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Fight Between Erskine College and Its Denomination Will Head to Court

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church fired board members, alleging mission drift.

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.

"I'm number one on the list to be fired on the college side," said Crenshaw.

Another faculty member was repeatedly criticized for espousing a Barthian view of biblical inerrancy.

Wilson pointed out that faculty issues are matters for the board, not the synod, but Crenshaw takes no assurance. He accuses the synod of violating the college's bylaws in its removal of the trustees. "If the synod can get away with violating the college's bylaws to gut the board of trustees of dissenters" he said, "we don't hold out much hope that procedure will protect those of us faculty the new regime deems undesirable."

James Brooks Kuykendall, chair of Erskine's music department, said he agreed with the conclusions drawn by the synod's investigative commission, but worries about the synod's solutions.

"I am glad to see that the denomination is concerned," he said. "Within the college there has been a move for more intentional faith/learning integration for the past ten years, but any institution of higher education changes at a glacial pace. I fear that the synod's dramatic action was the result of a frustration and impatience caused by overly ambitious expectations, given the limited means of an institution like Erskine. I think that the course of the college—with a more confessional identity—is clear, and the questions Synod faced were really How far? and How fast? They opted for the furthest and the fastest, and there are significant practical obstacles in accomplishing that."

William Ringenberg, history professor at Taylor University and author of The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America, noted, "Christian churches and Christian colleges have somewhat different emphases. Christian churches focus on proclaiming the truth as they understand it. Christian colleges, while operating from a Christian world view, emphasize the ongoing quest for truth and the individual quest for truth. During the 1920 to 1960 period the greatest danger in Christian higher education was the pull of secularization; by contrast a greater danger today is a pressure for conformity on political, cultural, and secondary theological issues, with the effect of diluting or distorting the Good News."

At least 27 denominations have founded colleges and universities which are members, like Erskine, in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). While Erskine's case is more high-profile than most church-college disputes, other Council schools have seen church-related fallout as a result of shifting from traditional theological positions, as well.

In 2006, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches completely severed ties with Cedarville University in Ohio because of the college's ties to Southern Baptists, whom GARBC sees as too liberal.

In 2007, in attempts to maintain its denominational ties with the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin College refused to let education professor Denise Isom attend a non-Reformed church, and she and two other professors quit over the decision. Just last year (2009), a memo to faculty from trustees banning "advocacy of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage" created tension in the ranks.

In 2008, a debate among Northwestern College trustees and administration about the college's commitment (or lack thereof) to its conservative evangelical identity went public on the Internet.

"As a policy, the CCCU does not comment on internal campus matters," said CCCU President Paul Corts. "The CCCU's role is to help our institutions fulfill their missions, so when an institution is wrestling with important issues we are there to pray for them and offer counsel and advice. Our goal is to help our members remain strongly Christ-centered and to deliver the highest quality education that will transform lives for Christ."

Robert Andringa, president emeritus of the CCCU, noted, "There is a long continuum of relationships between individual Council campuses and their founding (parent) denominations. Every president and board must honor their history, maintain a trust relationship between the college and the denomination, yet work to find an appropriate balance in the authority each party needs to fulfill its mission. This balance of authority needs to change over the years as smaller denominations send fewer students, provide less funding, and have inadequate pools of faculty and staff from which the campus can hire."

Because of the ARP's small size (only 250 churches), Erskine doesn't require an ARP-exclusive campus community. All faculty members are to be Christians, but students of all faiths have been welcome—with only a minority of students and faculty members coming from the ARP.

"In Erskine's case, it appears that leaders on both sides neglected the duty of building trust between campus and church over a long time," continued Andringa. "It takes work and is never easy."

In fact, The Index-Journal of Greenwood, South Carolina, reported that two dismissed members of the trustee board, the president of the alumni association board, and others filed suit against the General Synod. Erskine College had filed a similar lawsuit, but dropped it a week later "for the unity, peace, purity, and prosperity of the church." The newspaper reports that the court has granted a temporary restraining order barring the interim board from meeting to change Erskine's bylaws. A hearing is scheduled for March 25.

"The matter is very simple: Is Erskine an agency of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church or is the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church an agency of Erskine?" said Wilson. "All church and college documents are clear that Erskine is an agency of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Now, I suppose, we will see what the court says."

Related Elsewhere:

The Index-Journal of Greenwood, South Carolina, has extensive coverage of the Erskine College dispute. Other news reports include:

Faith and freedom collide at Erskine | Conflict could touch other S.C. colleges with religious ties (The State, March 14)
Dispute at Erskine leads to lawsuit | School contests removal and replacement of 14 trustees (The State, March 12)
Erskine meeting gets heated over board ouster | Students, faculty grill church officials at campus meeting (The Greenville News, March 11)
Erskine sues Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church over board ouster (The Greenville News, March 11)
Questions on Erskine's Accreditation | Church dismissal of trustees may violate two requirements of the institution's accreditor, putting its recognition at risk. (Inside Higher Ed, March 8)
Tension boiling over at Erskine | Church ousts many trustees; move could threaten accreditation (The State, March 6)
Synod replaces 14 Erskine College trustees as some students question professors' worldviews (The Greenville News, March 6)
Battle of Wills and Faith | Members of small, conservative denomination move to assert control over Erskine College, leaving many professors scared—and some subject to repeated online attacks. (Inside Higher Ed, March 1)
Erskine College goes under ARP microscope (The Presbyterian Layman, August 19, 2009)

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