Kenneth Starr, Church Membership, and the Baylor Presidency

As many readers know, it was announced this week that Kenneth Starr has been selected as the next president of Baylor University. Not surprisingly, the announcement generated quite a bit of buzz in the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and on message boards. Baylor has of course been embroiled in significant controversy during the past decade over leadership, vision, and academic matters, which followed on the heels of two decades of controversy over governance, theology, and denominational matters. No doubt the selection of Starr will elicit further controversy among at least some members of the Baylor family.

One interesting talking point related to Starr’s selection is his church membership. Like Baylor’s immediate past president, John Lilley, Baylor’s new president is not currently a Baptist. As near as I can ascertain, he was raised in the home of a Church of Christ minister, spent most of his adult life at the evangelical and dispensational McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia, and briefly returned to a Church of Christ congregation while at Pepperdine. Yet because Baylor is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Starr is expected to become a Baptist, which he has indicated he has every intention of doing.

Some observers have raised concerns about a Baptist university hiring a non-Baptist president. Others have argued that the requirement that Baylor’s president be a Baptist is perhaps unnecessary. Still others have expressed concern that Starr may be becoming a Baptist just so he can get the job. It is an interesting conversation, to be sure.

Here are my thoughts on the matter, for what it’s worth. I am no fan of the Church of Christ tradition. It is a hyper-sectarian movement with a spurious view of such matters as baptism, conversion, and apostasy. Furthermore, the Church of Christ movement has always had an awkward relationship with Baptists, in part because the Churches of Christ represent a perversion of Baptist identity and have regularly siphoned off members from Baptist churches. It is entirely understandable for people to be concerned about a Baptist school hiring a president who is committed to the Churches of Christ.

That said, the situation with Starr is not so cut-and-dry. Though he was raised Church of Christ, and though he has recently been attending a church in that tradition (while teaching at a university affiliated with that tradition), Starr has indicated his real spiritual home is McLean Bible Church, a congregation whose doctrine, at least as near as I can tell, is very similar to that of conservative Baptists, with the possible exception that MBC seems to reject (or at least downplay) congregationalism. I would suspect that many Southern Baptists would feel mostly at home at McLean Bible Church, though the church doesn’t raise money for Lottie Moon or use LifeWay Sunday School material.

Over the last ten years, I’ve seen many people from evangelical, baptistic backgrounds become members of Southern Baptist churches. Some became staff members of local churches, some became professors at Baptist schools, and some became missionaries with one of our mission boards. Many of these folks never considered being Southern Baptist prior to a particular job offer. It wasn’t that they were anti-SBC or anti-Baptist before-quite the contrary. Their theological convictions were already compatible with at least the vast majority of mainstream Southern Baptist doctrine. In most cases, they were swimming in a different pond than the SBC, but both ponds were fresh water, had similar plant life, and were stocked with the same types of fish and other critters.

Simply put, I want to give someone the benefit of the doubt when he takes a new job and becomes a Baptist because of that job. Is it possible that some folks really aren’t convinced of Baptist doctrine and join a Baptist church anyway for purely pragmatic reasons? Of course it is. In fact, it happens all the time with “normal” church members who don’t work in denominational posts. But I also know there are many people who are convictionally baptistic but who’ve never been Southern Baptist. Yes, they may not understand much about our unique traditions, tendencies, priorities, and neuroses. But I suspect most are smart enough to learn about them. And let’s face it: a growing number of lifelong Southern Baptists don’t understand all that stuff either!

I’m glad Ken Starr is becoming a Baptist. I hope it’s entirely compatible with his present theological convictions, and insofar as it’s not, I hope his future church membership refines his convictions. I’ve seen it happen many times before. I wish him the best as he leads Baylor and hope that the university’s brightest days are ahead.