Northwestern College held a day of prayer and fasting today to seek reconciliation after a two-year debate over theological identity and management practices went public in October.
Last month, a group of former trustees took their case online, asserting that the suburban St. Paul school is "badly divided" and drifting from its conservative evangelical identity under president Alan Cureton, who came during the school's centennial in 2002.
The school says it has established "academic, fiscal, and program strength" under Cureton's leadership while "holding firm to its Christ-centered biblical foundation." Dissenters fear their beloved college, where evangelist Billy Graham served as president from 1948 to 1952, is poised to become the next example of "the dying of the light" among Christian colleges.
Confrontation Between Believers—Online
The former trustees assert that "thoughtful dissent is neither welcomed nor tolerated" at Northwestern, where one-third of the board has resigned or been removed since June 2007 for allegedly refusing to give Cureton their "complete and unfettered support" during the college's Envision Excellence capital campaign. On October 27 the trustees launched a "Friends of Northwestern College and Radio" website in order to engage the debate publicly on whether or not Northwestern is growing lax on matters of biblical interpretation such as gender roles and eschatology.
"It grieves us that it has come to this point," said Galen Call, former trustee and current senior pastor of Venture Christian Church in Los Gatos, California. "We don't see this website as being the source of the problem. We see it as taking the covers off a problem that has existed for some time."
News quickly spread when the website was picked up by Justin Taylor's popular blog, Between Two Worlds. A Facebook group started by concerned alumni soon followed, quickly mushrooming to over 1,000 members.
The school defended its theological steadfastness November 4 when Cureton and current trustees addressed the student body during a daily chapel service. The college also launched its own website—"NWC Responds"—today (Nov. 11) in an attempt to keep the debate from becoming as heated as recent ones at Baylor University, Cedarville College, and Westminster Theological Seminary.
"While many may see these past few days as an overwhelming obstacle, I believe this is a defining moment for Northwestern," said Cureton in an open e-mail message. "In times of adversity, we can either pull together or be drawn apart."
Concern Among College Family
The chapel service received mixed reactions. "A vague concern exists among the majority of the campus. Students are concerned, but not sure what they should be concerned about," said senior Ryan Howard, editor in chief of The Column, the college's student newspaper. "The chapel only addressed one of the issues—the theological drift issue—and didn't cover all of them. I think students really do want answers at this point."
Concerned alumnus Dallas Jenkins ('97), who researched the dispute on campus in the spring of 2008, says a stark division exists between faculty and the administration and that critics have too much credibility to be ignored.
"There is smoke coming out of the windows at the Northwestern College house, plain and simple," he said. "That leads us to believe that there's a fire inside."
Jenkins said his interviews revealed faculty concerns of theological drift into postmodernism, as well as fear and mistrust of the administration's management style, exemplified in the sudden demotions of communication department chair Ripley Smith and Bible department chair Doug Huffman, both long-serving and popular professors.