Shifting Sands at Erskine

Shifting Sands at Erskine

While the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Synod, a confessional evangelical Presbyterian denomination, has worked for some years to gently turn around its increasingly secularized Erskine college, the reality of difference between the denomination's and the former board and present administration's direction for the school are now stunningly stark.

On March 3, 2010, the Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Churches, the broadest and highest representative assembly of the denomination (with representation from all local congregations) voted by large majorities to adjust the direction of the institution, in part by reconstituting the board of the denominationally owned institution, which had effectively stonewalled previous attempts to renew and strengthen the historic evangelical and Reformed mission of the institution.  

Following the Synod decisions, Board of Trustees Chairman Scott Mitchell along with other members of the previous board indicated their willingness to work with the Synod directives, and serve on the reconstituted Board.  College President Randy Ruble also declared his intent to work with the Synod and issued public statements that the accreditation and day-to-day operations of the institution would in no way be affected.  On campus, people seemed divided, with many students voicing support for the Synod's actions.  Across most of the denomination the mood was one of relief and new hope that issues at the college and seminary would at last be addressed.

Behind the scenes, however, other moves were afoot.  Efforts were quickly underway to lobby SACS and ATS to revoke Erskine's accreditation, citing fears of loss of academic freedom.  A group of outraged alumni, led by Aldon Knight and others, worked on various angles, including hard lobby of SACS accreditors, and soon SACS issued statements publicly noting concern and the need for investigation.  

Meanwhile, Board Chairman Scott Mitchell, a ruling elder in the Tennessee-Alabama Presbytery of the ARP launched a unilateral suit against the Interim Board and General Synod of the ARP on behalf of Erskine College, claiming "irreparable damage" to the  institution through potential loss of SACS accreditation.  Ruble at the same time transitioned to voicing statements of increasing concern regarding the situation.   Now he openly criticizes and challenges the Synod actions in public media, providing a greater aura of legitimacy to the litigation effort.

Whether the suit will prove successful is not clear.  However, the circumstances themselves are far more revealing of the college's condition.  It is very evident that a portion of the Erskine constituency, along with a minority in the denomination, have little regard for working through God-given patterns of church government, perhaps because of the continual growth of the more conservative evangelical majority.  That a Synod would call for a greater integration of faith and learning, and a more distinctively Christian worldview in her institutions ought to be encouraging to a Christian.  That a Synod would seek to have its institutions uphold the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures is a baseline, historic distinction between evangelical and liberal trending to secular.  

Though astonishing, this historic event also provides helpful clarity, and a sobering reality check on the depth of decay to address.  Concerns regarding the former board and leading parts of the administration, along with a small portion of the denomination, are verified.  One would be hard pressed to see why an evangelical denomination would accommodate in her ministries those willing to pursue an end run through civil courts, in defiance of the very nature of Christ's church and her desire to pursue faithfulness.  It is difficult to see any reflection of grace, gospel, or biblical justice in attempting to wrest the control of these institutions away from the denomination which formed, supports, and has owned them for nearly 200 years.  

Yet, the sure comfort even in the midst of deep tensions and challenge is that God does honor those who honor Him; He does work all things together for good to those who love Him.  He will certainly do this for a denomination taking up this cross to follow Him, striving for greater faithfulness to His glory.

Dr. William VanDoodewaard is Assistant Professor of History at Patrick Henry College, Visiting Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and a member of Good News Presbyterian Church (ARP), Frederick, MD.

[Editor's Notes]: The views presented in this article are of its author and are not necessarily those of ref21, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, or its editors.

Additional information regarding the events at Erskine can be found in any number of places on the web. Among them is the Aquila Report.