By David Wilkinson
The Baptist world was set abuzz by Monday’s announcement of Kenneth Starr’s election as president of Baylor University. Not surprisingly, everyone has an opinion about this big news. Across Baptist life, the phone calls, e-mails, blog posts, Facebook comments and tweets have been raging.
I’m not going to wade in on the question of whether the choice of Starr was a good one or whether Baylor’s regents should have limited the search to candidates who were Baptist.
But I am struck by the irony of it all.
Last year, Baptists worldwide celebrated their 400th birthday. Now, a few months later, the board of the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher learning has elected the first not-now, never-been-a-Baptist president in Baylor’s 165-year history.
Whatever your opinion about the regents’ latest choice, it’s at least ironic. Out of 105 million Baptists worldwide, Baylor’s presidential-search committee and board of regents could not find a solitary soul deemed worthy of occupying the chief executive’s office in Waco. Assuming the search was limited to the United States, nowhere among thousands of Baptist pastors — even among those with a Ph.D. and previous leadership experience in higher education — could a qualified candidate be found. Nowhere among Baylor’s 140,000 alumni or among the tens of thousands of alumni of other Baptist colleges and universities did a Baptist with the right leadership qualities and the right portfolio of experience rise to the top of the resume stack. Upon no one among the chief academic and executive officers of 48 Southern Baptist-affiliated colleges and universities — the presidents, the deans and provosts, and all the vice presidents of this and that — did the light of God’s chosen fall. Not even in the broader arena of all American higher education could a lone Baptist employed by a non-Baptist university be found — not a member of a Baptist church or a church of Baptist heritage that has opted not to use “Baptist” in its name; not a current non-Baptist who nonetheless is the product of a Baptist education; not even a former Baptist (as was the case with Starr’s immediate predecessor) or a wannabe or wouldabeen Baptist with a strong, self-proclaimed affinity for the Baptist heritage. None was found worthy. No, not one.
The state of Baptist leadership in America must be sadder than I thought.
Ken Starr may be the best choice for Baylor. The university may thrive under his leadership. The dollars may flow down the Brazos from existing and new tributaries like never before. That $2 billion endowment goal may now be more achievable than ever.
If Baylor’s regents believe a non-Baptist is the best-qualified person to serve as president, that’s their prerogative. They should do what they thoughtfully and prayerfully deem best for the university. If the best person for the job is a committed Christian who doesn’t happen to be a Baptist, then, by all means, affirm his faith experience, welcome his commitment to embrace the university’s distinctive heritage as a Baptist institution while remaining true to his own faith tradition, and move on.
But therein lies another ironic piece to this surprising turn of events.
The day before he was introduced to the Baylor community as the school’s 14th president, Starr announced that he will now become a Baptist after being raised in the Churches of Christ tradition and then migrating as an adult to the “larger evangelical world.” At Pepperdine University, where he is dean of the law school, Starr and his wife, Alice, have attended a Churches of Christ congregation on the campus, while continuing to consider the non-denominational McLean Bible Church in McLean, Va., to be their church home.
In an interview with Baptist Standard Editor Marv Knox, Starr said he plans to join a Baptist church by the time he takes office June 1. He added that he has been boning up on Baptist theology and feels a strong affinity for the historic Baptist principles of religious liberty, soul competency and priesthood of all believers, as well as Baptists’ long-held commitment to the separation of church and state.
Starr also brought up the matter of baptism. “I’m comfortable with the articulation of Baptist distinctives — including the role of baptism,” he volunteered. (As Knox noted, the doctrine of baptism has been a sticking point between the Churches of Christ, which believe baptism is essential for salvation, and Baptists, who do not.)
For four centuries a hallmark of the Baptist heritage has been that faith, to be genuine, must be free and uncoerced. Starr says he will “readily, cheerfully and enthusiastically” become a Baptist. Whether or not his cheerful decision was entirely voluntarily, I don’t think it was necessary.
That said, should the new president happen to join one of Waco’s Baptist congregations that does not embrace “alien immersion,” presumably he will be required to be re-baptized by immersion. There are scads of photos of Baptist university and seminary presidents being inaugurated and a good number of images of presidents kneeling for the “laying on of hands” as an act of spiritual blessing.
I dare say there are none depicting the baptism of a new president.