Conversations arise around a recent statement released from the BTS department.

By Sam Johnson

On May 1, the Bethel faculty senate met in the Olson Boardroom to engage in a conversation about one of Bethel’s departments.

The majority of the meeting was led by Gary Long, department chair and professor of Biblical and Theological Studies.

Long spoke about who BTS is as a department amid questions from outside the community on the content that is being taught in the classroom. In March, Long said that he met with faculty senate president Chris Gehrz and board of trustees chair Julie White for two hours, discussing subjects like the group “Take Back Bethel” and a perceived theological drift going on within the department.

In response to the reported drift, BTS faculty crafted a statement. Long said that the statement was agreed upon by all department faculty members. The statement’s content was affirmed unanimously April 4.

Long debated whether to release a departmental statement.

On Feb. 25, President Jay Barnes and Provost Deb Harless met with Long, asking him to release a statement on the perception that BTS was drifting theologically. At the time, Long said that he was not going to respond to any criticisms or concerns, internal or external, regarding his department.

But after one BTS faculty member met with Converge President Scott Ridout, who is a member of the presidential search committee, Long said that Ridout left the meeting thinking that BTS faculty were not in line with the affirmation of faith statement of the university, Long told the senate. It then became clear to Long that something needed to be said.

Long, accompanied by Gehrz, went back to Barnes and Harless and agreed to help. Barnes and Harless asked him to affirm a letter they had written – a letter that Long would borrow to craft BTS’ statement. He wrote the majority of the BTS statement, using excerpts from the letter from Barnes and Harless as the first and last two paragraphs.

Gehrz added that although he has lost some sleep during the last three months, he realizes that disagreement within the community might not be as bad as it seems.

“I hate conflict … but maybe the way we understand who we are is that we do have these fights once in a while,” Gehrz said to his senators. “And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”

Ross Van Kley is a senior BTS and missional ministries double major. As a teacher’s assistant for Professor Erik Leafblad, Van Kley has had many conversations with BTS faculty and appreciates their investment in students.  

“[The faculty are] always willing to have discussions with you,” Van Kley said. “Every BTS professor I have had, I see their faith working through them.”

The groups that are opposed to the BTS department, I don’t think are trying to hear the arguments that BTS is making,” he said. “It’s frustrating.”

Another BTS major, junior Isaac Erickson, notices the intentionality of faculty to foster healthy learning inside the classroom.  

“They [faculty] like open discussion,” he said. “They do a good job of allowing us to ask questions that are difficult.”

But, like Van Kley, he sees one central theme in every class.

“They want you to love Jesus,” Erickson said.

Through BTS’ statement, Long hopes people can see the intention of how faculty teach students.

“Our mission is to help students know how to think, not what to think,” Long said.

According to Long, some of BTS’ critics think BTS is indoctrinating and not letting the students critically think about theology. Through this statement, Long hopes that the department can move on and clear up any confusion.

“We would like to be able to get past this and focusing again as a department,” he said. “We’re hoping this document as a way to turn to the detractors and say ‘enough now– stand down.’”

In the statement, Long referenced a 2018 campus life survey which reveals that the BTS department “received the highest satisfaction ratings in the College for faith integration within our courses.”  

Long is proud that the education from BTS produces a foundation of faith in students.

“We take bible and theology seriously,” Long said. “It builds a storm-hearty faith.”

However, in all of the debates and concerns, Long recognizes that all parties have a common goal.

“We love this university,” he said. “That unites us.”

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