I want to share with my readers over the next few blog posts some thoughts about my vision as president for Welch College, and I want to start with some reflections on our tradition of faith and learning at Welch.
Stewardship of Our Tradition
I am convinced that anything great we accomplish at Welch College will depend on our stewardship of our tradition. Winston Churchill was surely right when he said, “The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.” We must face the future armed with the best of our heritage and with an understanding of our times that will enable us to contextualize our tradition to meet the needs of a new and complex era.
However, in our attempt to do this, we must not be caught up in contentment with the status quo. We must reach back within our tradition to recover a sense of identity that will enable us to be the Christian community of faith and learning that God has called us to be for our time.
“What you have as heritage, take now as task,
for thus you will make it your own.”
I think Goethe’s wisdom is instructive for our college today. Only by intentionally working at an identity that maintains continuity with the past can we hope to have an identity that will give us meaning and purpose for the future.
Of course, this means that we cannot be satisfied just to rely on our recent memory—in our own lifetimes—and rely on the comfortable and the familiar. We must reach further back into our memory as a college and as a people of faith and recover principles and attitudes that motivated our forefathers to greatness for our Lord—what Timothy George has called “renewal through retrieval.”
Building on a Foundation
As president of Welch College, I am one who is building on a foundation that was laid by men and women who have given their lives in the work of God. They are too numerous to mention. Among the most influential of these have been the four presidents of the college: L. C. Johnson, L. R. Ennis, Charles A. Thigpen, and C. Thomas Malone. My aim is to be a faithful steward of the legacy these men have left to me.
We owe so much to President L. C. Johnson, the founding president of our college. His life and work has been an inspiration to us all, and it changed the course of history for Free Will Baptists. Dr. Johnson had the uncanny ability to bring together faith, reason, and life in an unusual way that profoundly marked the lives of countless people.
He founded this college at a time, during World War II and immediately following the Great Depression, when higher education was among the least of things on the minds of Free Will Baptists. Those were heady times for L. C. Johnson and that small band of teachers and students that surrounded him seventy-one years ago. A sense of anticipation was in the air. They were not afraid to take risks. With God strengthening them, they could do all things.
I can only imagine what must have been going through the mind of this twenty-eight-year-old pastor from South Georgia who had been chosen to lead this new Free Will Baptist college. Before he died, Dr. Johnson told me some things about those early years that will always remain with me, things I think should help us confirm our course for the future. Early on, he said, he opposed the narrowness of some in our churches who were pushing for a simple Bible institute model. He believed that we needed a broad-based liberal arts curriculum.
Educating the Whole Person
The best way to equip men and women to serve Christ and His church was to educate them in the Scriptures as well as the ancient tradition of liberal arts that stretches back to the Middle Ages and beyond. But just as strenuously, he insisted that all truth was God’s truth, and that these arts and sciences must be taught from the vantage point of a Christian worldview.
In those early years, most of the students were studying to be ministers and missionaries, though many went on to distinguish themselves in a host of other fields. Yet Dr. Johnson insisted on educating the whole person, body, mind, and spirit, from the vantage point of a Christian worldview. This was, he believed, the best way to produce Christian leaders in the churches who could transform their world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is something that we need to emphasize more than ever at Welch College, especially given the fact that for half a century our college has been educating students in a variety of fields to serve Christ, His church, and His world. This is reflected in our Institutional Purpose statement, which states our commitment to “preparing men and women for church-related ministries or for careers that are not church related but are appropriate for Christians who live to serve Christ. In both cases the college is fulfilling the traditional Protestant vision of the sacredness of Divine vocation.”
Since the nineteen sixties, Leroy Forlines, Robert Picirilli, and others have been reiterating this grand dream of L. C. Johnson’s—the convergence of theological studies with a vision of the liberal arts and career preparation that is biblical-theological in focus. We must continue in this generation to make this dream a reality.
A Holistic Approach to Christian Higher Education
At Welch College we are resisting the call from so many in the Bible College movement to drive a wedge between theology and ministry on the one hand and the liberal arts and professions on the other. This approach sees the only justification for adding a field of study as being its usefulness for full-time church ministry—e.g., “We will offer a major in communications to prepare people to work at Christian radio stations.” We remain committed to the goal of producing Christian professionals who will be salt and light in the secular professions, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.
At the same time, we must resist the call from others in the Christian higher education arena to relegating Bible and theology and ministry and church leadership to a single department, thus hermetically sealing it off from the rest of the campus. We want to continue to see theology as the “queen of the sciences.” Our desire is to produce graduates who have a solid grasp on the implications of biblical teaching for the Christian life, for the church, and for all of life.
I believe this holistic approach to Christian higher education will help us maintain our historic commitments while at the same time reaching out to more students. One of our greatest challenges is to reach out to the 90% of Free Will Baptist students who do not attend Free Will Baptist colleges. We must strive to give those called to non-church-related careers a keen sense of their divine calling and their unique place in fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission to His saints. By keeping the above aims in the center of our view, we can move forward in fulfilling this goal.