Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Criswell College battle is yet another example of the Orwellian drama

(Shortly after posting this blog, I received word that Jerry Johnson this morning resigned as president of Criswell College. See http://www.texanonline.net/default.asp?action=article&aid=5856&issue=8/25/2008)

For months the rumor mill has flourished with juicy morsels about the simmering battle forming behind the scenes between First Baptist Church of Dallas' new pastor, Robert Jeffress, and the leaders of the college created by First Baptist Church of Dallas honoring its legendary and controversial pastor, Wallie Amos Criswell.

Despite efforts to keep the brouhaha out of the public arena, the story last week finally leaked to the Dallas Morning News, so now Baptist Press and other media this week are picking it up.

On the surface, the issue seems to be about one issue: money. Like so many big-church preachers, Jeffress wants to build yet another monstrosity of a church building. Some say costs for his new building may run $150 million or higher. Depending on whose version of the rumors you believe, Jeffress either wants to sell the college and its popular Christian radio station, KCBI, for cash for the expansion, or wants to get rid of both institutions to get rich First Baptist Dallas members who presently underwrite the college and radio station to shift their giving to the church's new building fund.

Jeffress denies the rumors—all except his desire to build the new monstrously expensive worship facility. 

The school's president, Jerry Johnson, weighed in publicly last weekend and undergirded the allegations against Jeffress. So have some school trustees. They also allege that Jeffress is using his influence at the church to load the school's trustee board with like-minded individuals committed to his cause. 

Why should anybody care whether First Baptist Dallas sells, disposes of, or junks what is tantamount to a small four-year, 350-student Bible college?

Beyond the jockeying going on between Jeffress and Johnson is a significant point lost in all the talk about money: Had Criswell College not existed, the conservatives (a.k.a. the fundamentalists) probably wouldn't be ruling and reigning in the Southern Baptist Convention today. The school played (and its former staff and students continue to play) a crucial role in providing the personpower and political muscle that was necessary to literally remove the SBC from the hands of the so-called moderates and place the reins of power in the hands of the conservatives.

Paige Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, was once the president of Criswell College. From that post, he joined with Judge Paul Pressler of Houston in launching the so-called Conservative Resurgence (a.k.a. The Fundamentalist Takeover) of the SBC. Patterson's administrative team, faculty, and students today hold the reins of political power in the SBC. For instance, Richard Land, now exec of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, once was Patterson's right-hand man as dean of the school. David Dockery, president of Tennessee Baptist's Union University and one of the SBC's leading theologians, once was a Criswell College faculty member. SBC trustee boards and SBC agencies are filled with Criswell College graduates, who occupy strategic power positions—far beyond the percentage of power positions occupied by any other Baptist college or university.

Johnson himself left an indelible historic mark on the SBC. He was chair of the Southern Seminary trustee board that trumped the mother seminary's moderate leadership and catapaulted the conservatives into power in Louisville. 

So this is no little ordinary Bible college that Jeffress is messing with. This is the school which housed some of the key chiefs and many of the important warriors of the Conservative Resurgence. And, by the way, Jeffress now occupies the office once held by the granddaddy of the Conservative Resurgence, W.A. Criswell.

Granted, many of the players in the Conservative Resurgence now have moved on to bigger and better institutions. Their new jobs are accompanied by bigger and better salaries, perks, benefits, and political prestige. But Criswell College is the place where it all began for many of them.

Given this background I find great irony in the fact that the battle now rages over the college's future. It also raises the question whether all along the college was merely a Trojan Horse created as a staging ground for the troops to assault their moderate foes.  If it is not worth saving now, what was its purpose originally?

This latest battle pitting SBC conservatives against each other over the future of Criswell College is one more example of a pattern I've been observing among the conservatives for several years now. 

In my book, "Witness to the Truth", I note how the Conservative Resurgence reminds me more and more of the pigs in George Orwell's classic "Animal Farm", itself a satire on Soviet communism. In that story, the farm animals rise up against their human masters and overthrow them on a platform which points out the evil the humans had committed.  Slowly at first, then eventually pall-mall, the animals—led by the pigs—become every bit as contentious, if not more so, than the humans they had overthrown, including squabbles among themselves. In my book I reported that I see many indications today that the conservatives have taken on the role of the pigs in their own version of "Animal Farm". High on my list of reasons is the squabbling occurring both publicly and privately among the ruling conservatives themselves.

As the scrape over Criswell College unfolds, we apparently need to score yet another one for the pigs!


Anonymous said...

Orwellophile - Someone who is fascinated by the vision of George Orwell's dystopia.


I sign my name to my articles and comments. I hope the day will arrive when you will have equal courage. Nevertheless until then, I'm glad to publish your "anonymous" comments here.

Derek Knighten said...


The tone of your article reeks with schadenfreude and bitterness. I'm signing my name to this statement.

Derek Knighten



I commend you for choosing to post with your name, not anonymous.

Second, as I said in my book "Witness to the Truth", long before 1979 I saw the need for a course correction in the Southern Baptist Convention, because of certain things that were occurring in the SBC seminaries as well as the wider denomination. Just as I saw the need then, today I see troubling signs within the Conservative Resurgence itself as it approaches its 30th anniversary. Public and private squabbling among conservative leaders as has occurred at Criswell College is one of those signs. Another is the blatant disregard and denigration of for those who led the movement initially and who, like Jerry Johnson, risked their careers for it. (For other signs, read my book.)

As I said in my blog column, Criswell College IS the place where the Conservative Resurgence began. Its historical role in the Conservative Resurgence is indisputable. Despite the fact that the key players have for the most part moved on to bigger and better salaries and more prestigious positions, the school belongs to their past—and also to the movement's past and present.

After 30 years any movement needs careful, objective reflection on where it has been and where it is going. In my book I try to provide these types of helps. My hope and prayer is that the messages will be heard correctly and not defensively.

Third, I looked up your word schadenfreude and saw that the New York Times defines it as "delighting in others' misfortune." I do not delight in the harm the squabbling has done to the college; quite the contrary, I hurt for the school as well as the Conservative Resurgence itself. The only thing worse would have been for the individuals involved to try to hide the truth of their disagreement in the darkness.

Shooting the messenger is always the easiest short- term solution. The better long-term approach is to hear clearly, analyze carefully, and respond appropriately.


Derek Knighten said...


Thanks for the clarity, and the followup post. I am in agreement with many of your premises.

From a fellow Garlandite,

Derek Knighten

Michael Ruffin said...


Sorry to be so long after the post to comment on it but I just came across it.

Your post sparked a memory, albeit a fuzzy one. I attended the 1984 SBC meeting in Dallas; I was a Southern Seminary student at the time. Criswell College students were serving as ushers or pages or something like that--I think they were all wearing red blazers.

I seem to recall a speaker/presenter, I think an agency head, who, after giving his report, was surrounded and verbally assaulted by a group of those students.

Do you have any recollection of that incident?

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a self-identified Baptist moderate; you can see for yourself at http://onthejerichoroad.blogspot.com.

Blessings to you.


Sorry but I don't recall that incident. That was one wild convention with so much happening that's it's difficult to remember everything.

Your question points to something I have been saying over and over: Church historians have underestimated the power and influence of that tiny band of Criswellian warriors. Even today Criswell College grads exercise a degree of influence and control over the SBC that is far, far greater than the size of their little school.

Thanks for writing.