Baptist-aligned Cedarville University beset by conflicts

6/14/2014
BY JOANNE VIVIANO
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Thomas White, president of Cedarville University.
Thomas White, president of Cedarville University.

CEDARVILLE, Ohio — An independent Baptist university in this western Ohio town ended the academic year facing criticism for confiscating an alternative student newspaper. It’s the latest in a string of events that some see as a sign the school is taking an increasingly fundamentalist bent.

Copies of The Ventriloquist were taken on April 23 as students distributed the paper outside Cedarville University’s daily chapel service, which all students are expected to attend. University president Thomas White said the papers were taken because students had not obtained permission to distribute them.

Some students and alumni speculate that the move was a reaction to an earlier issue that criticized the administration’s treatment of gay students, but others say the Ventriloquist staff provoked the confrontation to draw negative attention to the school.

Wherever the truth lies, many people who have studied at Cedarville share one feeling: They’re saddened by the many rifts that have happened since 2007.

Among them: the dismissal of a professor considered theologically conservative by supporters; significant turnover on the board of trustees; the dismissal of a professor who wrote a book that administrators viewed as contrary to creationist views; the departure of former president William Brown and about half of the instructors in the Bible department; the elimination of the philosophy department; a new stipulation that only female students can take women’s-ministry courses; and updates to a doctrinal statement to emphasize the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman and marked by male leadership.

Mr. White, who arrived on campus last June, said the university has been conservative since its founding in 1887. Students and staff members are required to agree to behavior standards, and staff members must sign the doctrinal statement, he said.

Cedarville has about 3,400 students, all of whom are required to minor in Bible studies.

Alumni expressing concern said the university, under Mr. Brown, had moved from fundamentalism to a more-mainstream conservative evangelicalism, but has since become theologically closed-minded and will have difficulty recruiting students.

Zach Schneider with his newspaper near Cedarville University.
Zach Schneider with his newspaper near Cedarville University.

The frustration is not that the school is becoming more conservative but that it seems to be “close-fisted — Christianity as a fortress,” a place that doesn’t welcome disagreement or serious debate, said Jonathan Lett, a 2006 Cedarville graduate who is pursuing a doctorate in theology and ethics at the University of St. Andrews.

Zak Weston, who graduated last year and served as student-government president, said an interest in doctrinal purity forced out administrators and faculty members ministering to students who struggled with deep issues or didn’t fit into the campus culture.

“It’s a completely different school from when I was there,” he said. “You don’t really feel a sense of joy and pride talking about your alma mater, and that’s disappointing.”

The Rev. Chris Williamson, a former trustee who is senior pastor at Strong Tower Bible Church in Nashville, Tenn., said he left the board because he “didn’t feel that people were dealing with one another in a way that reflected Christian virtues like honesty and humility.

“I pray that one day they will be able to find what God wants so they can stop forcing what a few overly zealous and ill-advised men want,” he said.

Ventriloquist editor Zach Schneider, of Great Mills, Md., said censoring the paper would silence its efforts to inform students about the recent changes, quash alternative perspectives, and quiet voices of students who feel they’ve been wronged.

But outside chapel might not have been the best place to distribute the paper, said Carl Ruby, who was among the administrators who left Cedarville last year.

“I think the paper served a valuable function in encouraging critical thinking and promoting the kinds of discourse that should occur on a university campus,” he said in an email. “We were open to listening to people who had different perspectives, and there was a very high level of commitment to civil dialogue and intellectual humility, without giving up our own biblical convictions.”

Mr. White said he has not tried to silence dissenting opinions. For example, students read both conservative and liberal perspectives in his systematic-theology course, he said.

“Then, as your professor, I’m going to help guide you to what I believe is the right position,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure we have good, comprehensive education, not indoctrination.”