology of the SBC.  Like King Agrippa, I am almost persuaded.  But not quite.  The answer, it seems to me, is not for Presbyterians like me to become Baptists, but for Presbyterians to live up to our theology of the church.