Crisis at Moody Bible Institute: The Curse of the Fundamentalists

The revelations coming out of Chicago are sad. Even sadder—for those who know the history of evangelical higher education—is that they fit squarely and depressingly into a century-old pattern. The nature of Protestant fundamentalism as established in the 1920s left schools like Moody Bible Institute in a treacherous position.

1940s MBI banner and patch

From happier times, c. 1940.

Here’s what we know: As Christianity Today has reported, the flagship Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has shaken up its leadership. The president, chief operating officer, and provost are all out. MBI officially thanked the three for their leadership, but the institute also acknowledged “widespread concerns over the direction of the school,” according to CT.

Many of those concerns were publicized by another ousted employee, Julie Roys. Roys had hosted a radio program on WMBI and she recently raised alarms at the financial and theological misdeeds of top MBI leaders. On her blog, Roys had pointed out that the leaders had made unwise and possibly shady financial arrangements. She also noted alumni complaints that the school had indulged liberal ideas.

I don’t have any inside knowledge of the goings on at MBI. As I argue in my new book about the history of evangelical higher ed, though, the pattern is familiar, and part of the DNA of evangelical higher education. In a nutshell, the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s attracted most of the Bible-institute movement. Flagship MBI became a reluctant leader of fundamentalism, along with other higher-ed institutions such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Bob Jones College in Florida (it moved twice, only becoming Bob Jones University in its current South Carolina location in 1947).

The nebulous nature of interdenominational fundamentalism left these institutions in a bind. Not as an accident, but as an inherent part of this conservative protest movement, there existed no higher (human) power that could set the boundaries of real orthodoxy for these schools.

1940s postcard library

Getting those dispensations right…c. 1940s.

As a result, different schools figured out different ways to decide what was kosher and what wasn’t. Bob Jones College established a rigid authoritarian structure. True religion, at Bob Jones College, was what the Bob Joneses said it was.

Wheaton College adopted a more spread-out network of authority. They established a board of fundamentalist celebrities and donors to help guide the school. But they also hired a series of powerful, charismatic presidents to embody the school’s mission. In addition, Wheaton courted alumni to help fund and direct the school. Often, tensions among the various leaders resulted in mixed messages and confusing, conflicting arguments about what constituted proper evangelical religion. Larycia Hawkins’s experience is nothing new.  Just ask Russell Mixter or President Buswell, two stories I describe in detail in the book.

Cover art final

Read all about it…

MBI did something similar, and the results are evident in the recent controversies. Reliance on celebrity fundamentalists and in-group leadership structures has always plagued evangelical colleges. In today’s case, Left Behind author Jerry Jenkins is accused of receiving sweetheart financial deals and tweaking the school’s moral code. MBI’s leaders are accused of giving one another perks without opening their deliberations to the whole school community.

The accusations range beyond financial hanky-panky. MBI’s leaders are accused of winking at theological sloppiness, too, another pattern established in the twentieth century. In today’s MBI case, alumni have charged the top leaders with

trading the sure foundation of God’s Word and the mission of training men and women to know and teach the Gospel for the fragile foundation of the cultural tides of the day. . . . students around campus and on my floor were not acting in ways that showed their desire to love and know the Lord fully. . . . Moody has become not a unique place to study and know God’s Word, but instead a place infiltrated by liberal political stances and clichéd cultural buzzwords without a solid theological foundation.

Such accusations have a timeless ring in the world of evangelical higher education. Similar complaints have been lodged against school leaders in every decade of the twentieth century and the twenty-first. And though they always seem new, they are the predictable result of the uncertain goals of evangelical higher education.

Like all evangelical institutions, MBI is in an impossible situation. It exists as a school dedicated to a certain vision of eternal truth, yet it can only survive if it also changes periodically. For example, few members of today’s MBI community would encourage racial segregation on campus, but in the 1930s it was part of an MBI education. All schools need to change, but this can be difficult for evangelical schools that promise to be purveyors of God’s eternal Truth.

Too often, leaders at evangelical schools fudge this dilemma by making back-room decisions about changes, hoping the evangelical public does not complain too loudly. Every once in a while, however, influential board members, faculty, students, or alumni shout out a protest, like the one we hear today from Chicago.

It’s important to note, of course, that similar problems exist in non-evangelical institutions as well. Wherever charismatic leaders are allowed to make decisions without consulting concerned constituencies, abuse is predictable. Most often, in secular higher education, this has happened with high-profile athletic programs such as the ones at Penn State and Florida State.

The situation at MBI is sadly similar. Instead of a structure by which changes can be discussed and agreed upon, a closed-door group of influential leaders has felt forced to go ahead on its own. None of us should be surprised that structures like that lead to financial malfeasance or unpopular policies.

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