|Southern Baptist leaders including the convention's new president Johnny Hunt are involved in a quiet move to bring the Tennessee Temple University into the fold of Southern Baptist schools.
Last fall Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., joined the Tennessee Baptist Convention after 60 years as an independent Baptist church. According to a recent story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Pastor David Bouler said Tennessee Temple, founded by Highland Park's longtime pastor Dr. Lee Roberson in 1946, "is also in the process of being approved as an SBC school."
Hunt, who has an honorary doctorate from Tennessee Temple, is at the center of the discussion, along with former SBC President Jerry Vines.
"I realize that TTU desires to become a Southern Baptist School over these next five years, and I would love to see that affiliation become a reality and our ties to be strengthened, because it will take all of us to win this world," Hunt, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., said in a testimonial posted at the Concerned Tennessee Baptists Web site.
Vines, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., who is now a member of Hunt's church, said both the Highland Park church and university are "coming back to their Southern Baptist roots."
"Tennessee Southern Baptists would benefit greatly by having a school such as this with which to affiliate," Vines wrote in his letter of reference. "It could provide a much-needed additional opportunity for young men and women to be trained to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe Tennessee Temple would be a valuable addition to the Southern Baptist educational family."
Leaders of Concerned Tennessee Baptists would like to see closer ties develop with fundamentalist Tennessee Temple, particularly in light of the recent departure of Belmont University, a more moderate school that broke ties with the TBC over a dispute about who would elect the university's trustees.
Tennessee Temple hired Liberty Theological Seminary Dean Danny Lovett as the new president in 2005, prompting speculation that he might follow the example of Liberty University's founder Jerry Falwell and establish closer ties with Southern Baptists.
Won over by conservative theology imposed on the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalist leaders like his friend Paige Patterson, Falwell led his once-independent Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., to join the denomination in the 1990s.
Highland Park's current pastor has been part of an umbrella group seeking to build bridges among independent Baptist groups, as well as with the SBC. Bouler told the Chattanooga paper that what drew the church back into the SBC fold was a program that supplies Bibles to Muslims. "That program touched our hearts," he said.
Hunt, elected SBC president last month in Indianapolis, is national spokesperson for Muslim Bible Day, an organization of Southern Baptist pastors that raises money to smuggle Bibles into Muslim lands. "The Islamic extremists sent bombs and bullets," the group's Web site says. "We want to give an appropriate response by sending Bibles."
Not all independent Baptists are ready to accept SBC fundamentalists with open arms.
Traditionalists like Marty Wynn, pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga., view any effort to reach out to Southern Baptists as compromise.
When he graduated from Tennessee Temple in 1980, Wynn said, he was taught that contemporary Christian and pop/rock music were "wicked." Now that same music is being "condoned and promoted."
The Tennessee Temple Web site says each mandatory chapel service "includes a live, student-led band."
"By hiring the new president away from Liberty, it is apparent that TTU seeks to follow Liberty's equal compromise," Wynn wrote in a recent blog. "What is very sad is that compromise is being embraced for the sake of increasing enrollment and sustaining funds. Yet, if TTU would have returned to its historical roots, they would find an army of dedicated alumni, who would support the school with finances and students."
A longtime leader in the conservative movement in Alabama, John Killian, pastor of Maytown Baptist Church near Birmingham, says Tennessee Temple has already contributed much to the SBC.
"Tennessee Temple graduates serve in Southern Baptist churches across our convention," Killian wrote. "Numbers of Tennessee Temple graduates have held key positions in the Southern Baptist Convention and in the various state conventions. The sound theology, the biblical worldview and the strong emphasis on missions and evangelism of Tennessee Temple University will be a natural fit for Tennessee Baptists."
"As a proud graduate of Tennessee Temple and as a loyal Southern Baptist, I feel that closer ties between Tennessee Temple and Southern Baptists would be mutually beneficial," Killian continued. "May God grant wisdom as godly leaders consider any potential relationship between the Tennessee Baptist Convention and this great school."
Media contacts for Tennessee Temple and the Tennessee Baptist Convention did not respond to e-mail requests for comment in time to be included in this story.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.