This is not a topic I can avoid, nor do I wish to. We are visiting with churches and pastors every week, almost all of whom would be called "friends of Northland." People who benefited from the impact of Northland students and faculty; People who are confused by all the mixed messages they have heard regarding changes; People who are saddened by what these changes mean. The churches we are visiting are independent, fundamental, Baptist churches - the circle of fellowship that I know best. These churches have also been the main constituency of NIU.
Let me interject that what I have found in our visits with this circle of churches is anything but the hyper-fundy stereo-typing that I'm hearing from many peers unwilling to be aligned anymore with the associations they grew up in. While I am aware of the fractions that have brought about deserving criticism for their peripheral focus and tangental emphasis, there are still Fundamentalist churches that are Biblically balanced, missions minded, gospel preaching, vibrant God honoring ministries. We are thrilled by their sweet fellowship and like-minded philosophy, and we are humbled by their kindness and generosity. God has used these supposedly "dried up and dying" churches to encourage and support us above and beyond what we could ask or think!
A recent article came out by a fellow alumni speaking for the segment of supporters who are whole-heartedly in favor of the direction that Northland has chosen of late: Can God Save a Fundamentalist School? Based on the amount of positive reviews, I think this article presents the position on one side of the discussion very concisely and in a considerate spirit for which I commend the author. But I feel there needs to be a voice for the segment of alumni and friends who also share a great love for Northland yet cannot in good conscience stand behind the recent changes. Such a statement requires a good deal of time and articulation, certainly more than a simple status update or tweet! I am very thankful then for the efforts of fellow alumnus Chuck Kirchhoff who has graciously spelled out such a response, representing in my opinion a segment of grateful and concerned alumni of whom I am one.
I repost the entirety of the article below (the emboldened emphasis is mine), praying that it will bring greater clarity to why such a exchange is important, yet in a way that fosters charitable discussion rather than argumentative dissension.
- Joel Wagner
To All Friends of Northland,
Greetings to all. I am writing this letter because the times seem urgent at Northland. I am uncomfortable sharing opinions publicly because I do not want to do anything that harms the name of Christ, nor do I want to do anything to harm fellow Christians. I feel compelled to write because several opinions have been offered publicly by former students that seem to give the appearance of speaking for all the alumni, or, at least, most of the alumni. I hope, in the spirit of charity, to communicate to you my perspective, particularly my points of agreement and disagreement, and to communicate on behalf of another segment of former students (I am assuming another segment exists). My comments will divide into my reflections about the past as well as my interpretation of the present.
As for the past, I, like most everyone who has commented about Northland, have many fond memories of my experiences at the school (from 1994-1999 as an undergraduate and graduate student and later as an adjunct instructor for graduate block courses three different semesters). What stands out to me the most is the changing intellectual environment during my years as a student. I felt that Northland really made efforts to continue to improve its academics even if it had progress yet to make. For the first time in Northland’s history, it seemed, students sensed the importance of the intellectual side of their faith, with many choosing to advance their studies at seminary. The quality of classroom work improved, as did the quality of the instructors (although this was uneven). In my opinion, this happened without the loss of Northland’s heart which seemed so much a part of her identity.
Not all was perfect and there were the potentially annoying parts of life at Northland (as there are at any institution). As is being mentioned ubiquitously during the ongoing debates about Northland, the most bothersome feature for many students was the rules. For me, the rules had the potential to be even more bothersome, since I was a 24 year-old adult when I went to Northland and chose to live in the dorm. I had to go to bed at 10:30 at night my first year! Yet, by God’s grace, I decided not to let the rules bother me and in many cases I believe they helped me.
The discussion of the rules leads me to my disagreement with the comments about the past from several former students. While I believe Northland was sometimes too conscious of rules, I do not believe they were a legalistic school. I have read several pieces, written by several former students, who are interpreting the present as if it was a break from a legalistic past that lacked an emphasis upon the gospel. If my memory serves me correctly, I believe that Northland possessed a missionary and an evangelistic zeal. The school also ensured that we were all ministering in churches and speaking of the works of God in chapel and other settings. In other words, I don’t think God and the gospel were discounted. Although, one could argue, I guess, that the presence of rules and an emphasis upon the gospel cannot coexist, but that is something with which I would disagree. Additionally, the idea of legalism is being thrown around as a concept as if it is well understood as to what it means and to whom it applies. Quite often, that which gets referred to as legalism differs quite substantially from what the Bible refers to as legalism (hence the comparisons to the Pharisees does not work). As I see it, legalism in the Bible is the belief that one becomes right with God through obedience to the law. No one at Northland believed or believes that.
The previous comments about the past lead to my interpretation of the present. Given the fact that no one at Northland is legalistic in the strictest sense of the word, those who are claiming that Northland has grown out of legalism into grace must be using the term more loosely to refer to one’s emphasis after being saved by grace. The life of grace frees us from the law, and, by extension, rule keeping. This is arguable and overly simplifies the purpose of rules at an institutional level. Having said that, I am thankful for many of the changes at Northland, including those altering or removing many of the rules. But the rules are not the real problem. If they were, we would merely be having a conversation about what rules to change or eliminate. I think the discussion of rules was and is a way to begin the discussion about much bigger changes as Northland (this was not always stated and has only become transparent fairly recently). The discussion is really about competing visions for what a gospel-oriented ministry should look like.
What I am troubled by is the contention that all of the changes at Northland are justified and demanded by the gospel. What it seems we are being told, is that if an institution really loves Jesus and emphasizes the gospel it will redraw its theological boundaries and shift its cultural practices to the ones Northland currently has versus the ones it used to have. This begs the question, “Why?” The question still needs to be asked and answered if such changes will really benefit the gospel. It cannot be assumed that they will.
As for the changes in theological boundaries, I am thankful for some of the changes, but not all. I, myself, see no problem in practicing a reasonable form of separation whereby certain conservative evangelicals are welcomed as visiting professors. The blanket form of separation that was practiced in the past might have been too restrictive in not taking into account the many brothers and sisters who were essentially in agreement with Northland but who didn’t wear the title of fundamentalist. Yet, at least the past form of academic fellowship had known boundaries. The current form of fellowship seems to lack distinguishable boundaries. Who is welcome and who is not? It is not enough to say that those who agree on the important matters are welcome since that kind of agreement still leaves unanswered questions. For example, would charismatics be welcome at Northland? Some would have a problem if charismatics were welcome and some would not (Incidentally, this is an issue evangelicals struggle with more broadly. John MacArthur would disagree with John Piper). Regardless, the boundaries need to be clearly stated, especially since it has been part of Northland’s values in the past not to fellowship closely with charismatics out of concern for their belief in revelatory gifts (personally, I think there is reasonable cause for concern since the contemporary presence of such gifts seem to conflict with Northland’s view of Scripture even though some have attempted to soften their claims for what authority the revelatory gifts have for today). It is not sufficient to state that what Northland has come to look like in the present is what it should look like as an institution since we are not even sure of what it wants to be. We don’t know the boundaries.
As for the changes in the culture at Northland, my opinions have to do mainly with the changes in music. Again, we are asked to believe that this is the way things should look. I ask why? Why does the gospel demand this form of musical expression versus the past forms? For those who would argue that the change to CCM represents something of a reformation in church music and liturgy, I would argue that this would be the first time a reformation originated in secular, pop culture. The recent correspondence from Dr. Olson understates the nature of the changes, and really doesn’t explain them, when he speaks of moving to a blended music practice. Blending traditional hymnody and CCM is not like blending two different, but compatible, flavors. To many Christians, it is like blending two food groups that taste terrible together (I also recognize that for many Christians the two taste good together). Yet, the changes occurred at Northland like nothing significant was happening. For many students, faculty, alumni, and supporting churches, what occurred was somewhat equivalent to dropping a missionary into a foreign country without any preparation. It was culture shock. If these things are important, and worship music is important, they called for more institutional review and discussion, especially since debates about music extend far beyond fundamentalism [Right now I am thinking about books by T David Gordon (American Anglican) Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, John Frame (his biblical defense of CCM, Presbyterian), Ken Myers All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, and Thomas Day Why Catholics Can’t Sing.] There is extensive debate about the relative values of traditional hymnody and CCM. Many people, myself included, have concerns that CCM is a much less effective and suitable vehicle for Christian music. Regardless of my opinion, the debate itself should make it clear that seriousness about the gospel does not necessary mean that one begins to endorse and utilize pop music in worship. If anything, extreme caution should be had before changing courses.
The comments about music lead to a subsidiary comment about the externals of the faith, because one of the complaints about CCM is that it is often corrupted with worldly practices. One can hardly distinguish many of the CCM artists from secular artists. The main response to this complaint is of the same nature as the response against rules. The gospel is not about externals. While there is some truth in that statement (external without internal equals dead works), there is also a whole lot of untruth as well. Certain individual passages come to mind that discuss externals such as 1st Timothy 2:9 (admonition for women to wear modest apparel) and Ephesians 5:4 (addressing the kind of speech that should not characterize Christians). There are also more general passages, such as various passages in 1 Peter that speak of holiness, good works, and the need to avoid evil works such as the ones the Christians to whom Peter is writing used to practice. (e.g., 1 Peter 4:1-6). The list I have presented is not exhaustive and the case could be made more convincingly, but I at least wanted to offer the beginnings of an argument.
As I conclude, I wish to reiterate, that I desire to write with charity. I am thankful for many of the changes that occurred under Dr. Olson, but I do not think all of the changes were of one kind or that all were healthy. Additionally, some of the changes seemed to happen without sufficient notice, institutional review, and clear definition. As for the past, I don’t think Northland was a slave to legalism. When it comes down to it, I think the past and the present represent two different opinions about what the gospel should look like in daily life, in worship, and in fellowship. If that is true, then I also believe that the past and the present, to a degree, represent two different opinions about what Northland should look like in the future. I think Northland can draw from some of the best, conservative evangelical minds in the classroom without becoming a poorly-defined evangelical institution. I am thankful for all of the things I have learned from my evangelical brothers and sisters from various institutions, but I also observe from church history that the evangelical experiment has been a mixed bag of successes and failures (Obviously, the various movements within Fundamentalism are laden with their own mixed bag).
I don’t know what Northland will look like in the future, but God does and he will take care of these matters. It is not my school, but, as an alumnus I thought I should write. I am not issuing a romantic call for Northland to go back to the good old days (and I certainly don’t want it to adopt many of the habits of certain cranky, idiosyncratic fundamentalists), but I don’t like everything the new days represent. While I am thankful for so many evangelical brothers and sisters, I don’t think it is derogatory to be called a fundamentalist in the right sense of the word. I am proud to be one. Contrary to recent correspondence from Northland, the changes at Northland are not helping the institution catch up with where the alumni are at, at least not all the alumni. Many of us are far behind in certain ways and wish to remain there (I know many disagree with me). This does not mean we are legalistic, nor does it mean that we are deficient in our love for Christ or our focus upon the gospel. All it means is that we possess different theological and cultural beliefs about how best to proclaim and protect the gospel of grace. Whatever the result, I know God will still use the school whether or not is has my insignificant blessing.
In brotherly love,