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Failing the Faith Test

June 2, 2014

Many religious colleges strive to have presidents who reflect the faith of the college, but many others -- especially from denominations that are small -- have grown more flexible on the issue.

It appeared last month that Erskine College -- the only college affiliated with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, a branch of the Presbyterian faith that is closer in beliefs to the many evangelical Christian denominations than are other strands of the Presbyterian faith -- was on the verge last month of accepting its first non-Presbyterian president.

But the candidate, who is not known but sources said was the vice president of a Christian college, withdrew because of objections to his Baptist faith. While the college has had presidents who are not ARP members (as the Associate Reform Presbyterian branch is known), it has not had a non-Presbyterian.

Further complicating matters, the Erskine board chair resigned on Thursday, making it unclear who will decide how to proceed on a new search. A spokesman for the college said that no search plans had been announced, but that it was his understanding that the search would start fresh.

Erskine, a small liberal arts college and a seminary in Due West, S.C., has struggled for years over issues of how closely the college must adhere to a view of the world that treats the Bible as history and a guide to all academic subjects and campus conduct. Since 2010, about the time there was a search for a president going on, church leaders have asserted more control over the board, to the consternation of some alumni, students and faculty members who have valued the liberal arts traditions of the institution.

David A. Norman was named president in 2010, and he set out to build consensus among the various constituencies that care about the college. But he was gone three years later amid reports of conflicts between Norman and some in the denomination. In 2011, the college attracted criticism from academic freedom advocates when it fired a tenured English professor -- who was beloved by generations of students and hated by church traditionalists -- who had spoken out repeatedly about the need for the college to teach science (and evolution in particular) based on the consensus of scientists, not on the Bible.

As the search for Norman's replacement was reaching its conclusion, ARP Talk, a blog that has led criticism of Erskine in recent years for what traditionalists believe is deviation from church teaching, repeatedly took Erskine to task. In March, the blog questioned why Erskine's seminary permitted a Buddhist student and a Mormon student to enroll in a program. In April, after a student at the college came out as gay, the blog lamented that "if there is a list of private, Christian colleges which are havens for practicing homosexuals, the name of Erskine College is NOW on that sad list," and suggested that presidential candidates be asked, "How will you deal with the homosexual issue at Erskine College?" The blog is considered influential with some on the board and in the ARP leadership.

The college's prospectus for presidential candidates did not call for candidates to be ARP members. It did say that any candidate must have "a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ," participate "actively in a local church" and be someone who "articulates and applies biblical principles in leading the Erskine community." It also said that candidates must affirm "the standards" of the ARP church "as an expression of personal faith," and affirm the doctrine of scripture of the ARP church.

The candidate believed he could meet those standards. Cliff Smith, a spokesman for Erskine, declined to name the candidate, but said that he withdrew because, based on "the views of some board members and church members, he felt he would be in the position of creating tension or dissension and further conflict" at the college and didn't want to do so. Smith said that "there are some in the church who were making a little bit of a dust-up because this candidate was not Presbyterian."

Smith said that while the candidate had pledged to guide the college in ways consistent with church teachings, critics were concerned about doctrinal differences between Presbyterians and Baptists on issues such as baptism.

ARP Talk has cheered the candidate's withdrawal, primarily criticizing the search committee, not the candidate. "They put a good and honorable man through an unnecessary ordeal and in an untenable position!" the blog said.

It explained: "In all fairness, this candidate possesses a charismatic personality, a warm evangelical testimony of faith, and many admirable leadership skills. And the gentleman is not faulted because he is a convinced Baptist. A little background search on the Internet reveals his theological convictions, and he is forthcoming in what he believes. We can only wish he were Presbyterian in his theological convictions. If he were Presbyterian, no doubt Erskine College and Seminary would have a new president who would affirm the inerrancy of the Bible, would affirm the historicity and special creation of Adam, would work to maintain and strengthen Erskine as an 'agency' of the ARP Church, would address sexual impurity on the Erskine campus, and would take fiscal responsibility by reducing the draw on the endowment to 5 percent immediately."

 

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