I remember with fondness conversations I had with Dr. L. C. Johnson, the founding president of Welch College, before his death. He stressed to me the importance of educating all kinds of students, with all kinds of callings—those called into full-time ministry and those called to be salt and light in the other professions.
Yet Dr. Johnson stressed to me that he believed that, at its center, the college was commissioned to provide education for ministers, missionaries, and other church leaders. Without a force of well-educated young people called to serve God in full-time church vocations, our churches would not survive. Thus the college had to provide these laborers.
This is still the case, and as our community of faith grows and we launch out into deeper and more difficult waters in this new cultural matrix, we need more vocational Christian ministers than ever before. We must dedicate ourselves anew to educating preachers of the Word who will take a firm stand for God and truth in an age when divine truth is hard to find, shepherds who will lovingly lead their flocks and feed them the good Word of God, evangelists who will speak words of reconciliation to those who are “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.”
We must commit ourselves to producing cross-cultural missionaries who will take the Gospel of God into dangerous and exotic places like Afghanistan and the Ivory Coast, or into places closer to home like the Nashville jails or urban Chicago.
Adapting Ministry Education to New Contexts
This will mean adapting our ministry education to new contexts. It will mean, for example, providing online ministry education for mid-career adults who have responded to God’s call to ministry yet in this current economic environment cannot pull up stakes and move their families to Nashville to attend college. This is why we have started offering fully online associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Christian Ministry.
It will also mean moving into the arena of graduate theological education, beginning with an M.A. in theology and ministry and eventually moving into the establishment of a full-fledged Free Will Baptist theological seminary.
We remain committed to a full-orbed education that brings together an emphasis on Christian ministry education with a commitment to providing education across the disciplines and career fields. In this way our students will be enabled to respond to God as stewards of the gifts and callings He has given them, and be the leaders in the church and the world He has called them to be.
Beauty and Excellence
One thing Dr. L. C. Johnson said to me that will always stay with me was that he founded the college with a vision of cultural excellence. Perhaps this was why everything he touched gleamed with beauty and excellence and refinement.
This commitment to excellence was evident not only in his demand for gracious and considerate behavior for others—what is commonly called etiquette—but also in his appreciation of the arts. Our mission at Welch College must continue to be imbued with this sense of beauty and excellence and high cultural ideals.
People cannot be most productive in their vocation unless they are surrounded by beauty. Thus, we must commit ourselves to fostering a climate for the creation of beauty—from our teaching in the classroom, to chapel, to an ongoing emphasis on the arts—musical, dramatic, and visual—to beauty and elegance in the way we do our jobs, to the professional and personal etiquette we teach and model before our students.
A Historical Tension
Among Free Will Baptists there has always been a tension between anti-intellectualism and a Christian concern for the life of the mind. This tension existed among us as early as the middle seventeenth century. Two examples among our English General Baptist forebears are instructive: The London preacher Edward Barber reacted to being kept out of the schools of the Church of England by denouncing all humane learning. Yet the Lincolnshire farmer and tailor Thomas Grantham became an accomplished linguist, theologian, preacher, and writer through a sustained study of the Bible in the original languages, classical literature, and the Christian Fathers.
When Benjamin Laker, Paul Palmer’s father-in-law, moved to this side of the Atlantic in the late 1600s, he greatly valued his books on theology and other subjects, including Christianismus Primitivus, Grantham’s theological magnum opus. This same concern for education exhibited itself with the small band of worshippers Laker left behind after his death, who appealed to their brothers and sisters in England for either a preacher or for books—and this despite the fact that they and their posterity were kept out of institutions of higher education until late in the eighteenth century.
Zeal with Knowledge
This is the kind of tradition that has been perpetuated by Welch College throughout its history, and we remain devoted to this vision of Christian education. As Dr. Johnson said in a sermon, “Education is not to tame zeal, but to channel it.” We must renew our commitment to opposing that kind of zeal that is “not according to knowledge.”
Our Orthodox Tradition
A major strength of Welch College is that we remain firmly rooted in the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy our forebears have bequeathed to us with an unblemished inheritance of Christian faith and practice. The mediator of this tradition has been our churches that make up the National Association of Free Will Baptists. They have insured that we remain on a steady course of Christian orthodoxy and the faith and practice that our fathers and mothers believed—and we believe—most closely reflect the witness of Holy Scripture. Welch College must be a wise steward of that heritage of Christian confession—ensuring by rigorous Christian scholarship and spiritual vigilance that our inheritance remains intact in a new context of religious relativism.
Because of the debt of gratitude we owe to our churches, we must commit ourselves to serving them. Our college must not only be interested in what the denomination can do for it. We must be concerned about what we can do for our denomination. We must strive to instill in our students loyalty to our denomination and our confession of faith.