By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist Convention seminary has broken off its formal relationship with a church-starting network that has become a lightning rod since a former leader admitted under oath that he failed to report child sex abuse to police.
Blogger Todd Wilhelm posted a letter June 29 reportedly circulated by Jeff Purswell, director of theology and training for Sovereign Grace Ministries in Louisville, Ky., reporting “disappointing news” that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is discontinuing a formal relationship with the Sovereign Grace Pastors College announced in 2012.
“This is a rather complex situation, and I’m unable to share all of the internal factors influencing their decision,” Purswell said, but “suspicions cast upon Sovereign Grace” by an ongoing lawsuit alleging an abuse cover-up and the recent criminal conviction of one of the named perpetrators “appear to have played a role in this suspension.”
Sovereign Grace Ministries announced a new program in November 2012 allowing Pastors College alumni to pursue a master of divinity degree from Southern Seminary without disrupting their church ministry.
The announcement, which no longer appears on the SGM website, said the new program would allow the transfer of up to 35 credit hours from the Pastors College to Southern Seminary. That is more than a third of the way toward the 94 hours required for the M.Div. in Christian ministry.
Coupled with flexible learning options including online courses and brief intensive classes, the agreement made it possible for Sovereign Grace pastors to complete their studies without moving to Louisville.
James Smith, executive editor and chief spokesman for Southern Seminary, said in an email July 1 that the seminary in Louisville, Ky., maintains a number of such “articulation agreements” with schools both in the U.S. and abroad that do not qualify for traditional accreditation.
Smith said the agreements, which are “in keeping with longstanding institutional policies going back several decades and the standards of our accrediting agencies,” allow students who meet regular admission standards to transfer a defined number of credits toward their master’s degree.
“These agreements are subject to review and termination by Southern Seminary at any time,” Smith said. “In May, Southern Seminary’s academic administration notified the Sovereign Grace Pastors College leadership that the seminary’s articulation agreement with the college had been terminated.”
Purswell said future students from Sovereign Grace no longer qualify for automatic credit transfer or for an SBTS scholarship under the degree-completion program, but students who have already had their Pastors College credits transferred to SBTS retain those hours.
Students from Sovereign Grace can still to apply to SBTS and may submit transcripts and request to have credits transferred from the Pastors College, but they will be considered on a case-by-case basis just like any other student. The same goes for financial aid.
“In sum, there is no longer a special agreement between SBTS and Sovereign Grace,” Purswell said. “Pastors College graduates may pursue degrees, credit-transfers, and financial aid like any other student, just not under the auspices of any agreement with SBTS.”
Purswell said officials at SBTS indicated they do not want to penalize current students and hope that Sovereign Grace ministers will continue to consider the seminary in their academic plans.
“This is obviously a disappointing development,” Purswell said. “However, we as pastors should not be deterred from continuing to grow in our biblical and doctrinal understanding, whether that be informally or formally, through SBTS or another institution.”
Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church-planting movement that combines Calvinist doctrine with charismatic-style worship, moved to Louisville in 2012 in part because of proximity to Southern Seminary. C.J. Mahaney, SGM’s founder and longtime executive director is reportedly close friends with seminary President Albert Mohler.
In the past Mahaney has spoken numerous times on campus. According to back issues of the seminary magazine, Mahaney and SGM have given cumulative gifts to the school totaling more than $100,000.
Mohler and other SBC leaders were criticized for continuing to promote Mahaney after he was named in a high-profile lawsuit alleging what is termed the biggest evangelical sex abuse scandal to date.
At the recent SBC annual meeting in Baltimore, protestors from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests handed out fliers calling on Baptist officials to “take child sex abuse cases more seriously.”
“We continue to appreciate SBTS and are grateful for the relationship we have enjoyed over the past couple of years, and it is possible that that relationship could be reestablished in the future,” Purswell said.
“Even more so, I am grateful for the blessing of the Pastors College and its unique mission to equip men for pastoral ministry within our family of churches. In God’s mercy, the college was built without reliance upon any single institution, and it will continue to be so.”