Advocacy for Christian nationalism and acceptance of infant baptism have ended Joe Rigney’s presidential tenure at Bethlehem College and Seminary, an independent Baptist school aligned with Reformed theology.
“His position on the relationship between Christianity and civil government is not at home with the historic Baptist emphasis on the separation of church and state,” according to a letter signed by Tom Lutz, chairman of the board of trustees, and John Piper, chancellor.
They added: “Rigney’s more recent emphasis on a hoped-for eventual Christianization of all of society, including the civil government, has put him significantly out of step with other leaders of the school who would warn against the use of civil authority to establish Christianity as an official religion.”
Bethlehem College and Seminary represents some of the most conservative elements of contemporary Baptist theology, mixed with the theological tradition of John Calvin known as Calvinism. Piper, a popular preacher and author among Baptist Calvinists, is former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, which launched the school in 2009 as an outgrowth of earlier educational enterprises.
The seminary offers the master of divinity degree, and the college offers three bachelor’s degree options in theology and a master of arts degree. According to the school’s website, current enrollment is about 200 students.
Rigney has led the school since 2021 and has come under public scrutiny for his association with Idaho pastor Doug Wilson, an avowed Christian nationalist. Rigney also gained national attention in 2019 when he wrote an article calling empathy a “sin.”
According to the letter from Lutz and Piper announcing Rigney’s departure, the former president’s beliefs have been evolving in recent years in ways that “are out of step with several distinctives which Baptists have historically viewed as biblical.”
They did not call his current beliefs heresy but said they “fit more easily into a different stream of the Christian tradition.”
In addition to his belief in the power of the church to run the state, “his position on baptism and how the children of believers fit into the covenantal scheme of Scripture has developed to the point where infant baptism is an open question.” As a result, the president could not “with full confidence sign the Bethlehem College and Seminary Affirmation of Faith.”
“His position on baptism and how the children of believers fit into the covenantal scheme of Scripture has developed to the point where infant baptism is an open question.”
That Affirmation of Faith states: “We believe that baptism is an ordinance of the Lord by which those who have repented and come to faith express their union with Christ in his death and resurrection, by being immersed in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of belonging to the new people of God, the true Israel, and an emblem of burial and cleansing, signifying death to the old life of unbelief, and purification from the pollution of sin.”
The entire Baptist tradition springs from a rejection of infant baptism in favor of so-called “believer’s baptism,” meaning baptism by immersion of those who consciously choose to follow Jesus.
The school’s official announcement quoted Rigney as saying there are “substantial differences” between himself and some trustees, elders of the governing churches and the chancellor. “This divergence of vision has become a significant obstacle in carrying out my leadership role in the school. I do not believe that I have the full confidence of the trustees, the elders of the governing churches, or the chancellor.”
Of his future, he said: “My family and I are currently praying and considering a number of options for our future, all of which would enable us to continue to spread a passion for God’s supremacy in all things.”
Brian Tabb, who has served as academic dean and professor of biblical studies, has been named interim president.
Rigney earned a bachelor of arts degree in communication from Texas A&M University, followed by a master of arts in biblical and pastoral studies from Bethlehem College and Seminary, a master’s degree in classical Christian studies from New Saint Andrews and a Ph.D. from the University of Chester in England. He is the author of five books.
Rigney also serves as a preaching pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis.
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