Cheating and Seminary: An Open Letter to Students

Cheating and Seminary: An Open Letter to Students

By Andrew Spencer

Administrator’s note: SEBTS student Andrew Spencer was recently moved by an article he read that referenced seminary students and cheating. He was led to write the following open letter for the SEBTS student community and others who may be interested. We resonated with his open letter and decided to publish it at Between the Times. We hope you find it a helpful challenge, especially if you are a seminarian or collegian at SEBTS or a similar institution.

Someone recently brought an article in the May 2011 edition of Reader’s Digest to my attention. Most of the time, if I bother to read Reader’s Digest, it is just for the jokes. This article, however, proved to be worth the read, although it pained me to read its content. This was such an important article that I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

The article was a reprint from the Chronicle of Higher Education from November, 2010 entitled “The Shadow Scholar.” (It is available through EBSCO if you care to find it.) Ed Dante, a prolific writer using a pseudonym, explains how he makes over $60k every year as an author of other people’s academic work. He has written for everyone from undergrads to PhD candidates, sometimes writing complete master’s theses for students. He writes:

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you’re Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study. I do not mean to be insensitive, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid to write about somebody helping a loved one battle cancer. I’ve written essays that could be adapted into Meryl Streep movies.

This sounds pretty dishonest, and certainly as future pastors, seminary professors, and educated laity this cannot be a significant problem at SEBTS. Every student has to sign an acknowledgment of the academic integrity policy at SEBTS before they are admitted. That statement declares that “Students should . . . maintain the highest standards of academic integrity in all of their work.” Fortunately, we Christians are immune to this phenomenon.

Or, perhaps not. The next paragraph in Dante’s article states:

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America’s moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

This was the depressing paragraph, and the reason that the article was pointed out to me. What makes it worse is that Dante, presumably a non-Christian, gets it while his conservative Christian customers do not. He sees the “inherent contradiction” in seminary students cheating, and uses that as leverage to point out the hypocrisy of paying someone to write an article denouncing someone else’s sin. The fact that Dante references papers criticizing abortion, gay marriage and evolution make it clear that some of his customers must be conservatives. This isn’t the “social-gospel liberals” compromising on academic integrity; rather, this is an indictment of people who profess to believe the Bible on social issues, ignoring the blatant dishonesty of their actions.

How did we get here? I think there are three probable answers. The first is that sometimes we tend to focus on the goal, rather than the journey. We think that we will be prepared for ministry when we get our MDiv, MA, BA, PhD or whatever. Somehow, we get confused and begin to idolize the resume bullet over the real treasure: the opportunity to delve deep into the Word and theology so that we are better prepared to answer people’s questions and glorify God by serving the church effectively. Getting a degree doesn’t prepare us for anything, even the study doesn’t prepare us for ministry, really. There is nothing in Scripture that teaches that we must have a degree in some form of religious studies to effectively teach the Word. The journey to earning a degree should be helping to mold our minds into what God wants us to be. If we shortcut that by cheating, then we are sinning by cheating as well as by wasting an opportunity to grow.

The second probable answer is that some of us don’t belong at seminary. In Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon spends his second lecture discussing what the call to ministry includes. (If you haven’t read this chapter, then get it from the library and read it, then ask yourself why you are at seminary.) One description of improper candidates for ministry jumps out when I think about cheating seminarians: Spurgeon references an “exceedingly large class of men [who] seek the pulpit they know not why. They cannot teach and will not learn, and yet must fain be ministers.” If you are willing to cheat our way through seminary because you are not academically capable of getting through, then either find another path into ministry or do something else. Cheating your way to a degree so that you are “qualified” to be a pastor will leave you living a lie for the rest of your career.

A third probable answer to the question is that some of may just be lazy. Friends, if we are too lazy to do our own research, then soon we’ll be stealing our sermons from the Internet. God is not honored by the lazy person in ministry, or the lazy student of theology.

There is more to be said about this problem, and the purpose of our seminary education. However, this article from Ed Dante should give us pause as we press toward the end of the semester and maybe even graduation. It should make us stop to ask why we are at seminary, and whether we ought to be. If we have cheated, it should make us repent and sin no more; it should make us ask each other, not just how our prayer lives are, but whether we are being honest in our research and on our exams. In the end, we worship by writing our papers, just as we worship when we sing on Sunday morning. 1 Cor. 10:31 applies to your class paper as much as it does to your diet.

Andrew Spencer lives in Wake Forest. He will be graduating SEBTS in May with the MDiv and beginning PhD studies in Christian Ethics in the fall.

On GCR Myths (And Those Who Spread Them)

In recent days Danny Akin and now Ronnie Floyd have addressed what they believe to be myths about the Great Commission Resurgence, or at least the work of the GCR Task Force. A few bloggers and at least one state paper editor have responded. A common theme in these responses is that the blogger or other interlocutor claims he has not heretofore heard of the myth. Some have asked for evidence of the myth in either hard print or in the blogosphere. Presumably if Akin or Floyd cannot (or at least will not) provide such evidence, that calls the existence of the myth into question.

In light of this, I thought I would take my own stab at myth-busting. So here’s the myth: It is always necessary to provide a link to some blogger or other writer when addressing inaccurate interpretations of (fill-in-the-blank). Now don’t misunderstand me. If someone has perpetrated one of the GCR myths in writing, I think it is perfectly appropritate (thought not necessary) for Akin and/or Floyd to link to that myth and debunk it. But that’s just it–nobody is putting these myths into writing, or at least writing that is public in nature.

Each of the myths Akin and Floyd mention are primarily oral myths, “water-cooler” talk, if you will. Or even more accurate, they are “Convention hall” and “email” and “conference calls” and “snail mail” and “lunch meeting” myths. And I’ve heard every single one multiple times from multiple individuals, though I am unaware of a blogger or other writer who has publicly promoted any of them. I suspect this is because if someone did put at least some of the myths in print, they would have their lunch handed to them by folks who know the facts. Those facts can be pesky things, after all–especially among those who overemphasize the value of denominational politics.

The fact that the GCR myths are not on blogs or other print or electronic media doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It simply means nobody is passing the myths along via those particular forms of media. You may be wondering why, if the myths are not in print, Akin and Floyd have responded in print. The answer is simple: people read what these men write. They are widely recognized SBC leaders, and for that reason (among others) their opinions carry weight. They counter the myths in a public way because more people will read their words than will listen to the myth-mongers. And that’s what matters.

I think it is perfectly legitimate for anyone to engage Akin and Floyd, even in criticism. Their ideas are out there for public consumption, and the public should feel free to consume. If you think the GCRTF meetings should be open to the public, then by all means, state your opinion on the matter. But the demand for written evidence when almost everyone knows that none exists rings hollow, and I suspect most readers see right through it. We all know the myths are out there, and we all know they are being spread like most gossip and innuendo is spread–by word of mouth, lest there be a paper trail.

I sincerely hope that one day some folks in the SBC will look back and regret that they were complicit in myth-mongering and other types of “cloak-and-dagger” tactics like character assassination, spurious interpretations of Baptist history, misuse of authority, and misrepresentation of the opinions, actions, or priorities of others. I believe this type of stuff is the single biggest reason so many have left the SBC or on the verge of doing so. And I don’t blame them.

I am very thankful for success of the Conservative Resurgence. I am hopeful for the success of the Great Commission Resurgence. But I hope and pray we can also experience a Great Commandment Resurgence in the way we interact with one another. (I know I read the term “Great Commandment Resurgence” on a blog somewhere, but on whose blog I can’t recall.) If we don’t, it really doesn’t matter which of the competing visions for the SBC wins out at the end of the day, because we will have forfeited our right to be a meaningful part of all that God is doing to redeem a lost world unto himself through the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On The GCR Declaration, Part 2

Lord willing, over the next few days I will be blogging through the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the second article in what I hope will be a series. As you read, please remember that while Between the Time is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article II: A Commitment to Gospel-Centeredness

First of all, let me say I love the fact that the GCR Declaration takes a moment to offer a simple definition of the gospel rather than simply assuming that everyone knows what it is. This is one reason so many American churches (and not a few SBC churches) are in danger of losing the gospel. It’s not a matter of denial, but rather a matter of assumption. And assumption today leads to unbelief tomorrow.

I also like that the GCR Declaration doesn’t speak of the gospel as if it were just a list of truths that must be affirmed to “get in the family”. Instead, it understands the gospel to be the good news that animates every moment of our existence from new birth to resurrected glory. Southern Baptists need to hear more of this type of preaching and teaching. Until they do, the I-Podders among us will continue to spend five times as much time listening to non-Southern Baptist preachers as they do pastors in their own denomination.

I also like that the document speaks to the possible offense of some of our “styles, traditions, legalisms, moralisms, personal preferences, or unhelpful attitudes”. All of our churches have their own unique problems (even the best of them), and I strongly suspect there are certain “styles, traditions, legalisms, moralisms, personal preferences, or unhelpful attitudes” that characterize Southern Baptists in general. We can and will debate what those are, but this much I know-we better root them out and destroy them when we find them. In our public discourse we are often far more obnoxious than we think we are and too often just self-centered enough to think the problem lies with others.

I also think the GCR Declaration helpfully reminds us that all of our programs need to be closely tied to the gospel. This means more than a simple “plan of salvation” printed in the flyleaf of all our curricula. It means making the precious truths of all that God has accomplished through Christ explicit in everything. How do we read every passage of Scripture in light of the gospel? How do we do youth, children’s, men’s, and women’s ministry in light of the gospel? How do we evangelize in light of the gospel? How do we disciple in light of the gospel? How do we engage culture in light of the gospel? How do we plant churches in light of the gospel? This is the question that we must ask of everything that we do, in our churches and in our wider denominational life.

I am going to say something that some of you will think is too provocative, but it needs to be said. The number one complaint I hear about the SBC is that the Convention doesn’t take the gospel seriously enough. Numero uno. And let me assure you that I am talking about Southern Baptists from a variety of backgrounds and ages and a variety of theological persuasions. They argue that we hear a lot about programs. And we hear about the culture war. And we hear about Baptist distinctives. And we hear about our statistics. But we don’t hear nearly enough about the gospel.

I have a prediction: David Platt is going to rock some peoples’ worlds when he preaches at the Convention. That’s all I’ll say about that right now. Pray for David-he’s not what we’re used to, in a good way.

Article III: A Commitment to the Great Commandments

I will not say much here about the Great Commandment because much of what I could write would overlap with the things I said about the lordship of Christ. So let me just say this: if we love the Lord as we ought, we will love our fellow Christians and unbelievers as we ought.

I want to focus more attention on the Second Greatest Commandment because I think Southern Baptists have a conspicuous problem here, and not just in matters of racism and ethnic diversity (to which the GCR Declaration does a fine job of speaking). I just want to add that the more we love the Lord and faithfully preach and live-out his gospel the more our churches will reflect the ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic diversity of their respective regions. To the degree we focus on ourselves and assume the gospel, most of our churches will continue to look like little colonies of Dixie in an increasingly cosmopolitan culture.

But it’s the part about getting along in our intra-Convention relationships that I want to talk about. The moderates used to say that after the conservatives got rid of all the progressives, we would turn on each other because it is in the nature of fundamentalism to have to have bad guys to fight against. Now I think moderates were (and are) wrong about many things, but they were dead right about this one. And it is to our shame.

It is appalling how badly we treat each other. Some of the nastiest, most petty, most untrustworthy people I know are Southern Baptist ministers and denominational servants. I’m dead serious. Now don’t misunderstand me-most of the folks I know are not like this. But the fact that any are like this is a disgrace to Southern Baptists and a disgrace to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have seen “leaders” speak out of both sides of their mouth without batting an eye. I have seen pastors strut when they are sitting down. I have heard gossip and even vitriol couched in the language of concern and piety. I have seen people lie on weblogs, and then seen others lie when they responded to the first liars. I have heard backhanded compliments and seen daggered smiles. I have seen well-meaning men too chicken to confront other men who were sinning in their actions and speech. And I have seen some who were confronted (some by me) dismiss it with a “well, that’s not what I meant brother”. Indeed.

I already mentioned why most of the folks I talk to complain about the SBC. Now let me tell you what most bothers me about the SBC-the way we treat each other. By God’s grace I have a fantastic job, doing exactly what I want to do for exactly whom I want to be doing it. I work for godly men, and I mean that with utter sincerity. But when I see how some folks in the SBC treat each other, it makes me want to walk away from this whole thing and join another group. And I teach Southern Baptist history and identity for a living.

Friends, we have got to treat each other Christianly and we’ve got to be honest enough to admit that much of the time we don’t. I’m sick and tired of gossip, slander, character assassinations, and dog and pony shows. I want to see more integrity and hear more gospel.

I’m sorry for being so pointed (I’m on the verge of weeping while I write this-I’ve been holding this in for years), but this is a serious problem and everyone reading this article knows it is a serious problem. So what are we going to do about it?