Fight Between Erskine College and Its Denomination Will Head to Court
Like many church-based institutions of higher education, Erskine College and Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, has had many battles over the relationship between faith and learning at its campus. But the drama that unfolded at the college March 3 was unlike the online debates and denominational meeting grumblings that had come before.
In a special meeting that day, the General Synod of the denomination that sponsors Erskine—the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church—heard a commission's report which concluded: "the oversight exercised by the Board of Trustees and the Administration of Erskine College and Seminary is not in faithful accordance with the standards of the ARP Church and the synod's previously issued directives."
More simply put, the commission found evidence of mission drift—as well as "a number of financial irregularities and administrative failures"—in the college and seminary and blamed the board for letting it happen.
As a result, the synod voted 204-to-68 to restructure the Erskine Board of Trustees, firing and replacing 14 board members and keeping 16 holdovers for a 30-member interim board of trustees. (The commission recommended that the board size be cut at the synod's June meeting from 34 members to 16.)
A preliminary report issued last month by the ARP's investigating commission found "irreconcilable and competing visions" among board members on several fronts, including the integration of faith and learning on campus. But that confusion, the commission said, was widespread.
"A significant majority of the professors interviewed had no understanding of how the Christian faith could be meaningfully integrated into their discipline," said the February 19 report. "Though several professors have asked repeatedly for further clarification on the implementation of the mission, no such clarity has been offered."
Likewise, the commission found confusion on the college's commitment to biblical inerrancy. "It is not evident that many … new faculty members are committed to inerrancy, and there is little evidence that the Board has made certain that Synod's directives were followed. Seminary faculty, though largely pleased with the Christian commitment and academic credentials of their colleagues, did express concerns that some seminary professors cannot affirm inerrancy as defined by the General Synod, despite assurances of the Administration to the contrary."
"The issue is not 'academic freedom,'" said Charles Wilson, a retired ARP minister who runs a blog on denominational woes. "The issue is 'academic license' that seeks to subvert the evangelical witness of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in higher education."
Wilson, an Erskine graduate and a member of the General Synod, says the vote came after 40 years of frustration with the board for not implementing the Erskine College mission, which is to provide "an excellent liberal arts education in a Christ-centered environment."
What a "Christ-centered environment," means has been hotly debated in recent years, especially among students and alumni.
Students Aligned for a Faithful Erskine (SAFE) is a group that has organized criticism of faculty they say are not true to the Bible's teachings. Other students and alumni created a website called Erskine for Everyone that tells tales of the impact those same faculty members had on their intellectual development by forcing them to defend their beliefs.
Tenured English faculty William Crenshaw has been the subject of much criticism on the SAFE site, on Wilson's ARPTalk site, and in letters to church leaders. In various posts, he is accused of mocking students and faculty who do not believe in evolution and of encouraging students to see the Bible as unreliable.