Mid-America Seminary, other schools stepped up to the plate

DALLAS (BP)--Years before the conservative resurgence began, a handful of non-SBC-related schools filled the void of orthodox scholarship.

Luther Rice Seminary, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and The Criswell College provided students the opportunity to learn from professors who affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture.

All three remain to this day -- and are doing quite well -- even though Southern Baptist seminaries were reformed under conservative leadership.

A 19th-century Baptist missionary by the same name provided the basis on which Luther Rice Seminary was built.

"He believed in missions, cooperation between churches, Christian education, the authority of the Bible, the power of the Holy Spirit, and Bible preaching," Luther Rice Seminary President James L. Flanagan says on the school's website.

The school was chartered in 1962 in Jacksonville, Fla., first utilizing a nontraditional, external educational format and receiving accreditation from Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. In 1991 LRS moved to Lithonia, Ga., offering bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. According to the seminary's website, a core premise of the seminary is that all teaching and learning must submit to the authority of the Bible, God's inerrant word.

Mid-America Seminary's Emeritus President, Gray Allison, said that the Memphis-based seminary began as a place for students to come with the assurance that the faculty and staff would "believe all of the Bible was true all the way through."

"At that time (of the founding of Mid-America) we didn't have a seminary like that," Allison said.

Over the years, the enrollment has climbed and even though the Southern Baptist Convention has come back to its biblical roots, Mid-America is still meeting the needs of more than 500 students in Tennessee and also in New York, where a branch campus began in 1989 and has an enrollment of 59 students.

While not supported by the Cooperative Program, the requirements of Mid-America are that the faculty must be an active member of a local Southern Baptist church and every professor must "have an open heart, an open door, and be a soul winner." Students also are required to be active in ministry and to witness.

During the first years of Mid-America, Allison said the seminary was criticized.

"Our purpose was to get students prepared for Southern Baptist ministry," he said. "We've always stayed positive, not criticizing other seminaries. Over the years, we gradually won acceptance."

The Southern Baptist conservative resurgence, Allison said, has been a positive for Mid-America.

"The North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board, the Sunday School Board, now LifeWay, all want our graduates," he said. "We have a great relationship with the SBC entities."

But before the Southern Baptist seminaries experienced rebirth of orthodox teaching, Mid-America saw many seminary students transfer to its campus, Allison said.

The seminary traces its history back to 1971 as "The School of the Prophets" in Louisiana. It then relocated to Little Rock, Ark., where the name was changed to Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Classes began in 1972 with 28 students.

The seminary moved to Tennessee in 1975. Despite the theological change in the Southern Baptist landscape, Allison says the seminary is "still in the business to prepare Southern Baptist folks for the ministry."

Michael R. Spradlin is its current president.

W.A. Criswell, legendary pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, cast the vision for The Criswell College in 1969, proposing a place where people would be trained by professors who believed the Bible was inerrant. The school was born two years later.

"The great preacher of the First Baptist Church of Dallas had a heart for preachers as well as for the Word of God," said Criswell College Chancellor Mac Brunson, now pastor of First Baptist.

"The Criswell College stands today on the foundation of its founder with a commitment to excellency in the classroom, a dedication to the infallibility of the word of God, and a love for missions and evangelism," Brunson says on the school's website.

"This College is literally a laboratory of conservative evangelicalism dealing with the original languages of Scripture, teaching biblical and church history with expertise and depth, guiding men and women through the Gospels, the Old Testament and the New Testament, all with a passion and preciseness. All of this and more is accomplished in an urban environment, connected to the most historic Baptist church in America."

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin is one of the many Criswell graduates serving in a leadership role within the Southern Baptist Convention.

"The entire theological playing field was laid out before me, but again and again I was shown why it is the Word of God and truth that will stand forever," Akin said. "I will never be able to repay the debt I owe to The Criswell College."

The school progressed from a night institute begun in 1971 to a college offering diploma, associate, bachelor and master's level studies, preparing students for the pastorate, missions, evangelism, Christian education, communications, youth ministry, worship leadership, women's ministry or other related Christian ministries.

Criswell College Executive Vice President and Provost Lamar Cooper said the school stands among a small minority of theologically conservative colleges in the Southern Baptist Convention. While the seminaries have changed direction since the conservative resurgence began to take hold, he said, Southern Baptist colleges typically have not since college trustee boards are not accountable to the SBC and in many cases not to the state conventions.

"While that is the political reality, it is part of the reason that there has been no substantive theological shift in most of the Baptist colleges," Cooper said.


Compiled by Tammi Ledbetter & Tim McKeown. This story originally appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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