I’m a graduate of a conservative Christian liberal arts college, and I’ve done graduate work in degree programs in ministry and biblical studies at both mainstream and conservative Christian institutions. I’ve done some academic teaching and am a retired pastor. With this background, my perspectives can contribute to the conversation about recent changes at Shorter.
With my experiences, I have some understanding and respect for a variety of cultures and belief systems of Christian individuals, churches, and academic institutions. Christian folks have always had some disagreements, from New Testament times on; e.g., see the books of Acts, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and 1 John. Some “Christian family” squabbles result in reconciliation; others result in rifts.
I have read Shorter University’s Statement of Faith, Biblical Principles on the Integration of Faith and Learning, Philosophy for Christian Education, and Personal Lifestyle Statement. Even though I come from a different stream of Christian heritage, my own views closely track a number of things stated. However, even though I remain a relatively conservative follower of Jesus Christ, I take issue with some of the thinking behind the recent changes at Shorter, especially the requirement that all faculty and all staff adhere to such narrowly defined statements. They go well beyond requesting that faculty avoid teaching/advocating positions contrary to Shorter’s, by requiring that all personnel not even think otherwise.
MY SUPPOSITION is that the trustees and other leaders of the church-controlled university wish to take Shorter “back” to some theoretical time of theological and moral purity. I’m sure that this “house cleaning” was well-intended, in trying to provide students with a quality education in a Christ-centered school. However, the rather sudden shifts have resulted in unintended consequences.
I can understand that a church-related school would want faculty members, especially in certain sensitive areas such as biblical studies and theology, to appreciate and value the controlling body’s viewpoints. But to require all faculty and all staff, including presumably administrative staff and maintenance workers, to sign a rigid statement is excessive and counter-productive. The claim by a Shorter official that the school must abide by the requirements of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities conveniently ignores the fact that such an affiliation is entirely optional for Shorter.
As a private, religiously-oriented college, Shorter does have the legal right to be as exclusionary as the trustees wish. However, God asks for wisdom as well as for purity. No group can include everyone and everything without giving up its core identity and values. But on what or whom is the group basing its identity?
Jesus spoke more about loving God and people than anything else. And he spoke, especially in the Gospel of Luke, about concern for the poor and the proper use of possessions more than any other moral issue. This corresponds to the biblical prophets who thundered against idolatry and injustice as much as they did against sexual immorality. So why are the Shorter statements so unbalanced? (See Matthew 23:23.) Why are there no requirements that faculty and staff work for justice for all, and to avoid greed and hurtful gossip? Coming from a supposedly non-creedal sponsoring organization, Shorter’s combined statements sound very much like an excruciatingly detailed creed.
I AM ONE who believes that truth is absolute, but I also believe that God requires us to have the humility to realize that our current grasp of truth lacks unambiguous clarity. I further believe in the trustworthiness and authority of scripture: the Bible expresses God’s revelation of himself to his people. But people of genuine Christian faith draw varying conclusions from it (I realize that not all viewpoints have equal weight; and no, not just anything goes). For example, I know from personal experience that translating the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek biblical texts into English involves a significant amount of interpretation, as no two languages share an identical syntax or range of meanings of words and idioms.
Shorter has been a noteworthy Christian institution throughout the decades. However, the character and climate of Shorter has changed from a more broadly based Christian understanding to one that is much more insular. I can understand why many alumni feel betrayed, as it is no longer the school they came to love. Many assert that Shorter has been hijacked by an organization which contributes little financially and which does not appreciate the value of Shorter as it was for some time. If Shorter had been all along what it is now becoming, the current situation would not be so wrenching.
It is unlikely that many current faculty and staff members were grilled on their non-specialty stances before they were hired. The ground has been shifted out from under them. If the assertions are true, many quality professors, staff and students are leaving Shorter. I admire their integrity in choosing to do so, rather than to sign off on something they cannot assent to. For many of them, it comes at great cost to their profession/calling, family relationships and finances.
AT THE SAME TIME I expect that many current leaders of Shorter University feel overwhelmed or even besieged by the barrage of in-school, community and international scorn. The intensity of opposition was unexpected, especially as they are doing what they believe is right before God and in the best interests of students and others, for now and for eternity.
It would be good for persons on all sides of the issue to put this into practice: “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). This is respect for all persons — Christians and people who question traditional Christian beliefs. Rigid people on both the far right and the far left of the spectrum violate this principle. Some folks would like to follow Jesus, but are deterred by those who claim the name of Jesus Christ, but whose attitudes and lives do not winsomely reflect such allegiance. All those who are “still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions” (referring to Guy Noir, Garrison Keillor’s character) can join hands to work for the mutual good.
“God is good. All the time.” I join others in believing in the providence of God for all persons connected with Shorter — past, present, and future. God can bring healing, hope, and new life. God says, “… I have plans to give you [plural] a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, NET). God still seeks to transform the world through people of good will.
Frank Norris, of Cave Spring, is a retired pastor.