A Word to Students in the Midst of Controversy

For the moment there is a pause in the saga at our sister school in Philadelphia (WTS/Phila). As you probably know, the board voted to suspend Peter Enns, and they will consider how and whether to proceed further. One element of the current situation in Philadelphia was the threatened student protest/strike. I haven’t heard whether such happened, but I see that the board is holding a meeting next Tuesday with the student body. This sort of meeting is fraught with possibilities, and not all of them are happy.

I do not profess to know all (or even many) of the details of the current situation, but as a former Academic Dean and having been through similar crises in a sister seminary I don’t think that I have to know all the particulars to make the comments that follow.

For a variety of reasons seminary is a very intense experience, but perhaps the chief reason for this intensity is that it is a compressed time of intense study of God’s Word. WTS (and WSC) students are required to work carefully and extensively through God’s Word. Frequently this is the first time students have encountered the Word of God this way. It is impossible that a spiritually aware, sensitive person would come away from such a study without strong feelings. Students often develop a particularly intense relationship with those faculty members who teach the Scriptures directly. After all, as Darryl Hart noted in his inaugural address here a few years ago, the principle reason students attend Westminster is to study God’s Word. The point of Darryl’s essay was to encourage students (and the seminary generally) to remember the value and importance of the human and the historical in the curriculum, but his observation about motivation of students is salient in this context.

Because of the special bond that exists between seminary students and their biblical studies faculty, one might expect that student reaction to the board’s decision might be particularly intense. Some of the reaction I have read since yesterday seems to support that supposition. As a historian I am aware that student unrest has always been with us. There have been student riots (not that whatever occurred in Phila was a “riot”) throughout history. Almost as soon as there were universities there were riots that had to be put down by civil and school authorities. In that respect student uprisings seem to be a part of the academic landscape.

Nevertheless, having been a member of a seminary faculty and having been a member of a seminary administration and having had to navigate choppy waters like these before and having had the sorts of discussions with students that I’m sure are happening in Philadelphia, let me urge upon WTS/P students (and students in other institutions) some caution. Over the years many students have said to me “Well I heard….” and then have proceeded to announce as fact things that were completely contrary to fact. The falsehood of the reports, however, did not prevent them from spreading among the students. Sometimes these reports can be quite damaging both to the students and to the institutions where they study and to the persons involved in whatever controversy exists.

The reality is, in situations such as these, that it is virtually impossible for students to know as much as they think they know. These situations may seem very clear cut to the students on either side of it, but for those in the midst of them, things are more complicated. I recall a situation in which some students demanded of me, “Why don’t you deal with this?” Well, as a matter of fact we (the faculty and administration) were dealing with it, but we couldn’t talk to the students about the particulars. The students wanted it resolved immediately, but our policies and charity required that we proceed slowly even if it made the seminary vulnerable to criticism (which it did). The truth is that even if students are privy to some aspects of this current controversy, they certainly don’t know the whole story.

As a historian I realize a little more each day how hard it is to know the truth, even when that is the goal. My vocation as a historian is to “tell the truth about the past as best I can.” That’s a lot harder than it sounds. Sometimes the truth about a given question doesn’t seem to want to be found. If that’s the case when documents are to hand, how much harder is it to tell the truth in the midst of conflict when emotions are running high and when there is hurt and frustration on all sides?

There is a good analogy for this situation: the church discipline process in the local congregation. Some of the students at WTS/P will one day be pastors. They will sit in session (consistory) and presbytery (classis) meetings where matters of church discipline will come before them. As pastors they will likely counsel with folk who, sadly, will reject their counsel and persist in sin and rebellion requiring the session (consistory) to begin disciplinary proceedings. The congregation may or may not know what is happening and things may look very different in the pew than they do in the session (consistory) meeting. There will be particulars that members of session (consistory) know that members of the congregation will never and should never know. Some members of the congregation may even regard the session (consistory) with suspicion for bringing “such a fine member of our congregation” under discipline. As a minister you will know a different story but you won’t be able to explain. You must simply stand there and “take it.” That member may never regard you the same way again and there’s nothing you can do about it. Your duty to Christ is greater than your reputation. Welcome to the ministry.

For the moment, in this situation, seminary students are like the congregation, but it will not always be so. Before students poke indignant fingers into the chest of faculty or administration members whom they perceive to be in the wrong, pause for a moment and consider that not too many years hence, the shoe will be on the other foot and that they too will be doing their prayerful and tearful best before God and His church. Then, when hair is gray (or gone) and they have been up late for yet another painful meeting, they will understand these sorts of processes in a way that they cannot now. Between now and Tuesday a lot of seminary students have an opportunity to save themselves an occasion for remorse in later years. Let us hope that the wisdom, self-restraint, and discretion which will be required of them very soon is sufficiently formed in them in time.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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28 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your clear expression of some of the many mines in the minefield we call “speech”. The tongue is a flame, and stray words can create a conflagration far beyond the speaker’s imagination (let alone control). And we will have to give an account of every word we speak.

    In the past year I ran across a set of sermons which connected a *lot* of dots in my mind between James 3, Matthew 18:15-20, similar scriptures, and moral behavior in cases of offense and controversy. If one has been sinned against or observed a sin, there are generally two righteous ways of dealing with it:

    1) If it’s minor enough then cover it in love, and never bring it up to anyone ever.
    2) If it’s beyond that level, then confront. Either confront the person directly, or in some cases take the matter to the authority over that person (parent, elder/pastor, department head, etc). This may possibly need to go several rungs up the ladder, and/or the authority may have to deal with the situation such that it becomes public.

    Talking to *anyone else* about it is probably in the “carping” or “gossiping” category. Certainly there are exceptions to be found, but there it is.

    I’m thankful for that teaching (which, incidentally, was from Doug Wilson) and also for yours on this general matter of behaving in controversy. Our elders and other authorities have been put there by God to deal carefully (and firmly) with sin and accusations of sin, and it can be a *terrible* burden. Let us not make it heavier by our carelessness, curiosity, or indignation.

    Grace, and peace,
    Keith

  2. Well said, Pastor.

    Would to God that the advice given here were heeded in general by all (Reformed) Christians in all controversies … and on all blogs … and by myself.

  3. Amen, Dr. Clark! May current students of WTS all have the humility to heed your timely advice!

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Excellent insights. As a pastor I can testify to the truth in what you have written. I suppose it’s a part of our fallen-ness that we search out all difficulties for possible intrigue. Something in us wants to uncover hidden agendas or conspiracies. Sadly, this is true within the body of Christ. How careful we all must be to guard our hearts and tongues and pray for those who have the sometimes unpleasant task of leadership.

  5. This is most excellent advice! I wonder how the sem students now making demands will feel about their actions many years hence when they find themselves in the reverse position as you describe.

    I also wonder how this advice applies to other situations such as denominational politics. I am thinking specifically of the controversy currently brewing in the LCMS over the cancellation of the Issues, Etc. radio program. This is a bit of a different dynamic in that it is leadership vs congregations. The denominational authorities canceled a popular program without giving a reason. Naturally, there was an uproar. Later, the official reason was given that the program was losing money. Fair enough, but if that were the case, why wasn’t the reason given right away. And why are those delving into the facts finding out that this is not the case at all. The reluctance of the leadership to disclose their motivations make it seem that ulterior motives are at play here.

    I just wonder how your advice might translate to other similar, yet different, situations.

  6. Dr Clark,

    Thank-you for the helpful insights! I am a current WTS/P student struggling to remind my fellow students with the same concepts you have articulated here. Unfortunately, experience is often the more poignant instructor – and much of the student body is quite unexperienced!

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

  7. Hi Greg,

    I thought about that last night as I posted again on the Issues Etc business. I wondered if i was ignoring my own advice. Maybe I did, but I think there are some significant differences. For one thing this isn’t a “discipline” case. No one has alleged anything against the guys at Issues Etc. So far, barring any further revelations, this appears (per the WSJ piece) to be, as I suspected, denominational politics. It appears that the evangelical leadership of the LCMS — who did this sort of thing to Robert Preus — is tired of the implicit criticism from Issues Etc. It seems that they want to silence the confessionalists. The ratings for the station generally seem to be strong. I’ve heard other things from LCMS insiders to suggest that this was about politics, that what they wanted was to silence Todd and Jeff, not that they wanted to save money. In that case I think it’s appropriate to make a stink about it.

  8. The ministry comparison is appreciated. And sure, I guess it’s possible that Enns is in trouble for something confidential. If it comes out later that all the discussion is about a sports gambling addiction, I think a lot of will be really embarrassed about sticking up for him. But I think a lot of are assuming that the discussion is about public theology that we’ve been taught and a lot of us have adopted. What’s at stake is more than just an administrative decision. It’s whether or not we who have been influenced by Enns are part of the Reformed faith or not, and whether the seminary continues to be the place that we grew to love. If it’s about character, power or money, then fine – leave it in the board room. But for better or worse, as literate protestants who read the books being published, typically theology is generally a pretty public activity. We’re not used to waiting for outside of councils staring at the chimney waiting to see what color the smoke is.

  9. Sam,

    Unlike most com-box comments I actually thought about yours before replying. You are right that there are some discontinuities between some church discipline cases and the Enns case. There are analogies with others. In my tradition we discipline people for impenitent errors in doctrine as well as impenitent sin. This is the fourth vow of membership.

    Second, you seem to assume that you know enough to be righteously indignant. What if you don’t? I am told that there have circulated among the faculty and board documents of several hundred pages. Certainly there were elements of the “Shepherd Case” that were not known until after the fact. I assume that is also true in this case.

    Third, I may be misreading your post but it seems to have the sort of smart-aleck tone that this controversy does not need. What is at stake in this controversy is whether WTS will be a confessional seminary or just another broadly evangelical seminary with Reformed roots. This is a serious matter that, I suspect, some students and others do not fully appreciate.

  10. Dr.Clark, I suspect I’m not in agreement with Enns’ public theology at crucial points. But if it is safe to assume that Enns’ WTS suspension concerns his publicly stated views in Inspiration & Incarnation, then an open debate that includes students arguing for the biblical-ness of Enns’ views seems appropriate. Maybe much talk has been about other things, and your point applies to that, viz, students talking about things other than doctrine about which they are un- or misinformed.

    A demonstration or protest on the part of the students against Enns’ suspension seems to call for an answer from the WTS board, and the reply that there are legitimate secrets involved actually hasn’t been offered yet.

    I, for one, have a hard time imagining what kind of legitimate secrets there may be. I’ve never had to publicly discipline anyone in a way that involved that kind of privacy. So, perhaps you could help us understand your point better by telling us more about the “later-revealed unknown elements” of the Shepherd case. What kind of legitimate secrets were there?

  11. There were documents that I have in files from Bob Godfrey’s garage — talk about archival work — that were not publicly circulated at the time of the Shepherd controversy. They were internal papers and the like. They influenced the discussions and process at the time. I understand that there are such things now. There are said to be documents of several hundred pages that have been used by the faculty and board as part of their decision making process. I doubt that students have access to those documents nor were they present for the internal discussions.

    I don’t doubt that some (or perhaps much) of what is being discussed by the board is known by the students. I’m told that the book in question is the substance of lectures he gives as part of a course.

    Plainly there are other issues beyond those raised by the book. I’ve addressed them here on the HB. This process with Enns is part of a longer and larger discussion about what sort of seminary WTS will. In some ways this discussion goes back to the Shepherd controversy, if not before. Will WTS become a pluralist, predestinarian, broadly evangelical seminary or will it be a confessional seminary as intended by Machen? Those discussions pre-date the current students and will likely continue after current students have gone.

    Students are free to ask questions about the process and the substance of the issues but, having been through an analogous process here, I hoped to temper some of the indignant self-righteousness that sometimes accompanies this sort of thing.

  12. I’ve waited awhile before making comments. Now on one hand you are correct students need to be careful before they accuse & when they speak they need to think first.
    but it appears that many of these students are upset b/e they believe that the process itself has been unfiar & stacked against Pete. There was a faculty meeting which while divided did vote that Pete was orthodox & w/in the bounds of the WCF. Pete was present for that vote.
    But Pete was not present for the board meeting & was NOT allowed to speak in his own defense. This flies in the face of Presbyterianism.
    Can you imagine these same students discipling one of their flock w/out giving them the opportunity to speak first?
    What if you showed up at presbytery only to find out that a secret meeting(or at least a meeting in which you were prohibited from attending) voted to suspend you? Is this fairness?

  13. RGLA,

    It depends upon what sort of process is outlined in the faculty handbook. I don’t have any inside knowledge but I do know that institutions have to be very careful about personnel matters lest they open themselves to litigation. I’m sure that they followed whatever published procedures they have.

    This discussion has been ongoing for two years. Is it fair to imply that it all came down to one meeting in which Pete had no say? What about the process of the preceding two years? What about all those meetings?

    If their board is like ours, what was before them was a recommendation from the president. The faculty has an advisory vote and may even have the ability, under some circumstances, to bring an alternative recommendation to the board.

    Without access to the records, minutes, reports etc of the last two years I wouldn’t presume to sit in judgment.

    This is one of the major points of my post.

  14. WTS has always been a seminary in which faculty have a great deal of say. It is common knowledge that the faculty found no hetrodoxy in Pete by a vote of 12-8.
    Sure there has been discussion going on for 2 years but thats not a process. If you are going to suspend then you always allow the acussed a chance to defend himself.
    Much of what went on in the board meeting is common knowledge now. The minority have commented & discussed the unfairness of the procedure & released their concerns to the press.
    How can they claim that they are trying to restore WTS to “confessional integrity” when they won’t even follow simple presbyterian rules of due process.

  15. As I said before I appreciate your concern over seminary students flying off the handle & not taking everything into consideration. Generally its wise especially since many will be pastors & will have to deal w/congregations.
    But there is also the opposite lesson. Students need to learn how to deal wisely & fairly with the congregants they minister to. Can you imagine a pastor & session making decisions about someone without hearing from that person.
    If Pete’s book & teaching were a concern for the board then it deserved a full & complete hearing one in which all parties deserved a hearing.

  16. Yes, a majority of the faculty sided with a minority of the board and a majority of the board sided with the faculty minority and the president. The polity at WTS isn’t entirely presbyterial. WTS isn’t a “faculty-run” school and hasn’t been since the late 50s when Ed Clowney became the first president. When the faculty voted on what color to paint the kitchen (and met most saturdays while some faculty read the NY Times!). WTS is a board-run school. It is the board’s prerogative and duty to preserve the character of the school even if the faculty won’t.

    Second, Enns has been suspended, not fired. The latter remains to be determined by a committee.

    You assume that you know more than I do. Without access to the documents and minutes I couldn’t make such judgments. Having been involved in a seminary for 11 years now I’m less confident than you seem to be about what is known in public.

    Enns hasn’t had any opportunity to defend himself? Do you know this for fact or supposition?

  17. I know for a fact that he was not at the board meeting. I know that the minority who voted against the suspension asked that he be given a right to defend himself before they suspend & they refused.
    Yes he’s suspended & not fired, But suspended without due process.

    Of course a seminary is not a church. But a seminary that claims to be confessional should bend over backward to have some form of due process.

    Would you suspend someone from the sacrements w/out speaking to them 1st?

  18. So the board had no access to Enns before this most recent meeting?

    Is the board not able to act on the basis of Enns’ published work? Isn’t the board entitled to make a judgment to suspend a faculty member if that faculty member’s public actions (class lectures and publications) place the mission of the institution in jeopardy?

    I’m pretty confident that they cannot dismiss him without a hearing. He may not get the hearing in the order the minority wanted but he will get a hearing.

    Do you think the board majority might wish that he had talked to them before publishing a book that called into question the seminary’s commitment to a doctrine by which it has been defined since 1929?

  19. first you are assuming that the book calls into question the seminary’s committment to inerrancy. If it was that obvious then the faculty would have settled the issue last year. The seminary also would not have given him tenure after the book was published.
    Will they give him a hearing? I’m sure some form of a hearing will take place but it looks as if the deck is already being stacked against him.

    I have high expectations from a Reformed Seminary not just in being faithful but in how it deals with people. I would expect that WTS would bend over backwards to make sure it gives a complete hearing to Pete. If the board dealt w/him fairly I could accept their judgemnt even if I didn’t agree w/the final judgemnt.

  20. My understanding is that Pete is still teaching. If his views were that out of line & esp. if the board believes that he rejects inerrancy then I would expect a full hearing where this is examined fully & he would be interviewed & allowed to defend himself. Then if it’s found that he is that out of accord & that he is essentially rejecting inerrancy then I would expect the board to take him out of the classroom asap.

  21. Scott – thank you for the reply. I didn’t read it until now. 1) I would maintain while church discipline does take place for deviant doctrine, theology is not secretive. Typically the problematic issues are confronted from a public pulpit even if names are withheld.
    2) Obviously I don’t know everything – that’s the very point of my frustration. But, as an alumnus, I identify largely with the Biblical studies department, and if what we were taught is errant, I’d like to know.
    3) I apologize for sounding flippant. I only rarely address an academic audience. – I think there’s room for attempts at witty polemic even in serious context. – My comment was an obvious illusion to the Roman Church – pointing toward Reformation categories where the elite churchman do theology and leave the laity in the dark. It, like yours is an imperfect analogy – but the opposing analogy to the church discipline analogy – but I’d say equally, or better fitting.

  22. I wasn’t able to reply to Sam on his blog so I’ll reply here. I’m all in favor of vigorous debate. Mine is not a pietist call to silence debate. Mine was call for restraint on the part of students who, not having attended the board meetings and faculty discussions, aren’t sufficiently informed to point fingers at the board majority.

  23. As a grad of WTS/P (carpooled to class with Pete Lilbach) and a pastor of 35 years I find the analogy to church discipline right on target. Thanks for the wise counsel.

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