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Revisiting the Concept of a Baptist University

Dwayne Howell


Since their beginning, Baptists have seen a need for education, especially of their clergy. However, along with those who advocated the development of schools, other Baptists opposed education on the grounds that it hindered the Spirit’s work. This debate has raged for close to 400 years and continues in one way or another among Baptists. In the twentieth century, fundamentalist charges of modernism and liberalism constantly challenged Baptists efforts in higher education[2]. The purpose of this article is to reevaluate the meaning of teaching at a university that is affiliated with a Baptist state convention. Part of the presentation is to discuss the purpose of the onetime affiliate relationship between Campbellsville University and the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Such an affiliation can benefit and challenge both of the organizations involved. One challenge in such a relationship often centers on the understanding of academic freedom and academic responsibility, especially as it pertains to the distinct purpose of the school.

This article is only a cursory review of the issues that face teaching Bible, as well as any subject, in a Baptist-affiliated university. In ways it provides a microcosm of the discussions that have occurred at other Baptist affiliated universities and other universities with denominational ties. The intent of the article is to present one aspect of Christian higher education and to open the way for discussion of its future.

Cooperation Among Baptists

Baptists who affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention are actually made up of several groups: the local church, the local association, the state Baptist convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Each group, while independent of the other, seeks to work in voluntary cooperation with the other groups[3]. The following is a brief overview of the relationship between these organizations

The Local Church

The autonomy of the local church is an important aspect of the voluntary cooperation between these groups. The local church decides it own polity and procedures as a distinct body. It also decides whether it will enter into cooperation with all of the other organizations or simply the ones that it chooses. While the other organizations can dictate qualifications for membership, they cannot dictate the beliefs of the local church.

The Local Association

The local association is formed by a group of cooperating local churches in a given county or area. The association seeks to further the work of the local church by combining the efforts of a collective of churches. It is also an important disseminator of information from the state Baptist convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. Campbellsville University had its start in 1906 through a local association, the Russell Creek Association. Concerned about a need for quality education in the Central Kentucky area, the association formed the Russell Creek Academy, a primary school. It is from this start that Campbellsville University emerged, first as a junior college, then a college and finally a university.

The State Convention

The Kentucky Baptist Convention consists of cooperating churches throughout the state of Kentucky. Most of these churches are members of local associations but some choose to remain independent of the association. The state convention provides services and ministries for the state of Kentucky and is also the major conduit for funds to the Southern Baptist Convention through the unified budget program known as the Cooperative Program.

The Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention is made of various member churches. Its work supports various institutions and agencies including the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and six seminaries.

Baptist and Higher Education

The Kentucky Baptist Convention at one time supported higher education in the state through an affiliation with three colleges: Campbellsville University, Georgetown College and the University of the Cumberlands. It should be noted that there are various relationships between state conventions and Baptist colleges and no one model can adequately describe every school’s relationship. It is also a misnomer to call these Southern Baptist colleges since most are not directly related to the Southern Baptist Convention, even though many do affiliate with the independent Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools. In Kentucky, the Baptist colleges were affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, but not owned by it. Through the Covenant Agreement of 1986 the affiliation between the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the three colleges was further delineated. The Kentucky Baptist Convention provided funds to each school ($1.1 million or 2% of Campbellsville University’s 2013-2014 operating budget). In return, the Kentucky Baptist Convention elected the trustees of the institution at its annual meeting. The trustees were selected from a list of candidates provided by the president of each college. Any change made to the list was to be done only in consultation with the president of the respective college. However, the Kentucky Baptist Convention did not have to accept the president’s recommendation.

Currently, students from Kentucky Baptist churches comprise 18.3% of the student population at Campbellsville University (2015-2016 school year). Also, Campbellsville University provided a total of $19,374,966 financial aid to students from Kentucky Baptist churches during the 2015-2016 school year, of which $7,611,018 came as direct institutional aid. The relationship between Campbellsville University and the Kentucky Baptist Convention at one time was considered mutual. On the one hand, the Kentucky Baptist Convention provided funding and a ready area of recruitment through the local associations and local churches. On the other hand, Campbellsville University provided aid and opportunity for higher education for students from Kentucky Baptist churches.

Baptists and the Baptist Faith and Message

The Baptist Faith and Message is a document which seeks to offer a doctrinal guideline for what it means to be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Three editions of The Baptist Faith and Message have been written: 1925, 1963 and 2000 editions. After the 2000 edition of The Baptist Faith and Message was adopted the various institutions and agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention began to require that all employees sign the document, showing their conformity to the doctrinal statement. The Kentucky Baptist Convention, instead of requiring conformity to the 2000 edition, realizes the vast array of churches in the state and allows for the 1925, 1963, and 2000 editions to be used in establishing guidelines for any member church.

Why would The Baptist Faith and Message play a role in the teaching of Bible in the Bible Belt at a Baptist-affiliated University? Interesting enough, the statement on Christian Education is the same in both the 1963 edition and the 2000 edition[4].

In Christian education there should be a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility. Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute. The freedom of a teacher in a Christian school, college or seminary is limited by the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ, by the authoritative nature of the Scripture, and by the distinct purpose by which the school exists.

Four key points from the Baptist Faith and Message statement on Christian Education have a direct effect on teaching Bible in the Bible belt at a Baptist affiliated school. They are dealt with as follows: Jesus Christ and Scripture, Academic Freedom, Academic Responsibility, and the distinct purpose of the school.

Jesus Christ and Scripture

Campbellsville University is a Christian college in the Baptist tradition. Thus, it has a Christian worldview as part of its underlying purpose. It has established a School of Theology which offers general education courses, undergraduate and graduate degrees. The stated purpose of the School of Theology is to nurture, to engage, to equip and to send. The students in the School of Theology programs are primarily training for ministry in the church and in the community. However, even though Campbellsville University in general and its School of Theology in particular share a Christian worldview, it does not make them immune from criticism from individuals and groups outside of the university setting who may advocate a more dogmatic approach to Christian higher education. As stated at the beginning, this tension in Christian higher education has existed since the beginning of Baptist history. In the face of such tension it is important to have an appropriate understanding of Academic Freedom and Academic Responsibility.

Academic Freedom

Anthony Diekema in his book, Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship, contends that higher education can maintain a Christian worldview and not deny academic freedom. Diekema, noting that not one single view can ever “exhaust the truth of reality”, states that “as Christians we need always to be fine-tuning our world views by testing them by reality as observed and with an increasing understanding of God’s revelation”[5]. This allows for discussion to occur among various world views. A working definition of academic freedom for Diekema is “primarily a means and a vital foundational one at that, for assuring the pursuit of truth (however defined or debated) in the academy”[6].

Academic freedom deals with both the academic freedom of the particular institution and the academic freedom of a particular individual in the institutions. In its ideal state, academic freedom guarantees the right of an institution and/or an individual to pursue truth down whatever path it leads[7]. It protects the institution and the faculty member from undue coercion[8]. As an institution, Campbellsville University’s Board of Trustees has approved a statement on Baptist higher education values. It notes that while the school seeks to maintain both the Baptist tradition and a strong Christian emphasis, it is “neither a church nor an ecclesiastical authority.” “Since 1906 the institution has existed to provide higher educational opportunities to men and women in a positive and academically challenging Christian environment”[9]. Also, as part of the accreditation requirements of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a school’s governing board must both “be free from undue influence from political, religious, or other external bodies, and protects the institution from such influence”[10].

Academic freedom must also be extended to individual faculty members, allowing them to teach in their respective field of expertise without outside coercion or the fear from the threat of reprisal. The nature of education is to introduce information and questions to further the learning process. For this reason education is not a static process which has select answers to all questions that may emerge. Instead, it is a dynamic process, constantly challenging both the professor and the students to learn more. Without the ability to challenge various ideas and subjects, education does not totally exist. However, academic freedom is not a justification academic arrogance. The temptation can be for the professor to place himself or herself above what is being taught. This can lead to the alienation of the professor’s students, peers and academic institution. Gerald Kreyche notes that “professor has the right to be authoritative but not the right to be authoritarian.” He further states that the “professor is free to be himself (sic) and at the same time become more than what he is (sic)”[11]. Because of the dynamic nature of education and its constant changing data and theories, a professor should exhibit an appropriate humility in teaching his or her given subject.

Academic Responsibility

Academic freedom is balanced with academic responsibility. This responsibility should in part be based on the individual professor’s desire to improve his or her skills and to live and work within the academic community and the community at large. The faculty member should commit to improve his or her teaching skills through personal research and through interaction with peers and students. Academic freedom and academic responsibility are dealt with together in the Faculty Handbook of Campbellsville University. Research and the publication of research are encouraged within the realm of the adequate performance of ones academic duties. Freedom in the classroom is allowed, but care is advised for dealing with controversial subjects especially if they do not pertain to a professor’s given subject or effect the mission and goals of the institution. Finally, the professor is seen as a free citizen in society and “should be free from institutional censorship or discipline”[12]. Still, professors are reminded that because they are closely connected to the university, they should stress that they are not speaking for the university.

Academic responsibility does entail an aspect of accountability. The professor is required to carry out the duties for which he or she was hired, including meeting with classes, serving on committees and documenting activities carried out as a professor. However, accountability can also stifle the education process. Education needs to take place in a collegial atmosphere where the professor is encouraged to pursue his or her subject with the support of both peers and administration. Accountability that inhibits such collegiality leads to a forced conformity[13]. This is especially true as a professor proceeds through the tenure process. Certain standards required for each professor as he or she applies for tenure should be outlined in a school’s procedure manual. However, due consideration needs to assure that the professor is not placed in situations where academic conformity denies his or her academic freedom. Sadly, instead of practicing such freedom, a faculty member may instead practice self-censure in order to insure his or her job security[14]. While a school does well to seek to balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility based on its stated purpose, perhaps it is best for the institution always to be willing to ere on the side of academic freedom[15].

The Distinct Purpose of the School

Academic freedom and academic responsibility are balanced on the fulcrum of distinct purpose by which the school exists. As the fulcrum changes it affects what will be emphasized by the school—either academic freedom or academic responsibility. This fulcrum is determined by the governing bodies of the schools. Thus, the “distinct purpose” of the school can be changed through the board of trustees and in turn the administrative leadership.

Why should such a subject be important to teaching Bible in the Bible Belt? The selection of trustees often determines the direction a given college will go in the future. In the fundamentalist reforms of the Southern Baptist Convention beginning in 1979, the trustees of the various agencies and institution of the Southern Baptist Convention were gradually replaced with those favorable to the fundamentalist reforms. This included the trustees at the six seminaries associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Once the fundamentalist had gained control of the agencies and institutions of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1990’s, they began to gradually gain influence on the state convention level. Again by controlling the trustee appointment process of various state conventions, the fundamentalist have gradually gained control of those conventions. In other states where the fundamentalists have been unable to gain control, they have formed there own state conventions. Thus, this can directly affect the distinct purpose of a school and its understanding of academic freedom and academic responsibility.

The Covenant Agreement between the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the three colleges affiliated with the convention could be terminated at any time by either the request of a college or of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. This involved a four-year process where funds are gradually decreased to the given college and the college takes on the responsibility of electing its own trustees. For Kentucky, this proved to be a somewhat peaceful procedure as Georgetown College and the Kentucky Baptist Convention began the process in 2005 at the annual meeting of the Kentucky Baptist Convention[16]. The Kentucky Baptist Convention severed all financial gifts to Georgetown College in 2014.

Campbellsville University severed its ties with the Kentucky Baptist Convention in 2014 due to what was seen as undue pressure from the convention which in turn could threaten the accreditation of the university. Because of what was seen as a hostile attitude expressed by the convention, the university sought to immediately dissolve its affiliation with the convention. The university offered to enter into a new mission and ministry agreement with the Kentucky Baptist Convention to share together in areas of ministry. This was seen as shared ministry and would not require funding to the university and the university has entered into such an agreement with other Baptist organizations. However, the convention turned down the offer.


Baptists have long supported higher education. As the years continue, the relationship between Baptists and higher education will constantly be redefined. Even such documents as the The Baptist Faith and Message and its statement on Christian education will be understood differently by different persons over time. As Baptist-affiliated schools seek to maintain the Baptist tradition with a Christian worldview they also must maintain their integrity as institutions of higher education. All means must be made to allow for a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility in the midst of calls to a more dogmatic approach for understanding Christian higher education and attempts to change the distinct purpose of the school.

[1] The paper was originally presented at the 2006 SECSOR annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. It was part of the “Teaching Bible in the Bible-Belt” session.

[2] Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003); Walter B. Shurden, Not a Silent People: Controversies that Have Shaped Southern Baptists (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972).

[3] Leonard, Baptist Ways, 411.

[4] “Report of the Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee to the Southern Baptist Convention, June 14, 2000”, SBC Life, June/July 2000, 14.

[5] Anthony J. Diekema, Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2000), 56.

[6] Ibid., 72.

[7] Gerald Kreyche, “Academic Freedom and the Christian College,” Christian Century, September 24, 1969, pp.1217-1220.

[8] Diekema, Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship, 11-43.

[9] Board of Trustees, Campbellsville University, “A Statement of Baptist Higher Education Values”, “2001 Minutes,” October 23, 2001.

[10] Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges, Resource Manual for the Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement 2nd ed. (Decatur, GA: Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, 2012), 40. [accessed July 22, 2016]

[11] Kreyche, “Academic Freedom and the Christian College,” 1219.

[12] Board of Trustees, Campbellsville University, Faculty Handbook 2013, E.2.1.

[13] Charles B. Neff, “Toward a Definition of Academic Responsibility,” The Journal of Higher Education 40, no. 1(1969): 12-22.

[14] Diekema, Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship, 33-36.

[15] Neff, “Toward a Definition of Academic Responsibility,” 22.

[16] Kentucky Baptist Convention, 2005 Annual: Kentucky Baptist Convention, 168th Annual Meeting, November 15-16, 2005, Frankfort Convention Center, Frankfort, Kentucky (Louisville, KY: Kentucky Baptist Convention, 2005), 142-149.

Dwayne Howell is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Campbellsville University, Campbellsville, Kentucky. His Ph.D. was awarded by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also pastor at Rolling Fork Baptist Church, Gleanings, Kentucky.