In August, I saw a Huffington Post article written by Dr. Chris Rollston from Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, TN. As a former student of Dr. Rollston’s, my interest was piqued. You can find the article here. It offers a textual criticism of the Bible and its history of systemic misogyny; and it calls for readers to understand that ancient text is not always culturally applicable after thousands of years. Specifically, because our culture, in its natural progression, is embracing gender equality, we should stop using the marginalization of women found in “sacred” text as culturally relevant inspiration.
My Personal Opinion
Personally, I did not think the article offered any controversial or new ideas—certainly nothing I have not heard from several other professors both at my alma mater, Milligan College, and Emmanuel School of Religion (now Emmanuel Christian Seminary). The article did show general readers that Christians can confront the blemishes of Judeo-Christianity and acknowledge a need for progression. With approximately 80% of Americans proclaiming Christianity as their faith, that only about half them attend weekly services indicates something about Christianity is not resonating with almost half of the people who categorize themselves as believers. Rollston’s article demonstrates that, just as people grow and progress, their culture and faith progresses with them. This is also nothing new; but it is certainly inspirational for showing a living, changing faith, especially for believers who feel unfulfilled in mainstream Christianity.
Public & Professional Opinions
Despite the lack of controversy, somehow the article sparked a heated theological response from his Emmanuel Christian Seminary colleague and Chair of the Area Chairs, Dr. Paul Blowers. Though academic professionals typically use their own websites or scholarly journals to engage in healthy debate, Dr. Blowers shared his professional response on Chris Rollston’s Facebook wall. If Dr. Rollston replied, it was not publicly or using Facebook. Dr. Blowers then made a reference to coming disciplinary action in the next few days on his own Facebook wall.
Though I cannot confirm the veracity of Dr. Blowers’ personal social media post, this article from Inside Higher Ed states the seminary is indeed considering disciplinary action over Rollston’s publication. The article states that Dr. Rollston’s provocative and challenging ideas are causing students to have crises of faith, and are affecting enrollment and donor giving, to the tune of six figures.
For most people familiar with conservative Christian education, these actions may not seem terribly shocking because faculty at such institutions work contractually without the option of tenure. One of (now apparently) few things that set Emmanuel apart from these similar institutions is that it offers faculty tenure. Tenure means that the faculty cannot be terminated or reprimanded for sharing provocative and potentially offensive ideas in class or publications. Tenure offers academic freedom to professional academics, and it allows scholars to use their life’s work toward the progression of their respective disciplines.
I’ve discussed the non-controversial nature of Rollston’s article; so I do not understand how the seminary sees this publication as grounds for any type of disciplinary action. What is telling, however, is just how much the administration at Emmanuel values its donors’ preferences. A particular donor, willing to make a “six-figure” donation to the school has issues with Rollston’s teaching methods. Apparently also directly related to Rollston’s teaching is the low enrollment and current financial crisis at the school.
When an academic institution that offers tenure enacts disciplinary proceedings for a tame article in a popular magazine, it loses credibility. When that same institution cites “donor issues” as additional motivation for the disciplinary action, it is clear that the once-reputable academic institution has sold itself and its academic credibility to the highest bidder (for six figures!). I am disappointed in the administration of Emmanuel Christian Seminary for taking this route, and I am ashamed of ever having been a student there as a direct result of this debacle.
Personally, I think Dr. Blowers is guilty of being a Facebook troll. (Truly at some point, everyone earns this title, but maybe not quite as professionally detrimental as in Paul Blowers’ case.) For whatever unstated reason, Dr. Blowers used social media to make professional remarks (of a different discipline, I might add) on Dr. Rollston’s article link. When the situation escalated and with his supervisory authority as Chair of the Area Chairs, Dr. Blowers then issued a professional threat to his subordinate colleague via Facebook. That the institution is seriously considering disciplinary action against Dr. Rollston and NOT Dr. Blowers for his severe lack of professional courtesy is astounding and shameful.
I challenge the administration of Emmanuel Christian Seminary to consider the long-term repercussions of sacrificing a beloved academic scholar for a few pieces of silver. Furthermore, if the seminary is truly concerned about enrollment, I suggest a widespread campaign to get women in leadership roles in Stone-Campbell churches. I venture to guess it might nearly double your enrollment figures.
My Crisis of Faith
To address Dr. Rollston’s influence on students experiencing a crisis of faith, I offer this personal story:
I was a married student as an undergrad, and in my junior year, my husband and I separated. To some faculty, most students, and nearly all of the administration at Milligan College, I had become a social pariah, and was found publicly guilty of disrespecting the sacred institution of marriage. Experiencing an intense marginalization from my chosen spiritual community was the foundation of a deeply painful crisis of faith, from which I am still healing. I went to school and lived in a community of people, the majority of whom spoke ill of me to others, called me vulgar names directly to my face, and even threw food at me while I was cleaning in the cafeteria (sounds like systemic bullying, doesn’t it?). A Christian community kicked me while I was suffering through the pain of divorce. I went public with my pain and chastised the Milligan College community in an editorial expose released in the student newspaper during Homecoming weekend of my senior year (2005).
In this bitter condition, I began my first year at Emmanuel School of Religion in the fall of 2005, intending to study Church History (Dr. Blowers’ specialty). I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Rollston’s lectures on Old Testament textual criticism and Ancient Near Eastern epigraphy, though I must also confess that recreating ancient maps on exams was the bane of my existence! I also took two of Dr. Blowers’ courses: The Christian Tradition (standard for all first years), and Survey of American Christianity I, in which I was not only the token female, but also the only first year among third years.
With no disrespect to Dr. Rollston and to Dr. Blowers’ credit, the American Christianity course is still my favorite of my time at Emmanuel. However, when it came to helping me navigate through my spiritual doubts and struggle for connection, Dr. Rollston’s office door was always open, and he always welcomed me. He encouraged me that the Stone-Campbell movement valued and needed female ministers, and he urged me to accept the mystery of faith in the midst of my search for answers. He gave me tissues when I needed them, and he challenged me to hold fast to my spiritual community.
I left Emmanuel after that first year because I knew I would never get a job preaching to a Stone-Campbell congregation. If I truly wanted a vocation as a minister in a congregation who would hire me, I would need to attend Yale, or Duke, or Emory—not Emmanuel. Moreover, I felt incapable of taking on the responsibility of a congregation’s spiritual direction when I could not identify with most of the tenants of the faith—a progression that began before I set foot on Emmanuel’s holy hill.
Now six years removed from my year at Emmanuel, I have found myself loving and accepting the deep, healing love of a Christian community (and yoga & Buddhist communities, too). Having stayed in dialogue with Dr. Rollston from Emmanuel these last six years, I think he is at least partially responsible for my current and active role at Church of the Savior. Chris Rollston, along with precious few other Christians who never turned their backs on me in spite of my overwhelming skepticism, kept me in a Christian community even when I could not bring myself to be active in one. Now I am happy to belong to an organized Christian community filled with people like Chris Rollston. My doubts haven’t changed; in fact, they’ve grown! Despite my doubts, I continue to follow Dr. Rollston’s advice of holding fast to my spiritual community, and I am grateful to him and to my church for accepting me without prejudice.