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Schools Among Brethren

by Don Martin

Schools among brethren have been a troubling issue, but one not often and carefully studied. I shall not attempt to explore all the nuances of the school issue, but rather I shall focus primarily on the Church of Christ Seminary image inevitably involved with the Bible Department so often associated with the different schools.

During the years of 1871 through 1875, many brethren began for the first time to really consider the college among brethren issue. The prompting cause of this focus was twofold. One source involved the problems experienced by Kentucky University where Robert Milligan was made President and J. W. McGarvey accepted the responsibility as "Teacher of the Bible" (1865). The other prompting circumstance was occasioned by the controversy over the Missionary Society organization, which resulted in many brethren examining all concepts pertaining to organizations in addition to but "associated" with the local church or brethren in general.

As intimated, there have been and are many issues relative to colleges run and operated by brethren. Many of the schools have given in to financial pressures and have accepted monies from local churches, one of the issues. One area of concern has been the seminary image or the Bible Department and associated degrees characteristic of many of the schools. Some have viewed the college as a major source for producing preachers and effecting soundness in local churches. Hear President James Cope in a letter he wrote to Yater Tant, April 20, 1949 (on March 4, 1997 Florida College's present President Caldwell read Cope's letter to the faculty of Florida College. I understand a request was made by a faculty member to adopt a resolution of present support for the goals and principles stated in Cope's letter. The faculty reportedly responded unanimously):

"Dear Bro. Tant,

As you know I am to assume my responsibilities in connection with Florida Christian College, Florida, July 1. ...Occasionally you will be asked your opinion concerning the school; hence, this letter is for your own information and brethren who may be asking. ... (6) Preacher training. While we expect to have academic work accepted as readily by other educational institutions as that of any of our sister institutions, we make no apology to anybody for placing emphasis on the teaching of young men desiring to teach the gospel and others desirous of doing religious work. We believe that the safety, security and soundness of the church depend upon the kind and amount of preaching and teaching done. Those who take the lead in this matter are elders and preachers, and unless they are thoroughly grounded in the faith innovations, errors, and inertia will abound; hence, we expect to have a Bible department second to none. Our students will be taught the issues and how to meet them...."

Concerned reader, David Lipscomb was an educator who during a certain portion of his life zealously promoted colleges among brethren (Gospel Advocate, Vol. 19, No. 32, Aug. 16, 1877, pg. 505). However, even Lipscomb opposed colleges "to train and educate young preachers" (Gospel Advocate, vol. 17, No 15, April 8, 1875, pg. 345). A number of the preachers who were considered "anti college" did not totally oppose the existence of colleges among brethren. They opposed matters such as church support, replacing the church, doing the work assigned to the local church, and serving as preacher training institutions and offering degrees in the Bible.

When colleges are discussed, inevitably the name Daniel Sommer is injected. If you oppose a "Church of Christ Seminary" image, some will label you as a terrible Sommerite. Daniel Sommer began an intense war against colleges among brethren in about 1902. In some respects, Sommer is an enigma. Some of the challenge lies, I think, in the way Sommer defined a Bible College. Historians sometimes draw attention to Sommer's statement in the Octographic Review that he was opposed to churches "establishing schools...with money which should be placed in the treasury of the church..." (Vol. 48, no. 30, July 25, 1905, pg. 6). In response to Sommer's declaration, James Harding (an arch opponent of Sommer) stated, "I am amazed to think how successfully he kept me in the dark about his true position in all these years..." (Octographic Review, Vol. 48, No. 34, August 22, 1905, pg. 8).

The years between 1871 and 1906 were especially a time of controversy among brethren over the college issue. The American Christian Review, The Apostolic Review, the Advocate, and the Octographic Review carried a number of exchanges and articles on the college issue. Potter Bible School, Kentucky University, the Nashville Bible School, and Bethany College were the sources and references of many discussions. As a matter of fact, there were not that many disputants who contended the Bible absolutely could not be taught in a college. Hear even Daniel Sommer:

"But from the first response to what I have written on the subject to the last (reference to the college issue, dm) that I recollect having seen, I have been charged with teaching that it is 'wrong' to teach the Bible in connection with secular things....In regard to the charge just quoted, I state that it is utterly destitute of truth..." ("A Plain Statement and Challenge," Octographic Review, Vol. 46, No. 31, Aug. 4, 1903, Pg. 1).

Some of my brethren would be shocked to know that David Lipscomb stated, "We think the most fatal mistake of Alexander Campbell's life and one that has done much and we fear will do more to undo his life's work was the establishment of a school to train and educate young preachers" ("Schools for Preachers," Gospel Advocate, Vol. 17, No. 15, pg. 345).

My not uncommon personal experiences. After I was baptized, I was encouraged to consider full-time preaching. Out of interest, I began to ask established preachers what they viewed as prerequisites. Out of all the preachers I consulted, about 85 percent said you must attend Florida College. I had a mother and sister I was supporting and I lived about 2,000 miles from FC. In each instance, I asked why did they think I had to attend FC. The answer I received might surprise some. The answer was not for the academics, but for the connections I would make. "Don, if you do not attend, you will be very limited in your preaching opportunities, at the best," was the standard explanation.

Forty years of preaching later, I could not begin to mention the specific cases I have witnessed involving others and myself regarding the Florida College Seminary image syndrome. Some view one as lacking "authenticity" if one has not attended "our college." Also, there exists a strong loyalty to the school, often to the ignoring and defending of problems associated with the school. In this same vein, there is not a small amount of politics and the party spirit associated with "our" schools (Philippians 1:16, to read more about the party spirit, click here). I grew up in the Baptist religion (I also attended Baptist Seminary), and I have seen exactly the same mentality in the Lord's church that I witnessed among the Baptists and their schools.

"Don, do not you realize Florida College is not always responsible for such thinking," some would inject. I appreciate such statements because they are true. Brethren often force Florida College into the Seminary position. However, a school with a four year Bible Department and associated degree has put itself in the position of being "our Seminary." I also concede that "our" schools do a lot of good; however, accomplishing good, as such, is not the criterion to necessarily justify their existence (Matthew 7:21-23). Sometimes a matter may even be a legitimate expedient in essence, but be so characterized by associated and resulted problems that the expediency benefit is negated (cp. I Corinthians 10:23).

When I was repeatedly told by a number of well known preachers that I had to attend Florida College to amount to anything in preaching, I flatly refused to go. I continued my regimen of personal study, attending local college, and preaching every opportunity I had (I had many). I also worked with different preachers who were known to have developed special expertise in certain areas (see addendum). After about four years, I found myself in full-time preaching.

There are currently many schools at large associated with "churches of Christ." Freed Hardeman University, Pepperdine University, Abilene Christian University, Oklahoma Christian University, and Florida College, to name a few. Any amateur historian would know that the doctrinal status of some local churches of Christ today has been largely determined and effected by the schools.

Much of the innovation in all religions has originated in their seminaries. Historians point to the severe problems among Baptists Churches as being initially introduced by their Seminaries. Alas, many of the problems regarding non-institutional churches of Christ have been greatly influenced by "Florida College." I am referring to the Homer Hailey matter involving divorce and remarriage and all the unity in diversity that has been espoused in an effort to avoid division. Hailey's association with Florida College and the fierce loyalty on the part of some to defend the Florida College persona has paved the way for one of the greatest apostasies of my time. A large percentage of brethren connected with Florida College have embraced false doctrines regarding Romans 14 and fellowship in general. They have been forced into such positions because of their defense of Homer Hailey, the personification of Florida College.

Brethren, when will we learn? I am not saying that brethren do not have the right to have a school that is funded by tuition and that attempts to adhere to moral standards and, in addition to secular matters, presents the Bible as a literary study. However, when brethren create a school with a Bible Department and assume the role of providing churches with preachers and soundness in general, we inevitably have a "Church of Christ Seminary" and all the attendant problems!

Addendum: The scriptures explicitly teach how preachers are to be produced. Hear Paul as he writes to a preacher, Timothy: "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also" (II Timothy 2: 2). When preachers act in concert to train preachers through a school such as Florida College, they have created an institution. It is the institution (Florida College) that offers the Bible degrees.